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In today’s world where athletic performance is important to many people (look at how popular the Olympics and Super Bowl are), athletes are training harder and younger than ever before in hopes of success.

Scientific research from the past few years has examined the connection between our genes and our sporting ability. Are we born with the genes that help us excel at certain sports or is it just intense training, a good diet and other environmental factors that determine results? What do these findings mean for us average joes?

Athletic Performance: It's in Your GenesDr. Alun Williams, Director of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s Cheshire Sports Genomics Laboratory, says the the genetic component appears to be around 50-70%, depending on the aspect of ability.

The link is evident when we look at the trends of past Olympic winners. Long distance running, for example, has long been dominated by athletes of East African descent, sprinting dominated by those with West African origins and weight-lifting and other strength and power oriented sports by Caucasians. Their success is determined not only by the fact that they have the correct genetic variation to help them excel at this particular sport, but also that their training and environmental conditions cause them to excel.

The significance of good genes in producing successful athletes sheds light on the possibility of gene doping or gene alterations and whether this will become commonly accepted in the future. Currently, gene doping to boost athletic ability is strictly forbidden at the Olympic Games. However, the technology to screen for specific “athletic” genes exists, and has the potential to predict and direct the athletic success of a child far before they take to the field. 

Despite the evidence, your genetic background doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of athletic failure. For most of us, the slight advantages and disadvantages our body may hold will not affect our daily exercise. Williams agrees and says, “Even a very favourable set of genes will not automatically make someone a good athlete, let alone a champion. But certainly, if someone has a very unfavourable set of genes, in many sports no amount of training and diet will make them a champion.”

“Even a very favourable set of genes will not automatically make someone a good athlete, let alone a champion.”

However, your laziness may not be your fault! Research conducted by Frank Booth at the University of Missouri suggests that even our motivation to exercise may be linked to genetics. Booth was able to selectively breed rats that exhibited traits of either extreme activity or extreme laziness. Even though there were only minor differences in the body composition of the “super runner” and “couch potato” rats, Booth identified 36 genes that may play a role in predisposition to physical activity motivation.

So our motivation and potential sports performance may be determined partially at birth. Rather than focus on this permanent aspect of our lives, consider the factors that we can manipulate: are you fueling your body correctly? Is your training on par with the results you want to see? Are you recovering properly? Our differences in athletic ability are so minute, but do exist, and we all know our bodies each need different things to succeed. Our genes may decide our Olympic fate, but to most of us, our goals are still reachable. 

Athletic Performance: It's in Your Genes

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Author Lauren Folk

Lauren is a 3rd year student at Northeastern University who loves dogs, brunch, trashy reality TV and Crossfit (not necessarily in that order). When she's not studying for her Industrial Engineering classes, she can be found wandering around Boston or cooking for her friends. Follow her on Instagram at @lfolk or @thebuffchix!

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