This past week I read The Sports Gene by David Epstein. The book looks into the genetics of sports and seeks to determine why select people, or groups of people, excel at certain sports. Epstein delves into touchy topics of race and ethnicity from a scientific standpoint and gets down to the details of what really matters. For far too long the field has been neglected as people have always been afraid of it being seen as only a “race issue”. Lucky for us, the answers are slowly but surely arising. We all come into this world with different talents and traits and that’s okay. It should be celebrated, not tucked away. We have gifts to give and certain geographies of the world are better at different things.
If most of you reading this are like me, then you will be most interested in how this applies to running. The first topic that comes to mind is Kenyan runners and is addressed in the book. Epstein looks into a tribe in Kenya named the Kalenjin. They represent about 12% of Kenya’s population of 4.9 million people. Interestingly enough, more than 75% of Kenya’s best runners who go on to become some of the world’s best runners come from this tribe. Many studies have been done on the Kalenjin to investigate what makes them so great. One such study performed by the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre compared Kenyan Kalenjin boys to Danish boys living in Copenhagen. Most of the standard running metrics such as VO2 Max and proportion of slow twitch muscle fibers were found to be the same in both sets of boys. However, the Kenyan boys were on average 2 inches shorter in overall stature, but had legs that were 3/4in longer than the Danish boys. Not only were their legs longer, but also skinnier and possessing less mass. Less mass in the lower legs makes for a more efficient pendulum swing, therefore creating a more efficient runner since they need to expend less energy to swing their leg through.
I won’t give away all the findings of the Kenyans and the rest of the book, but rest assured Epstein does a fantastic job at looking into a variety of other topics and factors in a myriad of sports. This type of research made me wonder what “my people” and my body type are best suited for. Given my lack of funding, research laboratories, and travel budget; I resorted to Google to research what sports my ethnic background ancestors were best at. To do this, I simply googled olympic medal history for my countries of origin of Scotland, Ireland, and England. The findings: my ancestors were damn good at rowing and shorter distance cycling.
So how does this stack up against my own personal performances? As much as running is my top passion, my genetics are not best suited for it. I have a lot of mass in my thighs and calves which makes my legs a very heavy pendulum to swing through the running gait as compared to a Kenyan. I tend to have a lot of power on the bike, but do better in the shorter races where quick expenditures of power are beneficial. What I found most interesting, was the prowess in rowing. In my short 6 months of rowing I showed more success (physically, not technique) than in any other sport in my history. My legs allowed for great explosive power to pull the oar through the water and I had a tunable upper body to develop strength for the end of the stroke. Endurance for races of 2K to 6K was of no issue, the latter being my better event.
I think there is a lot to be said about this research and I do hope that the bounds of being “politically correct” start to come down. While I believe it had good intent at the start, I think it is actually starting to have a negative impact in the opposite direction with people not being allowed to say anything. The Sports Gene is a great step forward to analyze our genetics and to discover what activities best suit various types of people. For me, Epstein gives me a ray of hope when he refers to a “hard working gene” in a chapter about ultrarunners. Perhaps there is a chance for my running prowess yet:)
Always in Stride,
- How One Kenyan Tribe Produces The World’s Best Runners (npr.org)
- Finished The Sports Gene By David Epstein (consilientinterest.com)