David Epstein: Building Better Athletes Through Genetics

Epstein is Sports Illustrated’s first science reporter and author of The Sports Gene

Measuring athletic potential seems like a simple task: hold a tryout. This method, used from high schools to the NFL Scouting Combine, is the determining factor in identifying today’s best athletic performers. But what if there was a different approach? What if genetics could tell coaches who had the most potential and how to train each individual to be the best version of themselves?

David Epstein, Sports Illustrated’s first science reporter and author of The Sports Gene, is on a mission to educate people on the connection between athletics and genetics. Through his years of research, Epstein has learned that gauging athletic ability is not as cut-and-dried as a simple tryout. And while Epstein says we’re years away from gene-based athletic training, he has dedicated his career to moving this conversation forward.
What’s wrong with how athletes train today? Where is there opportunity for improvement?
It’s this balance between training more than the next guy and not training so much that you get burnt out. That’s half the battle of all training—and nobody knows how to get that balance. But if people haven’t been trained a lot or in the right way, their baseline potential will have little or no relation to their ability to improve. Genes heavily mediate that trainability, that ability to improve. Certain types of training can turn a gene [on or] off.

Epigenetics is the study of the science of turning genes on and off. That’s the new frontier: tailoring training in which we’re turning genes on and off at certain frequencies. We can’t change people’s genes, but we sure can change their environment. We don’t know what most genes do, but we’re at the beginning of realizing that we need to work hard to tailor training instead of putting people in the same cookie-cutter program.

At Sports Illustrated, you were on the forefront of conversations around sports and science. You broke the news about Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use. You wrote a piece on sudden cardiac death in athletes. Where is your focus now?
Right now I’m passionate about public health. Youth sports, for example, are doing things that are no longer healthy—particularly early specialization. Kids are getting adult-style overuse injuries: torn ligaments, elbows. If they are injured that early, probably 85 percent come back from surgery, but 15 percent don’t. And after a second surgery, they don’t come back at all. If a kid is 15 years old when they have their first injury, the chance of having a second one is now really high.

So how do you keep things like this from happening to future athletes—young and old?
I think we could move into an unprecedented era of tailored training and I hope it can trickle down to the general public.

How does your work fit into the development of this field—and its future?
Part of my role has been to communicate that epigenetics is a real thing that scientists are talking about. There have been some findings that show turning genes on and off through training is possible. It’s my responsibility to stoke interest, but also stay realistic about how complicated this is and how long and sustained this effort is going to be.

In the multi-part feature with WIRED Brand Lab, Lenovo looks at six extraordinary innovators who work relentlessly to move their field forward. Check all six stories from the series here.

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories program.