Do genetics influence athletic ability?

By George Shankster

Have you ever wondered how the world’s top athletes became so good?

How does Usain Bolt dart across the track at the speed of light (okay, so he doesn’t quite run at 299,792,458 metres a second, but he’s not far off, right?)

What about Michael Phelps? Is he half dolphin? Or did he just have a great teacher who came from a school of fish?

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Can genetic tests predict athletic performance?

It would seem common sense dictates that 'practice makes perfect', but is that the only thing that affects whether or not someone is good at a particular sport? Can you be 'born good'?

In recent years, there has been significant rise in the use of DNA testing among sports teams, coaches and athletes. It is a widely controversial topic, but from a scientific standpoint the idea of accessing genetic information to predict sporting ability is an exciting prospect.

Each of us has an individual, distinct and unchangeable DNA structure that affects us in very different ways. Some of us are good at running, some of us are unable to process gluten and some of us get incredible severe hangovers from the smallest drop of alcohol. However, just having the right DNA doesn’t necessarily help when it comes to living your life or improving your abilities. It’s understanding your DNA and how it affects you that enables top athletes to capitalise on their genetic predispositions and in turn, develop their physical abilities.

But what if you don’t have the financial means to test your genes?

A free way to assess and improve your athletic prowess is to adapt your training to suit your current physical form, or, somatotype.

A somatotype is another term for 'body type' and according to the Heath-Carter formula, there are three clearly defined somatotypes called ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph. Although there are three definable types, people are almost always a combination of the three. Plus, individuals can often train their bodies making it possible to transition back and forth between the different types.

DNA testing
In recent years, there has been significant rise in the use of DNA testing among sports teams. © TEK IMAGE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY | Getty

What are the three somatotypes?

ECTOMORPH: This body type is an example of someone that has a thinner frame and low body fat. They have a very fast metabolism but also struggle to put on muscle, often resulting in flat chests and light muscle definition.

ENDOMORPH: This body type has the hardest job in many ways. They are “stockier” rounder builds that put on fat and muscle easily but losing that fat is often more difficult due to their slower metabolism.

MESOMORPH: The mesomorph is identified as the muscular body type and is more triangular than the others. They have a fast metabolism, but also have very responsive muscular cells that enable fast and well defined muscle growth.

The reason this is important is because each somatotype responds differently to the same physical training and diets. If you want to become a successful athlete, you should adapt your training to the body types you relate to most, otherwise you risk a lot of hard work for no real gain.

So, there you go, it’s not just knowing about your DNA that can make you a successful athlete, in many cases you’ll find that you unwittingly train in ways that suit your genetics simply because you find you get the best results. Not to mention the levels of practice, skill and technique that go into each individual sport.