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Genetics, Mismatched Conditions and the Importance of a General Approach.

Updated: Apr 12, 2023



The nature vs. nurture debate has deep philosophical roots, from John Locke's 'tabula rasa' to Descartes 'man a machine'. The relative contribution of both can be argued across many subjects, but rarely is it not accepted that both have a role to play in the contribution of outcomes. In sports performance there does appear to be a strong pull to nature being the bigger slice of the pie, especially when you extrapolate that out to the extremes. For example, if you take a 100m Olympic final, you can recognise that the times those athletes achieve is other worldly. And as much as I love the idea of the 'American dream', we all have a genetic profile, and those profiles will unfortunately have ceilings. Meaning, no matter how hard I try, no matter my environment, even if you pumped me full of PEDs, my phenotypic expression (the set of characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment) would be insufficient to run a sub 10 second 100m, and even probably a sub 12... better luck next time, I guess.


Now of course, great genetics does not automatically mean you will be an elite athlete. It is a great springboard, but I always like Evan Peikons use of the term 'necessary but not sufficient'. Getting to the 100m final means it is necessary to have great genetics, but you won't just rock up and race without years of investment - deliberate practice & luck. It also doesn't mean because you're not Usain Bolt, you can't still be the best possible version of you, IF you maximise the environmental side of things. Training, nutrition, management of lifestyle factors is literally the realisation of ones genetic potential. Sadly, most of us never get close to realising our genetic potential, transferring genotypes into phenotypes.


There are many reasons for this, societal, psychosocial, but also because it involves a damn lot of time and effort. Secondly, because of what evolutionally biologists call 'mismatched conditions'. When zooming out from its explanation in the etiology of illnesses, mismatched conditions essentially mean it is very unlikely that life is going to present you with a situation that perfectly matches your strengths. Instead we are often existing outside of optimal environments. Out of all the possible scenarios, what are the odds that you're going to stumble upon the optimal environment to maximally nurture your innate characteristics? How do you even know what they are in the first place?! James Clear spoke about this in his book atomic habits, using the analogy of dropping a puzzle onto a table; although while theoretically possible, it is unlikely that all the pieces will fall into place for you. You got to figure it out yourself, and hope luck is on your side.


So what am I getting at?

I have often found myself thinking about these topics recently, my own experience in sport, running a business and completing my masters concurrently, and specifically now with undertaking hybrid training (see previous article here to get an overview of hybrid training).


It is somewhat accepted that by focusing on different physical qualities (strength & endurance) and trying to develop them simultaneously, is inherently a sub-optimal plan. In the sense that you are allotting time to develop multiple qualities rather than focusing on one thing. As previously mentioned in my last article though, for most people this doesn't matter as much as we think it does especially early on, as there is plenty of progress that can be made, and to a high degree. But how does that marry up with what I mentioned regarding maximising our genetic potential, turning genotypes into phenotypes?


I would argue, with most of us not getting close to tapping into our true potential, the huge vastness of individuality in response to stressors, and what we know about mismatched conditions in the environment, then it makes sense (and even more sense for the younger population) to be exposed to a wide array of different sports and training modalities. Learn to thrive in the chaos so to speak. The reason being, it will highlight what you're not so good at, what you're really good at, and what you respond well to, before you decide to jump two feet into specific sport/training modality. Furthermore, you are only going to see those genotype interactions play out once you have at least spent a bit of time developing those qualities. That is, you're never going to be able to have a good idea of the height of a ceiling if you're crawling on the floor. And why only develop one quality when you can see a great return of investment in many? Who knows what potential you have that is waiting to be ignited.


You don't necessarily need genetic identification (it's sketchy at best, as there are at least 155 genes which are linked to elite athletic performance, and besides there are other factors at play), you just need a few years of some good general training, appropriate & adequate nutrition, lots of sleep, a bit of luck, and a supportive environment (easier said than done). This will not only give you a great all round athletic base, but it will tell you what is potentially worth pursuing if you are achieving some pretty incredible feats with a hybrid / concurrent approach.


Another way to think about it....


Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging situations until it fails.

This is the premise of something called 'the Peter principle'. It dictates that everyone in a hierarchal system is eventually promoted to a level of incompetence. Essentially meaning in your place of work for example, you could have every position filled by individuals who don't perform well at their job. The concept was supposed to be a tongue in cheek commentary on hierarchal systems, and an example of perhaps the resultant issues found in businesses, politics etc but as with all these things, there is probably some truth to it. You perform well at a given level, you get a promotion, then the new role requires a more specific or different set of skills, which is perhaps beyond your grasp, and then you're essentially ill equipped to carry out your job. Of course in reality there are ways to combat this via appropriate targeted skills training, time on the job/willingness to learn, and refined recruitment strategies (you probably see where I'm going with this, from a physiological perspective this is essentially what we call adaptation). But undeniably we all have our limitations, from an athletic performance perspective, as previously mentioned, we all have genetic ceilings.


You might have already drawn the parallels here but you could also think about 'the Peter principle' in relation to the development of those athletic qualities, specifically in a hybrid programme. Where employees will eventually rise to their level of incompetence, the development of divergent qualities simultaneously will rise, until they reach their level of incompetence to perform a specific task. To which, you will then (if you wanted) would need to specify on a single quality and expend much more effort & time to get more out of it... and thus potentially reach your genetic ceiling. Probably with this would come some sacrifice of other pursuits. I draw similarities to this with being a business owner and completing my research & masters last year. Both competed for my time, and both couldn't be done to the level in which I knew was possible unless I didn't sacrifice other things in life. I had reached a level of incompetence. My training, my social life, my relationship at times were in autopilot, they had to be, so I could reach and fulfil my potential. It is important to recognise again the supporting role of the environment to enable and facilitate such things to manifest.


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As a side note, and some extra thoughts.... I also think this tells me two things which get skipped over when you look at hybrid approaches, which also comes back to the role of genetics which is often not appreciated.


1) Those who do have freakishly high level endurance & strength have a ridiculous genetic start point AND have responded well to their environment & training to maximise phenotype expression without needing to specialise. I definitely think this is less appreciated but perhaps even more impressive than the top performers in a 100m sprint for example. Especially when you consider that genotypes are predisposed towards an increased chance of success in either power–strength or endurance sports, but rarely both. But if you can perform a sub 3h marathon, deadlift over 250kg and jump over 50 inches, you're probably the most well rounded athlete on earth. Even despite these feats not being necessarily elite-of the-elite in their respective domains. But altogether, you won't find many humans who can do all that... I guess you don't get a medal for that though.


2) There is a reason why those who are really successful in hybrid / concurrent & crossfit approaches all have the ability to tolerate really high volumes of work. This makes intuitive sense, to further able to develop phenotype expression you need time (volume), and thus improve those divergent qualities to a greater degree. Simply put, because there is no 'specialisation' as such you need more time to develop different qualities, those who are able to manage and tolerate stress will be able to maximise their phenotypic expression across the board without breaking.




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