Why genetic testing is important for athletes?

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Genetic tests are crucial as they can predict an athlete’s traits by determining specific and scientifically identified genes that may impact athletic performance, nutrition, risk of injury, or other behaviours. The weight, or value, of each gene, is assessed for importance, as some genes have a larger contribution to athletic performance than others. Some of the most common physiological traits that are related to sports performance and can be predicted by genetic testing include; muscular endurance, muscular power, strength training, risk of injury, and metabolism. By understanding more about an athlete’s genome, we can potentially improve training results by tailoring training plans that can target an athlete’s area of genetic weakness/sensitivities. The same can be done with tailoring nutrition interventions.

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If an athlete’s genome reveals certain metabolic sensitivities or physiological traits, sports dietitians can adapt their nutrition plans to meet their specific needs, necessary for achieving desired training and performance outcomes. For example, if an athlete requires improvement in muscular endurance and thus relies on the body’s ability to supply oxygen to the muscles via red blood cells, it would be beneficial to have supporting information as to how that athlete may produce red blood cells since we know that essential vitamins (folate, Vitamin B12) and minerals (iron) are needed for red blood cell production and growth.

Many digestive and metabolic functions rely on the body’s pool of certain enzymes. Genetic tests can help identify if they have the correct and enough of these enzymes required for metabolizing vitamins or minerals. This is particularly important when trying to optimize an athletes training adaptation, as we know that having certain sufficient nutrients supports many training interventions.

Here are two examples that demonstrate the advantages to knowing an athlete’s genome in order to tailor their nutrition plan are:

  1. Athletes who rely on power for their sport have a higher concentration of fast twitch muscle fibre types that are dictated by an athlete’s genetics. This can infer that they may require an increased need for dietary protein for proper recovery. Coaches and athletes that are at risk for soft tissue injuries may want to incorporate gelatin and Vitamin C into the athlete’s diet to help with soft tissue repair.
  2. Genetic testing can also assist in designing more personalized weight or body composition management nutrition approaches by identifying if they may be more susceptible to weight gain, or loss, due to their genetic ability to metabolize different types of nutrients such as fat.

The best studied genes related with athletic performance are ACTN3 and ACE. These genes influence the fibre type that makes up muscles, and they have been linked to endurance and strength. The ACTN3 gene delivers instructions for making a protein called alpha (α)-actinin-3, which is primarily found in fast-twitch muscle fibres. A variant in this gene, called R577XX, leads to production of an abnormally short α-actinin-3 protein that is rapidly broken down. Few people have this variant in both copies of the gene; this genetic pattern (genotype) is referred to as 577XX. These individuals have a wide-ranging absence of α-actinin-3, which seems to reduce the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibres and rise the proportion of slow-twitch fibres in the body. The 577XX genotype is linked with a high proportion of fast-twitch fibres and is seen more frequently in athletes who depend on strength or speed, such as short-distance runners.

 The ACE gene delivers instructions for creating a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme, which transforms a hormone called angiotensin I to another form called angiotensin II. Angiotensin II aids in controlling blood pressure and it may also influence skeletal muscle function, although this role is not fully understood. A variation in the ACE gene, called the ACE I/D polymorphism, changes the activity of the gene. Individuals can have two copies of a version is called the D allele, which is known as the DD pattern, furthermore, two copies of a version are called the I allele, known as the II pattern or one copy of each version which is called the ID pattern. Of all these three patterns, DD is associated with the highest levels of angiotensin-converting enzyme. The DD pattern is thought to be related to a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres and a greater speed.

Predictive genetic tests are advised to be used only to identify an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses for the purpose to aid them to improve training adaptations and to attain peak performance. Genetic testing is not intended to be used as a means of talent identification, or to have any athlete distinguished against due to their genome. To date, research supports that some genetic combinations are crucial for sports performance, but it must be kept in mind that not all of the potential genes have been discovered, and furthermore, future polymorphisms, or mutations, may have larger contributions to sports performance. Finally, genetics is only one piece of the puzzle. There are many other elements that are involved with developing an athletes’ potential which include, but not limited to anthropometrics, biochemical measurements, social, technical skill and environmental factors. Undoubtedly, there is still much more research in this innovative area of genetic testing for the purpose of tailoring athletes training programs for the improvement of recovery and performance.

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