Highs and lows, using (and not using) genetics in elite sport

DNAFit's Head of Product and Olympic medallist, Andrew Steele, tells his story of learning about his genetic profile after a career of highs and lows.

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We’re all different.

When it comes to exercise response, we know that if we work out in a group, some respond better than others at particular elements of the training program. There’s no field that illustrates these differences better than sport - specifically the Olympic games. At the games you’ll see elite athletes of all shapes and sizes. From the smallest gymnast to the tallest volleyball player, with a range of abilities that spans incredible control and composure, to raw power. A lot of these differences are results of the athletes environment, where they grew up, their training, lifestyle and preference. But some of these differences have a genetic basis, and exploring this field has fascinated sport science for a long time.

Before I joined DNAFit as Head of Product, I spent the largest part my life competing as an Olympic track and field athlete, in the 400 metres and 4x400 metre relay, for my native Great Britain. During my career, I experienced some (all too few!) moments of great success, and many, many more moments of crushing failure. It is this experience of both success and failure that led me to discover the world of sport genomics, and this shaped my belief in the role and value of genetic information in a sporting, fitness and nutrition context.

My story.

In my career, even my success was not much of a success - I finished 4th in the 4x400m at Beijing 2008, narrowly missing out on that elusive Olympic medal. But, in a strange turn of events, I was recently upgraded to an Olympic medal for that race, after the Russian team were retrospectively disqualified for a doping infringement. So I became an Olympic medallist, some 9 years after the Olympic games! Anyone who has watched the excellent Netflix documentary Icarus, will know about the recent developments in anti-doping and Russia.

The 400m is famed amongst athletic events as a particularly gruelling discipline, that’s because it’s a sprint, but a very long sprint. If any readers of this blog have had the misfortune of ever running a 400m sprint, you’ll know that its nickname - ‘the man killer’ is appropriate. 

The event requires a unique combination of both power, and endurance ability. During a race, the athlete exhausts every energy source, or fuel tank, that the human body has available - then still has a further 100m to run. That’s why, if you watch an Olympic final, no athlete looks more nervous than a 400m runner before the race - the agony if it goes wrong is truly something else!

As a result of its diverse physiological requirements, training for the 400m is a difficult balance to get right. On one hand the athlete needs to be a world class sprinter, but needs to have a world class endurance ability on the other. It is the art of making these two, and very different, abilities meet that makes a great 400m runner. 

So what’s the best way to train?

Should a 400m runner be a sprinter first, and add some endurance ability on top? Or should they work on their endurance then top up with some short sprint? This is a question that has dogged track coaches for generations.

Let me tell you my experience, how I learnt what worked for me, and what did not work for me - the hard way. 

Thanks to my current work in genetics, I now know that when it comes to Olympic sprinters, I am somewhat of an outlier on certain genetic factors, and this information could have been valuable had I known earlier in my career. When we talk about success or failure defined as a fraction of second, every bit of knowledge counts.

I don’t look like an Olympian, I never did, I never will. At best, I looked like an average guy who kept in shape once or twice a week. I did track and field, and I was fast, but on appearances no more obviously so than an average hobbyist. 

But, what I did possess was a seemingly insatiable ability to deal with endurance training. I was a sprinter, but my strength lay in my ability to hold my pace in the last 100m of the race. That was partly, as I perceived, down to a natural ability but more importantly I judged was a result of my training. 

I’m from Manchester, a city in the north of England that prides itself on a hard working attitude. As a result, my training was no different - we used to hit mileage and endurance training that was not really that common for 400m runners. We trained like elite middle-distance athletes, then tried to add some sprint ability on top of that. 

And it worked, for me at least.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t glamorous, but it got me to a national title, to a personal best time of 44.94 seconds, and ultimately, to an Olympic medal. But by all common metrics, my training was somewhat ‘old fashioned’, and certainly very rare at the Olympic level. 

All my competitors trained like elite sprinters, they had personal best times for the 200m that were often a whole second quicker than mine. And it showed during our races - I would often be left for dead in the first 200m of the race, only to claw back the deficit in the second half.

So, after Beijing 2008, with only four years until London 2012 - a home Olympic games, my team and I had a choice to make. How could we give me the best chance of winning an individual medal in the 400m at London in four years time? Should we stay the same, and keep using an endurance-led approach, or work on my weaknesses and shift towards a sprint-led approach like others at the top level? 

We chose the latter. We figured that if we could work on my sprint speed and my acceleration, that would be the best way to shave half a second off my time. There was certainly an element of pressure from the people that paid my salary to ‘modernise’, to train like the more correct way because that was how everybody else did it. It seemed like a sensible decision…

In reality, it didn’t work. Over the next four years I went from national champion, to seventh in the country, I suffered a string of Achilles tendon injuries and even suffered from over-training related illness. When it came to selection day for London 2012, I was running on average a whole second slower than I was running in 2008. That difference, a tiny moment in everyday life, meant that not only did I not win a medal at the home Olympic Games, I didn’t even make the team. 


How could improving my training closer to well accepted principles, and working on my weaknesses, have led to a performance decline? Performance is a complicated and many faceted mosaic, every change interacting with every other part of the training regime. Through my two training phases, the years running up to Beijing and then the years running up to London 2012, I experienced two different schools of thought for 400m training and I found out the hard way, which way worked best for me. I found out that the average method at the top level, was just not quite as effective for me, even though it may be more effective for most. 

One of the reasons I believe that the sprint method did not work quite as well for me, is that my genetic profile was somewhat unusual for an elite athlete in my discipline. As an illustration of this, let's take a look at a gene called ACTN3, one of the most talked about and well researched genes in regards to sporting performance and training response. 

ACTN3 is a gene that is incredibly well researched, especially with regards to sprinting. The ACTN3 gene creates a protein called alpha-actinin-3, which is a structural component of muscle fibres. ACTN3 is found exclusively in fast-twitch muscle fibres, making it of particular interest to people who want to see adaptations in fast twitch muscle fibres, like, say, sprinters. 

A person can have different versions of this gene; RR and RX, which means they can produce alpha-actinin-3, or XX, which means they can’t. The RR and RX versions are dramatically over represented amongst elite sprinters, some estimates putting their prevalence amongst elite Olympic level sprinters as high as 99% - leading some people to describe the R version of ACTN3 (somewhat incorrectly) as the ‘sprint’ gene. Our Head of Sport Science, and fellow Olympian, Craig Pickering, wrote a guide to the ACTN3 gene here.

I have ACTN3 XX - the absolute outlier amongst olympic sprinters when it comes to this gene. I am effectively an anomaly when it comes to those at my level in my event, and as a result there’s a strong argument to say that by default, my approach to sprint training should take this into account.

With my XX version of ACTN3, my ability to grow the sprinters muscle fibre was somewhat limited, as was my response to strength training - another key component of elite sprint programs. So, if I worked out in a group of sprinters doing the same strength and sprint training, I would be expected to see smaller improvements from that exact same training program.

Don't get averaged.

If I had known this at the time, I am sure this would be have extremely important in helping me stick to my strengths and train the way that I had found was effective for me, not just following the average advice. That’s where genetics comes in - the average advice is fine, if you’re the average. If something signals a deviation from the average, then we should know, so we can make a better personalised environment change with that knowledge in mind.

With some studies reporting that ACTN3 plays as much as 3% variance in individual training response, this single gene plays an important role - and this is just the tip of the iceberg. There has been hundreds of genes identified as playing a role in exercise response. This matters, not just for elite athletes, but for everyone - whether you’re trying to just live a healthier life, or win an Olympic medal.

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