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Stacy Danley: What Determines Athletic Performance?

What exactly determines athletic performance? And are there limits to human sports performance? There was a time when no human could run a four-minute mile, but Roger Bannister did that in 1954, and soon, many followed.

Today, thousands of athletes complete marathons, 24-hour races, and Ironman triathlons. Athletic records are regularly met and surpassed. So, what factors limit performance in sports?

As Stacy Danley notes, most physiologists agree that these factors include motivation, nutrition, environment, and advances in equipment (swimsuits, skis, running shoes, bicycles) that significantly improve athletic performance.

But after accounting for all these advances, it becomes clear that genetics may have to do with sports performance limits. Specifically, the genes that regulate muscle fiber type and cardiovascular endurance will likely affect athletic ability.

The Role of Genetics

As Stacy Danley explains, genetics can shape us in many ways, including our potential to be good at sports. Training, nutrition, and other factors are important in realizing our potential. Genes can help determine what our potential is.

You may have the genetic potential to be a professional athlete, but you are unlikely to achieve your potential if you don’t exercise and overeat. On the other hand, a person with limited genetic potential can try to compensate and become a solid athlete, notes Stacy Danley.

Genetics significantly influence muscle size, strength and muscle fiber composition (fast or slow twitch), flexibility, lung capacity, anaerobic threshold (AT), and, to some extent, endurance.
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How Genetics Influence Training

Your genes can help determine how your body responds to training, diet, and other factors. Some research on aerobics shows that some individuals respond more to training than others.

So even if your genetic potential for endurance is low, Stacy Danley notes that you may respond well to training and develop your full potential more than someone with genetic “talent” who doesn’t respond well.

Training can also increase cardiac efficiency, but the extent of this increase may depend on genetics. Genetics seem to have less influence over agility, reaction time, balance, and accuracy. Stacy Danley adds that many of these skills can be improved with proper training.

Other Factors Affecting Performance

Beyond training and genetics, there are other factors that athletes and their coaches can control to try to improve performance, Stacy Danley points out.

Sports Nutrition

An athlete’s nutrition plan has a huge effect on their athletic performance. It is more evident when an elite athlete “hits the wall” or “bonks” during a sports event.

Bonking is typically a result of dehydration, glycogen depletion, or a combination of both. Athletes can avoid this by training their bodies to burn more fat when glycogen stores decrease and by supplying their muscles with energy during an event.

Mental Skills Training

Practicing mental skills training such as visualization, imagery, and other techniques for dealing with performance anxiety are all skills that any athlete can master with practice.

Stacy Danley is the President and CEO of SLD Sports Management Group, a leading management consulting, sports, and special event marketing and management company. For related articles, subscribe to this page.

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