Genetic Limitations

Random thought from my run today - "At what point can I reasonably start to wonder if I'm running as fast as I'm capable of?"

There's obviously an intrinsic limit on the maximum speed anyone can run at, and a level at which we will plateau even with optimal training. And we know that for the fastest distance runners it comes somewhere between 4.15mm and 5mm pace, depending on gender and race distance.

That's the top end of the scale. But what about the rest of us? Is there a lower limit on maximal performance? Is there a mile speed that, say, 95% of able-bodied young adult men or women (assuming there are two overlapping bell-curves, and that is just an assumption on my part) ought to be able to achieve with appropriate training? And if so, where are the actual numbers to be found?

Anyone know?


  • LizzyBLizzyB ✭✭✭
    Have you looked in Noakes' The Lore of Running (2004)? - not sure if there is anything there though - might be worth checking his references. Wonder if any research has been done at Loughborough?

    I'm wondering if it's possible to come out with a figure at all - there must be 1000s of different genetic, social, and biomechanic reasons why people can't run a 5 minute mile - so how fast can they run with training? Do we know how much each biomenchanical/genetic factor slows someone down by? And suppose a person is affected by more than one of these factors? How much does each factor slow them down?

    Or ... if they have terrible knock knees but the awesome lung capacity of a record breaker? What happens then? How much can they improve by? Could the totally talentless actually achieve a 5mmile pace with surgery, intensive gait remediation work and cutting edge (and highly illegal) performance enhancing drugs? - how are you defining "appropriate training"

    Sorry, just a few random thoughts - a lot more interesting than doing what I'm meant to be doing though. apologies if they are wide of the mark but it's an interesting subject ...
  • I suppose one could make some sort of statistical analysis from mass participation events such as FLM or GNR(less likely now!) on the basis that those at the sharp end have done the maximal training preparation that they could.

    Statistically that would give quite a good representation of age groups and sex but after say the first 3,000 ( to pluck a number at random - not very scientific!) assume that maximal training had not been achieved:-))

    Only trouble is that because of the random nature of entry selection good class club runners and non attached runners of equal quality may not be in any one years event and so the averages are dragged down a bit.

    Also the overall average standards (as opposed to absolute standards) of distance running in such events have declined over the years partly perhaps because of the entry systems.

    Proof of that bold statement?

    In 1985 I scarcely managed a top 1,000 place in FLM in a time of 2:44.

    Last year that would get me in the top 600!
  • I've read The Lore of Running cover to cover, Lizzy. Yes, really, I'm THAT sad! What I'm looking for isn't there. Maybe it doesn't exist, because I suppose what I'm looking for is a quantitative assessment of the minimum level of performance that someone who isn't a natural born runner (like me, for example!) could reasonably say, "THAT is as fast as I can run."

    Which would mean doing research and collecting statistics on runners who are training hard but are never really going to be good enough to be of national or even regional interest.

    And yes, there are loads of internal and external factors that will impact on what we can achieve. And lots of reasons for choosing not to chase one's genetic potential in what, for most of us, is an intrinsically pointless hobby.

    By "appropriate training", I mean appropriate running training, treatment and rehabilitation for injuries or for medical conditions (such as asthma) which could affect running performance, and adequate nutrition. Anything else is very tiny print.
  • Indeed, TS :o) My position relative to the overall field, and in my age category, at FLM2003 (my best FLM perfomance so far) was almost identical to my position relative to the overall field, and in my age category, at Abingdon last year. I was 47 minutes faster at Abingdon.
  • I've often wondered about this. Like what is the best someone could be if they were trained & coached since they were old enough.

    I think there would be potential for amazing athletes of any sport if they were coached from an early age - forget school, friends, eveything. Obviously that's totally immoral but it makes an interesting thought. I suppose sports coaches who openly condone the practices of some of the training regeims of the former soviet union & indeed china for events like the Olympics must privately be very curious about the results achieved.

    I'd like to know what could be reached if priority was only given to the sport. With no thought of the athlete. Like the way those young female gymnasts are pretty much broken by the time they are 20 if not long before - surely that kind of goes along the same lines of what I'm thinking.

    *obviously I wouldn't like to see anyone put through such training but I do like to daydream about what's possible
  • V'rap

    so to expand the sample one would have to take in good rated events with a similar course profile so that times were not distorted by difficulties such as hills or admission problems that skew the results.

    These woud then have to have a "regional" factor applied so that the reduced pool of talent entering is compensated for. perhaps done by adjustment based upon relationship of top runners in each age group with similar runners (UK?) in national events such as FLM.

    Statistically one can already see the difficulties of processing such data but don't let me dissuade you:-))))
  • Or one would have to observe the effects of intensive training on lots and lots of motivated non-elite runners - probably over 10,000 completers to achieve statistical significance, and about 100,000 entrants to the study because the dropout rate is likely to be phenomenal - for as long as a decade.

