How to Conduct a Heart Rate Test


Why do a majority of endurance sport coaches want/require you to train with a Heart Rate (HR) monitor?

It’s a great question! I know a lot of athletes who have fancy Garmin watches who don’t wear their straps. Personally, I think they are making a big mistake here. Now, HR isn’t a 100% accurate and there is certainly some day-to-day variability (i.e., heat, stress, time of day, etc.); but, overall, HR training is effectivearv

Why should you wear that annoying little strap that is probably chafing your skin? Here are some good reasons:

  • Wearing a HR strap ensures that your easy days are easy and your hard days are hard. Most athletes (myself included) have a tendency to work too hard on easy days and not hard enough on hard days. By knowing your HR zones you can ensure that you are working at the correct intensity levels to ensure the best physiological adaptations in your body.
  • Wearing a HR strap will aid you in determining what level of intensity you should be working at during exercise. We’ll discuss HR zones later below, but each HR zone specializes and trains different physiological adaptations and metabolic pathways in the body. For example, if you want to improve aerobic or endurance fitness then you should train primarily in Zone 2 (at or below aerobic threshold).
  • Wearing a HR strap can help you lose weight and “teach” your body to utilize fat for fuel. Now, we should emphasize the word “can.” Everyone’s metabolism is slightly different and not everyone will have the same results. While working at a lower intensity, HR between 55-65% of maximal HR, the body will utilize more fat molecules to fuel the body instead of glycogen. This is important for long-course triathletes. Staying in lower intensities will allow the body to use more fat vs glycogen (carbs) since fat is essentially an infinite fuel source vs. glycogen, which is a finite fuel source. Note: If you are not an endurance athlete and looking to lose weight, then you want to utilize a different method. We’ll discuss that another time.

As I mentioned above, there are HR zones. Depending who you ask, there may be slightly different versions of the HR Zones. Below is what I use with my athletes:

  • Zone 1 – Active Recovery (aerobic) or 50-60% of Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)
  • Zone 2 – Aerobic Endurance or 60-70% of MHR
  • Zone 3 – Aerobic Stamina/Tempo Pace or 70-80% of MHR
  • Zone 4 – Economy (anaerobic) or 80-90% of MHR
  • Zone 5 – Speed (anaerobic) or 90-100% of MHR

You might also see zones broken down by lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is the point in training intensity where lactic acid (or commonly called lactate) starts to accumulate in the bloodstream. In a nutshell, lactic acid is a by-product of metabolism at certain exercise intensities.

In order to determine an athlete’s HR zones, an athlete must undergo a Maximal Heart Rate Test. These, of course, can be done in the laboratory setting, but most athletes don’t have the time or money to do so. A field test works for most people.

You’ve probably read in a billion books and magazines that you can calculate your HR using a simple mathematical formula. You can, but, it’s not the most accurate, because the results can vary due to genetic differences between individuals and also between different activities. However, if you’re interested you can calculate your MHR using Karvonen’s Formula:

MHR = 220 – age or

The newer gender specific calculation:

Male = 214 – (0.8xage)

Female = 209 – (0.9xage)

For a more accurate test, I suggest conducting a Maximal Heart Rate Test for each running and cycling. Generally, your MHR will be about 5 beats per minute (bpm) higher during running than cycling.

Disclaimer: Heart rate tests are very stressful on the body. PLEASE get cleared by your medical provider before attempting any HR testing. This is especially important if you have any known heart conditions. Attempt at your own risk.

Here is the below protocol I generally use with my athletes for both cycling and running.

  • 5 minutes – warm up slowly to a pace where at the end you breathe a little hard, but are able to complete a full sentence without grasping for air
  • 5 minutes – maintain pace, but increase a bit during the less 60-90 seconds
  • 5 minutes – increase pace to labored breathing
  • 5 minutes – on a gradual incline, increase your pace from breathing hard to breathing very hard
  • 2 minutes – all out sprint on incline to maximum pace you can hold for 2 minutes
  • 1 minute – push absolute maximum speed (this should feel like hell)
  • 10-15 minutes – cool down at an easy pace to bring HR down and breathing should return to normal

This could be done on a flat surface or a treadmill, but I find that a gradual hill works best because my own personal HR increases higher when running on a hill.

