Marathon running? It’s all in your genes: How almost a fifth of us lack the right make-up to compete over long distances

  • 30 genes determine whether people are suited to high intensity training
  • One in five will never improve no matter how much training they do

Emily Davies

11:29 EST, 14 April 2013


19:18 EST, 14 April 2013

If you’ve ever watched the London Marathon and thought, ‘I could never do that’, you could be right, because scientists have found some people’s genes make them bad at running.

Scientists have uncovered a key group of 30 genes which determine how the human body responds to stamina training, and whether the body is capable of running a marathon.

For most people training helps increase stamina, but for one in five, no matter how hard they push themselves they will never improve and may even get worse.

One in five people have a mixture of genes which makes them poorly suited to long distance running, scientists revealed

One in five people have a mixture of genes which makes them poorly suited to long distance running, scientists revealed

Professor Jamie Timmons, head of systems biology at Loughborough University, developed a DNA test to establish whether individuals will fall in the genetic group which is ill suited to marathon running.

Professor Timmons said:  ‘From our work, we know that 20 per
cent of people do not respond at all to training and in fact can get
worse. They push themselves as hard as everyone else, but their muscles
do not extract the same amount of oxygen.

He told The Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is plausible that by
pushing it though training, they get a maladaptation. What is clear is
that there is no one recipe that fits all.

‘These low aerobic responders would be
better going to the gym to build up their strength and muscle tissue or
taking up other competitive sports like martial arts or strength
related sports.’

The test looks at genes which remodel muscle fibres to allow small blood vessels to grow in between and carry oxygen to the muscles during exercise.

The research by Loughborough University was released a week before the London Marathon 2013

The research by Loughborough University was released a week before the London Marathon 2013

Those that have the right combination of these genes can respond to regular intense aerobic exercise such as long distance running.

The 20 per cent who are ill-suited to marathon training have genes that do not remodel effectively under regular high intensity training their body’s ability to get oxygen to their muscles can even be reduced, resulting in a reduction in performance.

The findings come ahead of next week’s London Marathon, which will see thousands of runners compete in the 26-mile race.

Of the 48,323 accepted applicants, just 36,000 are expected to start the race. Last year around 600 people who started the marathon failed to cross the finish line.

The comments below have not been moderated.

I used to run 10 miles with exercises, but it was so boring. Have never understood running such a distance unless the Persians were chasing you.


London, United Kingdom,
15/4/2013 17:47

I’ve made a more or less similar observation about weight-lifting. I’ve been doing it for over 30 yrs and I’ve noticed that a very very small number of people who start actually stay with it for longer than a few months. If 100 people were to start on Jan 1 of any given year only perhaps half will still be there six months later, by June 1. By Dec 31 of the same year perhaps 10 will still be there. At the end of 5 years maybe 1 or 2 people who started waaay back on Jan 1 five years previous, will still be at it. The odds of lasting longer than five years is so rare that it almost defies measure.


15/4/2013 17:07

Marathons: gratification for masochists who don’t like whips and rubber suits…


Panama City Beach, USA,
15/4/2013 16:02

If I run for more than 15 minutes at the gym my eyelids swell up!
I wonder if its genetic…


15/4/2013 14:41

The human body never evolved for running, only walking, that’s why a 3 mile walk is as beneficial as jogging 3 miles. Humans get out of breath just running from one lamp post to the next. And people who work in the gym, save money and walk to work, it’ll take just as long probably. Creates that evolved for running have four legs, and never seem to be out of breath – just look at a dog, cat or horse. Soon they’ll realise running is actually bad for you, tires out the muscles and affects joints and bones in old age. Just walk!


15/4/2013 14:37

I run, but don’t for more than an hour.

There us a wealth of research that indicates that marathon training and running is bad for your heart, kidneys [and joints.]


15/4/2013 13:53

@ Mrs SHJP, Hampton Hill – if you can run 10 miles then with proper training you could probably run a full marathon. Most people that have run marathons have probably said (or thought) the same as you but with determination and a proper training schedule you could do it. You have the lovely Bushey Park on your doorstep so why not train and enter a half-marathon and see how you get on.

Auger Borer

East Midlands, United Kingdom,
15/4/2013 13:52

People enter for prestige. If they are not really up to it, why risk their lives and health? Why don’t they contribute an extra sum to their particular good cause instead.


Lonxon, United Kingdom,
15/4/2013 13:11

– buttercookies, Boston, wrote: “One thing the Genomic Project left us is with the assertion that genes don’t mean a thing.”____Nonsense. Genes aren’t the be-all and end-all, but in this particular example which gene variant you have directly determines how far training will get you. “Epigenetic has a more definite influence in what we can accomplish than anything else.”______Epigenetics only modifies the activity of the particular genes you have. It acts as an additional layer of regulation on top of the genes, giving more subtlety, but not changing the underlying “abilities” your genome gives you.


15/4/2013 11:36

The human is the best designed creature for running that nature ever designed. We because of our ability to breathe well shed heat through sweat can and did run down every animal on the planet which is why we are here in the position we are. Other species may be faster but only for short periods we can and still do in parts of the world can run down game and kill it We are here because of that Yes some may fall by the wayside but as a species its what we are designed to do. Modern life styles are preventing that but it will take a lot longer that a couple of hundred years for the human body to adapt to the modern life which is why when it is not used as nature intended people have serious health problems


Chester formerly Great Britain, United Kingdom,
15/4/2013 10:33

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