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Fighting Those Damn Genes


Confined to sitting in that recliner and elevating my leg after surgery gave me plenty of time to entertain some very weird thoughts, which were no doubt fueled by the painkillers I took for the first few days.  I wondered if I would ever return to the athletic caliber I had achieved before I blew the Achilles into two distinct sections.  Not many people really get back to their same level after a ruptured Achilles.

I figured I was maybe the best 58-year-old hockey player in Columbus when it happened and my running kept me in shape for hockey but I realized I was a Clydesdale who ran in the middle of the pack.  I practiced that old LSD method of jogging—Long Slow Distance interspersed with a few intervals of ¾ sprints.  I wondered which of the above I would be able to return to eventually.  It occurred to me that I was actually using a slow twitch muscle regimen to train for a fast twitch muscle sport and the weight lifting program I had been involved in for almost 30 years was meant to strengthen my legs for both, but it was definitely a fast twitch exercise.

I have a neurosurgeon friend who played football for Ohio State.  Woody Hayes told him he was a decent athlete but college ball would be the end of the line for him and he should be concentrating on his studies for a future career outside the lines.  One night while sitting with George Sheehan talking about running and philosophy, which were interchangeable for him, he grabbed me around my right wrist and informed me I’d never be more than an average runner.  He said my genetic bone structure was way to thick to be an above average runner.  I was one of the few runners at the time so I thought I was pretty good; in reality it was like being an All-Catholic football player in Jerusalem.  This was the 70’s and anything was possible for a baby boomer.  “You can be anything you set your mind, heart and body to,” or so the new black light poster makers said.  The poster makers were not geneticists.  As more folks picked up running, I consistently fell closer to the rear of the pack no matter how hard I trained. George had been correct about those damn genes.

In the September 2013 British Journal of Sports Medicine (2013;47(9):545-549) there is an article titled “The Genetic Basis for Elite Running Performance.”  This is a extremely reputable journal and the authors are from the University of Cape Town, Exercise Science and Sports Medicine unit, Sports Science Institute of South Africa, a prestigious institution known for its sports research.  And, they wrote the article about African runners trying to explain why they were so good.

Kenyans and Ethiopians from East Africa dominate distance running and runners with West African and the Caribbean heritage dominate the sprints.  The paper investigated the genetic basis for these distinctions and attempted to clarify why there are no or very few Ethiopian sprinters and vice versa when looking at runners with West African ancestry.

I’ve learned that genetics or genes load the gun, but it is the environment that pulls the trigger.  If you don’t train correctly, you’ll probably be in the middle of any running pack, even if you are blessed with all the right endurance genes.  The authors stress, that besides genetics, the East Africans have access to altitude, habitual diet, cultural, training-related and socioeconomic factors.  The ultimate conclusion is that the exposure of optimal genetic factors to the optimal training environment produces champion athletes.

So, the East Africans possess favorable somatotypical characteristics leading to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy and efficiency while chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high intensity training (live high + train high) and a strong psychological motivation lead to success.  Somatotype, biomechanical, metabolic and cardiovascular characteristics have at least some genetic basis.  They load the gun.  Training at altitude and with their routine pulls the trigger.

One of the genes studied was the ACE gene.  It has two forms of interest, the I allele and the D allele.  The I allele occurs more often in endurance athletes and the D allele occurs more in sprinters.  This did not hold completely true with the Kenyans, but that may be due to the influence of other variants of the ACE gene on circulating ACE levels.

The second gene discussed was ACTN3.  Briefly, the populations with a normal, non-mutated form of ACTN3 have more fast twitch or Type II muscle and tend to be sprinters.  The ACTN3 mutated gene appears in people with no fast twitch muscle.  Seventy-five percent of Jamaicans have the fast twitch form of the gene, while only 22% of the Japanese have the fast twitch gene. 

We talked in an earlier blog about running being the purest of sports.  Essentially, shoes are all you need, and minimalist shoes may be more toward nothing, but recent studies have shown they can be harmful, but that’s for a later blog.

To get to the elite level, you need more than shoes; you need the genes and the training environment, which include all those things like training, diet, coaching, physical therapy, etc.  But if you don’t have the genes, you can’t get to that elite level anymore.

So, I was middle of the pack, a good Clydesdale, but the only thing I ever saw of the elite runners was their asses and elbows.  And my gun was not loaded for successful distance running.  I felt bad that no matter how hard or how many times I pulled the trigger, nothing happened.