Genetic Limitations

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09/01/2007 at 11:48
No answers, but this blog has an interesting comment on the effect of optimal practice:
09/01/2007 at 14:06
Good link MikeFrog .For me it's not such a difficult concept to grasp. Does anyone, anywhere know of a runner who achieved a time of sub 2hrs 30min without any training because they were a natural?
09/01/2007 at 15:12
Well, if there is, I think he would be pretty gutted to find out that he would only improve by 25 minutes if he trained like a pro...! ;-)
09/01/2007 at 16:00
Well said SusieBee!!!!!!
09/01/2007 at 17:14
Hope I'm not jumping in here but I have read this thread with interest, some good points raised/questions asked.

It does strike me though that there is a fine line between adaption and evolution. As a hugly expensive/unethical/never-going-to-happen experiment a way to look at this may be to take a sample of non-runners who have no history of running in family. Train them up as hard as possilble over a numbr of years, recording all their progress - This would be the adaption data. Then, and this is the really unethical bit, couple them off and train up their kids following exactly the same regimes.... (!) If you repeated this process a few times you would be able to look at genetic ability/adaption too.

Nuts I know.

But seriously, there has to be a limit on the ability to reach a certain performace level by a certain individual, otherwise "Olympic Athlete" would be a viable career choice for everybody - imagine the careers advisor at school saying, "Well, as long as you put the hours in to train then you can be one."

But defining what these limits/reasons/factors are is an almost imposible task IMO. Hence the silly "experiment" example above.

I don't agree however, that the african nations are genetically more adapted to distance running, I think that it is the case as has already been raised that they are conditioned this way from an earlier age, and in a lot of ways have more drive to achieve the desired results (at the risk of stereotyping) escape from povery and lack of oportunitys. And the role-model issue as raised above. Yes they are good, no argument there but there are enough non-africans at the top to prove that it isn't all about genetics, (Radcdcliff, Motram, Jelena Prokopcuka etc al).


Talking of unethical experiments - did anyone see the documentary on that poor Indian kid who was being made to run crazy mileages each week by his "coach"? Apparantly he has "a natural ability" according to his "coach".
09/01/2007 at 17:28
When you see the likes of Ovett, his talent was god given. Coe was selfmade... this is where I think there's a difference... we could probably all be wayyyy better than we are without a doubt, but there is DEFFO a natural aptitude to certain distances of running or running full stop between people. When you look at the greats, Carl lewis, I'm sorry but he's one of the most "naturally gifted" athlete of modern times... so was Michael Johnson... so was Ovett...

Others are "manufatured" is you get my meaning, not as gifted but with hard work in the right areas can manage to get to the top.

However I think we're reachign a point now, where genetics and natural ability are a must in Athletics... and if you're not a natural, I'm afraid to break world records, forget it. The best would be Olympics/Worlds and a geart career, but worlds records are a different kettle of fish altogether.

how many times has the "non record holder" won the Olympics... loads of times, so many "upsets" etc etc, as ANYONE can win a race, that's why we watch it... however, only the "SELECT" will break world records now... and on that depressing bombshell I'll shut up lol

09/01/2007 at 17:34
FINgers, bit of an obvious flaw in your experiment there:
If you take a group of people with no history of running and train them up, then their genetic make-up would still be exactly the same after this training.
So what would make their children have more/less 'genetic ability' as your first group?

The children would obviously have different role-models and life-styles if the parents were training during their childhood.
09/01/2007 at 17:39

Yes there are a more flaws than the obvious I suspect... I shall have to refine before putting forward as PhD proposal [wiggles fingers in Mad Scientist fashon]

I take your point but the role of the experiment is actually to see what is trainable from a non training base. And then almost test Darwinian therory and see if there is any genetic adaption ie evolution..........

09/01/2007 at 17:40
Not entirely sure I agree that Kenyans excell because of the environment and that they start young. I live in a very multi ethnic country with African, Indian, Chinese, Arab, and European populations (ps the food is all GREAT). The people of African origin (5-8 generations in this country) win 80%+ of the distance races and yet constitute only 30-35% of the population. Does this prove the genetic link? I see all races at races (no pun intended), but the black africans have the greatest successes.
09/01/2007 at 17:44
I took FINgers to mean pairing off the people who had "adapted" better (i.e. had improved more due to their inate genetic pre-disposition).
Bit like breeding race horses.
Speaking of which, didn't race-horse performance reach a plateau a LONG time ago?
There's probably a lot more data available for race-horses - maybe it's applicable if anybody wants to look for it...?
09/01/2007 at 21:13
I recently read the "Training Secrets of the Kenyan Runners", (available on Amazon for anyone interested), in which the author stated that one key factor in their success was their relatively light bones, thin legs and ankles, meaning less weight to pick up. I would assume this would be equally valid for Ethiopians and the like.
Kryten    pirate
09/01/2007 at 21:49
OK I will try to make some predictions based on VO2 max, as this can be used to roughly predict times for endurance races.

