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Decoding Your Potential: DNA and Sports Performance

Decoding Your Potential: DNA and Sports Performance

Reading Time: 5 minutes 33 seconds


DATE: 2020-01-22

Most athletes are willing to do whatever it takes to figure out their full potential and how they can be better at their sport. An easy way to help your clients get a head start is with DNA testing.

How much can a DNA cheek swab really tell a person? More than just ancestry, that's for sure. Read on to learn how you can help clients assess their DNA and use that information to maximize their potential.

The Relationship Between Genetics and Athletic Performance

When it comes to genes, they aren't going to tell the future, such as if your client will be an elite athlete or not. They can, however, indicate genetic potential. For example, an elite sprinter may have the genes to potentially break world records.

Though, without the proper diet, lifestyle, environmental factors, training, and recovery, they will never come close to hitting their goals.

A person's genetics are responsible for about 40% of what they do and the other 60% is based on their diet, lifestyle, environmental factors, and training. That can be a game-changer knowing exactly how to use a person's DNA to help them reach their goals.

A genetic test for sports performance will tell a person how to use their DNA to their advantage to hit their goals. When looking at DNA testing results for a person with athletic goals, it's going to include the following areas:

  • Macronutrient utilization

  • Mental and physical base

  • Recovery and injury risk

Macronutrient Utilization

Nutrition for athletic performance is a big part of an athlete's success. If they don't have the proper fuel for their body to perform, they may not be able to. Or, they will find a way, yet they start to compensate and end up getting injured.

Depending on their sport, body composition may play a bigger role for some than others. If you look at bodybuilders, for example, body composition is very important. For them to excel, it comes down to understanding the precise details of what their body needs to perform optimally.

The four key areas include the following:

  • Proteins

  • Fats

  • Carbohydrates

  • Caffeine Metabolism


For individuals with sports performance goals, protein intake is going to be an important topic. Many people think the more protein the better, but DNA tells us how important a high protein diet is to an individual.

Athletes tend to need more protein than the average person. It is vital for muscle growth and repair after training and competing. What our DNA tells us is exactly how much they need.

  • "Normal" genotype: a high protein diet isn't going to necessarily be beneficial; the body stores unused protein as body fat

  • "Enhanced" genotype: benefits from a high protein diet because their body uses protein more effectively


Fats are important in the diet for all athletes and especially so for endurance athletes. Endurance athletes rely on fat oxidation for performance. Fats are essential for the body to function optimally.

Understanding a client's DNA can help a trainer understand how much fat a person needs in their diet.

  • "Normal" genotype: required a normal level of fat in the diet

  • "Low" genotype: requires a low level of fat in the diet

This is important to take into consideration because overall, athletes require more fat in their diet than sedentary people to fuel activity. Also, too low of a fat diet can cause a hormone imbalance that in turn will negatively impact sports performance and recovery.


For athletes, carbohydrates can be extremely important for their performance. They utilize glycogen to fuel activity, especially high-intensity activity.

They can fall either into the normal genotype or the enhanced genotype. That will determine what percentage ranges of carbohydrates in their diets. Also, those with an enhanced genotype will need most of their carbohydrates coming from complex carbs rather than simple carbs.

Caffeine Metabolism

Caffeine is often a staple in an athlete's diet. However, what many don't realize is based on their DNA, it may not be beneficial to their performance.

People can fall either into a slow or fast genotype for caffeine metabolism. Simply showing the rate at which their body processes it.

If they have a fast metabolism which is most people, they will see a positive impact on their performance by taking it as a pre-workout.

Those who have a slow metabolism for caffeine may see negative effects on their performance if they take in too much prior to working out. These individuals generally should stay under 100mg of caffeine and should avoid any caffeine later in the day.

Mental and Physical Base

A person's DNA can even show things that may notice physically. These include:

  • Intrinsic motivation to exercise

  • Power and endurance potential

Intrinsic Motivation to Exercise

While it's often assumed athletes are always motivated to exercise, that's not always the case. DNA can tell a lot about what motivates a person to exercise.

There are those with a more likely genotype for intrinsic motivation to exercise. This simply means they enjoy the process of training and improving. They can continue to work hard without a specific event they are training for.

To the trainer, this means a client is more self-sufficient. If you give them stuff to work on outside of their training sessions, they will likely do it.

The other type is those who have a less likely genotype for intrinsic motivation to exercise. These individuals need something more to help them stay motivated. They may need an event or more tangible goals to keep training. They also benefit from training partners for accountability.

Understanding the two types of motivation is vital to the personal trainer in how to approach each athlete to keep them continuing toward their goals.

Power and Endurance Potential

Different sports have different needs when it comes to an athlete needing either more power or more endurance. DNA testing tells us a lot about an athlete's potential for those areas.

Remember that DNA accounts for 40% of genetic potential then the other 60% is dependent on lifestyle, environmental factors, training, diet, etc.? So, while an athlete may have the DNA for more power potential it does not mean endurance training is useless, and vice versa.

There are three categories a person can fall into:

  • Higher power

  • Equal power and endurance

  • Higher endurance

Those with a higher endurance genotype typically have a higher makeup of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Making them more apt to go towards sports like cycling, running, and swimming.

Those with a higher power genotype typically have a higher makeup of more fast-twitch muscle fibers. Making them more apt to excel at sports like sprinting, baseball, football, tennis, golf, and competitive lifting.

Then there are those with a 50/50 split and they make up most of the population. They typically have an equal distribution of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers.

As a personal trainer, this is important to understand. Your client's goals may not match up with their muscle fiber types and that is where the training becomes so important. Just because they are more apt to have one type of muscle fiber type doesn't mean that through training, they can't change how they perform.

Inflammation and Recovery

It's important to remember recovery is just as important as both training and nutrition. For the athlete, DNA can show their risk for systemic inflammation, which is the type of inflammation that cannot be seen in the body. It can hinder athletic performance, but with proper programming of recovery, athletes can reduce it. This is another area for which DNA can provide insight.

An athlete may fall into one of three categories of systemic inflammation:

  • Normal

  • Above average

  • Well above average

All athletes can benefit from following a balanced diet and including recovery practices between training sessions. However, those with the above average or well above average genotypes need to prioritize those things to stay healthy and injury-free.

If you are interested in learning more about how to understand a client's DNA results and apply that to sports performance, check out ISSA's DNA-Based Fitness Coach course. Step up your training to improve how you help clients meet their goals!

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