Elite athlete: does genetics play a role?

To be among the best, it is necessary to train many hours, but other factors such as commitment, effort, diet and genetics also intervene . In this article we explain why each of them is necessary for an athlete to reach the highest level. 

What is an elite athlete?

Literally, for an athlete to be considered an elite athlete, it is necessary to carry out a series of bureaucratic procedures. Leaving aside these types of technicalities, we can define an elite or high-level athlete as an individual who, thanks to favorable genetics and continuous effort and sacrifice, manages to position himself at the top of sports practice, reaching heights high performance and the highest brands.

What are the phases it goes through to become one?

It is considered that an athlete who has great sports capabilities takes between 8 to 12 years, training an average of 3 hours a day (10,000 hour rule), to become an elite athlete, we are going to review the training phases that It is estimated that they must be followed to achieve this:

  1. Fundamental preparation: this phase begins around 6 to 8 years old and is about learning basic motor skills, it should be a fun phase in which balance, speed, coordination, resistance and learning are worked on. It is also important to master the technique of running, jumping and throwing and to work on agility, speed and change of direction.
  2. Learning to train: between 9 and 12 years old and it is about learning the fundamental sports skills of the sport and working on motor coordination. In this stage, other elements such as elastic bands, medicine balls and circuits with jumps and rebounds are incorporated, as well as flexibility exercises, also working on speed and changes of direction.
  3. Training the aerobic base and strength : between the ages of 12 and 14, athletes consolidate basic skills, technique, and specific sports tactics. Aerobic training, strength and flexibility are worked on more specifically for a good adaptation to the growth of the athlete. 
  4. Focus on competition : between the ages of 16 and 18, in this phase training should be individualized and focused on improving competition-oriented skills. They are high intensity workouts.
  5. Training to maximize the athlete’s capabilities : this phase begins at 18 years of age and is the final phase of preparation. It is focused on maximizing the performance of the athlete with the aim of winning in competition. In this phase, the athlete has worked all his abilities, both physical and mental, so that he can maximize his performance.
  6. Retirement of the athlete : in this phase many athletes use all the knowledge acquired during their sports career to guide other athletes or choose careers related to the world of sports. Specialists recommend that activity cease gradually so that the body gets used to it.

Factors that influence to become an elite athlete 

What does it take to be an elite athlete? This is a question that you have surely asked yourself at some point, seeing how sports records that seemed insurmountable have been beaten or when contemplating the intense physical performance of these athletes, which seems unattainable for other human beings. It may also be that you dedicate yourself to professional sports and are working to be an elite athlete, or that you already are. 

In either case, is reaching this level of excellence in sports practice a consequence of constant training? Does it have something to do with the genetics of the individual?

The answer to these last two questions is affirmative in both cases, since both genetic and environmental factors are involved in the development of an elite athlete, but there are several common elements that seem to coincide:

  1. Good adaptation : A high-level athlete usually presents a good adaptation to the environment, in general it is a necessary aptitude to adapt to the conditions of high competition both physically and psychologically and behaviorally since these aspects can have a greater impact in their performance based on their adaptive capacities. Dedication to high-level sport requires sacrifices that the athlete must be willing to accept positively.
  2. Great motor control: It is very important that the athlete has great motor control and learning capabilities, this allows for rapid performance improvement. Generally, a high-performance athlete usually has the ability and ease to carry out different sports activities. 
  3. Favorable environment : The support of the coach, family and friends is important, a stable and favorable environment can make a difference in certain situations. More and more coaches have training at a psychological level to be able to accompany and stimulate the athlete in a positive way. 

Your genetics 

The genetic factors of an elite athlete determine certain abilities that favor sports practice, such as:

  • Motor skills.
  • Anthropometric characteristics.
  • Absence of chronic disorders incompatible with sport. 
  • Degree of predisposition to certain types of injuries.

The more favorable the genetics, the better the results obtained with sports training. 

Environmental factors in its development

In addition to genetics, environmental factors intervene with the same importance in the training and preparation of an elite athlete. Among them, for example, are:

  • Having practiced for many years a properly designed and appropriate training for the athlete.
  • Having had a professional coach, who has been able to enhance the athlete’s abilities. 
  • Not having presented injuries that have interfered with performance at key moments or have limited sports practice. 

Do Olympic champions have particular genetic characteristics? 

Although we have already explained that sports performance improves through regular physical training and even through nutritional adjustments, genetics also plays a determining role. 

To date, several genes are known to be associated with sports performance (in power and resistance) and susceptibility to ligament injuries. In general, genes with variants associated with sports performance fall into three groups: 

  • Genes that affect muscle structure.
  • Genes that affect the structure of ligaments
  • Genes with a cardiorespiratory function . The genes that affect energy production are located here, as well as those that are involved in various metabolic processes.

The ACTN3 gene

The ACTN3 gene generates an essential protein in the muscle contraction process, but this is an example of a loss of function that is an improvement in a certain type of sport. Athletes who present an altered copy of the gene, have a reduced protein level or it does not form, in this case resistance sports are favored, but it is negative for sprinters. In people with functional variants, the opposite occurs, if there is protein synthesis, the production of so-called “fast” muscle fibers is favored and speed sports are favored. 