The same protocol above can also be utilized on the bike. I recommend using an indoor trainer, but certainly it can be completed outside as well. It is important to maintain a consistent cadence, usually between 85-95rpm (aiming for 90rpm), throughout the test. As you progress through the test protocol, increase your gearing to a harder gear.

Once you have completed your test, download your data. If you have a coach, give the data file to your coach for analysis. If you use TrainingPeaks then you can easily figure out your HR zones through their software. If not, you can do it the manual way. Take your MHR value and multiple it by each zones’ percentage. For example:

MHR = 190


Minimum   Zone

Maximum   Zone

Zone 1 (50-60%) 190*0.5 = 95bpm 190*0.6 = 114bpm
Zone 2 (60-70%) 190*0.6 = 114bpm 190*0.7 = 133bpm
Zone 3 (70-80%) 190*0.7 = 133bpm 190*0.8 = 152bpm
Zone 4 (80-90%) 190*0.8 = 152bpm 190*0.9 = 171bpm
Zone 5 (90-100%) 190*0.9 = 171bpm 190*1.0 = 190bpm

Your zones may vary slightly depending on what HR zone calculations are used. Some zone calculations will break Zone 5 into Zone 5a, 5b, and 5c. If you work with a coach, your coach will help you with this. The above is just one method you can use. Once you know your HR zones, you can begin training. Now, if you have a power meter on your bike, then you will probably train using power metrics and thus you must complete a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test. More on that later this week!

~ Happy Training!

Big Sky Multisport Coaching: The Official Launch!

As you have probably seen and I have mentioned a few times before, my blog/website has grown and changed over the past few months and I’m finally excited to say…

I am officially launching my personal training and endurance sport coaching business!


I’ve been working behind the scenes to dot my “I’s” and cross my “T’s” to get everything in order to make this little dream of mine into reality.

First, I would like to give a big shout-out to my very talented cousin, Chris, at Blue Planet Graphics for designing my awesome logo for me! If you’re in the market for a logo, graphic design, or car wrapping then check out his business at Blue Planet Graphics.

Currently I am offering the following services:

  • Triathlon Coaching
    • Monthly Coaching at two different levels to meet your athletic goals while being wallet friendly
    • Pre-built plans for various distance races
  • Single-Sport Coaching (monthly or pre-built)
    • Cycling
    • Running
  • Personal Training
    • At home, your gym, or anywhere you like
    • At Zone 3 Fitness
    • Online structured monthly programs
  • Fitness Class Instruction
    • I currently teach a Spin & Core class Tuesday nights at 5:45 at Zone 3 Fitness
    • Small group training and/or boot-camp classes
  • Writing
    • Freelance writing in fitness, health, and/or science

As always, I will continue to write weekly in my blog on topics ranging from my own personal training stories to exercise physiology and fitness to travel and everything in between. If you ever have any blog post suggestions please feel free to contact me using the “Contact Me” tab in the above Main Menu.

You can connect with me through the following social media platforms:





So please check out what I offer and share with your friends, families and co-workers! Fitness and endurance sports are my passion and I love helping others achieve their goals. So let me help you reach your goals in 2014! 🙂

Thank you all for the wonderful support!

~ Happy Training!

Summer Reading



The Tower of Books

There’s no denying it, but I LOVE to read. My bookshelf is over flowing with books. Most I’ve read, but some I have not (yet). I have a bad habit of starting a book, but when a new, more interesting book is released then I jump ship and begin the new one. So I have a huge stack of half-read books sitting on my table next to my bed just begging me to finish their half-read stories.

I’ve decided I’m growing to tackle that ever-growing book stack, mostly because I’m afraid it may tumble over on me while I’m sleeping. Somehow death by book does not sounds like a fun way to go. So without further ado here is my summer reading list…

Summer 2013 Reading List

1. The Time Between by Karen White – I actually finished this book late last night. I read the entire book within 24 hours and it was just released this past week. I discovered Karen White a couple of years ago randomly at Borders. Her book The Lost Hours caught my attention because it was about horses. Anything about horses tends to get my attention. I purchased it, read it, and fell in love with her writing style. She is a Southern writer and writes about the South. I’ll be honest, I’ve always thought that I should have been a Southern girl. There is something about Charleston, South Carolina that just appeals to me. I’ve ever been there, but hopefully I’ll make the trip there soon. White’s stories are easy to read and fun. A perfect beach read in my opinion.

