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How much of your endurance performance is down to your genes?

Updated: Jul 15

What makes the likes of Usain Bolt, Katie Ledecky and Lance Armstrong (alright bad example... lets say Tadej Pogačar) on a different level to almost everyone else, by a country mile in their chosen sports?

Katie Ledecky gap to field

Obviously they live a holistic lifestyle around their sports, eating clean, training hard and sleeping well, but so do 99% of other elite athletes in their sports.

Tadej Pogacar pulling silly face

These athletes all train within a program with other professionals, of which they will be given some personalised training but those around them will do the majority of the same training at the same intensity - so why are there some that are relatively so much further ahead of the field?


As a coach of many years, I have known that genetics play a part in performance but what really inspired my interest was a comment in the book 'Faster' by Michael Hutchinson (it's a great read, highly recommend!) stating that, theoretically, you could have a genome that is so perfect that you could win the Tour de France after sitting on the sofa eating crisps everyday with no training… Imagine being that lucky!

I decided to delve deeper into this topic and find out how different people absorb training in different ways due to their genetics. 


Genetics and VO2 Max:

Genetics play a very important role in determining your base VO2 Max and how it is affected by training. Your VO2 max is the maximal amount of oxygen that your body can utilise, with higher values allowing greater use of oxygen so you can convert fat to energy at a higher rate, clear lactic acid quicker and better recovery post exercise. 

With half of the genetics that you inherit affecting your VO2 max, it might be time to thank your parents!

Cyclist being Vo2 tested

Your genetic makeup determines how much you can improve your VO2 Max from a base level through training. The average person will be able to improve their VO2 max between 5 and 15%, but it has been known for individuals to improve by up to 40%! 

Although VO2 max is a good indicator of fitness, it is how much that you can utilise it which determines your actual performance. Most of the increases in performance you gain from training come from improving this utilisation rather than increasing the VO2 max itself.


Elite athletes naturally have a high VO2 max and are able to build it more than average because of their genetics. The large amount of training that they do over a longer period of time gives them better use of that VO2 max. Their genes affect their training adaptation speed and recovery speed so they can go again and again, in addition to having the psychological aspect of being able to push themselves to the limit.


Genetics and Lactate Threshold:

The other part of endurance performance is your lactate threshold. There are many definitions relating to lactate threshold but I am going to use it here in terms of the point at which your body reaches your anaerobic threshold ( the point that, if you go past, your lactate levels will rise exponentially until you have to stop).


Elite marathon runners start a race

Your lactate threshold is different to your VO2 max. Your VO2 max is judged to be your performance over a shorter period of time, typically around 5 minutes. Whereas your threshold level gives you the ability to hold your performance over an hour. For example, in elite level runners they will be running 1 mile at their VO2 max pace and a half marathon at their lactate threshold. 


For most of us we will be running a max effort 1 km or 1 mile at our VO2 max pace and 10 km or 10 mile effort at our lactate threshold. Personally, my 1 mile PB is 4:53 and my 10 mile PB is 1:05.31. This equates to my lactate threshold being 74.5% of my VO2 max. Which is pretty average for a trained athlete.


As a comparison to elite distance runners I am going to use a couple of examples:

Firstly we will use Yomif Kejelcha, an Ethiopean distance runner. His personal best for the mile is 3:47.01 and for the half marathon is 57 minutes and 41 seconds, or 4:24 per mile. This is 85.9% of his VO2 max pace.

Secondly we will use Hellen Obiri, a Kenyan distance runner. Her personal best for the mile is 4:16.15 and for the half marathon is 1:04.22, or 4:54 per mile. This is 87.1% of her VO2 max pace. 


These are elite distance runners and they have an extremely high lactate threshold in comparison to their VO2 max, this is due to many factors but we are going to focus on genes.


Genes that may affect your lactate threshold:

The closer you can get your lactate threshold to your Vo2 max, the closer you have come to your body’s limits. Theoretically, you could have a lactate threshold at your Vo2 max but unfortunately your genes come into play here too. There are genes such as the MTC1 gene that affect both the production and clearance of lactic acid in your blood. If you have a poor expression of this gene you need to focus on maximising your diet, targeting your training and recovery towards improving your lactate threshold. 

Runner catching their breath

In those that have a higher lactate threshold in comparison you can focus more on improving your Vo2 max so that you can utilise more of what nature gave you!


Other genes that may affect athletic performance:

Genes also determine if you are more predisposed to endurance sport, or power and strength sports. Most people will have a mix of genes that aid both your endurance and strength but those of an elite level in pure endurance sports such as ironman or ultra runners will have a greater concentration of gene variations that positively impact their sport.

Cyclists drinking alcohol

One of the most researched genes for sporting capacity is the ACE gene. It helps regulate blood pressure and controls fluid electrolyte balance. Depending on the variation of this gene you have, you may have a greater maximal heart rate and Vo2 Max which will naturally give you a greater ceiling of endurance performance. With other variations giving greater type II muscles fibres (‘fast twitch fibres’) and as such better power and strength performance.


There are additional things you might have to think about if you have a certain variation of this gene, such as requiring a longer warm up period to increase your heart rate and blood flow, over the average person.


Genes that affect recovery time from exercise:

There are a number of genes that affect your body’s recovery time. Certain applications of genes promote increased or decreased inflammation in your muscles following exercise. If you are lucky enough to have a formation that promotes less inflammation in your muscles you are able to exercise more regularly with a reduced required recovery period. Genes such as the IL-6, TNF, NOS3 and CRP can affect your body’s ability to recover. If you find that you don’t feel as much fatigue after sessions as your peers, you might have an advantageous set of these gene variations.


Genes that affect the ability to keep going and not lose to the ‘grind':

Swimmer doing fast front crawl

We all know that one person that just loves to train!


There are certain genes that have been mentioned that will affect your motivation to both start and continue exercising. Variation in genes such as BDNF increase or decrease the boost in mood you get from exercising.


With some people gaining a greater boost in mood so will have a higher motivation to exercise more and for a longer duration. Some variations can also increase brain function more than others post exercise too. Just think, with good genes, exercise can make you smarter!


In conclusion:

As of 2017 the known number of genetic variations was 324 million. To have a sequence of genes that would give you all of the advantageous genetic variations for one specific sport would require a ridiculous amount of luck - with my rough maths probably at least in the realm of 1 in a trillion. To put that into perspective, only around 110 billion humans have ever lived. How much of our performance is down to your genes? It's hard to quantify, but a lot!

To get the best out of ourselves we need to be conscious of our own strengths and weaknesses. With the knowledge of your own genetic profile you will learn the most efficient way of maximising your performance with the optimal diet, training, recovery and sleep schedule.

At Efficient Endurance we have the connections to test your genetic profile and therefore plan and adapt your training to what your body is built for. 

Get in touch at chris@efficient-endurance.com If you would like to be part of more content be sure to subscribe to our list to get helpful training tips and tricks to become a better you.



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