How Much Does Our Genetics Affect Our Running Potential?

Embracing your unique genetic blueprint might be the key to becoming the best runner you can be

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We all have that one friend who may not train consistently or who may not eat the cleanest, and despite our best efforts, sticking to our training plan and eating clean, we can never seem to beat them on race day.

Or you may wonder how the pros can rack up so many miles in training without getting tired or burnt out.

As it turns out, some people may have an advantage that even our best pacing strategy or wearing the latest super shoe couldn’t give us the edge to outrun them.

In this article, we’ll delve into one of the uncontrollable aspects that determines so much of our running performance: genetics.


Understanding The Basics

Genetics is the unique blueprint that makes everyone unique and why no two people are the exact same! 

Genes influence all of our traits, things such as height, eye color, and yes, even our athletic potential. In the world of running, certain genes can significantly impact your performance and potential.

Muscle Fiber Types

One key performance factor that is influenced by our genetics is the distribution of muscle fiber types. There are two main types: slow-twitch and fast-twitch.

Slow-twitch fibers are more efficient at endurance activities, making them ideal for long-distance runners. On the other hand, fast-twitch fibers excel in short bursts of power and speed, benefiting sprinters. 

Your genetic makeup determines how much of each of these muscle fiber types, influencing your natural inclination toward sprinting or long-distance running.


VO2 Max

VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise, such as interval training or races. 

It’s a main factor which influences endurance, and your genes play a role in defining your upper limit, or how high your VO2 can get. 

A high VO2 max is often associated with elite endurance athletes, and while training can improve it to an extent, your genetic predisposition sets the baseline for your potential.

Energy Utilization

Genes also influence how efficiently your body produces and utilizes energy. 

The production of ATP, the body’s energy currency, varies from person to person. 

Some individuals are genetically predisposed to produce energy more efficiently, giving them an advantage in sustaining higher effort during endurance activities like distance running.

How Much Does Our Genetics Affect Our Running Potential? 1

The Two Key Genes

As we delve into the intricate world of genetics and running, two key players emerge on the stage: the ACTN3 and ACE genes

These genetic components have a significant influence on our athletic potential, particularly in the running world.

At the heart of explosive power and sprinting potential lies the ACTN3 gene. 

Often dubbed the “sprinter’s gene,” ACTN3 codes for a protein called alpha-actinin-3, predominantly found in fast-twitch muscle fibers. 

As we’ve mentioned, these fibers are essential for short bursts of power and speed, making them a requirement for sprinters and power athletes.

The second key athletic gene, the ACE gene (Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme) has more of an influence in the world of distance running

The ACE gene regulates the production of an enzyme responsible for converting angiotensin I to angiotensin II. In simple terms, the gene influences blood vessel constriction and blood pressure regulation.

A favourable ACE gene code is associated with enhanced endurance performance. 

Those with a favourable coding for the ACE gene may experience better oxygen utilization and more efficient blood flow, both of which are crucial factors for long-distance runners.

kelvin kiptum crossing chicago marathon finish line
Chicago Marathon 2023

Elite Athletes And Genetic Advantages

Take a moment to look at the world’s top marathon runners. Many hail from regions like Kenya or Ethiopia, where a combination of environmental factors and genetics has produced a high concentration of elite distance runners. 

Genetic studies have shown specific variations associated with enhanced endurance performance in these populations, which just shows the significant role genetics plays in performance potential.

How Understanding Genetics Can Help Your Performance

Understanding your genetic predispositions doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a predetermined fate. 

Instead, it provides valuable insights for tailoring your training approach. If your genes lean toward endurance, focusing on long, steady-state runs could optimize your performance. 

On the flip side, if you have a sprinter’s genetic makeup, incorporating interval training and explosive exercises can enhance your speed and power.

Wrapping Up

While genetics undeniably shape our running potential, it’s crucial to remember that hard work, dedication, and smart training can push those genetic boundaries. 

Embrace your unique genetic blueprint, adjust your training accordingly, and who knows – you might just surprise yourself with the runner you can become. 

After all, it’s not just about the genes; it’s about how you lace up your shoes and hit the road.

Photo of author
Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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