2. The Color of Light by Karen White – I just picked this up this week too because I haven’t read this one by White yet. By time this blog post posts on Monday I will probably have finished this book too. Love her writing!

3. The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Dr. Philip Maffetone – I started this book this past week but got interrupted by Karen White’s new book and thus put this book on hiatus momentarily. Maffetone is an internationally recognized researcher, clinician, coach, and author in the fields of endurance training, nutrition, and biofeedback. He was six-time Ironman winner Mark Allen’s coach for a long time. I’m interested in his philosophy of training and I plan on implementing some of his theories in my own training this coming Fall.

4. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney – I’m a huge fan of podcasts, especially Vinnie Tortorich and The Fit, Fat, Fast Podcast. Both podcasts discuss living no sugar no grains (NSNG) lifestyles. The lifestyle intrigues me and I’ve been spending a lot of time recently researching the topic and will most likely making the change to my diet after Ironman Lake Placid. The Fit, Fat, Fast Podcast highly suggested this book and I look forward to diving into the research behind low-carbohydrate diets this summer.

5. Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It by Gary Taubes – This book came highly suggested by Vinnie Tortorich on his podcast. I started reading it and then got distracted by a couple of the above books. So far I have loved this book! It is easy to read, but yet contains a ton of scientific research. I’ve been suggesting this book to a couple of my clients because it is an eye-opener book.

6. Fit Soul, Fit Body by Mark Allen and Brant Secunda – I picked my signed copy of the book last year at the New England Triathlon Expo in Boston. Allen was the guest speaker. I read the first chapter and then put the book down for a while. I look forward to picking it up again this summer.

7. The Healing of America by T.R. Reid – This was actually a book that I read excerpts from for one of my public health classes. The book discussed various health care systems worldwide and what we can do here in America to make health care more affordable and better. I look forward to reading the book from cover to cover instead of specific chapters.

8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – As a science geek you’re surprised I haven’t read this yet. It’s been on my list to read for a while now. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Henrietta Lacks is the source of the laboratory cell line used in hundreds of laboratories across the global for years called HeLa cells. They are actually considered a “lab weed” now because they often contaminate other cell lines. I’ve worked with cancer cell lines before and cell culture is an amazing tool used in research today and we can thank Henrietta Lacks for it. However, she and Henrietta’s family knew nothing about her “immorality” until 20 years after her death.

9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – I’m a huge fan of the classics and have been making an effort over the years to read a majority of the most popular ones. This one I picked up when I was in Montana in 2011 and just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

10. 1984 by George Orwell – Another classic. I started the book a couple of years ago and I guess got distracted again. I loved Animal Farm so I’ve decided that I need to read his other most known work.

11. Lance by John Wilcockson – I started reading this over a year ago. Got half way through it and just stopped. I’m not much of a Lance fan anymore. I wonder why? However, I still would like to finish reading the book. He definitely lived an interesting life; however, now I know how things end. Thanks Lance for giving away the ending.

12. How to Master the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins – Part of being a personal trainer and coach is knowing how to sell yourself. Some people view people who sell themselves as not being humble. Well, if you want to make a living in this industry you have to be able to market yourself and tell people how much of a badass you are. I don’t have any sales background and it doesn’t come easy to me. My boss at the gym suggested I pick up this book and read it. I probably should have read it back in January, but this summer sounds like a good time too…

13. The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith – I picked this book up during Border’s going out of business sale. I had the intentions of doing my internship for my masters in Africa, but unfortunately I couldn’t make that a reality. However, I am completely fascinated with Africa and hope to travel there soon. One of my main interests in public health is HIV/AIDS and global health. I have read about a quarter of the book, but it’s well over 700 pages long. Lots of history! It’s kind of a dry read, which is why I took a break from it. But I do love history. Hopefully, I’ll make progress in the book this summer.

14. GRE and Word Smart GRE – Yup, I’m studying to take the GREs again. I’m not 100% sure what my future plan entails. I just had an interview for a public health position that I would absolutely love and I’m crossing my fingers that I get the position! However, I am considering the option of going back to school if I can’t find a public health job soon. I took the GREs 5 years ago and now my scores are too old and thus have to re-take them. Yuck!

