David Epstein: ‘There Are Sports Genes’

It’s called the ACTN3 gene – also known as “the sprinting gene” – and it codes for proteins found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers. If you have it, you should consider becoming a sprinter. If you don’t have it, you might be wasting your time.

“If you don’t have one of the so-called ‘right versions for sprinting,’ you just aren’t going to be in the Olympic 100-meter final; that’s it,” Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein said on The Morning Show. “And a lot of people have it, so having it doesn’t mean you are going to be in the final, but if you don’t (have it), you’re not going to be in the final.”

Maybe it really is that simple.

Epstein appeared on The Morning Show to discuss his fascinating new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, which explains how athletic performance is tied to biology, among other things.

Epstein said that every Olympic 100-meter finalist since 1980 – whether they’re Jamaican, American, Canadian or Portuguese – has had ties to one of two areas along the West African coast.

“Every single one (has come from one of) two areas in the coast of West Africa called the Bight of Biafra or the Bight of Benin,” Epstein said.

Epstein explained that the high prevalence of malaria there has caused certain genetic adaptations tied to malaria prevention and that those adaptations can potentially lead to a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers – and thus, a higher proportion of sprinters.

“There are sports genes – and I think maybe that can sound depressing when I say that,” Epstein said. “That said, I think this is a really promising area of science. Whether or not people want to believe it, they won’t reach a certain level (of performance) because of their genes. But the more we learn about how unique (each individual’s) biology is, the better we are at both funneling people to both the sport and the kind of training programs that will work for them.”

No two people respond to any drug the same way – not even Tylenol. The exact same principle is true for training.

“This is getting us toward an area of personalized training,” Epstein said.

Yes, people still need to train and be motivated regardless of which sport they choose, but in some cases – if not most cases – either you have a genetic predisposition for a sport or you don’t.

Epstein also discussed HGH and how it affects – or doesn’t affect – the human body.

“To be honest with you – and I’ve written about this before – (HGH) was accidentally over-restricted by the government when they made anabolic steroids controlled substances,” he said. “They sort of shuffled around some laws and HGH was supposed to be less restricted and it ended up being more restricted – and that’s actually retarded research on HGH.

“All drugs have side effects, but it looks like a lot of the short-term side effects of growth hormone are reversible when you stop taking them. There may be some applications for recovery from surgery and things like that. It seems to me that from what few studies we have, that if it’s controlled and monitored and done appropriately, you can minimize the risks of using it.”

For those who wonder why Major League Baseball doesn’t allow its players to use HGH, the answer is simple.

“The league can’t permit something that is against United States law,” Epstein said, “and U.S. law restricts HGH.”

Still, it’s conceivable that HGH could be used to reverse some of the effects of brain trauma, which would be ideal for football players.

“I think that would probably get it on the fast track to having more legal uses if it could help with brain trauma,” Epstein said. “There’s a lot of stuff with brain trauma that I think we’re not doing.”

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