    I wonder if I could get a grant big enough to cover that one ;o)

  • could be a couple of phd's in this.

    Just the sort of thing lottery money should support - £100K each a year plus assistants ( to do all the work) :-)
  • Incredibly difficult to study that. So many confounding factors. Even if you could actually measure those factors meaningfully, you'd still have to make certains assumptions about how those factors influence performance (e.g. linear / quadratic / inverted U / threshold effects etc). With assumptions flying around for so many factors, i would have that much confidence in the result. I just think its impossibly complicated to get an unconfounded measure of the effect of genes on performance - genes will also affect how someone responds to the other factors (interaction effects).

    Then, as others have pointed out, even if you had a good experimental design, it would be very long term and require lots of participants - a logstical nightmare! It would rquire some hefty funding, and what's more what organisations with that kind of money would have an interest in the findings of such a running specific study anyway?

    Coming down to pure opinion now. I think if we are talking about young healthy people doing all they can in terms of training / lifestyle, i think we'd have a bell curve with the peak about 10% slower than WR. Obviously the fastest tip at WR, and the slowest tip (those poor souls whose bodies were really not born to excel at running) at about 20% slower than WR.

  • >Scratches head and fiddles with abacus<

    So, even if I'm at the shallow end of the athletic gene pool, by those figures I shouldn't consider myself to have fulfilled my potential until I've run a marathon at around 6.15mm pace ...

    Lots to train for, then :o)
  • Alex - are you saying that the least talented men could do a sub 2.30 marathon given the optimum training ? Hmmm, I think I'd go for a rather wider distribution than that and I reckon the slow end of the distribution would taper away much more gradually with some people never able to complete 26 miles at any pace whatever they did.
  • Pammie*Pammie* ✭✭✭
    <<<<<<<Takes deep breath>>>>

    vrap - you are a doctor right, i feel faint

    20% slower than world record ok Just did a google search for WR for 5km on the roads 14:46

    20% slower if my maths is right

    17:45 roughly

  • Well obviously a certain % are never going to finish a marathon because of some congenital disability. after that, i think you'd have a very long left-hand tail, a strongly right-shifted curve dropping away to zero soon on the right-hand side of the peak.
    not sure where the peak would lie though - I'd suggest somewhere around a top-end club finisher (who probably has some innate advantage over typical population, but this will probably be balanced by not-quite optimal training due not not being a full-time well-resourced professional).
    I'm probably a fair bit to the left of the peak in innate ability, but as measured against UK population well off to the right through training :)
  • I think Alex's estimate is sound. If you're talking about reaching teh peak that your genes will let you then we have to assume that the subject is able to train as per a professional athlete - ie multiple sessions a day. With that kind of training all of us would no doubt make marked imporvements.

    Currently I train about 6 hours a week over six days - sounds pretty pathetic when you compare it to the hours you put in for a full time job doesn't it?

    I'm currently hoping to get to close to a 3 hour marathon on just the 6 hours of training a week. I'm sure if I could afford to train like a full time job & had the motivation to do it I could be many times better than I am now - we all could.

    I think the only way to really find out would be totally unethical. Something like having identical twins - letting on live a normal life & have the other train to run from as soon as they are able to - I'm guessing the age those child gymnasts start would be a good start.
  • Veloc

    doesn't all this depend alot on leg length though?

    aren't shorter runners destined to be at the far end of the bell curve

    and what about different rates of deterioraton due to ageing?


    so even if you had the bell curve data
    you'd need to stratify it by age and height imho
    and i suspect it would be less accurate because of the differences in ageing rates

    you also raise the scarey possibility of having to divide people up by ethnicity

    should a kenyan amateur runner who grew up in the high altitude be given a different set of stats to aim for

    would we have to issue different stats to aim for depending if you're black or white??????

    would we take into account poor nutrition in childhood for runners from the third world?

    etc etc

    although academically interesting
    i think it's a potentially scarey line to go down this theoretical "genetic potential"

    surely the scienctific analysis would demand a set of info and figures that in real life would be both demotivating and difficult to digest
  • Why is it scary, LoK? There's no intrinsic merit, practically or morally, in being able to run fast.
  • Interesting thread and a good question VRAP. Certainly from my understanding and reading of the subject over many years. Leg speed (short distance running) is largely genetic. When it comes to endurance running however, genetics play less of a role and the body's adaptation becomes more significant. The reason why Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance runners excel is largely due to the fact that they start running long distance from a very young age. They adapt and specialise to the event. VO2max, running economy etc. They also have successful role models and their beief/expectation is greater.
    I frequently hear Brenden Foster bleating that we do not have any great 'European' runners on the world scene and it is unlikely to change. We are looking at a cultural difference rather than a genetic difference!
  • TC - are you sure? Bodies genetically evolved to live and love at high altitude are gonna be quids in for fatigue management and energy development needed for endurance when at sea level. I'm not entirely convinced that all of the kenyan ability comes from training earlier.

