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The sports gene: Just a good fit?


We all had that one classmate in high school who made any sports look easy. Back then it was just a case of, “some have it, others don’t”. Now, we’re wondering, is there really such a thing as a sports gene? Do genetic factors contribute to athletic performance at all? Read on to find out how much of our athleticism we really inherit and why even without those genes, you are not training in vain.

DNA variations determine our body’s responses

Have you ever wondered why your training buddy builds more muscle or runs faster than you, even though you train the exact same amount of time and volume? What seems incomprehensible and unfair, is simply a matter of nature: Your buddy’s body responds better to training thanks to his/her genes. Why? There are specific regions of DNA which can vary between individuals. These variations, also called polymorphisms, explain why some people respond differently to certain stimuli, including the response to sports training. Until today, more than 200 gene variants have been identified to be associated with physical performance. More than 20 of these variants are even said to be associated with elite athlete status. But only two genes are known with certainty to have a constant impact on performance: ACTN3 and ACE.

The strength and power gene ACTN3

Although the gene ACTN3, also called the “speed gene”, is part of everyone’s DNA, not all people have the same type. There are 2 different variants: R- and X- types. Research has shown that individuals with the gene type R produce a specific protein (alpha-actinin-3) that is exclusively found in the fast-twitch muscle fibers, used during explosive activities, such as sprinting or weight-lifting. People with the gene type X, however, cannot produce this protein. They have a deficiency in this protein, and are likely to display slightly lower muscle strength and poorer sprint performance, in comparison.

ACE-variants for endurance and strength

The second “sports gene” is the gene ACE, which contains the blueprint for the ACE enzyme. Among other things, this enzyme is responsible for the regulation of blood pressure. Again, two types can be differentiated here: The I- and D-type. If your genes happen to be of the kind to produce a D-type of ACE, your body displays the benefits of better strength performance and faster muscle growth compared to someone whose genes produces I-variants. The I-variants, in turn, have been identified to be associated more with endurance and can be found very often in the genetic profile of long-distance runners. This can explain why your buddy seems to build more gains, whilst your strength lies in muscle endurance and how long your muscles can hold out.

Athleticism - Earned or given?

Now that you’ve learned about these two genes and their role in athletic performance, is it safe to say your capabilities, strengths and weaknesses come down to which of those you posses? If only it were that simple. The field of genetics is a very complex one and a lot of knowledge about genes, variants and interactions between them is yet to be discovered. The insights above are only a fraction of what is still in research. So, to answer your question “is success in sports not earned but mainly inherited?”, let’s put it like this: Each body reacts differently to training because of his/her genes. However, although ACTN3 and ACE may, to some extent, play a role in why someone becomes a successful, top athlete, the reality is much more complex than this and just because you have “the wrong genes”, it doesn’t mean you’re training in vain. There are many other factors that have to be considered in the context of sports performance, not just genetics, but also by numerous other (external) factors, such as training and nutrition.

Fact is: Anyone can get fast, strong or flexible – regardless of their genetic profile. There’s nothing you can’t achieve without consistent hard work, determination and practice. Adapt your nutrition for even faster progress, and you will see that you don’t need to worry about your DNA. All you need is persistence and willpower. Remember, talent is natural. Excellence is choice. #noexcuses