The COL1A1 gene and ligament injuries

The COL1A1 gene codes for a component of type 1 collagen. This type of collagen is found in most connective tissues, bone, cornea, dermis, and tendon . Certain variants in this gene represent a competitive advantage since they reduce the risk of presenting ligament injuries. If we do not present this protective variant, we have a risk equal to that of other athletes.

The gene that regulates blood volume 

Another gene that influences athletic performance is the one that generates the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) , involved in the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, and which has an essential role in regulating blood volume, blood pressure, and heart rate. electrolyte balance. Certain variants in this gene are related to a decrease in peripheral resistance, improving cardiovascular activity, allowing more blood and oxygen to reach the muscles. This variant is found more frequently in endurance athletes.

Strength or resistance?

The choice of the type of sport is based on many criteria and logically on the preferences and abilities of the athlete, with respect to the contribution from genetics. 

In our blog article Aerobic and anaerobic resistance: are you a long-distance runner or a sprinter? , the genetic predisposition to excel in aerobic (endurance) or anaerobic (strength) sports is described, providing more information about this topic

Commitment, sacrifice and training: three fundamental pillars

Commitment, sacrifice and training are essential to achieve the brands and performance of elite sport. Constant training is essential for children and young people to become elite athletes. Those who have become so began to play sports around the age of 9, standing out from a young age for qualities such as agility, strength, speed or cardiovascular resistance.

As the child grows, the greater the technical demand of a sport will be. For this reason, the training sessions must follow a personalized guideline, adapting to the level of maturity of the athlete. The psychological plane can also be decisive in the career of the child or young person, influencing aspects such as perseverance or learning capacity.

The theory of sports commitment 

A high degree of commitment is necessary to face the vicissitudes that may arise in the athlete’s career.

The so-called sports commitment theory (Carpenter et al, 1993, Scanlan et al, 1993a, 1993b), states that said commitment to sport and training is linked to elements such as fun, personal fulfillment or social recognition, among others. . 

Finally, training is essential to improve one’s own conditions.

The figure of the coach is no less important, since he is in charge of designing a large part of the athlete’s training. 

Cardiovascular health: a key point 

Performing high-level sports pushes the athlete’s body to the limit, therefore, cardiovascular health, the engine of the body, becomes even more important. Generally, these types of athletes undergo stress tests and periodic check-ups, this is key since an undiagnosed cardiovascular problem can lead to an athlete’s collapse during training or competition. Today there are specialized units that carry out this type of check-up that perform stress tests, electrocardiograms and complete analyzes to ensure that the athlete practices physical activity safely. 

In this area, more and more progress is being made in the knowledge of genetics in relation to hereditary cardiovascular pathologies and there are tests that make it possible to determine if the patient has any genetic variant that increases their risk of presenting a morphological or cardiac rhythm alteration that causes a sudden death, genetic variants are responsible for about 20% of these cases.

The diet 

A balanced diet is always healthy, whether or not we are elite athletes. However, in the latter case it must be more precise and there are specific requirements since the athlete has a higher caloric intake, inflammation and special needs for different nutrients, which are also conditioned by his objectives. Any deficit in the diet will translate into alterations in a person’s quality of life, but in a much more accentuated way in athletes who push their bodies to the limit on a regular basis.

As we saw in the article Keys to a diet for athletes , nutrition and hydration are very important in sports performance.

In the case of elite athletes, subjected to periodic and intense training, it is especially relevant, because if they do not replenish carbohydrates, proteins or amino acids, they will lose muscle mass and performance will be increasingly deficient. 

It is generally recommended to eat around 5 meals a day, the diet contains more carbohydrates and proteins than the diet of a person with a lower level of activity, necessary to be able to train demandingly every day. While carbohydrates provide energy, protein contributes to muscle growth.

Regarding fats, the consumption of those that are healthy and rich in monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids is recommended, since intense sports practice is associated with higher levels of inflammation and omega-3 fatty acids can help to compensate for this situation. physiological. 

At the vitamin level, it is key to consume 5 pieces of fruit or vegetables a day as they provide important antioxidants to offset the oxidative stress generated by intense sports practice. Also the contribution of nuts is important.

In addition, the diet must be adapted to the different stages of training and competition:  

  • During training: following the advice previously explained, the athlete will be able to increase their performance and reach the competition with good levels of nutrients, vitamins and hydration. 

The week before the competition: it is advisable to take carbohydrates, the objective is to increase glycogen stores that will provide the necessary resistance at the time of the competition. 

  • The day of the competition: it is advisable to be able to digest quickly, so it is better to eat foods that are rich in carbohydrates and limit whole grain products, proteins or fats. 
  • The day after the competition: slow assimilation carbohydrates and healthy proteins are recommended, as well as foods such as fruit or yogurt.

We must also emphasize the importance of hydration and mineral salts , especially before the competition, since during it they will be lost through sweat. 

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