    Genetic limits - definitely but I am inclined to believe, and it's only my belief, that the bulk of the populace could be up in the top quartile at races if they made the same life choices that these runners do.

    We don't have to look at the very top elites as they are so far over the population/ability bell curve you are 5 sigma out.

    General bods can be better we just don't make being better the life priority when we are young enough for it to count.

  • Stump, you are making the classic mistake of confusion two very different terms; adaptation and evolution.

    This is why Paula Radcliffe trains at altitude (her body adapts) and yes if you are born/raised/run at altitude your body adapts from an earlier age!

  • No answers, but this blog has an interesting comment on the effect of optimal practice:
  • Good link MikeFrog .For me it's not such a difficult concept to grasp. Does anyone, anywhere know of a runner who achieved a time of sub 2hrs 30min without any training because they were a natural?
  • Well, if there is, I think he would be pretty gutted to find out that he would only improve by 25 minutes if he trained like a pro...! ;-)
  • Well said SusieBee!!!!!!
  • Hope I'm not jumping in here but I have read this thread with interest, some good points raised/questions asked.

    It does strike me though that there is a fine line between adaption and evolution. As a hugly expensive/unethical/never-going-to-happen experiment a way to look at this may be to take a sample of non-runners who have no history of running in family. Train them up as hard as possilble over a numbr of years, recording all their progress - This would be the adaption data. Then, and this is the really unethical bit, couple them off and train up their kids following exactly the same regimes.... (!) If you repeated this process a few times you would be able to look at genetic ability/adaption too.

    Nuts I know.

    But seriously, there has to be a limit on the ability to reach a certain performace level by a certain individual, otherwise "Olympic Athlete" would be a viable career choice for everybody - imagine the careers advisor at school saying, "Well, as long as you put the hours in to train then you can be one."

    But defining what these limits/reasons/factors are is an almost imposible task IMO. Hence the silly "experiment" example above.

    I don't agree however, that the african nations are genetically more adapted to distance running, I think that it is the case as has already been raised that they are conditioned this way from an earlier age, and in a lot of ways have more drive to achieve the desired results (at the risk of stereotyping) escape from povery and lack of oportunitys. And the role-model issue as raised above. Yes they are good, no argument there but there are enough non-africans at the top to prove that it isn't all about genetics, (Radcdcliff, Motram, Jelena Prokopcuka etc al).


    Talking of unethical experiments - did anyone see the documentary on that poor Indian kid who was being made to run crazy mileages each week by his "coach"? Apparantly he has "a natural ability" according to his "coach".
  • When you see the likes of Ovett, his talent was god given. Coe was selfmade... this is where I think there's a difference... we could probably all be wayyyy better than we are without a doubt, but there is DEFFO a natural aptitude to certain distances of running or running full stop between people. When you look at the greats, Carl lewis, I'm sorry but he's one of the most "naturally gifted" athlete of modern times... so was Michael Johnson... so was Ovett...

    Others are "manufatured" is you get my meaning, not as gifted but with hard work in the right areas can manage to get to the top.

    However I think we're reachign a point now, where genetics and natural ability are a must in Athletics... and if you're not a natural, I'm afraid to break world records, forget it. The best would be Olympics/Worlds and a geart career, but worlds records are a different kettle of fish altogether.

    how many times has the "non record holder" won the Olympics... loads of times, so many "upsets" etc etc, as ANYONE can win a race, that's why we watch it... however, only the "SELECT" will break world records now... and on that depressing bombshell I'll shut up lol

  • FINgers, bit of an obvious flaw in your experiment there:
    If you take a group of people with no history of running and train them up, then their genetic make-up would still be exactly the same after this training.
    So what would make their children have more/less 'genetic ability' as your first group?

    The children would obviously have different role-models and life-styles if the parents were training during their childhood.
  • Imski,

    Yes there are a more flaws than the obvious I suspect... I shall have to refine before putting forward as PhD proposal [wiggles fingers in Mad Scientist fashon]

    I take your point but the role of the experiment is actually to see what is trainable from a non training base. And then almost test Darwinian therory and see if there is any genetic adaption ie evolution..........

  • Not entirely sure I agree that Kenyans excell because of the environment and that they start young. I live in a very multi ethnic country with African, Indian, Chinese, Arab, and European populations (ps the food is all GREAT). The people of African origin (5-8 generations in this country) win 80%+ of the distance races and yet constitute only 30-35% of the population. Does this prove the genetic link? I see all races at races (no pun intended), but the black africans have the greatest successes.
  • I took FINgers to mean pairing off the people who had "adapted" better (i.e. had improved more due to their inate genetic pre-disposition).
    Bit like breeding race horses.
    Speaking of which, didn't race-horse performance reach a plateau a LONG time ago?
    There's probably a lot more data available for race-horses - maybe it's applicable if anybody wants to look for it...?
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