The Genetic Secret to Becoming a Better Runner

The stadium scene.
Aug. 5 2013 7:30 AM

Hard Work Isn't Always Enough

Want to improve your aerobic capacity? Better hope you have the right genes.

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In Scott’s case, he would come into the season in good shape and improve slowly and modestly, making it easy to brand him as a big talent who didn’t capitalize on his formidable gifts. When a story like that sets in, it can be devastating, as evidenced by his need to open the emergency pressure valve and drop out of our 800-meter race before it was finished.

I, on the other hand, was on the receiving end of a far more flattering story. I was the talentless duffer who was ready to chew through a crowbar if it meant another quarter-second off my time. Pain was nothing to me, and I was making the most of my meager gifts.

I envied Scott when we ran side by side in practice, stealing glances at his fluid stride. But I just had to be tougher than him, I thought, because I didn’t have the talent. It was an idea that coaches and teammates reinforced, as they do on every track team. I embraced the image of the hardened walk-on who squeezed drops of improvement out of a talent-dry rock of a body. Long before I had heard of Heritage or high and low responders, I would start each season with the same positive self-talk: “Don’t worry, they’ll all be in better shape, but you respond to training like it’s rocket fuel.” When I reflect on it now, though, with the Heritage Family Study as my filter, I believe this story obscured a tale of genes and gene/training interactions, a tale that was playing out hidden from sight.

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It’s not that the tale I told myself was made up. I used to throw up after hard practices, stealing away to some secluded garbage bin—if I could make it in time—so that my teammates wouldn’t see it.

It wasn’t that I was wrong about myself. Rather, I was wrong about my training partner. One day during my senior year, while searching for a cloistered nook in which to puke, I spotted Scott, already retching. And again, and again. A few times, I even saw him dart from the track halfway through a workout to throw up and then come back and finish the intervals. Turns out, he was tough as titanium screws. I wasn’t gaining on him from the start to the finish of each season because I was outworking him. Late in my college career, in fact, he and I were doing the exact same workouts, stride for stride.

When one Heritage study scientist examined some of my genetic data, he indicated that I am likely an above-average responder to aerobic training. And I suspect, based on the kind of training that most benefited me in college, that I am an even greater responder to sprint-based workouts. Just as for aerobic training, low and high responders have been documented in experiments that use training programs centered on explosive exercise. Because we are all genetically distinct, there is no one-size-fits-all training program. If you suspect that your training partner is responding better to a particular exercise plan, you might be right.

On that January day in 2002, with the weight of expectation lightened by his decision not to take the race seriously, Scott ultimately did finish, but I blew by him with 150 meters left to run 1:54 and beat him for the first time. It was 30 seconds faster than I had run as a high school junior.

Ultimately, Scott moved away from the 800, running it less and less as his career wore on, opting for and succeeding in other events. As for me, I continued to get faster. My substantial improvement landed me a dazzling wood and glass box known as the Gustave A. Jaeger Memorial Prize, given to a four-year Columbia varsity athlete who “achieved significant success in the face of unusual challenge and difficulty.” Let’s see someone with a high baseline aerobic capacity try to win that one.

This piece was adapted from David Epstein’s new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright David Epstein, 2013.

David Epstein is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

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