Triathlon Plus Magazine

Talent V. Work - Genes and Sport

Below is an extended transcript of a magazine interview i did on the role of genes in sport.

My views, opinion and a bit of background. 


In your opinion, how much of triathlon performance could be attributed to genetics? Do you feel everyone has the same genetic potential to be as fast or committed as each other? 


First thing that comes to mind is :

“Hard work beats talent, if talent doesn’t work hard”

Brett Sutton - my first coach as a professional athlete used to beat this into the squad on a daily basis.

There is without doubt a genetic component to being a top triathlon performer. 

However it is a complex issue as the very nature of the sport of triathlon is that it is multifactorial. 

It is a strength endurance sport which requires a certain muscle make-up.  The mental side of the sport is massive - especially as the distance of the event increases. Mental toughness and resilience is in part inherited and also learnt/developed through early life experiences. 


Someone with a super genetic make-up may not know about this and not get into triathlon or a similar sport until later in their life. They will still be at an advantage, in that their VO2Max may be genetically higher and they make tend to higher natural testosterone levels, allowing them to develop muscle and a lean body mass more easily. However, some genes need a ’stimulus’ in order to be expressed in the individual. Early participation in sport when the body is developing - especially pre and peri pubertal times  when hormone levels are high- can have a strong impact of muscle development, motor patterns (e.g development of skills needed to perform a certain sport).  If you spent your teenage years eating popcorn and drinking alcopops and not playing sport - you will be at a disadvantage when taking up sport later in life - whether you have sport related genes or not.

The concept of the 10,000 hours of practice is something that is talked about in sport, and is expanded about in great detail in David Epstein’s book - the Sports Gene. 

My view is that 10,000 hours of practice can make you damn good at your chosen sport/hobby - but without the right genetic mix - being ‘Great’ at something is far less likely.

So no - I do not think everyone has the same genetic potential, but early life experiences (this is includes personality development) can mould a person’s likelihood of being faster or more committed than the next person. 


Did you have any physical traits that lent themselves to being a good triathlete? Do you know what your figures were for physical parameters like VO2max and power output? 

I was a sporty child from an early age - but only certain types of sport. I was thrown into the 800 and 1500m at every school sports day as far back as I can remember because (despite no training commitment) I always did well. I was useless at the more skill based sports like javelin or shooting in hockey… but put me in a sport than required any level of endurance and i thrived. 

I was also a chubby kid because I loved my food a little bit more than I did running. I also used food throughout my teens as a comfort blanket as my parents were going through a difficult divorce. 


I was a regional level runner and swimmer until I developed glandular fever and a related illness at the age of 13 and stopped doing any competitive sport until later on at medical school. 

I didn’t get in a swimming pool for more than 5 minutes on holidays for nearly 10 years.

I took up triathlon in 2007  ‘training’ maybe 6 hours a week maximum at the gym.

A friend (and successful AG triathlete Charlie Pennington ) persuaded me to sign up for Blenheim triathlon. I didn’t even know what an Age-group was - but I won my age-group 25-29 and placed overall and featured in 220 magazine. After that I thought that I might have some potential in this sport and that was how it played out - I qualified for the World AG Champs in my first ever Olympic distance race. 

I had a VO2Max measured in 2008 at that was around 65 - pretty good but not spectacular - I was still very much ‘untrained’ relatively speaking at this time. 

My power output on the bike was good for my weight and height, and perhaps more notably my ‘efficiency’ on the bike measured by friend & Prof Asker Jeukendrup at Gatorade Sports Institute was high… meaning that I was losing less power than others with each pedal stroke. I believe this has a learned component, as I used to ride behind my Dad on a bike from a young age and I would have tried to copy his riding style.

(You can get an idea about your pedal stroke through Wattbike & improve it (so they say) through using ellipitical chain-rings like Rotor)

(Not the bit where he rode down steep narrow roads no hands on the bars putting on a rain jacket though!)


There are a number of medics doing particularly well in triathlon, especially in the Uk at the moment. Lucy Gossage, Catherine Faux to name but a few.

What are your thoughts on why this might be?

I think the mental discipline it takes to be a good triathlete is something that is developed in medics in particular as we have to commit to long intensive study.  We are also competitive and fairly obsessive personality types. Quirky I like to think, but to anyone that isn't the same the difference is obvious. 

One of the traits that allows me to be successful is my ability to suffer - some people just can’t/don't do it like others - the Central Governor in our brain wants us to self-preserve. Some can over-ride the central governor better than others and we can train ability to suffer to some extent.  

It also comes down to motivation/drive to achieve.

Or for some to self-harm. 
Where is the line?


It takes 6 years of study to become a qualified junior doctor and 10 more to specialise, to become a Consultant.

We are in it for the long haul. 

Because with that qualification you have peoples’ lives in your hands .

This is an incredible feeling and one which must be respected, reflected upon and not abused. 

Perhaps because I have been through a number of traumatic events in my early life :

Parental Breakdown, Dysfunctional eating, Depression, Severe head injury with 72 hours in a coma...  and come out the other side:

This has allowed me to push my limits a bit more. The mind says - ‘Hey, i’ve been here before.. its ok, we’ll get through this and things will be better again'. 

What goes up has to come down - as my Dad repeated to me when climbing into a wet headwind on Dartmoor. 


The way many of our lives have become in recent years is one of comfort. Food availability, warmth, instant access etc.. the concept of delayed gratification seems to have been denigrated. 


