Genetics and Athletic Performance


If you're an athlete who isn't getting results in training, it's tempting to blame it on genetics. But just how much of athletic success is related to genetics? Well, according to Dr. Michael Yessis, Ph.D., the answer is 30%.(1) He believes that 30% of athletic potential is genetic, with the remaining 70% depending on environmental factors like training and nutrition. 30% does seem like a lot, so let's unpack this a little further to understand what it really means.

Say you are an aspiring sprinter and your genetic makeup dictates that you'll have 50% fast-twitch and 50% slow twitch muscle fiber composition (fast twitch muscle fibers make more powerful muscles that use energy quickly, whereas slow twitch fibers fire more slowly but have better endurance). Well, an elite Olympic sprinter may have an advantage and be born with an 80% fast-twitch composition. That's 30% more, which is definitely helpful. However, since genetics only account for 30% of success, the difference in genetic makeup of 30% only accounts for a 9% difference in actual performance (30% of 30% = 9%).

Is this enough to prevent you from setting a world record? Yes, it is. But if that world record holder is running a 9.5 second 100-meter dash, you should still be able to run a 10.2. That is a great time for almost any athlete, and one that you will only reach by maximizing your genetic potential. That is where the other 70% comes in.

A majority of athletes never reach their genetic potential. If you are one of these athletes, your lack of progress can only come down to a few things. The first major factor: you haven't trained long enough at an appropriate level to stimulate the right adaptations. The second major factor: you haven't eaten or slept enough to support your training.

The right kind of training stimulus means training the muscles, connective tissue, and - most importantly - training the nervous system to coordinate the entire body in the most efficient and effective way. Any training directed elsewhere is not only a waste of time, it can actually prevent you from reaching your potential. (Of course there is also training time spent on your sports skills or team strategy practices, which is okay. We're talking about the time spent training for performance.) The stronger this foundation, the more speed, power, and skill you can build upon it -- and the higher you can climb towards your genetic ceiling.


1- Build a Better Athlete, Dr. Michael Yessis. 2006: Equilibrium Books, Terra Haute, Indiana

Featured Posts