RunBlogRun INTERVIEWS: David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, Inside the Science of Extraordinary Atheltic Performance, by Larry Eder

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Sports Gene Front Cover Final_Epstein.jpg


Updated 25 September 2013

One of the most provocative and thoughtful books in many years, The Sports Gene is David Epstein's journey to understanding, the complicated relationship between heredity, sports talent, hard work, and how it is seen on the sports field. 

Many will know David Epstein as the thoughtful writer on sports science for Sports Illustrated. We were lucky enough to have David answer questions for us. Special thanks to David Epstein for his time and patience.


RunBlogRun highly recommends The Sports Gene. The book can be found at www.Amazon.com. This book should be read by every coach, trainer, athletic director and parent of a young athlete. Well done, well researched and a great read! 

The other point I would like to make on David Epstein's writing: Epstein proves once, and again, that we need critical, not cynical observers, of our sport and the sporting world. 

RBR, # 1. What is the biggest lesson that you learnt in researching The Sports Gene?

David Epstein:  That some things I thought were genetic--like a major league hitters ability to react to a 100 mph fastball--are actually learned, and that others I thought were entirely acts of will, like the compulsive drive to train, actually has an important genetic component. 


RBR, # 2. Can an untalented athlete, using all the drugs known to god, compete on a world class level?


David Epstein: : For the most part, I think the answer is 'no,' but I do think it depends on the sport. From all the evidence I've seen, oxygen carrying capacity seems to be the most predictive of success in cross-country skiing. During my reporting, one Swedish researcher showed me old data that indicated that VO2max was a better predictor of Olympic medals in cross-country skiing than in any other sport. So if you can dramatically alter your oxygen carrying capacity--which, as we know, can be accomplished with EPO--you can really change your athleticism for a sport like that. 


The main character in chapter 16 is a living example of that, though he happens to be "naturally doped" from a rare genetic mutation. His physical build was not like most of his competitors, which seems to suggest that his rare gift allowed him to overcome not having a typical skier body type. All that said, I think the answer is still generally 'no.' Especially today. In the "Big Bang of body types" chapter I discuss what has happened to the bodies of elite athletes as sports have become more competitive and rewards have grown. I think it would have been easier to dramatically improve your athletic station with doping in generations past, when the natural sifting of body types wasn't as efficient. Now, the biology gets increasingly standardized as you move up the competitive ladder, and then doping can separate elite athletes, but I don't think it entirely makes them. (Then again, I do have a baseball source who told me he wasn't a major leaguer without drugs....but he was already a minor leaguer when he started using, so it wasn't like he came completely out of nowhere.)


RBR, # 3. Where do you stand on banned substances? Can we really clean up the sport?


David Epstein:  The philosopher Bernard Suits defined sports and games as "the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles." I like that, and I think intentionally circumventing the unnecessary obstacles that you voluntarily accepted undermines some of the journey of self exploration that I love about sports. That said, I do think there are substances that are banned that shouldn't be banned, but I still think the rules should be followed. Cork for a baseball bat doesn't even work, but it's banned, and the rule should be followed. I can think of nothing in the world so dependent upon agreed upon rules for its core values as sports. The whole endeavor is a contrivance that we imbue with meaning. As to whether we can clean up the sport, well, not entirely. It's like asking if we can get rid of all crime. Nope, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. The incentives to cheat are huge, the penalties--at worst--are that you have to do something other than be a pro athlete, which is eventually the case for all pro athletes anyway. And right now, the public reputation of drug testing far exceeds its actual capabilities. The rate of false negatives is enormous. In the book, I discuss a gene that influences the excretion of testosterone, and people with a certain version of it simply won't fail the most common anti-doping test. And that gene variant is not rare. So there's a lot left to do, but I actually think group culture is a big part of it, and I think runners themselves are becoming more outspoken in an important way. 



RBR, # 4. Usain Bolt is a huge athlete, huge talent, and has worked hard to develop his talent, can he go faster?


