Some notes on The Sports Gene

Posted on June 4, 2014

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The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Due to the mass media’s coverage of this book -which was often poor; I’ll get to that- I held off on reading this. I was expecting too much a denouncement of hard work and trainability. With a surge of media in the last decade playing off works like Outliers, taking them to the extreme and declaring we can work our way to anything we want, I thought this book was just getting coverage because it was going to the other extreme. I didn’t feel like reading something that would tell me, “It’s all what you’re born with.” This book is not at all that. [1]

In fact, I think a better title for this would be “The Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.” Because that’s really what it is. Genetics are a part of that, but this book so much more than genetics. Just about every time I read a passage and would go, “Yeah, but, he’s not accounting for…” and boom, Epstein would bring it up. Because Epstein is a journalist who actually has a brain, in combination with a good sports history (he ran at a pretty high level in college), you get a blend of real world and scientific experience few write with. Kudos to him.

There were a couple of areas I thought I’d expound on.

Donald Thomas, the high jumper who “never high jumped before”

When this book first came out I remember this story getting the most notoriety. Now that I’ve read the book, I realize that’s probably because it’s one of the first stories, and with how lazy the media is, most people who covered the book probably didn’t read much beyond that. Plus, this story was used for stirring up some controversy, which we’ll see was malformed.

The short version of the story is at the 2007 World Championships, Stefan Holm, a high jumper with about as much practice as you could possibly have, like 25 years worth, gets beat by Donald Thomas, who, after eight months of high jump practice, was a world champion. On Thomas’ first day of jumping he cleared 6’8″. After eight months he cleared 7’8.5″.

As I mentioned, Epstein does a great job arguing all sides. I’m not sure if he missed this or what. He introduces Thomas with the following paragraph, in reference to the 2007 World Championships:

“Holm was faced with a competitor who he barely knew: Donald Thomas, a jumper from the Bahamas. Thomas had just begun high jumping. As Thomas’s cousin, a college track coach put it, “He still doesn’t know that a track goes around in a circle.”

The previous year, on January 19, 2006, Thomas was sitting in the cafeteria at Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, boasting about his slam-dunking prowess with a few guys from the track team.”

In case you missed it:

“The previous year, on January 19, 2006, Thomas was sitting in the cafeteria at Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, boasting about his slam-dunking prowess with a few guys from the track team.”

At roughly 22 years old, Thomas started high jumping. But, more than likely, he had been, through basketball, jumping since he was five years old. As anyone who has been around a lot of basketball players can tell you, they play a lot. (In the strength and conditioning community it’s a running joke you can’t get basketball players to do anything productive but play ball.) And lord knows how many times they jump in a typical day comprising three hours plus of pick up ball. Where you and your buddies often take breaks to practice dunking and showing off. Suffice to say, Donald Thomas had been jumping high A LOT before he ever did a high jump.

Furthermore, Thomas wasn’t randomly jumping, he was doing a ton of dunking. He was doing this so much, and so good at it, there are Youtube clips of his dunking from years ago, seen in the beginning of this video:

(Note the one footed dunks with a huge run up. Very similar to a high jump.)

Epstein references Thomas didn’t have much control when in the air. How he had never practiced the back arch high jumping requires. That’s fine, but dunking the way Thomas was, he had plenty of bodily control in the air. He just hadn’t done it in a high jump specific manner. But I’m sure he was to the point where arching his back in a high jump didn’t require much practice. When you’re jumping over three people and slamming a basketball, I’d assume pushing your back up in the air during a high jump isn’t that tough. Hence, eight months after his first jump he hit his personal best. Seven years of practice later he still hasn’t topped his best jump. Practicing jumping didn’t get him much further because he had already practiced jumping so much!

Next, while Thomas beat Holm that day, we need to mention Thomas was 23 years old at the time and Holm was 31. Holm was past is prime at this point. Not to mention in sports you never read too much into one day. This is why so many sports have seven game series. Too much can happen in any one game to crown someone based off one day. Despite the New York Giants having God stick a football to David Tyree’s head in 2008, they still weren’t the best team that year. The fastest man in the world title doesn’t always go to who wins gold at the olympics. It goes to who has run the best time, regardless of the meet. You need that wider perspective.