Ironman is becoming increasingly popular - the ‘new’ marathon running. 

As humans we are not designed to be comfortable - we are designed to evolve and progress, yet the typical american daily life is one of relative ease and instant access.

Will we actually regress as a race if this continues?

Let us seek out danger - in the relative sense - push out of the comfort zones… grow, challenge, meet new people, define new limits. I personally put off doing triathlon for 5 years (after entering the London Triathlon numerous times and just not showing up)…

Why ? 

Because I was afraid to fail. 

Afraid to be uncomfortable in the cold murky waters of the River Thames with hundreds of other flailing limbs.

Afraid of not making it.

Afraid of the pain.

Afraid of the embarrassment of a DNF.



Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway?

I used this as a mantra. 



The perception of fear is often far worse than the emotion actually experienced.


You may try and fail. But it won’t be as bad as you think, and the first hurdle is always the highest. 

We get back up and try again. 

The beauty of triathlon is that there are so many things to work on and to improve from the beginner to the pro.

Perfection is rare.

Although the Brownlees have got pretty close on occasion IMO ;)


Anything else you would like to add about the impact of genetics on triathlon performance?

Going back to the start - Talent and Genes will only get you so far. 

Because of the multi-faceted nature of triathlon you can be very successful if you are very dedicated and cross all the Ts and dot the I’s.

Work-horses rather than Race Horses tend to populate the top of Ironman podiums.

There are of course genetic exceptions - Brownlees, Gomez, Chrissie W, Mel Hauschildt.

(They have the genes AND work hard. )

Obsessive personality types (genetic trait) often succeed at the top level because being highly organised can allow you to train optimally and adapt your nutrition to meet your goals. (I am not one of these people, but I meet many of them in the sport).

Some are highly organised in training and yet live very in messy environments. I wont name names :)

It works for some. 

Brett Sutton would say that the state of your bedroom reflects the state of your mindset. I learnt from this.. although keeping a tidy bedroom with all the ‘stuff’ that a travelling triathlete has still proves difficult!


I have learnt the hard way, than over-training/reaching and injury are a common outcome for those that simply ‘work-hard’ without  good coaching guidance.

Addictive personality types often over-train at the expense of their performance and ultimately their health. Because meeting training targets becomes an obsession in itself. The addiction is to the process and not the outcome.

The triathlon culture is one of overtraining.


Overhear any conversation on a training camp dinner table and it will no doubt involve hours of training done.

You don’t get fitter and stronger from the training itself but from successful adaptation to a given training stimulus.

Not all training stimuli are created equally and different body types respond differently to a given stimuli. Adaptation to training an be maximised by optimal nutrition, sleep and rest. But again, personality types differ. I became quite depressed just training, eating and sleeping, because my personality and mind were missing stimulation. I forgot to laugh and enjoy and taking the foot off the gas sometimes can provide a much needed reboot. 

Consistent training does not necessarily equal year on year improvement.

Training for training sake certainly doesn not hold any guarantees.

It may do initially but the body is highly adaptable and will get used to a unvaried training routine. This is why an experienced coach - who gets to actually SEE you - can change performance parameters. Technique too is important. Economy of movement is everything when it comes to going long. Preservation of energy as well as maximising use of energy available. Both are trainable.

Hours in > Performance Out is not a linear equation.

If you neglect nutrition, supplementation - getting regular blood tests (endurance sport places significant demands/stresses on the body) - and sleep - those 10,000 hours of practice may be all for nothing on race day.  

A Smart approach to your triathlon training and racing - not obsessing about training hours - but looking at the whole picture - health, nutrition, injury prevention, sleep, relationships, work/life balance - will improve your performance. 


post text....

Brett Sutton comments on why he think The Brownlee's aren't triathlon perfection..

"All the outraged brits , goin nuts that i dont think alistar brownlee is perfect , you think sending me a threatening notes gonna change my thinking , hehe .
ive said time after time none of the pussy itu guys racing him at the moment will get near him when he is fit ? why 
he trains hard , and then when trouble strikes unlike the other piece in sporty docs column , he dont run to mummy and say "mummy i must be over trained " i got the feelin by the way mummy kick him right up the arse and say grow up , but a side issue , no , he goes out there and trains like a man with a goal , does that make him perfect? no not in my eyes any way, it means , he does same as what all people should do , they dont , cause they ask a lot of losers who go to uni to find out why they too didnt make it , and they get the answer your not talented enuff or you asked for it 
' u been over trained .'
brownlees are men , they get beat , they go back and train harder , and no gomez cant beat him no matter what he does and he also trains like a man , but he has the same gene problem , only little bigger
they have no kick , simple as that . they have no kick ! genes dictate they wont develop one , so any one there with 400 to go with a kick , and they toast , that is why he rabbits out the transition at 2m45 pace , cause he knows it and is saying , who has got the balls to go with me in a pain fest for 10 klm , he gets his answer in nearly every race , NOt US. look elsewhere!
emma snowsill is a great , just the best itu all time , she too had a gene problem , couldnt beat fat me over 200 ever but like the brownless dont have a problem about training their ring off when things go bad . so she too asked the question to the girls in the first 3m10 klm you got what it takes to beat ?me she too got the same answer NO!

that my take on the article , so stop sending me shit it upsets my day .
fact dont lie 
the doc "