This website says that your sedentary VO2 max value is primarily determined by genetics and it can be anywhere from a value of 20 to 50 with the average sedentary American being 35. Note this is your VO2 max before you do any training.

So take a ‘top elite’ marathon runner. This lucky git is born with a VO2 max of 50 and by the time he runs his fastest marathon he has a VO2 max of 80 (say, I’m making this up!) which would give him a predicted marathon time of 2 hours 8 mins. I got these numbers by using this. So optimum training has improved this guys VO2 max by 60%.

So if an average person starts with a VO2 max of 35 and trains exactly like the elite guy and assuming they get the same improvement of 60%, then they would end up with a VO2 max of 56. This predicts a marathon time of 2 hours 53 minutes.

So the best possible marathon time for someone of average natural talent is 2h 53?

And the poor person with zero natural talent and a sedentary VO2 max of 20 ends up with a best possible marathon time of 4h 35?

I must admit that I have made a lot of assumptions here! What do people think?
09/01/2007 at 22:13
I wouldn't believe those VO2max predictors

I have a vo2max of 68 with a LT threashold of 81% at 169 bpm & I am not even close to the times these thing predict
09/01/2007 at 22:13
(I'm much, much slower)
09/01/2007 at 22:40
I'll stand by my earlier estimates for YOUNG, HEALTHY, people doing all they can in terms of training - though they are still nothing more than opinion.

Humans are far more overwhelmingly more genetically similar than they are different. Discluding the real outlier (i.e. those you would not describe as normal and healthy), I think a 20% range is quite substantial. 10 to 12% seems to be the difference between top men and top women (gonna assume this is representative of the sexes in general). I wouldn't expect genetic differences within the sexes to be much greater than the genetic / genetic expression differences between the sexes.

09/01/2007 at 22:50
It doesn't help us much to look at 'the finished article' IMO. When you see someone like Carl Lewis looking so great, you are seeing the culmination of all factors - there is no way to decompose the performance to see how much is down to genetics.

Coe and Ovett are a good example. At a young age most observers would have said that Ovett was naturally gifted and Coe much less so. But they performed similarly (Coe slightly better by pbs).

This either means that Coes genetic talent isn't as important as we might think


it underlines how impossibly hard it is to identify genetic talent.

It seems to me that in the early 1980s we would have been as sure that whites (particularly the british gene pool) were as superbly suited to middle distance running, as we are now that east africans are to long distance running.

Duck Girl    pirate
09/01/2007 at 22:56
IIRC from GCSE Biology, the top Kenyan athletes mostly all come from the same tribe from a bit that's very high up, therefore evolutionarily high oxygen carrying capacity.
Some body shapes are faster than others at running (tall, long legs...) & i expect that there are differences in things like metabolism, which might for example make the average Chinese person faster than the average Indian person. Of course, for most people the overlap is so big & they are so far off potential that it makes no practical difference.
flyaway    pirate
10/01/2007 at 09:49
I think there must be some genetic or natural component to elite athletes. The Austrialia Institute of Sport screens school/ college kids for certain physical attributes before they take them anywhere near a coach. For example, the rowing team tested Haemaglobin (and other parameters) concentrations of all the appropriately aged kids and found one guy with amazingly high levels. He'd never rowed before in his life, but they took him on to teach him. Their rational was that they can teach you to row, and get you fit with training, but you need that extra, special something (that comes from genes) to excel.

Just another reason why Australia will continue to wipe the floor with the UK in so many events...
10/01/2007 at 11:11
Flyaway. It would be wrong to suggest that some people aren' graced with some natural talent. That goes without saying. The question initially relates to the limiting factor, who or what determines that.

Frank Dick (Former Coach of UK athletics) says in his book; (paraphrase) the most talented junior athletes were not the most successful because when it came to the graft, they gave up!

Food for thought ?

10/01/2007 at 11:47
"therefore evolutionarily high oxygen carrying capacity"

The word 'therefore' is not justified, it doesn't NECESSARILY follow.

"Some body shapes are faster than others at running (tall, long legs...)"

I do think certain extremes of body size and build will adversely affect running potential, but exactly what body type is best is far from clear.

Was the "tall, long legs" phrase written when kenyans were winning everything? (Tergat and Ngugi spring to mind in particular) What about now where many top runners tend to be quite short (e.g. Geb, Bekele - Bekele is even quite chunky compared to many).

There has just been too much diversity in the top runners over the years to really confidently say one body type is best for running (short, tall, slender, more powerful).

just remember it was "IIRC from GCSE Biology." Its going to be rather simplified at GCSE level.

I don't think the case for that is very clear at all. Top men's distance runners have tended to be short in recent years.
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