talent /’taelent/ n. special aptitude or gift (for); high mental or artistic ability. How many times have you heard people use this word in cycling or read it in a cycling magazine? A word, as defined describing someone who has a gift, whether its physical, psychological or both. Unfortunately I have as much talent for road cycling as a legless frog trying to pedal a road bike, and like most who don’t have any, have always wondered how different road cycling would be if I had talent! Despite this, having a lack of the magic word cannot alter the desire or passion for the sport, and got me thinking, how much does our genetic potential really affect our performance? With this is mind I investigated the literature on the subject, silently hoping it would confirm my talent-less status from which I could suitably blame my parents, and not just remind myself to train harder.
Physiology and Inheritance
Genetic potential is the physical ability given to us by our parents, which we can’t control. We all have genetic potential, but the level of which it matches our particular chosen sport differs. Physiology is the science of how we function. We can function quite nicely living a life never really stressing our functional capacity or our physiology, and this has led to some speculation that if we had to stress our physiology, particularly from a young age then maybe our athletic development would be different. This is the eternal question in exercise physiology. Do our genes given to us by our parents determine our athletic careers or is it those hyperactive or parent driven child athletes that stress their systems when they are young, forcing their bodies to adapt that succeed in sport? Or is it both? This is a realm of speculation and unanswered questions, as understandably human ethics committees rarely allow scientific studies on infants or children.
Research has answered some questions loosely encompassing the topic slowly chipping away at the iceberg of unknown. For example, we know that we are born with a set number of muscle fibres, and the type is determined during the second trimester of pregnancy. We also know that to perform well in a given sport your body needs to be able to function in a specific way and have a "certain" physiology relevant to the sports demands. Take an elite endurance road cyclist as an example, they tend to have high proportions of slow twitch muscle fibres, a high VO2max allowing them to ride for hours on end. In comparison track cyclists have high proportions of fast twitch muscle fibres, allowing them to produce large amounts of power over a short period of time.
The size and contractility of our hearts limit VO2max and from numerous training studies, it has been shown that VO2max rarely increases more than 30% from a sedentary or inactive lifestyle. So how does genetics affect our VO2max? Current thinking from twin and inheritance studies estimate 40-60% of our VO2max, endurance, adaptation to training and detraining is genetically determined. That then leaves a fair scope for environmental and behavioral (adherence to training) influences to determine if you are normal or have special aptitude!
Muscle fibres, and endurance performance, but what about anaerobic performance? If two track cyclists get married and have a child, what is the likelihood of their offspring being sprinters? Unfortunately little is known to be able to answer this question.
Behavioral or Psychological Influences and Inheritance
Psychological factors associated with adherence to training, your environment when you are young, your work ethic, and mental capacity or ability to tolerate pain, all combine to influence adaptation to training and consequent stress placed on the body. Whether this is inherited is unknown, and the circumstances in which you grow up cannot be discounted. Your body is an adaptable organism that will continue to adapt until it starts to break down. Behavioral factors are somewhat immeasurable, but clearly make a significant difference in our attitude to training and in that final lunge for the line. Lance Armstrong is a perfect example of this.
"Though physiology may indicate respiratory and cardiovascular limits to muscular effort, psychological and other factors beyond the ken of physiology set the razor’s edge of defeat or victory and determine how closely the athlete approaches the absolute limits of performance. It is the brain not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ, it is the brain."
Dr (Sir) Roger Bannister
So What Does All This Mean?
You can blame your parents to a certain extent (I do) but you are the driver of your own development. Concentrate on what you are good at. If you find you tend to be suited to road cycling, and never feature on the track podium, then focus your energy on the road and vice versa. Cycling is a fantastically varied sport in this respect, so in effect everyone can find one discipline out of the many that promotes their strengths. Also, remember your motivation and drive will influence your adaptation to training, and your scope for improvement. Training, training, training; it influences your ability to maximize your genetic potential, which reminds me its time to throw on the lycra and head out the door…
Growth, Maturation, and Physical Activity. R.A. Malina & C Bouchard. 1991. Human kinetics champaign Illinois
Endurance in Sport (1992). R.J Sheppard, and PO Astrand. The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine. Blackwell scientific publications, Oxford.
G. George, Yu, B., Hambly, B. Boston, T., Celermajer, D.S., Trent, R.J. Elite endurance athletes and the ACE I allele - the role of genes in athletic performance. Human Genetics 1998 103: 48-50.
Rupert, J.L. (2003). The search for genotypes that underlie human performance phenotypes. Comparative biochemistry and physiology 136, 191-203.
Klissouras, V., (2001). The nature and nuture of human performance. European journal of sports science 1(2), June.
Perusse, L., Gagnon, J., Province, M.A., Rao, D.C., Wilmore, J.H., Leon, A., Bouchard, C., Skinner, J.S. (2001). Familial aggregation of submaximal aerobic performance in the HERITAGE family study. Med Sci Sport Ex, 33(4), 597-604.