Facing up to your Running Genetics
Genetics is a fascinating science. Its wonders are unending, and it largely remains one of life’s great mysteries. The field challenges the minds of all who try to unlock its mysteries – and the mysteries of genetic trait endowment.
For some, genetics is a great enabler of physical performance. A great gift of physical potential or prowess is passed on from their parents or even their grandparents – it wasn’t earned in any way, merely inherited. Look at any modern-day sporting great and you will likely observe the magic mix of a superior athletic gene pool and the athlete’s commitment and discipline to maximise their genetic potential.
In the world of distance running, some runners are genetically gifted with great aerobic capacities or ‘engines’. They have greater than normal heart and lung function, which allows them to utilise more oxygen per kilogram of body weight each minute of running. In the word of science this measure of heart and lung function is known as ‘V02max’ (pronounced ‘vee oh-two max’). V02max is measured as a number, and the higher the number the better the aerobic engine that the athlete has. The athlete cannot do anything to ‘earn’ a high V02max. It is a genetically determined number that the athlete is born with.
Inheriting a high V02max score is a genetic gift that makes conquering endurance running events and posting magnificent times in the process possible. This might be in the form of a world-class marathon time or perhaps a world-class 10-kilometre or 5-kilometre time. At the time of writing, the world marathon record is 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya at the 2014 Berlin Marathon. To put that in perspective that is equivalent to running in excess of 20 kilometres per hour for more than 2 hours!
Experts have known for a while now that people from African nations such as Kenya and Ethiopia have genetic distance-running prowess. Pick any long-distance race. In most, up to 80 per cent of winners since the late 1980s have been from Kenya. For example, since 1988, 20 of the 25 first-place men in the world’s longest running marathon – the Boston Marathon – have been from Kenya.
In contrast, over shorter sprinting distances a runner may inherit sprinting genes that offer them the potential for world-class speed. As with the African nation’s dominance and genetic prowess in distance running, experts have identified that Jamaican people carry a gene that makes them superior sprinters. When we saw Usain Bolt hit a top speed of 42 kilometres per hour to win the London Olympic Games 100-metre final in an Olympic record time of 8.63 seconds (just 0.05 seconds shy of his 2009 world record time of 9.58 seconds) we were witnessing the wonders of genetics at work. Of course, it wasn’t only Usain’s genetic prowess that allowed him to claim the title of history’s fastest man. In addition to making use of his genetic gifts, he too has had to know his running body. With this knowledge he has then trained hard, attempted to remain injury free, and set about maximising his genetic potential. For any runner, remaining injury free is a key to unlocking running potential.
The world-class distance runners that receive our rightful admiration inherit physical attributes that make this world-class running possible. If you were an aspiring world-class elite distance runner, your ‘genetic wish list’ might include a body that:
- is very lean and light
- has less mass for any respective height
- has a greater leg length to torso length ratio
- has straight legs with little or no bowing
- has hips that are aligned in a ‘neutral’ position
- has a small and light pelvis
- has very small ankles and shins to allow for better heat dissipation and lower energy costs to move the limbs
- has a tendency to more stability (rather than excessive mobility) around the joints
- has a high V02max aerobic capacity
- a high natural ‘haematocrit’ (red blood cell density measure)
Facing up to your genetic curses – your physical attributes
As an aspiring runner after reading the above list you may feel like genetics has not been kind to you. Perhaps you have inherited physical attributes that don’t match those on the world-class runner list. Most likely you haven’t, as only a very small percentage of the world’s population ever do. In fact, your physical attributes may be the exact opposite of the entire elite runner’s physical attributes list. Irrespective of whether you are aiming to run for mere recreation and fitness or whether you hold competition goals, you may feel like you are ‘cursed’ genetically.
Maybe you have a longer torso to leg length ratio, aren’t naturally a light frame, and have bowed legs. What do you do? Even if this describes you, the key message here is don’t despair. Certainly do not become discouraged. Only a very small percentage of the world’s population are gifted elite-level distance runners.
Running pain and injury free is for everybody, irrespective of your physical genetic gifts or lack thereof. Just because your physical attributes vary from the world’s elite runners physical checklist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t persist in running to discover your best potential. I believe that even without genetics on ‘your side’ it is entirely possible to enjoy injury free running.
Run Pain Free,
Brad Beer (APAM)