Can Science Make You a Better Athlete?

Amy Roberts Writer and Fitness Professional
athlete training

From genetic to performance testing, technology provides insights into becoming faster, stronger, better.

From DNA testing to motion analysis and more, science can indeed shed light on what makes an athlete tick as well as provide ways to improve performance. Companies like AthGene can tell what athletic abilities are coded in a person’s DNA. Sports performance labs like NY Sports Science Lab can test physiological aspects using sensors powered by electromyography (EMG), which reveals body mechanics and potential flaws inhibiting an athlete’s power and efficiency.

A lot of what makes an elite athlete elite has been attributed to his or her specific genetics and kinetics (the science of movement), such as  Phelps’ pool-perfect body proportions and Bolt’s extra-long stride length. But that’s not to say that people without perfect genes can’t also achieve success on the world stage. For years, elite coaches have turned to scientists to learn ways to further hone a particular athlete’s game. Today that expertise is trickling down to the masses. Performance labs that cater to high school lettermen and weekend warriors seem to be popping up everywhere.

“If a pro athlete has access to all these services, why can’t the regular joes?” says Juan Delgado, sports scientist at NY Sports Science Lab, which works with athletes of all levels. “Everyone wants to keep enjoying playing the game. Everyone wants to be fit.”

runner illustration

The insights from the tests the lab performs can not only help coaches design training programs to improve skills, but also highlight “pre-habilitation” protocols to prevent injuries from occurring.  For mere mortals who love to compete but aren’t necessarily genetically or kinesthetically ideal for his or her sport of choice, this can be a game-changer.

What’s in the genes?

Mapping the human genome has allowed geneticists to dive deeper into how genes can indicate if not predict specific athletic capabilities. Denmark-based AthGene takes the analysis of inherent athleticism to a new level, selling a genetic test that promises to “unlock the power of your genes so you can reach your fitness and nutrition goals.”

A simple swab of the cheek can reveal some interesting answers. Analysis of one’s SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms), most easily defined as genetic variations, can point out certain genetic proclivities based on correlations made in research studies between the presence of the SNP and certain factors that influence athletic performance.

runner stretching

For example, someone with a gene that correlates to having a high VO2max—a measure of the highest level of oxygen consumption the body can use during exertion—should have a high aerobic capacity for endurance-type sports like running and cycling. If that same person has an SNP that correlates with a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers (the ones that fatigue more slowly), it’s another sign that she might excel at endurance sports. On the flip side, a genetic bend toward more fast-twitch muscle fibers might indicate success in power sports where explosiveness is essential, such as sprinting or Olympic weightlifting.

AthGene’s test also can reveal information on attributes such as muscle development potential (related to how strong and large one’s muscles may become with resistance training), and the likelihood of connective tissue or muscular injury. Being prone to connective tissue injuries indicates that particular care should be taken to protect the knee’s ligaments from strain, and a high risk of muscle injury suggests that a conservative quality-over-quantity training plan with lots of recovery time may be beneficial. The company also provides data on a slew of nutritional categories, which may inform how an athlete eats to maximize performance.

Athgene muscle result

The accuracy of these results isn’t perfect. As is the case with any science, as more data emerges, the more the interpretations will evolve. For this reason, AthGene provides a “Confidence Score” with each result. Scores tend to be either “B” (strong and significant evidence but not extensive enough to earn an A) or “C” (less evidence but potentially still valid), but the company does distribute a fair amount of “N’s” for new, meaning the studies supporting it are developing.

“Since we want to give our customers full disclosure about what the recent status of science is, we tend to be really critical when evaluating the existing science,” explains Philipp Schwörer, AthGene’s head of marketing. “That’s why we tend to be conservative towards giving the highest score, which would indicate that there won’t be any changes to this result.”

AthGene also promises to provide results in new categories as research supports it.

And even if one’s genetics didn’t support it, it’s doubtful many would suddenly give up the sport they enjoy. And that’s not AthGene’s intention, either.

