DNA testing: The key to better training?

Pickering is Head of Sport Science for DNAFit

Pickering is Head of Sport Science for DNAFit

INDIVIDUALISATION is a big word in football at the moment - in more ways than one.

Clubs want to tailor training, nutrition and recovery to each player, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. As we know, everyone is built differently: some respond better to power training, while others are endurance athletes; some are prone to injury, while others are more robust.

Until recently, these factors had to be discovered over time, by trial and error. Now, DNA testing has become affordable and promises to take us "from the generic to the genetic”.

Craig Pickering was a sprinter of some renown, winning the 100m at the European Junior Championships in 2005 and competing for Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even later on in his career, he was still getting to know his body though.

“I had a medium recovery speed and suffered from overtraining a couple of times,” he tells TGG. "If I’d known my genetic characteristics when I was younger, it would have been useful.

“If I'd had that information earlier on, it might have tempted me away from overtraining, so I would have had less hard days and reduced my injury risk.”

While still competing, Pickering took a degree in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Bath. When injury thwarted his dream of competing for the GB bobsleigh team at the 2014 Winter Olympics, he retired and took a job as Head of Sport Science for DNAFit.

The company was launched in 2012 by South African entrepreneur Avi Lasarow and produces direct-to-consumer genetic tests. DNAFit's mission statement is to "enable people to get a better idea of how their genes might improve fitness and fitness-based goals".

Thousands of its testing kits have been sold worldwide, although elite athletes comprise less than 1% of DNAFit’s customer base. A handful of Premier League and European teams are on board though, as well as the Egypt national team, and Pickering, who brings experience in both elite sport and science, is working closely with them.

“The tests give support staff a better idea of each player’s unique biological makeup,” he explains.

If you have a player with genes linked to an increased risk of Achilles injury, for example, you can give him exercises to reduce the risk of that injury, monitor them more closely to check their training load is adequate and advise on training programmes.”

The test has been shown to be 100% accurate in identifying gene type and DNAFit is "the only genetic testing company to have had a research paper published about the efficacy of the test and algorithm,” Pickering says.

Last year, the company also published research for a cohort of footballers showing that when they trained to their DNA, there was a trebling of their vertical jump ability after eight weeks.

“What we’ve had in the past is a broad guide to training,” says Pickering, who lives with his wife on Australia's Gold Coast. “So if you want to improve strength, you do sets of five to 12 lifts.

“You pick a number within that range, see how you respond and make a change if necessary.

"If you have information about your genetic make-up you can match your training and the results will improve.”

I did a test myself. This involved scraping the inside of my mouth with a swab an hour before eating, sealing it inside a plastic tube and sending it off to one of DNAFit's labs.

A week later, I got the results emailed back to me in a nicely-presented PDF report.

It told me my:

  • Genetic tendency is for endurance over power (75% to 25%), meaning I should give priority to endurance work in training.
  • Aerobic potential (VO2 max) is medium.
  • Free radical clearance is slower than average, meaning I need to incorporate more anti-oxidants into my diet (an increase on the five a day guidance). I’m also more sensitive to carbs than average, although less sensitive to fats.
  • Risk of sports-related soft tissue injuries is higher than average.

I'm a long, long way from being an elite athlete, so it little surprise that I was below average in some of these areas, although Pickering insists: “We’ve tested people who have won the Olympics and others who did office jobs, and you couldn’t tell which was which. Genes don’t predict talent.”

The basic test costs £249, although there is a more bespoke offer for elite athletes and teams, led by Pickering.

“The art is in applying the results to the individual,” explains the former sprinter, who is studying for a PhD at the University of Central Lancashire.

A number of other factors can also be tested and analysed, aside from the core ones above.

“We can look at factors such as stress,” Pickering says, “which basically means how likely a player is to be able to deal with pressure.

“Or we can enter into research agreements, so we test players and collect data throughout the season and feed it back to them, so they get cutting-edge research.”

Of all the football teams DNAFit has worked with, the Egypt national side has had the most in-depth involvement so far, with 25 players being tested, analysed and advised.

With clubs desperate to bespoke training and reduce injuries, surely DNA testing will only become more common though.

Last year, TGG spoke to Bournemouth’s Head of Medical Services Dr Craig Roberts about how the club had tailored Jack Wilshere’s training load because of his propensity to “break down if the load is too high.”

This seemed to have been discovered relatively late in the player's career and you wonder whether genetic testing could have helped identified the issue earlier and avoided a career being stalled.

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