And in a wider perspective you see Holm’s personal best is 2.40 meters; Thomas’ is 2.35 meters. Thomas is also .07 meters (about 3 inches) taller than Holm. In the high jump, being tall can have a huge advantage as you don’t have to lift your body up as far over the bar. You’re already closer to begin with. Not only is Holm jumping from .07 meters lower than Thomas, he still has jumped .05 meters higher. Meaning, overall, Holm has been able to get .12 meters higher than Thomas has. That’s 4.7 inches, which is a pretty damn big gap when you’re dealing with performance at this level. [2]

Epstein did a fabulous job delineating how structure can cause advantages, sometimes to the point it significantly alters the amount of practice required to reach elite status. Other than the delusional, I don’t think anyone doubts it does, or that genes influence things. However, in this case, even with Epstein going over how Thomas was endowed with a much longer achilles tendon, Thomas doesn’t help Epstein’s argument. Nor does Thomas help this asinine article declaring Thomas’s story “destroys the 10,000 hour rule.” In fact, Thomas is hurting their argument. Epstein covers how athletes of darker skin tend to have better structure for running and jumping, how athletes from certain areas -like the Bahamas- are better endowed for explosive activities, how Thomas is specifically gifted for jumping; I mentioned he’s taller than Holm…I mean, Thomas probably has close to every conceivable genetic advantage over Holm when it comes to high jumping. Seven years later he still hasn’t jumped higher than Holm. [3]

Trade offs

As you learn more and more about the human body, one of the patterns you see again and again is there are always trade offs. Whenever you get something, you lose something. Sports are a great example of this.

One of the holy grails of sports science is fast twitch muscle fibers. What are they, how they work, how do we get them, can we train to grow more of them, etc. Especially in America, the sports we hold dearest -baseball, football, basketball, hockey- involve a lot of fast, violent activity. Activity suited for fast twitch muscle fibers, and those endowed with great amounts of them. If you’re someone born with more slow twitch fibers, it’s going to be hard for you to excel at some of these sports. You have an inherit disadvantage…with sports.

“Researchers in the United States and Finland have independently shown that, while adults with a high proportion of fast-twitch fibers can pack on muscle, they have a more difficult time losing fat. Fat is primarily burned as part of the energy-making process that occurs in slow-twitch muscle fibers. The fewer slow-twitch muscle fibers an individual has, the lower his capacity to burn fat.”

“In 2011, though, scientists from the University of Copenhagen proposed that a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers could account for several physical traits that have been documented in African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, including low resting and sleeping metabolism, and less metabolism of fat for energy and more of carbohydrates as compared with Europeans.”

Sports Gene, page 123.

Say you’re a person with a high proportion of fast twitch fibers. Because of this endowment, you probably don’t burn fat as well as someone with a high proportion of slow twitch fibers, and you probably don’t burn as many calories while at rest. (Epstein mentions whether this is due to fast-twitch fibers is up in the air.)

Then we put you into westernized society, where you don’t move very much. The less you move, the less carbohydrates you burn. Carbs are a great source of energy for an active person, not so much when you’re sitting around a lot. That is, the energy source you burn best -carbs- you’re burning the least of because you don’t move much. Furthermore, at rest, you potentially burn less calories period, because of your fast twitch “gift.”

What do we have here? A recipe for metabolic syndrome. Getting your wish to be a high speed machine may make things great until college. After which, because you almost assuredly won’t be a professional athlete, you may be more likely to struggle with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, etc. The traits that make a great athlete can make you more likely to die earlier.

What also goes well with speed? Skinny, long limbs. Even in distance races, having a skinner calf is better than a thick, blocky one. The less weight you have to carry around, the better. Most people can probably relate to this by remembering a black athlete they were around. It’s typical to see black people with the skinniest calves you’ll come across. But why?

Epstein gives a fascinating insight on a phenomenon referred to as Allen’s Rule.

