Using Genetics to Open the ‘Black Box’ of Sports Performance

In the past couple decades, sports science has made giant strides on every front — conditioning, nutrition, recovery, equipment, surgery, injury prevention. But all those gains come with a big asterisk: a reminder that individual results may vary. Some athletes respond seemingly overnight to high-intensity interval training; some see middling results. Some enjoy amazing recoveries from knee-ligament reconstructions; others never really heal. For athletes who feel like they’re doing everything right, this seeming arbitrariness can be discouraging and infuriating.

To understand why outcomes can vary so widely, you need to look inside the cells of the individuals, says Jeremy Koenig, CEO of Athletigen. His Halifax-based startup is aiming to tease out the mysterious links between genetic inheritance and athletic performance.

“Genetics is one piece of the puzzle, an important one that’s been in a black box for too long,” says Koenig, a genetics researcher and former elite sprinter. “Athletes are constantly looking externally for the answer. We want them to know: It is you. That’s where we need to start.”

Athletigen’s process involves taking a sample of an athlete’s saliva and subjecting it to genotyping analysis to search for 850,000 different gene variants that may play a role in the formation of athletic traits. The technology is similar to that used by23andMe, a startup that has genotyped more than 1 million customers. In fact, 23andMe users can import their genetic profiles to have them analyzed by Athletigen’s algorithm.

But whereas 23andMe tells users about their family trees and whether they’re carriers of recessive genetic diseases, Athletigen is looking specifically for genes that mediate sports performance. “You won’t find out who your father isn’t,” says Koenig.

To illustrate how it works in practice, Koenig offers the example of a professional hockey player whose profile shows that he has gene variants found in people who respond rapidly to lactic-acid threshold training. That player would be able to get into cardiovascular shape more quickly than his peers; knowing that would allow him to spend more of the off-season focusing on skills training.

Other questions genotype analysis could answer include whether a given athlete is at elevated risk for tendon ruptures or cartilage tears, whether her muscles require more or less recovery time than the norm, and why certain diets work for some people and not others. “Precision medicine is the direction the health field is going,” says Koenig.

Next week, Athletigen, which is in the process of raising seed funding, will be collecting samples from more than 60 elite track-and-field athletes at ALTIS, a training center in Phoenix. Koenig will be delivering a keynote address on sports genetics for coaches and trainers as part of the center’s Apprentice Coach Program.

A coach himself, Koenig’s interest in helping athletes achieve their potential comes from being one: At one point, his time in the 50-meter sprint was the seventh-fastest in Canada. He studied molecular biology and biochemistry and did post-doctoral research on the human microbiome and its relationship to the human genome. While that was a fruitful area of study, he says, “my passion was missing. This was the only way I could be a quote-unquote professional athlete.”


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