I’m a natural sprinter: what a DNA fitness test can teach you
Genetic testing is an increasingly popular way to work out how to get fitter
Andrew Steele competing at Beijing 2008
Starting a new exercise programme can feel like taking a shot in the dark. Will the right workout give you abs like Poldark star Aidan Turner? If you hire a personal trainer, lift weights and do hot yoga every week, as Caroline Flack reportedly does, will you too have a body like Love Island presenters? It’s impossible to know for sure.
That’s why some people are now turning to science, in the form of genetic testing, in search of greater insight into how their DNA affects their response to exercise and nutrition. The process is simple. Take a swab from a cheek or gather your spit and send it off. Tests cost anything from about €100 to €300 and the results can be had within weeks.
Our genes are responsible for obvious differences, such as eye colour, but also for a raft of others such as how we metabolise nutrients, deal with toxins or react to different types of exercise. This then should mean that you can tailor your diet and exercise routine to make the best of yourself.
“The problem is that most exercise programmes are designed for the average person, but what if you are not average,” says Andrew Steele, who is head of product at DNAfit, a British company offering the service. For Steele, the knowledge he gained from his test came too late to get him on to Team GB at the 2012 Olympics.
Steele did well in the 400m relay in 2008 in Beijing – eventually winning bronze after Russian disqualification. In the years that followed he attempted to shave a few seconds off his time by switching training methods from predominantly endurance to more sprinting. “I followed what all the successful sprinters did, but that left me with more injuries of the Achilles tendon and glandular fever.” Only after missing out did he learn that he is unlike the average sprinter. “Most sprinters are power athletes. My test indicated that I didn’t have that gene. The average advice was not as effective for me as for others and lead to overtraining and injury. I learned that the hard way,” says Steele.
I could have been a 100-metre sprinter . . . when I was younger
DNAfit isn’t just targeting athletes, however. Another of its clients is Fiona McNamara, a quantity surveyor in Ballylongford, Co Kerry. McNamara had been exercising and going to weight-loss classes, but found the weight crept back on when she slacked off.
“I’m in my mid-40s with a three-year-old and I want to be as fit and healthy as possible, in order to stay alive as long as I can for him,” she says. “It’s hard keeping up with a very fast toddler when you’re carrying extra weight and have poor fitness. ”
Unlike Steele, McNamara learned that she has a far higher power than endurance profile. “I could have been a 100-metre sprinter . . . when I was younger,” she says. With the help of a personal trainer, she changed her routine.
“We agreed that focusing on the endurance side of my profile would work well with what I was already doing. The sessions have been once a week for 12 weeks and we have done more cardio workouts, introducing threshold training and tempo intervals. Each week I could see that I was able to work harder for longer. ”
Her VO2 max score, which measures oxygen use during intense exercise, has improved 9 per cent, going from poor to average. “I’m pretty sure it’s actually improved more than that but I had a cold on the day of the last test which I know affected my ability to keep running at speed.
“I feel much stronger and more able to keep exercising harder for longer, whilst I’ve not lost a huge amount of weight – think we can blame the wine for that – I’ve definitely lost body fat and toned up, and am into a smaller size in clothes which is fab.”
McNamara is glad she did the test. “My goal is to be as healthy as I can be, everything I’ve learned is of use in achieving that. My midlife crisis continues apace; I bought myself a bike for my 46th birthday. On my first spin out I cycled more than 10km with no ill effect at all and I’ve signed up for the 27km version of Killarney Quest Adventure race in October!”
In contrast, Irish Times journalist Carl O’Brien, who did the test supplied by Genetic Performance, an Irish company, in 2014, says it has not made a great difference to his training routine.
“To be honest, it didn’t really impact much on my training. The Genetic Performance test feedback is fairly broad and – at least in my case – it tends to confirm what you already know about yourself. It’s probably of greater value in helping to direct you into the kind of sports that your body type is best suited to,” says O’Brien.
“For example, it confirmed that I’m less suited to sports where a short, sharp burst of speed is needed. In my case, it basically showed that, sadly, I am Mr Average so I’m not likely to win any Olympic medals anytime soon. So, at least I know not to get my hopes up of breaking any world records in running, cycle or swimming.”
Not all scientists believe in the value of these tests
Genetic Performance’s Anthony Dalton says it has supplied about 1,000 kits to customers in Ireland since it opened for business in 2013. In the meantime, the number of companies offering the service has grown rapidly.
Not all scientists believe in the value of these tests, however. In 2015, a consensus statement was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine saying that such tests “have no role to play in talent identification or the individualised prescription of training to maximise performance”. It was signed by 24 experts in genomics and sports performance.
Last year Rebecca Robbins, a reporter with Statnews.com, an online publication linked to the Boston Globe that focuses on health, medicine and scientific discoveries, used herself as a guinea pig to conduct tests from five companies. She got very different results, some of which directly contradicted others.
Steele says it is worth remembering that environmental factors play a more important role than genetics. DNAfit says recommended fitness or nutrition regimes must not be built solely on genetic results. “The biggest challenge for us is that people want genetics to be more than it is,” says Steele. “It is just one part of the puzzle. ”