Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Genetics do play a role in athletic performance, but they are not as big a factor as you believe. In the world of made-up percentages, I would put genetics at about a 10% difference. The remainder being proper training, time in the sport, and nutrition. Genetics in running, genetics in strength training, and genetics, in general, don’t matter. Let’s stop blaming our failings on the boogie man and buckle down and get to work.
Table of Contents
Let’s Be Reasonable
“Will I Look Like You?”
“Yes, no…. Maybe…”
It’s a weird question.
Out of context it’s even more weird.
But, let’s bring it back to the “training world”.
I’ve been asked this a number of times during the initial days of coaching an athlete. While it’s a great compliment, there are a number of factors that make this not only a difficult question to answer, but it’s also not the right question.
The question you should be asking are one of the below:
How do I get stronger?
How do I gain muscle mass?
How do I lose body fat?
How do I train for this event?
These questions may or may not fall in the realm of strength training, but they are at least actionable and more important, within the scope of practicality.
These questions take out the genetic component that we too often get hung up on.
Genetics do play a role in our athletic ability. They determine our absolute strength, our absolute flexibility, muscle insertion points, our leverages based on limb length, our recovery time, and a number of other important athletic functions.
And, these factors do make genetics in running and strength matter.
But, these are at absolute levels.
Outside of major genetic defects, genetics do not stop you from achieving impressive feats of strength and speed.
While a person with all of the genetic advantages of the world may be able to squat 1,080lbs (Drug tested raw), it’s reasonable to think you can squat at least 500lbs.
Same goes for the marathons that are now being ran in sub 4-minute miles. If their perfect genetics for running allows them to do that, you can do it in 8 minute miles… at least.
We are all the same species, which means while on the micro-scale we may see huge differences in our potential as a species, we still have a range that we fall into.
That human range of physical capacity that we fall into can be exploited through training.
Unless you have a medical handicap, it is more than reasonable that you could hit 50% of a world record attempt. It might take years (it will), it might take sacrifice (it will), but you can get there. So, unless you are already putting up some pretty impressive feats, let’s stop blaming it on genetics.
Are People Genetically Gifted?
I’m not going to dive into this topic, because there is overwhelming science that you can google away to your heart’s content, or can just open your eyes.
But, if you somehow missed the world cues around you, the answer is…
Genetics in running, strength, and athletics, in general, do play a role in performance levels, but for most of us, it doesn’t matter.
And even when it does, it’s often impossible for us to see if it truly is genetics or if it’s something else…
“Genetically gifted” is usually just time in a sport.
Even kids that just step onto a soccer field at the age of 8 and dominate, are not necessarily athletically gifted.
Once you use that label, you discount the fact that the kid has been playing on his own time for the last 4 years after being given a soccer ball for christmas 4 years ago.
The kid might not have been playing “soccer”, but just learning foot-eye coordination, understanding how the ball moves, bounces, and reacts, is pretty damn useful.
Now they step onto the field and have a 4 year headstart over Johnny, whose mom just pulled him out of art class to have a more diverse education.
And, it’s not even just obvious things like this that play a role.
If a kid grew up with brothers on a farm, not only did he spend his whole life wrestling, fighting, and being bullied by his siblings, he likely spent a fair amount of time performing mentally and physically demanding tasks.
Carrying heavy loads, getting knocked off haystacks, kicked by animals, and much more is going to play a huge role in a kid’s athletic ability, especially more so than a kid that has been encouraged to watch T.V. all day.
If this farm kid now steps onto a football field at the age of 14, years after all of his peers did, and crushes the sport, he may well be called genetically gifted.
But, present performance does not take into context everything in his life that led up until now.
To the whole world, he might seem gifted, but in the scheme of things, if you break down what a football player does, especially at the young age of 14, this kid has already trained for it.
This farm kid basically has 4 more years of training than the dude next to him who started playing at the age of 8.
The thing is, time in a sport matter.
