I have to admit right at the start that the title I chose for this post is intentionally simplistic. Even among non-scientists like me, it’s generally understood that the old notion that there are single genes responsible for complex physical characteristics, capabilities, or behaviors is badly misguided. Instead, even relatively easy-to-measure traits like height are the product of complex interactions between many genes, and are also influenced by environment and individual experience (think “training”) that results in the expression or suppression of certain genes.
In his book “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein makes a strong case that genetics is the key to athletic excellence, but that many other factors come into play that help determine the athletic destiny of any individual. To use one of his examples, as a group, professional baseball players are blessed with extraordinarily good eyesight, but having the genetic gift of good eyesight does not guarantee you will be a professional baseball player. But if you DON’T have great eyesight, your path to the majors will be a lot harder.
So with that apology out of the way, I was fascinated to read recently of research into the genetic basis of a phenomenon that we prize almost above all others in longer running events. I’m talking about the burst of speed unleashed late in a race, the sudden acceleration that defies fatigue and seems to come out of nowhere from athletes who appeared a few minutes earlier to be hanging on for dear life. In short, I’m talking about the ability to “kick.”
As someone who is usually on the receiving end of someone else’s kick, I have always wondered why certain runners seem to have the knack for the lethal kick. Even back in junior high school I wondered at it and feared it. In high school, we all knew the runners in our league who had the fastest finishes, and we spent endless hours scheming how to “break” them or neutralize their kicks. Mostly we failed. Later, when I began to coach high school athletes, the conversations continued. Sure, I coached a few kids who had great kicks, but they hardly needed advice from me. All they needed to do was make sure they were near the front with 200m to go and their kicks would do the rest. But most kids were, like me, lacking in whatever it was that emerged at the end of race and carried some kids to glory and others to puzzled runner-up status.
But recent studies from the Exercise Physiology lab at Oregon State have identified a set of traits that seem to be common to runners who demonstrate exceptional abilities to kick, and yes, at least some of those traits are associated with specific gene mutations.
The study itself had to overcome a number of challenges to arrive at its conclusions. The first challenge was to agree on a rigorous definition of a kick, an objective way to measure the efficacy of a kick, and then identify good kickers. The team at OSU analyzed hundreds of hours of video of collegiate races, provided by FloTrack’s professional video library (FloPro-L). With the help of the OSU computer science dept., the research team developed an artificial intelligence algorithm, FloPro-L AI, capable of flagging videos that showed dramatic changes in the relative positions of the runners in the final 30 seconds of each race.
From this raw data, the researchers were able to distinguish between the large number of relatively modest kicks and the examples of truly exceptional kicks. These “badass” kicks had in common the following characteristics:
- Acceleration relative to the avg. velocity of the race > 0.04012016 m/s^2
- Velocity in final 100m > avg. velocity of that runner’s 800m PR
- Number of competitors on the ground or with their hands on their knees in the minute after the end of race > 0.5 x participants
Having identified a population of exceptional kickers, and a suitable control group, from among the NCAA athletes, the researchers then spent several months collecting data on each athlete in each group. They also ran a battery of standard physiological tests, including V02 Max, muscle contractility tests, functional mobility tests, etc. Finally, they sequenced individual genomes, focusing on genes previously identified as being associated with superior speed, endurance, etc.
While I don’t have the space to review all their findings, I’ll summarize by saying that the badass kickers had a surprising mix of traits, combining what we informally call “speed endurance” with a gene associated with rapid muscle contraction that is found dis-proportionally in world-class sprinters and jumpers. Intriguingly, the great kickers showed BELOW AVERAGE mental acuity in some areas, for example, multi-tasking and spatial reasoning. Perhaps most fascinating was the observation that compared to the control group, the kickers had almost no ability whatsoever to evaluate their own physical state in treadmill tests and other physiological benchmarks. Essentially, they didn’t seem to know when they were tired and when they were not.
Lead researcher for the OSU team (and active runner herself), Dr. Arli Ploof, summarized the surprising findings with this comment:
“We’ve always suspected that great kickers were different, and now we are beginning to understand those physical and mental differences, and their basis in individual genetic variations. Back when I was running competitively, we used to shake our heads and say “No brain, no pain,” to make ourselves feel better about being out-kicked again by someone who seemed unaware of the fatigue that we ourselves felt so keenly. It turns out that we might have been on to something.”