Motivation to train: Your DNA can influence what gets you going

When it comes to motivation, there are two major questions that coaches ask themselves: What motivates my athlete? And, how do I motivate my athlete? Certainly, these are not easy questions to answer and the answers aren’t always easy to understand.  

Motivation in human performance and the pursuit towards a goal is the foundation of athletic efforts and successes. A lack of motivation can cripple any athlete regardless of their performance level. To mitigate the risk of an athlete hitting a performance plateau, coaches must put the same emphasis on an athlete’s motivation as they do on other environmental factors like sleep or diet.

A lesser-known fact about this performance factor is that members of the scientific community have been working to identify genetic markers that may influence an individual’s motivation. Two markers – that range in scientific confidence – have attracted the attention of performance geneticists and sports scientists for their potential to help coaches understand an athlete’s motivation on a deeper, more complete level.

Vitamin D metabolism, motivation and mood

Research suggests that vitamin D plays an important role in an individual’s mood, motivation, and even recovery. We are talking about the rs10741657 marker in the CYP2R1 gene. This gene codes for a protein that is essential for metabolizing vitamin D in the liver.

The association between this genetic marker and vitamin D status has a very high confidence grade – Athletigen has given it an A grade – due to the extensive and replicated research conducted in large populations (more than 5000 individuals) spanning various ethnicities.

Understanding how this marker can impact an individual is important because depending on an athlete’s specific genotype (AA, AG, or GG) they may metabolize vitamin D differently. Athletes with the AA genotype may experience generally higher levels of vitamin D which can result in faster post-exercise recovery, better moods, and more motivation which can all positively affect training.

Individuals with the AG genotype may experience moderate levels of vitamin D while individuals with the GG genotype may experience lower levels of vitamin D. Athletes with the GG genotype could experience increased soreness after exercise, mood fluctuations and decreased motivation. Naturally, this can hinder an athlete’s training.

With the athlete’s genetic foundation in mind, this information provides a coach with a new avenue to increase their athlete’s motivation, mood, and post-training recovery. Knowing an athlete’s rs10741657 genotype can provide a coach with a more complete understanding of why their athlete may be experiencing decreased motivation and help inform corrective or proactive coaching decisions, like increased dietary supplementation of vitamin D for an athlete with the GG genotype.  

It’s important to note, vitamin D status is influenced by various environmental factors such as season, daylight exposure, and diet, this marker only provides insight into a specific area affecting motivation. However, studies have suggested that genetics may contribute somewhere between 53 to 35 per cent of an individual’s vitamin D variability.

Motivation to exercise

Preliminary studies have found an association between rs6265 in BDNF and motivation to train, although this research is in its infancy, further research is needed before coaches and athletes can base training decisions on their genotype. However, it does help paint a larger picture of how an athlete’s genetics may influence their motivation to train. As research replicating the association between this marker and motivation is ongoing, Athletigen has given it a C confidence grade. Further research is needed to confirm this marker’s trait outcomes on a wider range of individuals from different ethnic backgrounds.

The six studies to date – spanning population sizes between 55 and 577 – on this gene have  examined the association between BDNF and neurotransmitter function, mood, and motivation. This research suggests that individuals with the TT or CT genotype may experience  greater motivation to exercise and experience a greater perceived reward after exercising. As these athletes may be naturally more motivated, they may be more likely to stick to a training program, meaning that they require less pressure from a coach to reach their goals.

Why may CT or TT individuals experience a boost in motivation? Studies suggest that the BDNF gene plays a role in the growth and development of neurons in the brain and spinal cord. The TT or CT variants may contribute to faster cell growth in key centers of your brain that influence motivation. These areas have an abundance of dopamine receptors, dopamine being a neurotransmitter that’s released during exercise that can enhance concentration, mood, and pleasure.

Before using genetic information – regardless of scientific confidence grade – in coaching practices, a coach should note that one genetic marker cannot act as the sole reason to alter an athlete’s training. Markers should be considered in tandem with coaching observations and expertise, an athlete’s environment, their perception of that environment, and other genetic markers associated with similar traits. An athlete’s genetic foundation is a part of a larger, more holistic approach towards increasing human performance. It isn’t diagnostic.

Learn more about your athletes or yourself.

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