It goes without saying that we are all DNA.
DNA is essentially the instruction manual for the construction of a human body, complete with advantages and disadvantages. Understanding how it impacts our lives is still an ongoing process, but there is no doubt that DNA has provided insights into numerous areas of medicine, nutrition, and performance with strong, credible research.
DNA is essentially an instruction booklet. I often equate a biomarker to being able to take the manual and open to a specific page. Like an instruction manual, one page cannot provide information on the entire project but can serve as a resource if you are having a problem area, plateau, or if you missed a step in the process. Simply put, it provides a reference to one specific part of the project.
DNA is a vast manual. Other considerations that should be understood are gene expression based on age, external environment, and the internal environment. There is still plenty to consider, but the benefit of being able to reassess with additional guidance allows elite athletes to reach new performance peaks.
Most athlete development is based on applied research, the literature, clinical work, evidence-based information, anecdotal information, and history. Without a doubt, we are not all the same, yet the premise of each piece of information was that it applied to a population, not an individual. However, the advantage of DNA is that it provides a unique, personalized assessment of the individual’s opportunities to enhance performance and manage risks.
In elite athlete performance, I find the three areas where DNA insights can best impact, given its current level of understanding and benefit are:
- Reassessment for the athlete.
- The influence of genetic interactions.
- The ability to predict a more probable outcome of a training program.
1 - REASSESSMENT
Elite athletes have attained elite levels largely by understanding how their body works. They’ve developed routines and habits with a good idea of the outcome. Some of the athletes’ routines were influenced by feel and outcome, while others were influenced by role models, mentors, and media. So inevitably when an athlete has reached their peak performance level, how would you change what works to the specific benefit of the athlete?
Reassessing an athlete and their current levels of performance is important. Genetic insights provide the coach with landmarks that they can reassess, then change minor details of focus to reach new levels of performance.
An example is the athlete’s lactate threshold trainability. Postseason an athlete has developed all the required energy systems to perform the game, however, many take time off the hard training sessions when the season is complete. Athletes with lower threshold trainability could benefit from maintaining their in-season thresholds and use the off-season to continue to develop a better outcome. After all, why start over when they’ve already maximized one of the most challenging parts of training for sport?
On the other hand, athletes with high threshold trainability may benefit from focus in areas that are less efficient. This allows them to maximize their output and make a difference for the next level with a clearer picture of how and when they need to step on the gas.
2 – GENETIC INTERACTIONS
Living within the athlete body is the athlete environment. Certain genetic traits may lend an advantage while others can inhibit performance. Understanding how the expression of different genes plays a role in the athlete can reduce injury, improve current levels of function and performance, and guide training layouts to avoid overtraining states. This has been an important part of developing our training programs during the off-season for young athletes trying to break into the professional ranks.
Some athletes can tolerate more force production activities while others need larger pockets of recovery time to avoid overtraining. This is especially true when we consider the age of the athlete and the genetics together, as older athletes require more recovery protocols built into training programs to avoid injury. This may even shape each athlete’s overall outlook on the coach’s planning instruments.
An example is the interaction between ACTN3 and the collagen biomarkers COL5A1 and COL1A1. Powerful athletes with tighter collagen makeup may be more susceptible to inflammation after stimulating repetitions. A coach could use the same volume with different variables — 3 reps versus 5 reps; 6 sets versus 3 sets; etc. — to accomplish the same goal.
3 – PROBABLE OUTCOMES
Any coach at any level who had the ability to deliver the perfect training program would be worth their weight in gold. The reality is predicting an outcome of a training program is like predicting lottery numbers. As coaches, we often have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and the more time we spend with an athlete the better we get at predicting the outcome of the development of the athlete. Genetic insight can speed up the years and years of athlete monitoring required to see trends in their training development.
Being able to look through a genetic profile can guide a program for a new athlete in combination with the experience of the coach. In fact, a coach can improve their own coaching observation when they begin to recognize the genetic expression of similar traits amongst multiple athletes. This can give a coach an ability to identify trends in athletes, probability of outcome, and/or potential of injury.
As an example, when you sit down to write a program for an athlete you know well, versus a new athlete, how might you differentiate their programs? Is the new athlete’s program optimized for them or is it designed to provide a foundation for the coach? If the new athlete had similar genetic traits to other athletes and peers, you could adjust the programming to reflect similar characteristics and identify the responses sooner. A side benefit is it builds rapport and trust between a new athlete and coach, as the athlete may find that the new coach has tuned into their needs and abilities sooner.
HOW DNA APPLIES TO THE GAME
Genetic traits can help identify if an athlete may require additional time to physically prepare. Instead of rolling out a standard warm-up, some athletes will require differing levels of time and intensity to be prepared to perform at the start of a competition. We have been able to use this to identify some athletes and prepare them to start the game full throttle. Ever notice some athletes may be better second-half performers or weak starters?
Aside from nutritional preparation, which is essential, body temperature can have a drastic effect on athlete performance. Genetic traits attributed to identifying psychological factors associated with heat and performance can have a huge impact on gameplay. Young athletes are often part of the social media culture and choose attire or equipment based on idols, favorites, mentors, or for financial reasons. In the past, we have been able to identify athletes who may be susceptible to mental performance issues due to equipment. Many young hockey players wear a base layer, followed by equipment, and then the addition of a jersey. This creates three environments of heat. Although the base layer may have been moisture wicking, because of the equipment the heat was trapped in the environment due to the multiple layers. The athletes noticed a greater benefit to their mental focus by reducing an unnecessary layer of attire during gameplay.
Other areas of preparation we have witnessed that benefit gameplay is understanding caffeine sensitivity. Caffeine is often used as an ergogenic aid and for daily life, however, changing the consumption habits to a staggered format have benefitted various athletes who had low caffeine sensitivity.
Nutrition insights play a major role, but so does post-game recovery protocols. Athletes who understand that they need additional time to address muscle and tendon tightness were more accountable to following through with proper post-game recovery. This is especially important in a highly competitive sport where travel can reduce the body’s ability to recover between short bouts of rest between competitions.
Athletes do not enjoy being injured. Likewise, they hate the monotony of the rehabilitation processes. Genetic traits in collagen makeup, energy-system adaptability, and even strength or power demands can provide insights into the time dedicated to recovery. The gene ACTN3 is well known as the “sports gene” and valuable in strength and power production. The elimination of both of alleles has shown an important training consideration. With the elimination of both the ACTN3 alleles, it has been shown that deceleration requirements create greater muscle-fiber breakdown. Having this information in your back pocket as a coach may help reduce the likelihood of an athlete injury. Sports like basketball, hockey, soccer and football are extremely demanding on deceleration mechanics in order to be fast, dynamic, and elusive for athletes. Adding additional recovery protocols vastly improves game readiness as the summation of multiple modalities improves recovery.
Genetics is still a relatively new field, but as we’ve witnessed with advancements in technology over the past decade, it can develop quickly. More research is constantly being done on human genetics and the effects of genetic expression on outcomes. By today’s standard there are no performance guarantees, however, if you can speed up an approach, develop better adaptation estimates, or change one small piece for the better, the athlete will be on their way to performing at their peak.
Director of Human Performance at RVXFactor