In sports, I have always characterised myself as a grinder, someone with limited skills and almost no natural talent. Unlike genetically gifted athletes, I’m the one who shoulders through, mile after mile, set after set, lap after lap, calling not upon my talents but on grim determination. In a poignant moment, my husband—after watching me playing a long, undistinguished tennis match—remarked, “Wow. You try so hard.”
And it turns out, this is genetic. Our biology is, to some degree, our destiny, as Sigmund Freud famously remarked. Genes in our cells tell us whether we are born to sprint to the finish or grind through. With the exception of identical twins, every person has a unique blueprint, inherited from our parents, made up of about 25,000 genes gathered on 23 chromosomal pairs found in every cell in our bodies. And those cells dictate whether or not you process fat and carbs well, or have the ability to build fast-twitch muscle, and how you can best train your body. While we cannot change our DNA, we can change our diet and exercise habits to make the most of our genetic makeup. DNAFit, a sports-focused lab in the UK, offers a test that reveals genetic information about your physiology, as well as training and dietary plans for optimal body conditioning and athletic performance.
All I had to do was swab my mouth and send off my saliva, along with USD399. Two weeks later, DNAFit e-mailed me a full report. From a dietary perspective, it confirmed what I already knew. I’m not great at processing carbohydrates, I’m lactose intolerant, and I’m extremely sensitive to caffeine. Other things were more surprising. I’m not good at absorbing vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3s. I’m good at processing alcohol, which in moderation can have a positive effect on HDL cholesterol. Great. One thing I’m good at—booze!
None of that was too revealing. But my fitness profile was surprising, even to Craig Pickering, a former Olympian who oversees the sports science team at DNAFit. My aerobic potential, or VO2 max, is perilously low. Which means, genetically speaking, that I am someone who should have a hard time just walking up a flight of stairs. However, because I have trained for decades to reverse that part of my genetic destiny, my actual V02 max, tested at a sports lab last year, is actually very high for a woman my age.
“You’ve probably done a lot of conditioning work to get to that point,” Pickering said. Which is true: I swim, run, or hike every day. The test also revealed that my muscles work best and will build more strength when engaged in eccentric movement—essentially, when the muscle is lengthening under load. If you’re doing a bicep curl, the action of lowering the weight slowly fom the top of the curl is the eccentric part of the exercise. Eccentric training helps protect ligaments and tendons from injury, to which I am prone.
And apparently my recovery rate is slow, meaning that I need rest between workouts. Pickering suggested that I take 72 hours off between major workouts, which seemed like heresy to me. I use daily exercise as a way to stay trim but also as a form of meditation. I would never take so much time off. Not a good idea, he advised: “If you’re not naturally good at recovery, you increase inflammation, which just leads to more risk for injury.”
The only way to test Pickering’s prescription was to go full guinea pig. I decided to take his advice—and upend it for one month. I exercised every day to exhaustion. I pumped up my muscles with vigorous concentric and isometric exercises, like wall squats. I skipped my vitamins. I drank two cups of coffee one day and my blood pressure jumped to 150/90—medically hypertension. My stomach swelled, and I gained five pounds, none of it muscle.
The next month I followed Pickering’s advice. I ate a lot of cruciferous vegetables and salmon, and I exercised using his programme—eccentric movements, with more rest between workouts. I avoided coffee. The result: I ran my miles at a pace a full minute faster than before. My blood pressure dropped. My stomach flattened.
While it’s important to consider that our DNA is a kind of instruction manual for the body, it’s also important to know that our genes need instructions for what to do. Even if that means fewer wall squats, more naps, and a small martini every night. And respecting some basic facts about my genes. In my case, as Pickering said, “adjusting for age, sex, and a number of other factors, you’re never going to be Usain Bolt. You’re just going to have to live with that.”