DNA testing used to be the stuff of science fiction movies. From the social engineering of Gattaca to the arachnid-altering The Amazing Spiderman, seeing the results of DNA tests was previously something confined to popcorn-munching moviegoers and their 3D glasses.
So, with your hypothetical 3D glasses on, imagine the following scenario: a device that can analyse the DNA of school-age children at the crucial development ages of five, 11 and 18, scanning each individual’s genotype and informing them (or the next generation of pushy parents) of whether they possess the genes for power events or endurance. Sound like the stuff of science fiction? OK, so this may be a scenario for our grandchildren, but with the multiple leaps that science and technology are constantly making, this could one day be a reality. Until that time, a simple swab is the only way to really check how your DNA is stacked up in terms of running ability. As a seasoned long-distance runner, who comes from a family of long-distance runners, I was curious to take the test; maybe it would reveal that I should be knocking out 20 x 200m around the track rather than getting lost for hours on the South Downs?
Your genotype is your genetic blueprint, and what makes you different from everyone else. Your genetic code is a sequence of three letter ‘words’ written along the length of your DNA strand. Each ‘word’ is made up of the letters A (adenine), G (guanine), C (cytosine) or T (thymine).
“It’s the combination of these letters that tells us who you are, and determines everything from the colour of your eyes to how tall you are,” says Thomas Olivier, a nutrigenomic practitioner and the first coach in the UK to offer fitness and nutrition plans based on your individual DNA make-up. However, your DNA alone can’t determine whether you will be better at longer, or shorter, distances. “How well you run can be broken down to 50% genetic factors and 50% environmental,” says Professor Alun Williams from the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“Environmental factors include your current lifestyle, such as diet and sleep, but also those things that are not genetic, but which are now too late to change – such as diet and exercise patterns during childhood, prior exposure to pathogens and pollutants, and even the ‘environment’ one was exposed to in the womb, including certain hormones and nutrients.”
Finding out your own genotype is easy. I got in contact with Olivier’s GenSmart Academy. They sent a swab test, which you perform first thing in the morning by rubbing a cotton wool bud against the inside of both cheeks. And that’s it! Pop it in the post and two weeks later your results are ready. It’s time to meet the real you.
I have to admit, I was intrigued to learn more about what goes on within my body on a microscopic level. When Olivier told me he had my results – and that I would be ‘surprised’ – I wondered if I was at a turning point in my training… Would I be doing everything different from now on? Was I really the next Fatima Whitbread? For each crucial gene that is analysed in the sport test, you are given a reading. This reveals whether your variation of letters is low impact (you don’t need to make drastic lifestyle changes), moderate impact (some changes are recommended), or high impact (lifestyle and training changes are needed to optimise your genes).
A stand-alone DNA test, however interesting its results, isn’t going to transform any runner. “Supplementing the information this test gives with coaching will be crucial to change the way you run,” believes Olivier. “You will need an expert to implement the appropriate adjustments to your training.
Without this expertise you will probably just be disappointed with what the test offers you.” Injury and recovery I had a high impact reading so I have higher risks of injury (this is 100% true). Olivier explained how vital strength and conditioning training will be to my running in the long term. Since I (finally) took this on board wholeheartedly at the end of last summer, my injury issues have reduced dramatically. He also recommended nutritional intervention, especially calcium, magnesium and vitamin D, plus the omega fats, to boost tendon healing. My combination can also be an indicator of osteoporosis (I have osteopenia, its precursor) so Olivier explained the importance of weight training to improve my bone mass – and this isn’t something I do. Inflammation I’m medium impact and need a longer recovery after training (something I have intuitively realised over the last year). And I definitely need more time to recover after a long run than other runners I know – I’ve never been good at running two days in a row, even if the sessions are easy.
Energy mobilisation I’m low impact. My genes showed my breakdown of energy during longer periods of exercise is optimal, making me an endurance athlete. Fuelling your running is crucial, especially in longer distances. Olivier also said I would benefit from drinking coffee 30 minutes before exercise as I metabolise caffeine well (shame I can only drink one cup a day, but that’s another story).
The conclusion of my test was that, in terms of athletic performance potential, I am an endurance athlete (I have the ACE gene), not a power one (I don’t have the ACTN3 gene), just like I thought (and hoped) I would be. Phew! I’ve tried 200m reps on the track recently and after three I felt sick and dizzy. I couldn’t do any more. Now I have to take the information given to me by Olivier and apply it to my training. I’ve already started some weight training, but slowly as I’m in the last part of my marathon training cycle.
The tests results are fascinating, as they give you your genetic pulse, but what’s really important is the changes you make due to your results. “My results come with a tailored programme,” says Olivier, “so you know how to get started with your new regime, as it takes at least four weeks to create mini habits.”
These tests are for everybody, not just elites. “They can also be helpful for occasional runners, who want to avoid injury,” says Olivier. They give you the opportunity to track your progress. First you find out who you are, and your biological disposition to running and exercise, then you can track from this moment onwards how your running progresses. “The paradox of running today is that we are all geared up with the latest technology strapped to our wrists, but we don’t know who we are,” says Olivier. “We track everything we do, but first we need to understand our genetics so that we make sure we are doing the right training. Then it’s time to track.”
Can a DNA test change how you run? “DNA tests sound ‘sciency’, like they must be good because they tell us about the inner workings of our body and cells. The trouble is although we know that what’s in our DNA is important, we don’t know much about which specific bits of it are important. Yet,” says Williams. “Trial and error of different events and training methods is, for the time being, much better. Even though it doesn’t sound so ‘sciency’.”
So I’m not attuned to power – what if the test had said I was? How would I give up my beloved long distance? “Our genetics can tell us our natural athletic dispositions, but we shouldn’t be pigeonholed by them,” says Olivier. “It’s also important you enjoy the time you train and choose something that suits you.”
Genetic testing is allowing us to begin to explore ourselves from within for better lifelong outcomes. We can now unlock the secret of our genes to then adjust our lifestyle, diet and environment, as well our training, accordingly. The test is a tool to help you optimise your performance, but needs to be part of a programme. “To understand the adjustments needed to your training, a coaching partner is essential,” says Olivier.
Costs: DNA tests start from £199. Thomas Olivier’s coaching packages start from £450 per month for 12 weeks, inclusive of the test.
I did DNA Sport, which tests for genes in three categories that relate to sporting performance: power and endurance, tendon pathology and recovery.
Olivier is offering WR readers the test for £149 with a complimentary coaching session. Enter the code WOMENSRUNMAG at thomasolivier.co.uk