I have a feeling that I will probably find some other books to read in there somewhere (like Vinnie Tortorich’s book when that comes out!) and will probably not get to some of the above books. However, I really need to get through that stack before it becomes the leaning tower of books! Yikes!

What are you reading? Any good recommendations for summer reading?

~ Happy Training!

Part II: The Core – Mobility and Stability

Working at a gym allows me to watch people exercise. It never ceases to amaze me how wrong people exercise. One of the biggest concepts I stress to all my clients is stability and mobility and then strength. You have no idea how many times I have seen people add load to squats when they can’t even do a bodyweight squat correctly.

Part of core training should include mobility and stability exercises. Musculoskeletal pain is very common in the American population today. Most of it is due to lack of physical activity and lifestyle choices. Lower back pain is one of the major forms of musculoskeletal degeneration in the adult population, affecting nearly 80% of all adults. Research has shown that lower-back pain is predominant among those who work desk jobs and sit longer than 3 hours at a time. A majority of the age-group athletes competing in endurance sports work full-time jobs, often desk-based. Back and other joint injuries can cause muscle imbalances that will affect sports performance.

In the last post we discussed the kinetic chain and core anatomy. Impairment or injury to the human movement system rarely involves one structure. Impairment in one system leads to compensations and adaptions in other systems. For example, I have right hip issues that often results in my right foot developing plantar fasciitis. This happened to me this past fall and I was forced to take several months off from running to heal the injury before I embarked on Ironman training. It was not fun to say the least.

Now, what does this all have to do with mobility, stability, and core training? Everything. If you don’t have full range of motion and/or the stability required of your joints then you’re bound to end of getting injured at some point. Most athletes have muscle imbalances and faulty movement patterns cause by their respective sports. For example, many cyclists suffer from piriformis syndrome, where the piriformis (a muscle that externally rotates the leg) becomes weak because the gluteus maximus is being overworked and can lead to pain or numbness down the leg or in the hip. Runners often have IT band and knee problems.

According to Bill Hartman, mobility is the ability to produce a desired movement; whereas, stability is the ability to resist an undesired movement. When examining mobility of joints, one must observe the architecture of the joint, soft-tissue length, and neutral control of the surrounding muscles. Stability on the other hand is a blend of passive and active influences. Passive influences of joint stability include the anatomy of the joint – the capsule, ligaments, and the architecture of the joint. The active influences include motor control of the surrounding musculature and muscular strength.

Mike Boyle, one of my favorite trainers, has divided mobility and stability up in a “joint-by-joint” approach to training.


Foot Stability
Ankle Mobility
Knee Stability
Hip Mobility
Lumbar Spine Stability
Thoracic Spine Mobility
Scapula Stability
Gleno-Humeral Joint (Shoulder) Mobility
Elbow Stability

Now, this approach is not completely black and white. There is definitely some gray area, especially since everyone is different. Another way to look at mobility and stability is through the mobility-stability continuum. All joints need some degree of mobility and some degree of stability.

Stable       Mobile
Knee Elbow Scapula Hip Shoulder

Mike Robertson, another one of my favorite trainers, said that someone once told him that “strength training cements your posture and mobility” and whether that posture is good or bad is up to you. If you don’t have full range of motion of your hip joints then why are you going to add weight to your back squat? It’s better to work on hip mobility and activating weak hip muscles to get full range of motion and then add weight. Just because you want to look like a badass at the gym and back squat 150 lbs doesn’t mean you should because you’ll probably end up looking like a dumbass when you injury your back because you have tight hip flexors and your lower back arches.

Stay tuned for some posts on how to conduct a functional movement screen, corrective exercises to aid in good posture, and exercises to help with mobility and stability!


  1. Clark MA, Lucett SC. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer; 2011.
  2. Robertson M. Mobility-Stability Continuum. Available at: Accessed February 9, 2013.

Part I: The Core – Anatomy

Note: This will be a multi-part series on the core and the proper ways to train and engage the core throughout exercise.

The Core. You’ve probably heard this term thrown around the fitness world in the recent years. But, what does the term really mean?

The core can be described as a muscular box with the abdominals in the front, the paraspinals and gluteals in the back, the diaphragm as the roof, and the pelvic floor and hip girdle musculature as the floor.

The core is often referred to as the body’s “powerhouse” because its the central region providing a girdle of strength and connecting the abdomen with the lower back and hips.  The abdominal muscles in conjunction with the spinal muscles, create a stable base for generating strength and providing support for all movement.

