Is your DNA slowing you down?

Increase your endurance by understanding about genetics

Are you fed up of getting home from rides feeling dead? It might not be your fault. A large part of it could be down to your DNA…

It’s a common occurrence out on the road. Cyclist A is putting a serious shift in, blowing a gasket heading for the top of a seriously steep climb. At that exact moment cyclist B sails past with a smug look plastered on their face, barely breaking a sweat. Two riders, teammates or colleagues, both with similar body types and training regimes but worlds apart where it matters. Maybe it’s down to gear ratios, maybe it’s what one or the other had for breakfast, or maybe B is sneaking in some hill sessions on the quiet. 

But what if technology, nutrition or covert climbing had nothing to do with it? What if it was something more predetermined than that?

Born to ride?

If you take a look at the podiums at any of the grand tours it’s easy to see what it takes to be a top cyclist. No not the drugs. Most weigh very little and they’d be hard pushed to bench press a loaf of bread. But what they all share is a set of lungs that would make opera singers cower away whimpering in a corner.

While I assume you’re realistic enough to accept that making it as a professional rider may be beyond you (stop me if I’m wrong), you’ll no doubt have ambitions of entering (and completing!) sportives and maybe even a race or two, and rightly so. However, as riders A and B show, some of us are more cut out for this than others. This doesn’t just come down to body shape, after all it’s easy to spot a rugby player from a road cyclist. There is a little bit more to it.

Various DNA-measuring companies are giving riders a chance to dig a little deeper, discovering what it is in their genetic make-up that helps or hinders their training. Having blamed a poor race performance on everything from a howling headwind to the wrong socks, there’s now a new excuse you can add to your arsenal: your parents. By taking a DNA test it’s possible to discover just how well your body responds to aerobic exercise and therefore tailor your training routine accordingly.

Those riders who respond well to aerobic training will be able to obtain a much higher VO2 max than those who don’t respond so well. Those with a larger VO2 max will be able to metabolise oxygen more efficiently allowing them to work at higher intensities for longer. There are lots of workouts that can increase your VO2 max but, depending on your DNA, you might be banging your head against a brick wall.

“The aim of the XRPredict+ test is to help individuals move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” says XRGenomics’ – one of the leading DNA-testing firms – Professor Jamie Timmons. Having profiled muscle tissue from several groups of volunteers Jamie and his colleagues identified around 30 different variations in how genes were expressed, which had a significant effect on how well each person developed aerobically. Put simply, the volunteers’ genetic make-up clearly had an impact on their ability to get fit.

“Our research proves that one size definitely does not fit all, especially when it comes to an individual’s ability to improve their aerobic fitness levels,” says Prof Timmons.

Size matters

The XRPredict+ test takes a number of measurements, including height, weight, resting heart rate and some details about how active you are in general. The really clever bit is the use of a DNA sample that determines your ability to respond to aerobic exercise.

After sending off a saliva sample the experts at XR put it under their microscopes and send you back a percentage, letting you know exactly where you sit on the scale between the Chris Froomes and the Chris Moyles of this world. Those with a score over 59 percent are classed as high responders; those scoring from 59 and 55 percent are classed as medium-high, while those scoring between 55 and 35 percent rank as medium-low. Those scoring below 35 percent are low responders, so might as well stick their bike on eBay immediately, right?

“If you are one of the 20 percent of the population who are predetermined not to respond well to this type of training there is little point in focusing on this as one of your fitness goals,” says Prof Timmons. “You are simply setting yourself up for guaranteed failure, which of course is incredibly demotivating.”

This might all seem like doom and gloom but it’s not all bad news. Although low responders will see little point in pushing themselves to their maximum aerobic capacity for very little reward, especially while their super fit, high responding friends see huge gains, there are alternatives.

Game changers

“People who are categorised as low responders should focus on different goals and types of exercise,” says Prof Timmons. “For example, they may gain more benefit from increasing levels of resistance training into their workout.”

Swapping out aerobic training for more strength-based sessions is an obvious way to bypass this issue, or for those determined to boost their VO2 max then the solution is, unfortunately, putting in more hours on the bike pushing your body to the max.

“If you are categorised as a moderate to high, or high responder,” says the professor, “and you aren’t seeing much improvement in your aerobic fitness levels, then you know that it is your training regime that is not working as it should be, and you can focus on adapting that to make it more effective.”

The idea of the XRPredict+ test isn’t to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, it actually serves to focus training time so riders are getting the best possible results from their hours on the bike. The detailed report gives you 20 pages of results and advice on how to get the best from your body, including tips on meeting goals, improving nutrition and advice on maximising your training time. So if you’re looking to sneak an edge on your mates before the next big ride then XRGenomics might just have the answer.

Boost your vo2 max using our tips:
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Boost your VO2 max using our tips

Increase Your VO2 Max

For all you high responders out there, here are three great ways to boost your aerobic capacity:

Up the intensity

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way to push up your VO2 max, especially if you are time-poor and want to see some real results. You can easily do it on a turbo trainer, too, making it convenient whatever the weather. Ride for four minutes, going all-out for 10 seconds and 50 seconds easy per minute. For the next four minutes ride 20 seconds all-out and 40 seconds easy, with a final four-minute ride of 30 seconds maximum effort and 30 seconds easy. Remember to warm up and cool down for five minutes either side.

Medium effort

Simple moderate intensity sessions can also help you make significant aerobic improvements. A study from Odense University in Denmark found that cyclists who worked at 80 to 90 percent of their VO2 max (or around 88 to 95 percent maximum heart rate) for 30 minutes, three times a week could improve their VO2 max by six percent over just five weeks. This could be done on the turbo or on a relatively flat or gently undulating stretch of road. By using the same section each time you do this session you will notice improvements more easily.

Going up

Climbing intervals are another effective (if painful) way to increase your aerobic ability and raise your VO2 max. Identify a climb that takes about four or five minutes to reach the top. While riding up it keep your heart rate at around 95 to 97 percent of your maximum and your gearing should be set up so that your cadence is around 70 to 85 rpm, never straying too far from this. When you reach the top, have an easy ride back down for recovery and then repeat four or five times. You will soon notice your aerobic capacity is vastly improved.