There’s no secret: I am not an Olympic-distance runner. I always felt that my body was built for power, not endurance. I’ve got serious calves and my shoulders? Well, they aren’t dainty. I’m not light and fast, but hey, I am pretty strong. Watching the athletes earlier this year in Rio made one thing really clean to me: I’m not physically built for long distance running.
Even so, that never stopped me.
A marathon was always on my bucket list, and I’ve ticked that box off a few times. And as any repeat marathoner will tell you, these races don’t necessarily get easier. I chalked up each marathon as another challenge, and granted, I was improving, I wouldn’t exactly say I hit my racing stride.
As I watched the Olympics, I got to thinking that if Katie Ledecky is made to be a swimmer, maybe I’m built to be something else? Knowing that I could test my DNA to see what my genetic makeup says about my athleticism, I didn’t think twice. I spit into a few tubes, sealed up a box and sent it over to FitnessGenes to await my fate.
Gulp. What did I find out? I found out how I could become a better runner:
When it comes to strength and power vs. endurance, I’m a mixed bag
I’ve got more fast-twitch muscle fibers, (A.K.A.: less endurance capacity) but at the same time, I’ve got two copies of an allele associated with endurance athletic performance, considered the optimal genotype for endurance athletes. For yet another genotype, I’ve got one copy of the “endurance athlete” allele and one copy of the “weightlifting and combat athlete” allele, which I took to mean that maybe I’m not as bad at distance running as I thought. I can adapt to either situation—distance or power—with the proper training, of course.
I have two copies of a fast lactic acid-clearing allele
This means when the intensity turns up, I can clear lactic acid quickly to avoid muscle fatigue early on. In fact, the genotype I have has been more commonly found in endurance athletes. A win for the inner marathoner in me!
I’m a fast metabolizer
Everyone’s dream, right? Not exactly, especially when it comes to distance running. When you’re running 26.2 miles, burning your fuel early in the race leads to an inevitable bonk, the dreaded crash and the ensuing panic of not knowing how you’ll get to the end of the race. What does this mean? I need more fuel before, during and after my long races to keep my body strong.
I’m a morning bird
Believe it or not, there’s more than just adapting your schedule or setting multiple alarms. It’s programmed in your DNA, and it confirmed what I always knew—waking up early is for me. In fact, getting up early is something I not only do, but I enjoy! I’ve never hit the snooze button… in my entire life.
So, how did I become a better runner using these new insights?
I added other distances to the mix
Marathon running is nice to do now and again, but knowing that I’ve got a good mix of endurance and of power and speed, I added some shorter distances to my race calendar. I’m able to harness both aspects of my athleticism without feeling burnt out from miles upon miles of training. As a result, I’m feeling strong and comfortable no matter what distance I take on. Now, it’s time to nail down the pacing for some of those shorter races.
Knowing that I clear lactic acid quickly, I adjusted my training schedule as needed
If I was feeling under the weather on a long run day, I rescheduled. This drove the planner in me wild, but by listening to my body, I was able to save my long runs for days when I felt truly ready. Knowing that I recover quicker than normal meant I could tinker with the training plan every now and again without feeling like there’s no room for recovery. And even though I clear lactic acid quickly, it’s still worth noting that I’m a firm believe in a good post-run ice bath.
I made a few tweaks to my pre-race fueling
My ritual used to consist of oatmeal and a banana, but after my DNA readout, Dr. Daniel Reardon, one of the founders of FitnessGenes, recommended I add some protein to the morning mix, which burns slower than my typical carbohydrates. Before my next race, I added a hardboiled egg and some peanut butter to my breakfast and, lo and behold, this seemingly small adjustment helped me go the distance. I’m still tinkering with how to stay fueled through all 26 of my miles, but I felt stronger much longer than normal.
I do all of my important runs in the morning
Yes, there are times I need to sneak in a few miles in the afternoon or even at night, but knowing that I’m at my best in the early hours, I clear my schedule and aim for that. The bonus? Most races start early in the day.
Knowing what my DNA says about my athletic abilities has been beyond useful. Rather than simply reading training plans or asking others for advice, I have a window into what my body is capable of and where it feels most natural. I still seek out all of my resources, but it’s like I’ve got the inside scoop to what works best for me personally. Quite frankly, it took some of the guesswork out of what I was doing. But the biggest change I made? The mental one.
Knowing that I’m both a power athlete and an endurance athlete has helped me stay motivated at mile 24. There’s scientific, genetic proof that my body can do it—and will do it. There’s no doubt there. It isn’t your genetic makeup or how quickly you clear lactic acid that gets you through the last few miles.
It’s mind over DNA matter, down to the finish.