“Your genetics will dictate how your body responds to training,” says Yusefa Sey, its CEO. “This information can help you to make better decisions on the type of workouts so you’re training smarter, and not harder.”

This is also where science-based performance testing is particularly valuable; it can show athletes how to improve, regardless of any genetic predispositions or lack thereof.

How does physiology factor in?

Because the genetics information can only provide so much insight, enlisting athletic assessment services, such as the ones NY Sports Science Lab offers, can help athletes better understand how their bodies move and their muscles react, and what changes could be made to their training to improve performance in their sport of choice.

For example, to analyze a runner, sports scientist Delgado may start by rigging the athlete’s extremities with EMG and three-dimensional IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) sensors to measure muscle activation and movement patterns, while a HexoSkin heart- and respiration-rate monitor-imbedded shirt measures aerobic response and recovery from exertion.

Other tests that are performed at the NY Sport Science Lab include:

  • Gait analysis: The athlete stands still on and walks across a Gaitscan plate to measure weight distribution and pressure and determine possible asymmetries from left to right.

NY Sport Science Lab - feet

  • Ground force reaction: The athlete jumps on a Contemplas Force Plate System to measure the pressure applied to the ground to create an impulse, which translates into explosiveness, and how evenly it’s generated from left and right sides.
  • Motor control, balance, and functional symmetry of large movement patterns: An athlete is asked to move each of her limbs in different directions in a single-leg squat (for arms) and while holding a single-arm plank (for legs) using a Y Balance testing apparatus.
  • Sensory-motor skills analysis: A number of tests are conducted on a Senaptec Sensory Station, a large touchscreen computer, to determine visual perception, eye-hand coordination, and reaction time.
  • Isokinetic muscular strength test: The athlete extends and flexes her knees against resistance on a Humac Norm Isokinetic Extremity machine to help gauge overall strength of quads and hamstrings as well as any strength-related imbalances.

NY Sports Science Lab chart

  • Body composition bio-analysis: The athlete stands on the foot plate while holding the handles of an InBody Bio Scan machine, which uses bioelectrical impedance —a low level electrical current—to gauge lean muscle vs. fat mass in each limb and overall and the body’s water content, and to determine basal metabolic rate (the number of calories the body burns just by existing).

The findings, of course, are equally as extensive, and require a team of experts — sports scientists, physical therapists, and athletic trainers — to make sense of them all. And that’s really the crux of having all of this done; scientific insights are pretty cool, but it’s what athletes do with the data that really matters.

For example, the tests may indicate that a runner has mobility inhibitions in the hips, which could affect the knees and ankles in the gait pattern and running mechanics, and even in generating appropriate ground forces needed to propel the body forward when running. To correct these issues, a regimen of pre-habilitation may be even more important to reduce risk of injury than introducing a training program to specifically address inadequacies affecting performance, at least initially. And ultimately, if the body can be re-trained to move optimally, performance gains will almost certainly follow.


Editor’s Note
In the past few years, writer Amy Roberts became a personal trainer and running coach. She is a “regionally competitive” runner, often placing and even winning her age group in races. As the kid who was always picked last in gym class, she’s been both surprised and intrigued by her late-blooming athleticism, and endlessly curious about how she might improve in a sport she had no idea she was good at. In order to research this story, she subjected her DNA and physiology for analysis to AthGene and NY Sports Science Lab, respectively. She learned that she has SNPs that indicate a proclivity for endurance sports, including a resistance to muscular fatigue and a likelihood of a high VO2max — the latter of which was proved retroactively by a formal treadmill test she did two years ago while working at a high-end gym. The NY Sports Science Lab performance tests identified a number of muscular imbalances and mobility limitations that could increase her risk of injury and, if corrected through training, could facilitate improvements in her race times. She also learned that, despite her newfound running talent and continuing education as a fitness professional, her hand-eye coordination is sub-par — which probably explains that picked-last-in-gym-class bit.

Share This Article

Related Topics

Health Sports

Read This Next

Read Full Story