What do elite athletes think about DNA analysis?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018. Author Dr Haran Sivapalan

What do elite athletes think about DNA analysis?

“Know thyself”

- So reads the Ancient Greek inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Fast forward to today, and elite athletes are certainly no strangers to putting this aphorism into practice. Training logs, data from wearables, and even blood tests are all routinely used in the quest to optimize training and boost athletic performance. 

Now a new survey suggests that elite athletes also welcome the use of DNA analysis as a training tool. Researchers at Nottingham Trent and Manchester Metropolitan Universities surveyed 72 elite athletes in the UK, a group that comprised top rugby players, swimmers, speed skaters and track and field athletes, and gauged their attitudes towards genetic testing in professional sport. In addition, 95 leading support staff, including sports scientists, strength and conditioning coaches, physiotherapists, doctors, and nutritionists, also completed the survey, which assessed beliefs about genetics and usage of DNA tests. 

So, what exactly do the pros think?

Sports professionals want to know whether DNA affects performance

Unsurprisingly, athletes were keen to understand their genetic make-up, particularly when gene variants could affect performance and susceptibility to injury. 81% of elite athletes wanted to know if they had a genetic variation that might be associated with sports performance. This includes variations of genes such as ACTN3, where one version, the R allele, is linked to elite sprint and power performance. In fact, one study of Olympic sprint athletes found that all of them had at least one copy of the R allele. The ACTN3 gene, widely dubbed the ‘gene for speed’, encodes the protein alpha- actinin 3, a component of fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. In those with two copies of the R allele (RR genotype), these fast-twitch fibers are larger (they have a greater cross-sectional area) and contract faster (higher maximal unloading velocity) – great for disciplines requiring short, explosive bursts of power. By contrast, carrying no copies of the R allele (XX genotype) causes a complete deficiency of alpha-actinin 3, which seems to be disadvantageous for sprint and power sports, but may confer an advantage in endurance events.

While such genetic results are unlikely to compel an Olympic powerlifter to suddenly drop his weights and switch to marathon running, they could, as one of the athletes surveyed put it, help an individual to “know what (his or her) strengths and weaknesses are.” 

Sports professionals want to know whether DNA changes the risk of injury

Interest wasn’t confined to performance on the sports field. The study, to be published in journal Biology of Sport, found that 78% of support staff and 85% of athletes were curious about genetic variations associated with injury risk. Genes in this category include COL5A1 and MMP3, both of which play a role in the production of collagen and alter the risk of Achilles tendinopathy – a condition, common in athletes, whereby the Achilles tendon that runs from the calf muscles to the heel becomes painful, swollen and stiff. One obvious use of this genetic information is to tailor training plans that prevent injuries – “it would help with prehab trying to avoid injury,” said one athlete.

Selection and talent identification

Understandably, respondents were more equivocal about selecting athletes based on their DNA. 64% of support staff and 47% of athletes thought genetic tests shouldn’t be used to aid selection, eligibility or employment of an athlete in a particular sport. Opinion was also divided on the use of genetic tests to identify potential sporting talent. Of course, this area is an ethical and legal minefield, rife with contentious topics such as genetic discrimination, privacy of genetic data and possible disclosure of sensitive medical information. With these issues in mind, FitnessGenes does not endorse the use of genetic testing for talent identification and only offers DNA Analysis to people over the age of 18. 

When it comes to athletic ability, sports professionals think genes matter

Congruent with the scientific consensus, most surveyed athletes (78%) and nearly all support staff (97%) believed that elite athletic ability is down to a combination of genetics and training - nature and nurture. Despite this, training plans still often neglect an athlete’s genetic make-up, with DNA analysis remaining an underused training tool. This is a shame, as FitnessGenes have already helped several pro-athletes fine-tune their training regimes by gaining insight into their DNA. Such leading athletes include Olympic rower, Gover Viergever; pro-basketball player, Ilian Evtimov; and Olympic mountain-biker, Barbara Benko.

And even if, like the vast majority of us, you’re not an elite athlete, knowing your genetic makeup can still help you achieve your fitness goal, whether that be to Get Fit, Lose Weight, Get Lean or Build Muscle

I hope you enjoyed this article.  Please read my other blogs: 

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Air pollution and exercise:  Is it safe to train outside?

Is struggling with weight your destiny?

How Your Finger Length Influences Overall Strength

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Unravelling the Secrets of Our Circadian Rhythm

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