“Allen’s rule is a biological rule posited by Joel Asaph Allen in 1877. It states that endotherms from colder climates usually have shorter limbs (or appendages) than the equivalent animals from warmer climates.”

From Wikipedia.

Said another way: Being from a place closer to the equator (hotter climate) makes you more likely to have longer limbs than your counterpart from a colder climate. If we have two people of the same height, one with a cold ancestry and one with a warm ancestry, the one with the warm ancestry will likely have longer limbs compared to the other.

Eskimo and Kenyan Side by Side

Not only will the limbs be longer, but there tends to be less of the person in general. The limbs are narrower for instance.

If the height between the two is the same, then this extra limb length is offset by less torso length. A torso will have much more to it than a limb. That is, an extra inch of leg length can be quite skinny while an extra inch of torso can only be so small. A “smallness” never as narrow as an ankle. (Your hips versus your ankle.) [4]

All in all, you get exactly what you’d expect evolution to give. Warm ancestry equals greater ability in a variety of ways to handle heat. It just so happens many of these adaptations give one the ability to run faster.

First, obviously, if you can dissipate heat better, that’s an advantage while running. Like not overheating in a marathon. Second, if you have skinnier limbs, especially distally, you have an easier ability in swinging your pendulums around. Think of it this way: Reach your arm out straight in front of you. If someone tries to push your arm down by pushing on your hand versus pushing at your shoulder, what’s more difficult to resist? The hand, by a long shot.

Epstein quotes one study finding boys from a specific part of Kenya (Kalenjins -where their best runners are from) had an average of 16% less volume and thickness in the lower legs compared to Danish. Due to their structure, the Kalenjins can run each kilometer with 8% less energy.

Again, if you want to excel at running, great adaptations. If you want to survive cold weather? Not so much. While it doesn’t seem many of us are suddenly at risk of hypothermia, events do happen. Ice ages occur, getting caught in the middle of nowhere while camping happens, spending too much in the snow for whatever reason.

I feel as if many read about these heritable “gifts” elite athletes have and read them with envy. I think it’s important to mention whenever you’re asking for something you’re also asking to give up something. If you ever wished you were a great sprinter you simultaneously wished you had a greater chance of cold weather killing you. And the greater level of performance, the greater level of trade off. (The better you are at dissipating heat, the worse you are at retaining it.) “Be careful what you wish for.”

Luck

Hopefully from above you can see how not only do certain advantages in sports give potential disadvantages in life, but certain advantages in one sport cause disadvantages in another sport. Michael Phelps ridiculously short limbs yet incredibly long torso makes him great for swimming, but terrible for running. Usain Bolt is the opposite. He’d get his ass kicked in a pool, even in a sprint.

Not only do these two have amazing structure suited for their sports, structure they didn’t work for but were given, they also happened to fall into sports which are conducive to their structure. I think we should all take solace in the fact that no matter how hard you work at something, there are things you can’t work for. Like who your parents are, what your heritage is, and where you grow up.

Epstein mentions how the body type required for certain sports has become more extreme, making each of us less likely to fit into any one type:

“Just as the galaxies are hurtling apart, so are the body types required for success in a given sport speeding away from one another toward their respective highly specialized and lonely corners of the athletic physique universe. Compared with all of humanity, elite distance runners are getting shorter. So are athletes who have to rotate in the air-divers, figure skaters, and gymnasts. In the last thirty years, elite female gymnasts have shrunk from 5’3″ on average to 4’9″. Simultaneously, volleyball players, rowers, and football players are getting larger…

About 28 percent of men now have the height and weight combination that could fit in with professional soccer players; 23 percent with elite sprinters; 15 percent with professional hockey players; and 9.5 percent with Rugby Union forwards.

In the NFL, one extra centimeter of height or 6.4 extra pounds on average translates into about $45,000 of extra income. (Particular professions that require unique physiques have an even more concentrated winner-take-all structure and outdo even professional sports. The BOZ for regional catwalk models is less than 8 percent, dropping to 5 percent for international models, and to just 0.5 percent for supermodels.)”