David Epstein:  Part of the genius of Bolt, and I discuss this principle in the book, is that he doesn't overtrain. Look at this quote from his autobiography: "I'm so lucky that I'm raw talent. If I really worked at it I could be extremely good indeed, but I never have. Yes, I put the effort in at times, but I could do more." But he shouldn't do more! As scientists in the book discuss, athletes with a huge proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers often shouldn't do more. We each have a genome that is unique in the world, and so, for optimal performance we would each have a unique training environment. I think Bolt has done a good job and finding his ideal environment. And I think we have seen his prime, but he's never had the absolutely perfect combination of maximum allowable tailwind, a good start, and a fast track. So, all things being equal, I don't think we'll see him go faster, but if those conditions aren't equal, then I think he could still improve on his records slightly. 


RBR, # 5. How do you explain an athlete like Kim Collins, 2003 World Champ, 2011 bronze medalist?


David Epstein:  I'm not sure what there is to explain. He's always been really fast. Another guy, from what I've heard from folks who were at TCU, who never overtrained. 


RBR # 6. Athletes with huge capacities for work, like Chris Solinsky, also have their limits, how do you explain that?


David Epstein:  Medical genetics showed us that, for example, because you and I have different genes involved in the metabolism of acetaminophen, I don't get the same response from one Tylenol that you do. Exercise genetics is now showing the same for training. The field is changing the definition of talent to one that includes the biological hardware that allows one to benefit from the training. There are so-called "high responders" and "low responders," but not infinite responders. Even thoroughbred horses, which have enormous tolerance for work, are no longer getting faster in many of the most prestigious races. As I discuss in the book, this appears to be for two reasons: 1) The horses have exhausted their genetic variation, so we need some new input to the gene pool to become faster, and 2) They have hit a physiologic terminal velocity. Some thoroughbreds have bleeding through their lungs they run so hard, so there are, genetic, biomechanical and physiologic limits.  


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David Epstein, the writer of The Sports Gene, photo courtesy of The Sports Gene


RBR, # 7. Do you believe that there are racial differences in sports related activities?


David Epstein:  On average--but no need to apply it to any individual--there are differences in the type of sport that some people will be better for because of their geographic ancestry. I go into great detail on this in the book, and into a discussion of whether race has a genetic meaning at all. In short, we can say that "black athletes dominate running," but the black athletes from West Africa who dominate sprinting could hardly be more physiologically distinct from those in East Africa who dominate distances. So just calling them "black athletes" doesn't tell you a whole lot. But one thing it does tell you is that they evolved the dark skin that protects against equatorial sunlight. That's a low-latitude adaptation. And, it so happens, many ethnic groups with recent low-latitude ancestry, particularly those from hot and dry climates, also share the adaptation of long limbs compared to body size. It's for cooling. The same reason your radiator has long coils--to increase surface area compared to volume. It happens to be good for running speed, and not so good for swimming speed. For swimming speed, it's better to have a long torso, which is more common--but not exclusive to--people with higher latitude ancestry. In any case, I go into great detail on the issue of race and geography and genetics and sports in the book.  


RBR, # 8. If you have an average talent, and train diligently, eat well and use best sports psychology around, can you achieve more than an average person?


David Epstein: Of course. You're asking, What if you have average genes and a great environment? If we were all identical twins, then only training would separate us. And if we all had identical training, only genes would separate us. But if you're asking if you can have average genes and a great environment and be better than the average person, absolutely. The average person, presumably, has average genes and average environment. 


RBR # 9. Where do you stand, in relation to sports on nature vs nurture?


David Epstein:  I wrote a 110,000 word book addressing that question, and there's no way to answer it quickly, because the fact is, as I write in the book, it very much depends on exactly the task you are looking at. Sports are not a monolith, nor the athletes who compete in them. In the second chapter, for example, I focus on two high-jumpers, one who represents the extreme of nature, and the other the extreme of nurture, and they both end up at the exact same place--in the finals of the World Championships. But I don't want to ruin the ending! 


