Should DNA Determine Your Training Plan?

Tips for customizing your fitness routine from an elite athlete

As a senior on the perennially successful Evanston (IL) Township High School track team, middle-distance runner David Epstein put in 85 miles a week and got slower all the time.

“I always thought I was more of a fast-twitch guy, because I always had a good vertical jump and I responded to weight training really quickly,” said Epstein, author of The Sports Gene.  “So doing lots of mileage made me worse at every distance. The coach who ramped up my mileage in high school said, ‘You know what? When you get to college, tell them to train you more like a sprinter.’”

So as a walk-on at Columbia University, from which he graduated in 2002, Epstein did less mileage and more intense interval training, with longer periods of rest. His cross-country and track times came down: from 2:04 for 800 meters at the end of his freshman year to a personal best of 1:51.

If Epstein hadn’t changed up his training before he started doing research for The Sports Gene, he likely would have done so when he finished.  Until recently a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and now an investigative reporter for ProPublica, the Brooklyn resident said in a recent telephone interview that one of the biggest practical applications of what he learned while doing research for the book is that, because every person responds differently to training, you should never let yourself get into a rut.

Few athletes, especially at the recreational level, are ever going to undergo extensive genetic testing, so Epstein cited the need for experimentation despite the tendency of distance runners to be creatures of habit.

“There is a personally optimal training plan out there,” he said. “You’re probably not going to find the exact perfect training plan or environment for your genome, but you should at least be looking.”

As the ING New York City Marathon on November 3 rapidly approaches, Epstein offers some insights on training, for everyone from serious runners to people struggling to make strides toward fitness.

  • Take a period of time to embark on proactive trial and error, especially if you’re training with someone who is improving faster than you are.
  • Everyone’s dopamine system is different: Some of us simply have more drive to be physically active than others do. But even if you have what one scientist calls the “couch potato” gene, it’s no excuse. “It may be innately more difficult for you than the next person, but that just means you have to work harder at shaping your environment, whether that’s joining a training group or whatever,” said Epstein.
  • All other things being equal, between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. is the best time for working out, according to a University of Kentucky study, because your body is prepared for action and your body temperature is high. Although men’s testosterone levels are highest in the morning, which can be a benefit, you’re going to require a much longer warm-up to get the same level of readiness that you’ll have later in the day.
  • You can’t do the same thing all the time and expect to improve. If you’re running six miles on a treadmill a couple of times a week, exchange one of those runs for a workout in which you warm up and then do some 30-second sprints. Shock your system, because that’s what causes physiological adaptation. “I’ve decided to swap out one distance run a week for something totally different, whether it’s circuit training in the weight room or uphill sprint intervals.  I probably spend less total time working out, but I’m more fit than I’ve been,” said Epstein.
  • If you need more time to recover between intervals than is prescribed, or than the person next to you seems to need, take it. It’s clear that people’s pulses don’t drop at the same rate after a hard effort, Epstein said. “Everything I’ve seen suggests … that the quality of the interval is much more important than sticking stringently to the time of the rest.”
  • Don’t be afraid to put your feet up. A visit to Iten, Kenya, was a revelation: When the runners training there take time off, said Epstein, they take time OFF. They’ll go a month without running a step. “A lot of runners get scared to do that, [afraid] they’ll lose so much fitness. And you will, but you’ll get it back. The Kenyans seem to have no fear about getting out of shape and getting back into shape. And I think that can help people stay mentally fresh, too.”

To visit the book’s website, click here.

This story first appeared on the New York Road Runners website.

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