Predicting the future and performance of an athlete

With sports and nutrition gene testing, the era of custom management of your fitness and diet has arrived. These tests will now become benchmarks in sports.

For the Indian cricketers, the fitness gene and nutrition tests are an eye-opener   -  AP

The entire Indian cricket team has just undergone a nutrition and fitness gene test. This is the future of raising the bar, not only in cricket but in every sport. A host of cricketers such as Yuvraj Singh, Shikhar Dhawan, Pragyan Ojha and Robin Uthappa were genetically tested for their sports and nutrition gene in 2012 at the Qua Nutrition Clinic.

The BCCI, today, has a benchmark that a cricketer has no more than 23% of body fat. At one point, Robin was overweight, and his body fat percentage in the high 30s. This changed when we worked on his diet realigned to his genetic markers. The weight loss was based on science and not guesswork.

A lot of times players really try every page from a book towards their training and diet to get their body in peak form. A lot of players struggle with basic form. The era of custom management of your fitness and diet has arrived. These tests will now become benchmarks in sports. A sports nutritionist, strength and conditioning trainer, physiotherapist, and even a coach can do a crystal ball-gazing to predict the future of an athlete and his performance. This forecasting is going to change the way everyone eats and trains.

DNA and genes

The human body can be considered the hardware, and the genes the software code. The human body has 23,000-plus genes that are responsible for everything from height, weight, colour of your eyes, curly or straight hair, skin colour, body weight, fat in the body to metabolic processes and even behavioural traits. Thousands of metabolic systems are controlled by your genes. Since the last decade, scientists have been aggressively researching the function of genes and its responses, and how segments of human populations express these genes. Keen interest has been in medicine, and now with the money in sports, there is an even greater interest, as stakes get higher on invested athletes.

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In early 2008, one gene test came to India: it was the ACT3N gene, and research identified this as the gene that dictates power or endurance in an athlete.

I remember my first swimmer being tested and we realised he was a sprinter. For the longest time he was being pushed to do endurance or long distance events which he hated. Once the test results came in, we graduated him to sprint events and he won many more medals.

Now genes do not change over a period of time unlike a blood test. I have to keep asking for a blood test every 3-4 months to get a picture of the nutritional status of an athlete. Therefore, the dietary strategy and supplement guidelines have to be tweaked on a regular basis. This is a reactionary approach to sports nutrition. Gene testing, on the other hand, is a permanent approach. It’s a once in a lifetime test.

However, since we are evolving in the science, far more number of genes and the links to traits or behaviours are being discovered. So the data of testing today will only get larger and larger. Even Virat Kohli’s test will have to be revisited in two years’ time with more inputs to him. The good news is that once the entire raw gene pool data has been read from a saliva or blood sample, the labs can give you your entire gene code in a pen drive. As the future arrives, your data just needs to be synced to see what changes need to be done to your training, food or supplementation.

With gene testing, I have the data to determine nutritional deficiencies in the vitamin or mineral profile and make certain foods or supplements a permanent fixture in an athlete’s regime. When working with Shikhar Dhawan, I had to convince him to stop milk and it was hard. Milk is known to be the hero of foods in players. Once the gene test came back as lactose intolerant, there was immediate acceptance from the player, as this was no longer a fad but science that pointed the way forward on what to eat and what not to eat.

In the younger ages of 4-15, nutrition and sports gene testing will enable an easier counselling of nutrition and better strategic design of training philosophy. Kids don’t argue with me when I tell them that they have a sugar gene. They know they eat sweets, but when I tell them that their nutrition receptors are unresponsive to sweet and that’s why when they need to eat an unhealthy amount of sweet, they trigger a thought process that is almost immediate. They say, “I will control my genes, I want to play for the country.” In kids that have not done the tests, we find it takes longer to get them to comply with a healthier and nutritionally-driven strategy.

For older athletes like the cricketers in the Indian team, the fitness gene and nutrition tests are an eye-opener. For example, the trait of flexibility is controlled by a gene called COL5A1. If this gene does not have the right code then an athlete will have lesser flexibility. A trainer can use this knowledge to re-align training methodology; the athlete can have a mind shift to invest more time in stretching, and as a nutritionist, I will pay more attention to increasing hydration and certain proteins like collagen peptide and fats with Omega-3 that will act as insurance agents to the limited flexibility. This 360-degree approach allows for better performance, shortened recovery and ultimately a longer shelf-life of a player’s career.

Similarly, in the nutrition gene test, which analyses over 55 genes alone, I am able to predict, for example, caffeine sensitivity and accordingly use coffee to burn fat in an athlete. Even the gluten allergy gene can be tracked and diets can be modified. My experience has seen that micro nutrient absorption is boosted resulting in better endurance and recovery once an athlete gives up gluten(wheat, barley, rye allergy). But not everybody has to follow a fixed regime based on what a captain is eating or his trainer is advising. These gene tests open up the arena to customisation of the athlete’s genetic blueprint.

Now many may jump up across all sports to start testing their athletes. Caution has to be exercised. My experience says that the mind drives the human body better than any external stimulus or knowledge. The gene testing has to be handled by professional experts who have the capability to interpret and then translate this to the athlete in repetitive manner as part of a regimented strategy, both in nutrition and fitness. If you are an athlete reading this, do not jump up to do the test and then forget about it. Find the experts to coach you through the interpretation of your gene and maximise your potential at every level. It takes me about three hours to explain a report to a client and then integrating that strategy month on month is a mammoth task. It’s the counselling with the athlete, or coaching on a monthly basis in nutrition and daily basis with the fitness expert. For now, my four-year-old son was the earliest sports and nutrition gene tested kid in country when he was born. This data is everyday integrated into his eating habits, learning, and as a parent I am no longer anxious. As a sports nutritionist, I can’t wait for him to start playing! Whatever the sport he chooses, I will be there to sway him away from the sport his genes are not suited for.