RBR, # 10. Where does a great coach fit in? How important?


David Epstein:  Massively important, for most people, anyway. Again, what exercise genetics is showing us is that cookie-cutter training just doesn't, well, cut it. The best training would be tailored to an athlete's genes and physiology, and I think a coach is the person who helps an athlete figure out what that is. I think that's one of many reasons you've seen a proliferation of coaches in the NFL. Now there are coaches for very specific skillsets and types of players. I have a friend who was a scholarship runner at Illinois and then went into elite special forces in the Air Force, and when he got to the most important training, he and his peers were each given their own coach for one-on-one training! One of the takeaways from the book is that training should be individualized, that makes coaching incredibly important. There's a Danish scientist in the book who is implementing that in a really unique way, and taking good athletes and making them medalists. 


RBR, # 11. What do you want people to know about your book?


David Epstein: : It covers essentially all that we've learned in the decade since the sequencing of the human genome as to what genetic science can tell us about sports. And what it can't. The bullet-fast reactions of a major league hitter? Not genetic. I spent several years working on it, and reported from below the equator and above the Arctic circle, and interviewed world and Olympic champions, and people with rare genetic mutations or physiological traits that drastically altered their athleticism. It's also very track and field heavy after the first chapter or so, since I'm a running nerd. 


RBR, # 12. With all the bad stuff you find in writing for SI, do you still enjoy sports like track, like cycling like pro sports?


David Epstein:  I can think of no better day than one spent at Icahn Stadium (except the part about finding a ride back). I understand doping is part of the sports, and I wish it weren't, but it doesn't ruin it for me entirely. I can still lose myself in a night at the Armory in a way that is rare for me in any other activity. And it doesn't have to be pro track. I still get chills when I watch someone glance at the clock and realize they set a big PR. The world isn't perfect, and neither is track and field, but on some days, when the races are compelling, it still feels momentarily like it is! (And actually, I visited National Stadium in Kingston for the national high school championships, or Champs. I describe the experience in the book, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a cooler atmosphere in all of sports.)


RBR, # 13. And finally, if you were talking to a room full of parents, with lots of cash to develop their kids, what would you tell them is really most important?


David Epstein:  Early hyper-specialization only has scientific support in a small number of sports, like gymnastics. The evidence for "cgs" sports, those measured in centimeters, grams, or seconds, like track, is that early specialization is either not necessary or actually detrimental. One of the IAAF scientific publications discussed the "speed plateau," which is the idea that kids who train for sprinting too hard too early get stuck at a certain top speed, as if it's neurologically encoded, and have trouble improving. So don't think that kids have to hyper-specialize. I discuss the evidence in the book, and it seems that a "sampling period" is support by the science for most athletes. Also, if your kid is thinking about playing football, I don't think it hurts to get them tested for the ApoE4 gene variant, which predisposes one to brain damage from hits to the head. The pros and cons of testing for a variety of genes related to injury, and even death, are discussed in chapter 15. It was actually the sudden death of my own former training partner a few steps after a race that got me into sports science writing in the first place. That's also discussed on chapter 15, and I hope sharing his story will prevent the same thing from happening to some other young runners out there. 




RBR, # 14. And really, finally, if you were talking to a room full of parents, of average means, with good, hard working kids with some talent, what would you tell them? 


David Epstein:  The same thing as the parents with cash. After all, we're running fans. You don't see the Jamaican sprinters or the Kalenjin runners in Kenya coming from families with a lot of cash. In fact, as I wrote, when I visited Moses Kiptanui, who is now wealthy and a businessman in Eldoret, he said that his kids "like to do easier sports." Haha...when it comes to running, I don't think a parent having or not having a ton of money would change my advice. 



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Running in a relay at the Reggie Lewis Center, look at number 295, the author, David Epstein, racing! Thanks to David Epstein for the photo


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