The core plays a vital role in everyday biological functions, including creating internal pressure within the abdominal cavity, holding the internal organs in place, and helping with the expulsion of air from the lungs and of bodily waste. The core musculature provides an axis of power for the kinetic chain.

The kinetic chain is a movement system consisting of myofascial (muscular), articular (joints), and neural (motor) components. Each of these individual elements are dependent on each other for optimal performance during movement. In layman’s term, every part of the body is connected and work together to produce movements.



Let’s break the core down into its core anatomy (no pun intended 🙂 ):

Paraspinals – There are two major groups of lumbar extensors that make up the paraspinals: the erector spinae and the so-called local muscles (multifidi, rotatores, and intertransveri). The erector spinae is a group of three long tendinous muscles that run the length of the spine. The muscles provide support for spinal flexion (bend forward) and extension (bend backwards) and also aid in stabilizing the spine against sideways movement. The multifidus is a deep series of muscles attached to the spine that work to keep the spine straight and to help stabilize it and to maintain good posture. Atrophy (muscular wasting) of the multifidi has been found in people with lower back pain.

Quadratus Lumborum – The quadratus lumborum is a large, thin, and like the name implies, quadrangular-shaped, muscle that directly inserts into the lumbar spine. The quadratus lumborum works to stabilize the spine against lateral movement, lifting heavy objects, and carrying items in one hand, such as a suitcase or groceries.

Abdominals – The abdomen muscles are a group of four different muscles: the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, and the external and internal obliques. The rectus abdominis is commonly known as the “six-pack” muscle. It is mainly involved in flexion. The transversus abdominis is a deep muscle that runs around the abdomen like a girdle holding the core together. The transversus abdominis works to maintain good posture, to maintain internal abdominal pressure, and to support the internal organs. The transversus abdominis is generally very weak in people with lower back pain. In healthy people, the transversus abdominis has been shown to activate before limb movement to theoretically stabilize the lumbar spine. The internal obliques are deep muscles that help the body to rotate and flex to the side. They also aid in maintaining good posture and internal abdominal pressure. The external obliques are superficial muscles located above the internal obliques. They are important for rotational core movements and side flexion.

Hip Girdle Musculature –  The hip musculature plays a huge role within the kinetic chain, especially for all ambulatory activities, in stabilization of the trunk and pelvis, and in transferring force from the legs to the pelvis and spine. The hip musculature includes the psoas muscle group and gluteus muscle group. The psoas (hip flexors) control flexion movements of the hip, such as walking, running, and going up and down stairs. The gluteus minimus is the smallest of the glutes and lies beneath the gluteus medius. It works to lift the leg outward (abduction) and internal hip rotation. The gluteus medius lies between the minimus and maximus. It assists with abduction and rotation (internal and external) and provided stability to the pelvic region. The gluteus maximus is the largest and most superficial muscle of the hips. It works to abduct and extend the hips, while also stabilizing the pelvic region. Poor endurance and delayed firing of the gluteus maximus and medius muscles have been linked to people with lower back or lower-extremity instability. Tight psoas can cause lower back pain by increasing compressive loads to the lumbar disks of the spine.

Diaphragm and Pelvic Floor – The diaphragm serves as the roof of the core. The diaphragm provides some stability to the lumbar spine via contraction during breathing and creating intra-abdominal pressure. A few recent studies have indicated that people with sacroiliac (pelvis) pain have impaired recruitment of the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor musculature is coactivated with transversus abdominis contraction.

Stay tuned for parts II and III where we will discuss mobility, stability, and strength of the core musculature and ways to properly engage and train your core to become a stronger and more efficient athlete!


1. Jones G. Core Strength Training. New York, NY: DK Publishing. 2013.

2. Akuthota V, Ferreiro A, Moore T, Fredericson M. Core Stability Exercise Priniciples. American College of Sports Medicine. 2008; 7(1): 39-44.

3. Akuthota V, Nadler SF. Core Strengthening. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2004; 85(1): S86-92.

Are Elite Athletes Born or Trained?

A good friend recently turned me about the The Science of Sport blog and, of course, being the science dork I am, really enjoy it. On Tuesday they (Dr. Ross Tucker and Dr. Jonathan Dugas) discussed the polarization of the debate on whether elite athletes are born or trained. I was intrigued by the discussion because a) I’m an athlete, b) I am interested in exercise physiology, and c) I have a background in genetics and molecular biology. Since the article peaked my interested I decided to do some research into the debate.

