Do Genes Play a Role in Making You Win a Marathon?
How much do genes matter in athletics?
How much do genes matter in athletics?(Photo: AP/Altered by FIT)

Do Genes Play a Role in Making You Win a Marathon?

Runner Brigid Kosgei smashes the women's world record at the Chicago Marathon.

Eliud Kipchoge becomes the first person to finish a marathon in less than two hours.

Daniel Kinyua Wanjiru wins both the 2016 Amsterdam Marathon and the 2017 London Marathon.

All brilliant performances.

But what’s the most striking (or the most hyped) commonality among Kosgei, Kipchoge and Wanjiru? They are all from Kenya.

It’s not very surprising then, that researchers have spent years reading this ‘phenomenon’. Why do Kenyans — or African athletes in general — tend to win marathons? Is it really a coincidence? Or is it because of their athletically ‘superior’ genes?

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Genetic Advantages — Are They for Real?

The ethnicity, environment, habitat, and years of evolution — all play a role in making people from across the world differ in their genetic makeup. As a result, some have more favourable genes than others. There are facts to supplement this.

Almost three-fourths of the Kenyan champions come from an ethnic minority, the Kalenjin tribe, which is less than 1 percent of the global population.

One of the initial studies to look into this pattern was a Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre initiative that compared post-pubescent Kenyan schoolboys from their Caucasian counterparts. The young Kenyans outperformed the Swedish runners. These findings were astonishing also because African countries had not yet displayed their brilliance in tournaments. Many possible explanations were cited for this:

  • A lower energy cost of running in Kenyan elite runners and untrained adolescent Kenyan boys compared to their counterparts.
  • This cannot be attributed to muscle fibre, because that was the same in all groups.
  • A difference existed in BMI, body shapes, and the long and slender legs of Kenyans, which could be advantageous when running.

Another research by Danish Sports Science Institute from 2000 tweaked the earlier study and trained a few Kalenjin boys for three months. They were then compared with a famed Danish runner Thomas Nolan.

Nolan was defeated.

The researchers here observed a higher number of red blood cells among the boys, perhaps due to their elevated living habitat. This, along with their ‘bird-like legs’ could have explained their genetic advantage.

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So Is It All in the Genes?

“Genetics are not enough.”
“Genetics are not enough.”
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Now this is not that simple.

To credit an athletic achievement to one single factor, that too innate and not achieved, would be unfair and unreasonable, to say the least. While there is scientific evidence for certain genes to be favourable in sports and running, it never is just about that.

Dr Rajat Chauhan specializes in Sports-Exercise Medicine and Osteopathy/Musculo-Skeletal Medicine. Along with being a former Running Advisor for Adidas, he is also behind India’s first Running Festival, iRun Fest.

Dr Chauhan has been running for 35 years now.

In conversation with FIT, he acceded to the undeniable role that genetics play, but stressed on the importance of considering this as only one among multiple factors that combine together to determine a player’s success.

“Too much emphasis is given to genes. Genetics are not enough. Someone could be amazingly good, but if he/she isn’t polished and trained, winning would be difficult. In the end, it’s all of it that matters. Even fresh air and fresh water have a role to play.”
Dr Rajat Chauhan

In fact, he adds that genes can’t be bracketed. There could be inconsistencies. For instance, there could be differences between twins. Or there could be two people from the same village, with different success rates.

But what about elite athletes who are all equally trained? Even there, he explains that other factors like the environment, nutrition and mental strength matter as much, along with genes.

“All things beings equal, genes do matter. But what’s important is how those genes are expressed. That’s dependent on multiple other factors. Training, nutrition, recovery and psychology play a major role.”
Dr Rajat Chauhan

It’s too simplistic to believe that one factor could ensure a player’s victory. And takes away credit from their hard earned achievements. There is evidence of genetic advantages, but those alone would never be enough.

So if you feel like running a marathon, let nothing stop you!

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