I Took a DNA Test to Tell Me How to Work Out—and Apparently I’m a Sprinter

Photo: Getty Images/spyderskidoo
Earlier this year, I became one of the millions who've shipped a swab of saliva to a faraway lab in exchange for a beyond-comprehensive DNA profile. Only, I wasn't really interested in learning about my distant ancestors (sorry, great, great, great Irish grandma!) or which foods would optimize my genes. What I really wanted to know? How my deoxyribonucleic acid (or ya know DNA for short) informs the time I spend at the gym. Because, yes—a test can totally tell you that now.

To begin my journey of biological self-discovery, I tried both the Vitagene and DNAFit gene-testing options. By the time I'd taken my cheek swab sample, gathered up the courage to go to the post office to ship it off to the lab (because, ugh), and waited patiently for my results to come, two months had gone by. But once I logged into my online profile and discovered the bounty of info that literally encodes the foundation of who I am, I had to admit that the payoff was worth it.

While I learned a ton about my individual strands of DNA—for example, I'm predisposed to injuries, yet tend to recover faster after workouts than others—my main takeaway was that it would be relatively easy to biohack my workout. Before testing my DNA, I resolutely subscribed to the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race cliché. I logged my three-to-four weekly runs with one goal in mind: I should maintain a steady pace throughout the duration of my 45-minute sessions. Interval training? Out of the question. Threshold pace? What even is that?

On a genetic level, my body has untapped potential to crank that treadmill up to speeds that exceeded way beyond my habitual 7.0. cap. Yeah...

So it came as a plot twist (and sparked a minor workout-related identity crisis) when the test told me that I have a strong association with the CC allele of the ACTN3 gene colloquially known as the "sprinter gene." To take that out of science terms for you, that just means that on a genetic level, my body has untapped potential to crank that treadmill up to speeds that exceeded way beyond my habitual 7.0. cap. Yeah...

In case your biology jargon is a little rusty, alleles are alternative forms of a gene. For example, the ACTN3 has three: TT, CT, and CC, the one that best supports power and endurance workouts (it me!). "It's actually known as the sprint gene because almost every single elite-level sprinter that’s ever been tested for this gene has at least one C allele. Most of them have CC like you have," says Tom Lancashire, a sports science consultant for DNAFit. And even though the gene alone doesn't put me on par with Shalane Flanagan (alas!), I started thinking that it would still be kinda fun to use my newfound knowledge of ACTN3 as an excuse to workout like a sprinter. So for two months, I did just that, staying with my tried-and-true endurance long runs (I just can't quit them!), but in equal measure, adding in sprint work and high-intensity training to the mix to see if I'm really up to it.

And honestly, after two months or so of following my new sweat-routine, I must admit: I think I've stepped onto the conniving rabbit's side of the whole Tortoise and the Hare debate. Keep reading to find out what happened when I worked out according to my genetics.

dna fitness test
Photo: Getty Images/Martin dm

Designing my DNA-first workouts

Before getting started, I ask Lancashire what shape my ideal training plan should take. "For most people, fitness falls into two different aspects," he tells me. "You’ve got strength training where people are trying to build muscle, or get stronger, or just become more toned, and then you’ve got aerobic stuff where people are trying to be fitter, able to run a 10K, or lose some kind of weight." Because my strongest gene associations are the sprinting (ahem) and another, which predisposes me to maintain high energy for long periods of time, he recommended splitting my time in the gym 50/50 between high-intensity-style exercises (AKA power) and endurance exercises.

The Vitagene exercise recommendations work a little bit differently. Rather than telling you how to schedule your workouts, they ask you to input what type of exercises you do and how vigorously you perform them (for instance, whether you run an eight-minute mile or a six-minute mile). Then, they determine whether or not you're burning an ideal number of calories for your genetic makeup. I personally don't find this as user-friendly to work with as DNAFit's more qualitative advice, but if your brain loves numbers, you might prefer this setup.

For the sake of simplicity (and because I'm not a fan of judging my workouts based on calorie burn), I decide to follow Lancashire's advice to a tee. With the help of Aaptiv (my trusted audio fitness app), I start divvying up my runs between endurance-based workouts (tortoise-style) and high-intensity power workouts (hare-style). No two week's look the same, but here's a look the first seven days of treadmill workouts I designed, with hot yoga classes sprinkled in as lower-intensity options.

Here's what my biohacked fitness plan looked like

Monday: Hot yoga

Power Tuesday: Fartlek (or speed-play) run, 3.5 miles with intervals of speeds ranging all the way from 6.0 to 9.5

WednesdayHot yoga

Endurance Thursday: Four, nine-minute intervals at threshold pace with one minute recovery in between each

Power Friday: HIIT-style treadmill workout in three parts: Running hill work, progressive intervals, and eight minutes of sprint work

SaturdayHot yoga

Endurance Sunday: Long run, six miles on the treadmill at a steady, conversational pace

When I make it to Sunday of this week, I take note of a few surprisingly significant shifts in my everyday life. First of all, I feel energized. Almost like the post-workout endorphin high just hasn't worn off even hours after I've stopped sweating.

Better yet? I feel stronger. I've never really thought of myself as someone who could run fast, but scheduling in time to do so makes me feel like I've discovered a new part of the person I spend 24/7 with. Above all, I think the DNA test reminded me that one of the reasons we test ourselves with tough workouts is to see what we're made of. In this case, literally. Every once in a while, it's fun—and even downright profound—to outpace our own conceptions of ourselves.

Here's how to fall head over heels for running—even if you hate it. And what to do if you've temporarily lost your mileage mojo

Loading More Posts...