So… are elite athletes (or even top age group athletes) born or trained?

The 10,000 Hour Theory

Sports performance results from a combination of numerous factors which interact with each other in a complex and poorly understood manner to mold a talented athlete into a champion. Within the field of sports science it is believed that elite performance is the result of both training and genetic factors. To what extend each component plays is the question that many sports scientists have tried to answer.

The “born versus bred” debate dates back to the 1800s, but more recently has been played out in the popular literature. In 1869, Sir Francis Galton proposed in his Galtonian Model that “practice and training would lead to improvements in performance, but that a ceiling existed for each person, influenced by heritable characteristics” (1). However, K. Anders Ericsson and his Colleagues have suggested that performance is constrained by engagement in deliberate practice and training during optimal periods of development (1). According to Ericsson’s model “practice is both necessary and sufficient for the attainment of deliberate performance, and is effective because it ‘selectively activates dormant genes that are contained within all healthy indovoduals’ DNA'” (1). A lot of people are familiar with Ericsson’s work because it is often referred to as the 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s model proposes that “a specific volume of 10,000 hours of training must be accumulated over a period of approximately 10 years of structured training and involvement in an activity in order to achieve expert level” (1). His theory originated from a study conducted on violinists in Berlin. He found that the subjectively judged skill level of violinists were associated with accumulated training time over the first 20 years of their lives. The best performers had accumulated over 10,000 hours of training by the age of 20. Those who were judged to be good or average had accumulated about 7800 and 4600 hours, respectively. Ericsson concluded there was a ” complete correspondence between the skill level of the group and their average accumulation of practice time alone with the violin” (1). However, one crucial mistake Ericsson made was presenting no measures of variance in the results of the study. No standard deviations (SD) or ranges were provided and thus it is unclear whether the association between training and performance abilities applies to every individual in the study.

A similar study was conducted in chess players. Gobet and Campitelli found in a study of 104 chess players, that the accumulated training time to reach master level was 11,053 hours (+/- 5538 hours). This result is in close agreement with the violin study, but the study shows that there is enormous differences that exist between individuals that is indicated by the SD. Studies of sport have shown that elite athletes rarely accumulate 10,000 hours before reaching elite status. For example, one study found that 28% of elite Australian athletes reached elite status within 4 years of taking up the sport for the first time (1). It has been concluded that talent transfer based on innate abilities and ability and fitness developed through other sports, can be used to accelerate the process of becoming an elite athlete within a short time frame, which explains why elite athletes often perform far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

The Genetic Influence – Thanks Mom and Dad

DNA is the building block of all life forms (unless you’re an RNA virus). DNA carries the genetic information for all development and functions in organisms. At the molecular level, numerous physiological and biochemical systems and pathways must interact and function optimally to enable elite performance. These processes occur simultaneously within the musculoskeletal, cardiovasular, central nervous and respiratory systems. When considered on their own, each biological system is complex, consisting of different cell types, proteins, and numerous other macromolecules. Multiple types of genes throughout the entire human genome determine the genetic blueprint for each individual biological system. With the great complexity in the human body, it is highly unlikely that a singular or even a few specific genes are associated with elite athletic performance.

Elite performance is a polygenic trait, meaning that it is determined by multiple genes. There are numerous specific genes that studies have found to affect athletic performance to a certain extent. There are several genes that play a role in determining four intrinsic traits that are known to contribute to elite performance phenotypes – sex, height, skeletal muscle properties and VO2max. Biological sex is a key predictor of absolute levels of performance. An analysis of world record performances on the track and in road running events, ranging from 100 meters to ultramarathons, shows that the best males out perform the best females between 9% and 14% (1). Unlike sex, height is determined by both genetic and environmental factors (i.e. nutrition). Many studies have indicated that height is highly heritable with 80% of its variance controlled by multiple genes (1). The influence of height on sports performance is dependent upon sport (i.e. being tall is advantageous for basketball, whereas it would be deleterious for endurance running).

