Coaching encompasses both art and science. The science describes known facts about human anatomy, physiology, and the way humans respond and adapt to stress. Over time, coaches have developed broad standardized practices – intervals, communication, periodization, energy system development, etc. – we know lead to improved athletic performance. The art of coaching is taking those best practices and individualizing them to maximize your performance, and your genetics may play a role.
One of my longtime frustrations with the coaching process is that we make many decisions based on “lagging indicators”, meaning we have to wait to see how you responded to a previous decision in order to decide what to do next. The promise of genetic testing for athletes is that we may be able to incorporate more “leading indicators” into coaching decisions, which could help athletes make faster progress, identify competitive advantages, and maybe reduce injury risk.
The reason using lagging indicators is such a source of frustration in coaching is because it means tailoring best practices to an individual athlete takes a lot of time. In many ways it relies on a long process of trial and error. Coaches make more informed decisions as they gain education and experience, but it still takes time to discover how each individual athlete responds to various aspects of training, recovery, nutrition, and lifestyle stress. Ever since my days earning an undergraduate degree in Genetics, I have believed knowing an individual’s underlying genetics could play a role in accelerating this learning curve.
If I know, for example, that an athlete is genetically predisposed to low bone density, lower blood levels of Vitamin D, and a higher risk of stress fractures, I could develop nutrition and training strategies to address those issues right from the start! Up until very recently, however, genetic insights that are applicable to athletic performance have been largely inaccessible due to logistics and cost.
Thankfully, genetic testing and sequencing have become more affordable and accessible; and emerging research indicates an individual’s genetics could indeed play a role in establishing forward-looking, or leading indicator, ways to tailor training and nutrition strategies. Which leads us to EnduranceDNA, a non-invasive genetic testing product produced in collaboration with Helix, which at the moment provides insights on 20 specific genetic variants likely to influence athletic performance. Within these 20 data points sits information coaches and athletes can use to accelerate training progress, identify your personal competitive advantages, and potentially reduce your risk of being sidelined by injury.
When I start working with an athlete I gather as much information as I can. I take their previous training that has been logged in TrainingPeaks, Strava, spiral bound notebooks and written on the back of napkins and use my experience and that information to draw conclusions about how they react and adapt. Based on that starting point, I then apply training stress in the manner I think will yield the best result. But then, all I can do is wait and see how the athlete adapts so I can use that information to inform my decisions about future training. Often, the training goes exactly to plan and the athlete adapts in a way I predicted. Other times something different happens and I adjust future training appropriately.
Genetic testing adds a new layer of data I can gather about an athlete. Particularly, your genetic predispositions can help inform the process of individualizing standard practices. To pull a very short quote from Craig Pickering and John Kiely’s 2017 review of relevant research: “Knowledge of genes affecting [exercise adaptation] response may allow for manipulation of training factors such as volume, intensity, frequency and rest periods to improve exercise response.” The same study, however, is careful to point out there is no “magic bullet gene” that predicts great athletic achievement. Rather, it’s likely several genetic factors combine to influence certain aspects of an athlete’s physiological response to training and environmental stimuli. Predispositions are not destiny, so genetic testing doesn’t eliminate trial and error; it creates the opportunity to make greater progress from fewer trials.
Identify Competitive Advantages
Everyone is unique, and therefore people have individual responses to training, recovery, and nutrition variables. If you weren’t unique, coaching would be pretty boring! In the process of coaching, I am always looking for responses that may provide an athlete with a competitive advantage. In ultrarunning, that could be a naturally resilient digestive system, leg muscles that are better than average at withstanding hard descents, or a naturally above average response to running at altitude. It turns out, genetic testing may help identify some of these competitive advantages.
Your predisposition for caffeine metabolism is an example identified in the Endurance DNA product CTS designed with Helix. There is a genetic component to how quickly you metabolize caffeine. Athletes who metabolize caffeine quickly feel the stimulant effects sooner, but the effects peak and drop away sooner, too. In contrast, athletes who metabolize caffeine more slowly experience the effects of caffeine more gradually and over a longer period of time.
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How can you use this information to your advantage? If you metabolize caffeine more slowly, consuming it close to an intense effort won’t help you as much as consuming that caffeine earlier. Similarly, if you metabolize caffeine quickly, you may be able to schedule your consumption so you can take maximum advantage of its effect, but because you feel the effects so quickly and strongly you may be at increased risk of experiencing nausea and jitteriness from consuming substantial amounts at one time.
Reduce Injury Risk
Your DNA test cannot directly protect an athlete from injury, but your genetic predispositions can help paint a picture of your overall injury risk and provide coaches with information on specific vulnerabilities to keep an eye on. For instance, stress fracture risk an example identified in the Endurance DNA product. If I know you have a genetic predisposition to elevated stress fracture risk, I am going to be more conservative when ramping up your running volume and be especially attentive to potential symptoms.
Taking a bigger picture approach, an athlete’s genetic test may reveal a constellation of increased risk, including greater risk of an Achilles tendon rupture and less protection against an anterior cruciate ligament tear, to go along with that increased risk of stress fractures. When an athlete has a broader scope of elevated injury risk, it is wise for a coach to be conservative with initial training load, plan for a more gradual ramp, and expect it may take longer for that athlete to reach goal fitness.
Is genetic testing going to turn a mid-pack Time-Crunched Athlete into a World Champion? Probably not. What is more likely is that athletes and coaches find it to be a relatively inexpensive, non-invasive way to use your limited training time more effectively and potentially smooth out some of the ups and downs along the way.
Pickering, Craig, and John20 Kiely. “Understanding Personalized Training Responses: Can Genetic Assessment Help?” The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 20 Nov. 2017, benthamopen.com/EPUB/BSP-TOSSJ-2017-32.
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