Epstein gives countless more examples of what it takes to structurally be suited for extraordinary athletic performance. Point being, these people are rare. Take the Kalenjins, they have the skinny limbs and short torsos mentioned; they train in very hot weather, they happen to live at an altitude that’s most beneficial for training (~7,000 meters), they have a culture of distance running where it’s typical children will run 10 miles roundtrip to go to school each day. Practically everything you would want in engineering a great distance runner these people are just born into. Tough to compete with that.

That said, there is a good chance if you don’t excel at one thing, you may have the luck necessary to excel at something else. If you are painfully slow on land, you may be great in a pool. If you don’t do well in the heat, you may do great in the snow. If you have really long limbs you’ll never stand out in the weight room, but you may be great on a basketball court. And we still have Stefan Holm’s story to illustrate how much dedicated training can make up for.

Parents and future parents should really take note here. I heard a great quote from one of my clients when we were talking about this stuff. After a while he could see one of his sons just wasn’t suited for soccer. (He wasn’t enjoying it either.) Rather than force him to continue, he and his son wrote a list of things he did well and things he struggled with. Speed wise, his son didn’t have much. If you’re still slow as a teenager you probably aren’t going to get a whole lot faster relative to your age group. However, his son was good with fine motor skills, and was a high achiever intellectually. So they gave golf a shot. He excelled at it, enjoyed it, and gave up soccer along the way. As that client said, “There’s no point directing your child into something they’re only going to be frustrated by.” Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a parent with this mentality. How many kids each year are pushed into sports they simply don’t have the structure for? Where they could very well be suited for something else, but for whatever reason were never exposed to it?

Of course, the best way to find out if a kid has any natural ability is to let them try a bunch of different things. (A stopwatch is still better than any genetic testing we have.) More than likely, there’s something they will have some ability at. “I don’t have long limbs or a long torso. I’m just average all around.” Then maybe triathlons are something you want to try (running and swimming). Can all of us reach elite performance in something? No, at least not in sports. I mean, if you’re Irish, in most sports you might lose, but when put next to a bar stool…[5]

A talk by David Epstein tangential to his book (which you can buy here):

[1] Notice the disconnect between the media’s coverage of these books and what the books actually say. E.g. Outliers does not say you can become elite at anything no matter your predisposition; The Sports Gene does not say hard work is futile. (Something I should have assumed given the media’s propensity to sensationalize.) The media takes the most extreme versions of the books and acts as if that’s what the entire book says, giving a huge misrepresentation. Great for social media clicks; terrible for the consumer.

[2] It’s possible Thomas’ lack of enthusiasm for training contributed to his poor progress. He’s quoted as saying high jump is “kind of boring.” It’s also possible after 18 years of jumping he already hit his full potential. It merely took eight months of high jump practice to manifest all his years of basketball jumping practice. Considering how much of a genetic advantage he has over Holm, yet he never jumped higher than Holm’s best, Thomas’ lackluster work ethic is probably the answer here. Especially when you compare it to Holm’s, which is renown as obsessive, and contained much more than just jumping, such as heavy weightlifting and much more dedicated technique work. Which is where mentioning Thomas’ gifts can come in: He didn’t train as well yet jumped nearly as high. Nearly being the key word.

[3] People are really starting to distort the 10,000 hour “rule.” Malcolm Gladwell has taken a lot of unnecessary heat about this, as people aren’t just taking his book Outliers out of context, they’re completely misquoting it. Almost as if they never read the book, which they probably haven’t. HALF of Outliers is about pure luck and the circumstances you’re born into. The book also contains a thorough discussion on the type of practice you perform. You can’t just randomly do an activity for 10,000 hours and expect elite performance. Another instance arguing against the 10,000 hour haters: Thomas’ seven years of half-assed training has gotten him exactly zero improvement. Gladwell has a great response to all this, including to Epstein, here.

[4] I wonder if torso length also contributes to African Americans having a harder time with metabolic syndrome. Visceral fat is known to be unhealthy. If you have a long torso and thicker limbs, you have more room to store fat in places besides viscerally. When you have skinner limbs, and an exceptionally short torso, there’s only so many places fat can go.

[5] Hey! Hey! Hey!

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Sports