The Sports Gene and the New Science of Athletic Excellence

Katie Drummond interviews David Epstein, the author of the recently released The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

The context is fascinating: whether you’re a gym rat or just starting out with an exercise routine, you typically follow the advice you read in magazines, from friends/coworkers, or personal trainers. But in the future, however, you might be able to develop a training plan that has nothing to do with external edicts, generalized principles, or even trial and error. Instead, you’d be training according to your own genetic athletic profile — a sequence of genes that determine what kind of exercise, done for how long and how often, your body will best respond to.

According to Drummond,

Epstein offers a fascinating look at how genetic research is already transforming sports science. Along the way, he digs into controversial questions about gender and race, examines the latest in genetic testing that purports to spot athletic traits, and unravels how some of the world’s best athletes — from Usain Bolt to Michael Jordan — attained the pinnacle of sporting success.

On to the interview questions:

Q: You don’t shy away from controversial topics in the book, including gender and ethnic differences where athletic ability is concerned. You also mention how scientific progress has been hindered because of concerns about sexism or racism creeping into cultural discussions about findings. To what extent, do you think, have those fears held back research on genetics and athleticism?

A: You know, when I went into the book I figured that scientists worked in bubbles to some extent, and that they didn’t decide what to publish based on any external force. In a sense, that they published their data so long as they maintained academic rigor. But in this field, that hasn’t been the case at all: scientists have literally told me that they have data, really great data, that they won’t publish because of how it might be perceived or construed by the public.

The primary instance of this is related to race. Namely, scientists are concerned that data suggesting that black people are predisposed to some athletic superiority will get wound up into this bigoted misconception that athletic ability means someone lacks intellect. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s been a prejudice for some time, and it has really reached deeply into the psyches of some scientists. Where gender is concerned, I had one researcher who has published a huge amount on sex and gender differences tell me that he didn’t publish any findings until he got tenure, because it just threatened to be too controversial. From my perspective, the best way to move the field forward and to help athletes is to collect sound data and then publish it — I was disappointed to see that this hasn’t happened.

Q: As you point out, the relationship between athletics and genetics is really complicated. But where do you see research going in the future, and what will it mean for athletes — elite or otherwise?

A: It is complicated, but we’re already seeing genetic tests trickling out that can hint at different aspects of someone’s athletic ability. Namely we’re seeing gene tests that relate to injury risk — one example is a test for the ApoE gene, which helps determine your vulnerability to brain damage from the hits you take during boxing or playing football, for example. That test is already out there, and it might really make a difference for athletes, how they compete, and what kind of medical treatment they get.

Where research is concerned, the most progress we’re seeing now is in studies that look at genes related to responses to endurance training — genetic pathways that determine who responds well to cardiovascular exercise, and who doesn’t. That has obvious appeal for athletes, or even people who wish they were athletes: the takeaway is that just because you don’t seem to have this innate, amazing talent, you might have an underlying predisposition to respond much better than you’d expect. The idea of figuring out someone’s training routine based on what they do and don’t respond to is really appealing, and I’d say we’re maybe five or ten years away from getting into that.

And it might also play an important role in personalized medicine: if someone with heart problems can respond well to aerobic activity, then maybe we can prescribe an exercise program instead of medicating them.

Fascinating. I’ve placed The Sports Gene in my to-read queue.

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