Words: Jack Hart
Some guys are just born to run - fact. Take ultra-running champion Kilian Jornet as a case in point: sure, he trains hard but that doesn't explain storming to the summit of Everest in a record 17 hours with no oxygen or ropes. Just as Michael Phelps is the perfect physical specimen of a swimmer, Jornet was born to run.
You see this in amateur sport, too - the guy who racks up to a marathon with little-to-no training and runs a sub-four hour time. Some people are just naturally gifted as endurance runners, with a fast metabolism, or some other admirable physical trait. If you're tempted to attribute this to genetics then, well, do.
Not everyone is genetically predisposed to run phenomenal distances, of course - but understanding your genes when it comes to fitness and nutrition allows you to pursue types of exercise that you are more suited to; to address your natural strengths and weaknesses. That's the theory, anyway, as I tentatively post a spit sample (packaged, of course; I'm not just gobbing into a postbox) off to FitnessGenes. This miniature DNA sample is shipped to their specialist lab, where it's tested for everything from adrenaline signalling to caffeine metabolism; vascular function to lactose tolerance. As well as receiving an analysis on each of these results, they're compiled into a comprehensive report with training and nutrition guidelines tailored to your genetic make-up. If you opt for the premium package, you'll even receive a training programme designed to capitalise on your results.
Two weeks later, the results arrive via email. At first, it's baffling - there are results for over 40 genes, each with a detailed explanation of my specific results. For example, I learn immediately that ACTN3 is a gene for speed, for which I have two copies of the 'sprinter' R allele. What this means is that I produce plenty of alpha-actinin-3, which is a protein associated with boosting muscle strength and performance. And what that means is that I'm naturally predisposed to being a bit quick.
All of which is fascinating but, when repeated over 40 times, can bog you down in detail. What's more useful is the Action Blueprint tab, which divides into physiological and nutritional strategies; these give more general advice to optimise your training. When it comes to recovery, for instance, I am told:
"Your genetic profile indicates your post-workout recovery is good, but you have a relatively high likelihood of sleep disturbance. Of the strategies below that help you to optimize your recovery, the sleep advice may be extra important."
This precedes a section of general advice for maximising recovery time - it's the snippet of personalised advice that makes the difference. In another section, I'm told that I'm predisposed to putting on weight (which I didn't really need telling) and that spreading my meals into more regular, protein-rich snacks to prevent overeating. I'd previously read up on this kind of grazing as a nutritional strategy but had never tried it; knowing that it may be suited to me on a genetic level makes it instantly more appealing.
Same difference - right?
I maintain a healthy degree of scepticism to how effective this kind of analysis really is - my actual DNA has been analysed, true, but that data is only as useful as the recommendations offered from it. When it comes to reducing my susceptibility to oxidative damage - i.e. damage caused by free radicals produced during exercise - I am instructed to exercise regularly, eat lots of veg, eat health fats and avoid crap food. None of which are particularly ground-breaking physiological and nutritional strategies.
In all, this kind of analysis is worthwhile - you will feel the benefits of exercise most when it is specific to you and your goals, and the insights gleamed from FitnessGenes certainly aid that. Since receiving my results, I have not - to my utmost dismay - transformed into a Batman-esque figure of physical perfection thanks to the power of science, but then nor did FitnessGenes promise that I would. I am, however, better positioned to make my training and diet more effective for me. Watch your back, Jornet.