VO2max is a very interesting intrinsic factor because it is about 50% hereditary and 50% trained. VO2max is the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise, which reflects the overall physical fitness of the individual. Large cross-sectional studies (i.e. the Heritage studies, the Dose Response to Exercise in Women (DREW) study, and SSTRIDE studies) have found an average training-induced improvement in VO2 max of 15.2 (+/- 9.7%), but the interindividual differences are significant (1). For example, based upon the studies, approximately one in seven individuals (14%) improved VO2max by less than 200 ml/min (less than 8% improvement from baseline). In comparison, 8% of the study population improved by more than 700 ml/min, which is a 28% improvement from baseline (1). Both genetic and environmental factors have been reported to determine VO2max in the untrained state and in response to training. The Heritage study showed that the variance of VO2max among families is 2.7 times higher than the VO2max variance calculated within each family (2). The correlation between parents and offspring indicated a 52% inheritance component (2). Genomic scans have found that 21 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) are linked to 49% of trainability in VO2max (1). Individuals who carried nine or fewer of the 21 SNPs were found to have improved their VO2max by less than 221 ml/min, whereas those who carried 19 or more of the SNPs had improved by an average of 604 ml/min (1).

By the end of 2005, 165 autosomal (not a sex chromosome) genes and five genes on the X chromosome have been identified as having an association or linkage to performance. Seventeen mitochondrial genes have also been identified. Mitochondrial genes originate from DNA located in the mitochrondria of cells. Mitochondrial genes are solely inherited from the mother because the mitochrondria in the sperm cell is normally destroyed by the egg cell during fertilization. Studies have indicated that there is a significant association for VO2max between children and their mothers, but not between children and their fathers (2). Individuals with mutations in mitochrondria DNA generally show exercise intolerance, muscle weakness, and increased production of lactic acid (2).

One of the most studied genetic markers in the human performance field is an insertion/deletion (I/D)mutation in the gene encoding for angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) on chromosome 17 (2). ACE influences circulatory homeostasis (ability to stay the same) through the breakdown of vasodilator (widening of blood vessels) bradykinin and creation of the vasopressor, angiotensin II (a peptide hormone that causes vasoconstriction which results in an increase of blood pressure) (2). The I allele has been associated with fatigue resistance in skeletal muscles and with endurance performance. Studies have found that the I allele is found at excess frequencies among elite long-distance runners, rowers, and mountaineers able to climb peaks higher than 7000 meters without supplemental oxygen (2). The D allele has been associated with sprinting and power-based performance (2). Another study found that the I/D alleles are also related with type and the efficiency of skeletal muscle fibers (2). There is an associated between the ACE*II genotype and an increased percentage of type I skeletal muscle fibers (slow-twitch fibers) compared with the DD genotype (2).


No person has been able to ascertain the exact relative contribution genetics or training to elite human performance in sports, and it is generally recognized that both play a role in determining the elite potential in an individual. It is silly to negate the role genetics play in the development of elite performance in athletics. Our genetic codes determine the development and function of every molecule in our bodies. Scientific data on other determinants of elite performance, such as metabolic efficiency, fuel-oxidation rates, muscle-fiber contractility, and even motivation for exercise is currently limited, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the above determinants will also be influenced by genetics. However, science and common sense has also indicated that training plays a major role in elite performance. Tucker and Collins propose a model where training is defined as the realization of genetic potential (1).

Personally, I agree with Tucker and Collins. Training maximizes the likelihood of obtaining a specific performance level with a genetically controlled “ceiling.” For example, you might be a standout basketball player on your high school team, but if you’re only 5’4″ then your chances of playing in the NBA are probably very slim. You can train all you want to improve your skills and fitness, but you cannot change your genetics to grow taller. In 2003, the Human Genome was successfully sequenced. Scientists across the globe are now just starting to identify the function and role each of the approximately 23,000 genes in the human genome. Determining the function and role of genes in the human body is extremely complex and will likely take decades to complete and fully understand. The role of genetics in human performance exists and will not likely be disputed as is the role of training. How much each plays in determining the performance level of an individual is really the question scientists are trying to answer. The question of determining whether elite athletes are born or trained is really the old “nature vs. nurture” question in disguise. Only time will tell.


  1. Tucker R, Collins M. What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success. Br J Sports Med. 2012; 46: 555-561.
  2. Calo CM, Vona G. Gene polymorphisms and elite athletic performance. Journal of Anthropological Sciences. 2008; 86: 113-131.