This doesn’t mean you’re screwed if you just started, but it does mean that you can’t expect to be immediately dominating somebody who has years more time developing their skills.
It’s not genetics, it’s time.
My Personal Case Study
If you went back in time to my high school, not only would most people probably look back and laugh at my lack of athletic ability, my coaches would probably turn beat red in shame.
Not only was I not athletic, but I was also not very coachable (read as in, very slow to learn).
I can still remember my coaches looking at me in pity as I pathetically attempted to throw a ball or run down a field.
To think that I’m some sort of genetic freak because of how I look now or how I perform is so outrageous, it’s comical.
Improvement for most of us is not this genetic gift handed down to us by some immortal power.
We have to fight for it.
It’s training day in and day out that will get you to where you need to be.
Us average athletes have to do the same thing as the genetic guys, train really freaking hard.
They may get there faster and at a certain point be able to go places we can never go, but only if they try, have good coaching, good training, eat right, and don’t get injured.
That’s a pretty long list of things that they need to get right.
It’s also a list that everyone else needs to get right too.
The majority of people, to be honest, are pretty lazy. And even those that do “exercise”, don’t try that hard, nor do they train correctly.
If you train, be consistent, and put the work in, you can surpass even the most gifted athletes in the world.
My puny little high school self is a good case in point.
I remember a time when I was talking about trying out for the freshman soccer team and my dad telling me I wouldn’t make it.
“You’ll never make it, it’s for those types of guys that are really good and just want to practice all the time”.
He was right, I didn’t make the team.
And, I didn’t deserve to make it.
The real travesty is not taking the right life lesson from this.
In a perfect world, I would have learned “you have to actually practice and train”, instead of like how I actually took it, “I’m not genetically gifted”.
So, I continued sucking for a number of years.
Unfortunately, I wandered around lost for a few years after that, not really finding any progress.
But, one day I stumbled upon a coach who gave me a training plan, walked me through basic barbell movements and a few machines, and got me headed in the right direction.
He didn’t teach me why things worked, he didn’t teach me how these movements interacted, and it was honestly a terrible program, but he taught me that progressive overload, consistently, and methodically controlled training can develop you into a stronger human being.
This immediately started paying dividends, slowly building my way up from pathetic to at least average.
Over the next few years, I did the normal thing. I went online, found a program, and followed it. When it stopped working or didn’t work, I went and found another one.
I didn’t know what I was looking for or what worked and what didn’t.
I had found drastic improvement, but once again it leveled off and started to decline.
The whole idea of, “I just genetically suck”, started coming back.
It’s frustrating to put in 14 hours of working out a week and find little progress.
It wasn’t until I broke away from my scattershot approach and started with the basics; Squat, Bench, Deadlift, and Press, combined with consistent progressive overload that I truly started to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
Finally, my numbers started climbing, my injury rate went down, and even my run times improved.
I finally had learned how to make my own training plan that worked and I understood how it worked.
Training Trumps Genetics In Running, Strength, And Athletics
I am still by no means a great athlete, I might not even be considered a good one, but I am an athlete.
And, over the years, I’ve slowly seen quite a few of those “gifted athletes” (“athlete” used loosely) fall by the wayside, not find progress, and stagnate.
They never had the opportunity or the need to learn how to train, how to be real athletes, push through pain, and how to find progress.
And the end of the day, being genetically gifted is only worth something if you actually do something with it and you do that “something” right.
Also, before you assume someone is gifted, ask them how long ago they started, chances are it was years before you even considered picking up the sport.
So, let’s drop the “gifted” title, quit complaining about genetics in running, or in competition, and let’s just put the work in.
Be consistent, work hard, and be smart about it. We’ll be crushing our goals and our competitors in no time.
And, for those of you that are bound to disagree that are stuck at the same run times and same lifts (if you even lift) as years ago, maybe it’s time to admit you don’t know what you’re doing and find a coach.
Until Next Time,