‘The Sports Gene’ Author David Epstein on Athleticism and Nature vs. Nurture


What gives two people who train just as long and just as hard in the same athletic pursuit different results? In his new book, The Sports Gene, Award-winning Sports Illustrated writer, David Epstein, takes sports journalism to the next level with his fascinating look at nature vs. nurture via a slew of scientific studies about athletic performance.

theFashionSpot: What prompted you to write this book?

David Epstein: It began with my own athletic experience, really, and four questions I had in particular. The first impetus was my youth outside Chicago, in a town that had a mini-Jamaican diaspora in the 1970s and 80s. My high school track team won 24 straight conference title, in large part thanks to Jamaican sprinters. When, as a teenager, I learned that only 2.7 million people live in Jamaica, I started to wonder what the heck was going on over there that was producing so many great sprinters. Then I had a sort of analogous experience in college, where I moved up to a little longer distance running and was racing against Kenyans, and learning that so many great Kenyan runners come from one minority tribe, the Kalenjin. So, again, I was wondering what the heck was going in the homeland of the Kalenjin runners, or in the biology of the Kalenjin themselves. Couple that with the fact that I had a five-man training group and noticed that my teammates and I became more different, not more similar, even as we trained identically, and I just couldn’t figure out how this could be. So I started to build up these questions. And then, when I was a sophomore, one of those Jamaicans I had trained with dropped dead a few steps after a race, of a genetic condition that is the most common cause of sudden death in athletes. So it was really the combination of question about “talent hotbeds,” the nature of athleticism, and the genetics of health and disease that motivated me to start this book project. I just wanted answers myself, and I hope other people might be interested as well.

tFS: How did you set about doing the immense amount of research?

DA: In my work for Sports Illustrated, I was always encountering sports narratives, so that was a natural part of my work. As far as the science, though, that was difficult. This is a budding area of science, and, while I have a graduate degree in science, it isn’t in genetics or physiology, so I was used to reading scientific papers, but not exactly this type of work. So I really immersed myself in the sports science community, to the point where I was invited three straight years to speak at the American College of Sports Medicine Conference. Opportunities like that gave me a chance to meet physiologists and geneticists like Stephen Roth of Maryland and Tim Lightfoot of Texas A&M who really allowed me to turn to them any day of the week to discuss studies and make sure I was understanding trends in the field correctly. So, all that, plus I basically sacrificed everything outside of work in my life for three years. My vacations were reporting trips to rural Kenya or the Arctic of Finland in January, and for about a year and a half I tried to read or skim 10 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles a day…holiday, weekend, whatever. I used databases like Science Citation Index to search terms related to sports genetics and physiology, and then I read everything I could get my hands on, often going through the citations of an interesting paper to find the history of work that led up to it. It took a lot of energy.

tFS: Sounds like an arduous process. What kept you motivated?

DE: There’s nothing like the fear of writing a bad book or screwing up the science to get one motivated.

tFS: Can you highlight some of the findings you found to be most surprising?

DE: When I scored faster on a test of reaction speed than one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball history, I was pretty darn surprised by that. Unfortunately for me, and as I explain in chapter one, big league hitters don’t have particularly fast reflexes. Rather, they rely on learned perceptual skills. Secondly, the science of chapter 14 was a huge surprise to me. I knew that exercising can alter the dopamine system—the brain system involved in pleasure and reward—but I didn’t realize that scientists who study this area know that the reverse is true as well, that the dopamine system influences how driven people are to be physically active. This reporting led to one of my favorite interviews, with ultramarathon legend Pam Reed. The day before I interviewed her she had finished the national Ironman Triathlon championship—and qualified for worlds—and was at Laguardia Airport in New York. Her flight was delayed, and she’s so uncomfortable being inactive that Pam stashed her bags in a corner and was running laps around the parking structure while I was interviewing her.

tFS: What do you make of Malcolm Gladwell's article?

DE: I appreciate his thoughtful take and also that he called the book “wonderful.” The point I highlighted with respect to the 10,000-hours rule is that there is tremendous individual variation, and that the 10,000 hours was just an average of disparate individual differences from a highly pre-screened group. Gladwell notes that in cognitively complex skills, nobody can perform the skill without significant practice. I completely agree with that, but I would also point out that individual differences in the amount of practice required in studies of skill development, like chess—which both he and I write about—go up, not down, as the skill becomes more complex. In any case, I’m a huge proponent of public discussion of science and science writing, so long as the conversation is civil. I don’t think we have enough of that in popular forums, so I’m thrilled that Gladwell decided to prompt more discussion.

tFS: Is there anything that was left on the editing floor that you wish had made it into the book?

DE: I cut an entire chapter on epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors can cause genes to be turned on or off, and how those on/off switches can be passed down to subsequent generations. The chapter was republished here, but with an explanation of why I cut it. I also cut a section on the genetics and sports advantage of left-handedness, and I cut a section about genes that appear to impact metabolism of brain chemicals, and early evidence that this influences the rate of motor skill learning. The first draft of the book was tens of thousands of words too long, so I had to do some serious trimming.

tFS: Have you taken any of what you've learned and applied it into your own fitness regimen?

DE: I have in some ways. I had a range of physiological and genetic tests during the reporting. Just as medical geneticists have learned that no two people may respond quite the same to a particular drug due to genetic differences, exercise geneticists are finding that no two people respond quite the same to any particular training program. I used to be a competitive athlete—I ran the 800 in college—but now my goals are much more health-related. I have some high blood pressure in my family, and during my reporting I learned that I have a set of genes that suggest I can have a very rapid improvement in my blood pressure from purely aerobic training. So I monitor my BP and I’m now able to regulate it quite easily with exercise and I don’t think I’ll ever need medication like some of my relatives. I also learned that I’m more of the “fast-twitch” phenotype, so I concentrate more on intense work with significant periods of rest and I’ve had much better results than when I concentrated more on duration of work, and limited rest.

tFS: Most people can't get all of that testing done; are there some key things you have learned that you think can help improve people's fitness abilities in their day-to-day lives?

DE: Most people don't need to get all that testing done, but what they should do is pay a bit less attention to cookie-cutter training plans and more to interrogating their own biology. Essentially, they should take more of a trial and error approach to training. Simply looking at what works for someone else isn’t good enough, because your genome is so unique that the ideal training plan for you is also unique. If a training program isn’t working as well for you as for your training partner, the problem may be you, in the very deepest sense. So instead of slavishly following some program that works for someone else, put in some time on the front end toward trial and error, and figuring out what you best respond to. For me, I was a better long-distance runner on 35 miles a week of targeted intervals and hills, and intense lifting circuits once a week, than on 85 miles a week of distance. In chapter six I write about the Danish scientist who tailors training plans to the biology of elite athletes, and while we don’t all have access to Jesper Andersen, we can all learn a bit more about our own bodies with some trial and error. As an aside, the greatest mistake that the average exerciser makes is sacrificing all intensity for duration. Every training plan should have intensity—even if just 30 second hard intervals—mixed in. You don’t cause physiologic adaptation by lifting the same weight the same number of times every day.