Uncovering genetic testing in athletics: limits, concerns, and possibilities

Your weekly research review

Cody Roberts

By Cody Roberts
February 14th, 2020 | 4 min read

Contents of Research Review

  1. Background & Objective
  2. What They Did
  3. What They Found
  4. Practical Takeaways
  5. Reviewer’s Comments
  6. About the Reviewer

Background & Objective

The genetic make-up of an individual influences the physical and psychological traits that can be associated with elite athletic performance. Advances in genetic testing have opened the door for identification of polymorphisms and other genetic variations that are linked to elite athlete status.

This manuscript outlines the challenges related to genetics and athletic performance, providing concerns, as well as future directions in the field of genetic research and its implementation.

What They Did

Within this review article a number of key points were discussed, this included:

  • The rampant growth in companies (2013 = ~20; 2019 ~70) that offer genetic testing that is marketed as being related to sport performance and injury risk.
  • Why current genetic tests cannot predict future sporting success and what further requirements are necessary to potentially use genetic information for talent identification.
  • The ethical dilemma these potential methods create with children and the nature of athletics, but underlining the opportunities created around improving the efficacy of training design and management methods regarding enhancement of performance and prevention of injury.
  • What They Found

    Primary findings reviewed:

  • Use of genetic tests for prediction of future elite athlete status is difficult, weak, and mostly inaccurate.
  • Over 155 genetic markers have been tentatively linked with elite athlete status.
  • There is not a single genetic profile that presents sporting success.
  • More research with larger sample sizes is needed to identify performance-enhancing genetic variations.
  • Researchers have turned to Total Genotype Scores (see HERE) as a viable alternative for the complexity of talent identification.
  • Development of ethnicity-specific polymorphism panels are needed for more reliable identification.
  • Practical Takeaways

  • As research and understanding grow, using genetic and epigenetic information to enhance adherence, promote longevity, and prevent injury is possibly the most productive area related to athletic performance. For example, genetic markers have association with tendon resilience or risk of anterior cruciate ligament tears. This information could guide training to improve robustness and prevent overtraining in these soft tissues.
  • Genetic information can potentially elicit greater adaptations by providing training or intervention that is best suited for an individual. For example, the ability to handle greater volume and frequency of a given activity or prescribing lower vs. higher repetitions per set to match an individual’s genotype (see HERE).
  • Genetic testing has the potential to uncover psychological traits as well (e.g. novelty seeking, resilience, or harm avoidance) (see HERE). This information can be used to encourage programming more variety of exercises or promoting more encouragement and support for an athlete that may struggle with anxiety or stress management.
  • Reviewer’s Comments

    “The research of gene expression is a growing and alluring area, and it makes sense it would move into the competitive culture of elite sport. Countries like China and Uzbekistan are currently implementing genetic testing to provide a potential edge over others in their quest for Olympic success. The ethical concerns, as well as quality control of this growing field, looms for talent identification, gene doping, and fairness. There is proven value of this type of testing in clinical medicine but there is no scientific support for genetic testing and athletic identification (see HERE).

    Lastly, as the saying goes “genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger”, meaning there are numerous factors related to lifestyle, coaching, and development that allow athletic potential to be expressed. Hopefully this field focuses attention on improving and not excluding athletes based on the findings. There is a lot of productive potential in uncovering the information regarding the optimal environment, coaching, and intervention related to an elite athlete’s genetic makeup.”

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    Cody Roberts

    Cody Roberts

    Cody has been a strength and conditioning coach within NCAA Division I sports since 2008. He currently works within Olympic sports at the University of Iowa. He holds a Masters degree in Exercise Science from the University of Kansas (‘10). A former collegiate discus and hammer thrower (University of Kansas ‘07), Cody has also served as an adjunct professor within the Health & Human Physiology department at Iowa, as well a written over 200 research reviews for the Performance Digest since joining the Science for Sport team in 2019. Cody is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Strength & Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) through the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, and a USAW Certified Sport Performance Coach from USA Weightlifting. The entire psychophysiological process of coaching and athletic development is what drives Cody to learn and engage others daily to best serve and develop the athletes he works with. In his role, he has numerous resources at his disposal (e.g. GPS, force plates, tensiomyography, and other testing/monitoring tools). His experience and application of these tools, implementing consistent and sustainable monitoring strategies, make him an excellent resource for all things technology and monitoring. Aiming to maximise the quest for optimal performance through a holistic and scientific approach.

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