Genetic potential? Excuses matter more.

“Uh oh, you’re not going to like that,” my wife said. We were in a bookstore, and I had picked up a copy of The Sports Gene.

I often sneer at discussions about genetics in sport. It’s not that I disbelieve that genes set our limits. They do in an absolute sense. What I despise are feigned tests of potential, and using the idea of genetics as an excuse.

If we can prove that something is impossible, then we’re freed from the obligation and effort to try. And if we’re afraid of failure, then we’ll look for evidence of the impossible. Easy answers will spring to mind. Superficial tests will be tempting.

Dipping a toe in the pool doesn’t tell us if we can swim. One summer of cycling doesn’t predict a ride in the Tour de France. Trying something “off the couch” only says someone doesn’t care that much about the result (which is fine). Or they’re too afraid to prepare and perform (which is not).

A sketched graph of time versus increasing ability

Because genes provide a hard and fast limit, they do define what is (and isn’t) possible. But that limit is only realized after years of smart, supervised training. Too often, the lower limit of our genetic range is an excuse. But it’s the upper limit that should inspire as an ideal.

In reality, it’s the ratio of work to excuses that determines how much of our genetic range we can realize.

How to realize genetic potential

We can’t control what we’re born with, but we can control what we do with it. The factors within our control determine how much of our genetic range we can express. So don’t worry about the extremes of the range. Worry about what restrictions are put on its expression.

A sketch of two athletes: genetic potential and excuses vs. no potential and no excuses

Here are six keys to exploring genetic potential:

  1. Don’t exercise. Train. Exercise is irregular, unstructured, and goalless.1 Training is continuous, strategic, and planned.

    Training is not the same as exercising; training requires discipline, attention, and consistency.
    ~ Training for the New Alpinism, p.183

  2. Use proven methods, not gratifying fads. If a training tool is exciting in the short-term, uncertain in the long-term, and promoted as a “secret”, then it’s a fad. If the tool sounds simple and has a long history in mature sports, then it’s likely a proven method.

  3. Value training as much as a job. Structure and proven methods won’t get far without the work. To do it, refuse most life demands that others accept without hesitation. Think of training as a job, and there’s a much better chance of getting the work done.

    Sorry, I can’t tonight. I have to work train tomorrow.

  4. Be consistent, patient, and flexible. The guiding principles of training are continuity, gradualness, and modulation.2 A modest, humble routine will always trump random, aggressive exercise. Consistent steps in the right direction will triumph over chaotic fits and starts.

  5. Think (and act) long-term. Success in six weeks? They’re selling something. It takes ten years to get an MD or a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Why would physical transformation take any less?

Genetics is a dial, not a switch.

Eliud Kipchoge was born with brown eyes and world-record marathon ability. Growing up in Kenya, he ran two miles to and from school, every day, for years. He met his coach when he was 16. Then it took almost 20 years of focused training before he broke the marathon world record.

A side-by-side illustration of genetics as a dial vs. a switch

Like the rest of us, he got eye color for free. Also like the rest of us, it took decades of hard work to realize his genetic potential in his sport.

Genes are the most concrete limiter in our performance. And the least important factor in discovering what that limit is.

We can’t overcome our genetics, but we can overcome our excuses. And genetics is the first excuse to overcome.

  1. Being healthy or attractive are not athletic goals, although both are often gratifying byproducts of them. 
  2. Training for the New Alpinism, Steve House & Scott Johnston, p.47