The Sports Gene and Climbing: A Not Really Book Review

Photo: Karyotype - My Chromosomes, by Can H. under CC BY 2.0
Photo: Karyotype, by Can H. under CC BY 2.0

I’ve been climbing since I was 12 years old. I started in a windowless little closet of a climbing wall in a nondescript commercial area of Columbus, Ohio. I sometimes reflect on those early days and wonder what it was that drew me back to that place when all my peers were playing baseball, soccer, or running track. I have only the faintest memories of it now, but I can only reckon I must have been unusually comfortable up there, dangling, scaling, moving in the vertical. I wonder what came first: a random enthusiasm for climbing, or some innate climbing ability that gave rise to that enthusiasm?

I’ve been plowing through David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene of late, and it suggests that natural aptitude is key to creating and maintaining interest in an activity. That kid at the climbing-gym birthday party who gets to the top more quickly and effortlessly than the others, or that college student who seems to jump a letter grade every time she goes to the crag—it makes sense that these ones are more likely to self-select as climbers, while those who move with fear and hesitation, who lack a strong grip or deft balance sense will be less likely to return for another session.

Throughout his book, Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, explores the science behind the genetically predisposed strengths and aptitudes that figure so prominently in our attraction to and success in an athletic activity. While he never cites climbing specifically, the ideas he presents apply as well to someone like Ashima Shiraishi, who climbed V10 when she was only 8, as to Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete who, unknown and with no experience in a race of such length, entered her first Ironman World Championship and won by a margin of five minutes.

My friend Alex is a strong all-around climber, but I was always particularly impressed by his endurance on the rock, his ability to climb on and on, seemingly without tiring. Years ago, I spent a couple of seasons working a long, notoriously pumpy route in the Red River Gorge called Tuna Town. It was my “nemesis.” About 90 feet long and maybe 30 degrees overhanging, it doesn’t have a single hard move on it—just a lot of very similar, energy-sapping moves topped off with a “sporty” finish on small edges that feel even smaller with a raging forearm pump. The first day Alex and I got on the climb together, he pushed through to the anchors in a few tries without being particularly fit.

In climbing as in life, one should always keep one’s ego on a leash. “There’s always someone better,” as the saying goes. But what seemed odd to me then was that fact that, by most other measures of climbing performance, Alex and I were closely matched. We had similar technical skills and, on shorter, more powerful climbs, I might even have had an edge.

My poor endurance wasn’t for lack of practice, either. I traveled to the Red, home of “the biggest jugs you’ll ever fall off of,” almost every weekend for several years, climbing with folks who all seemed to have better endurance than me. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t (and still am not) well-equipped for doing a lot of moderate moves in a row. Epstein’s book sheds some light on this phenomenon, too.

Roughly speaking, our muscles are composed of two types of fibers: fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Fast-twitch fibers provide more peak power but tire more quickly; slow-twitch fibers generate less force but are much slower to tire. The average person, according to The Sports Gene, has a little more than half slow-twitch fibers. But if you look at the fiber make-up of athletes who excel in powerful activities, such as sprinting, you’ll find a ratio closer to 75% in favor of fast-twitch. Olympic marathoners like Frank Shorter are just the opposite—when tested, nearly 80% of his leg muscle fibers were shown to be of the slow-twitch variety.

Importantly, studies suggest that differences in muscle-fiber ratio are not the result of training, but of genetic coding. People like Shorter aren’t creating more slow-twitch fibers as they run, but instead excel at running because they were born with more slow-twitch fibers.

I guess I’m more of a fast-twitch guy.

My seemingly poor natural response to endurance training didn’t keep me from climbing Tuna Town—I eventually finished the climb—but it does mean that I never would have stood a chance on the World Cup route-climbing circuit. No matter how hard I pushed, I’d always be struggling to send the warm-up routes of the many climbers who happened to have a superior mix of genetic traits: slender build, tendons of steel, and plenty of slow-twitch muscle in the forearms.

This flies in the face of what moms tell their kids everywhere: you can be anything you want to be. We’ve all heard stories of underdogs fighting to become champions against all odds. What Epstein’s book and the data it cites seem to indicate is that, if what you’re gunning for is elite athletic performance, it’s very unlikely that such dedication will be sufficient to overcome one’s own genetic make-up. The stories we don’t hear so much, but which are probably quite common, are those of athletes who fail repeatedly and then quit, or switch to another sport that better suits their natural talents.

The tendency to pursue sports we’re good at should come as no surprise. In the past, though, the explanation for why one person was so much better than another from the start, or why one person responded to training more quickly than another, was left to fuzzy ideas like “grit” and “drive” and “the love.” In light of scores of scientific studies on the topic, genetic traits seem to offer a more reliable explanation.

The great sport climber Wolfgang Güllich was the first human to climb 9a (5.14d). His groundbreaking route Action Direct, in Germany’s Frankenjura, is an improbable ladder of dangling moves on pockets that rarely accommodate more than one or two fingers. The “campus board,” which he invented as a training device for the route, is often credited as a crucial tool in his quest for the hardest climb in the world. His obsession with training was undeniably a big part of what put him so far ahead of his peers, and yet…

And yet not everyone would benefit equally from Güllich’s regimen. In one study Epstein describes, researchers asked participants to perform identical leg exercises for four months. At the end of the trials, the test subjects broke down into three basic categories: those whose muscle fibers grew 50 percent, those whose fibers grew 25 percent, and those whose fibers did not grow at all. Same training, very different results.

It’s a refrain throughout the book: there is no one-size-fits-all training method. We each respond differently to different types of training and excel at different activities due to certain seemingly indelible genetic traits. My own experiments with the campus board at first yielded impressive strength gains, and then quickly sidelined me with shoulder problems I have to this day. To push as hard at Güllich, you can’t just want it; you also have to have it.

Epstein’s book focuses on traditional sports like basketball and baseball and track and field events—ones built on a more competitive foundation than climbing, and that offer greater rewards for competitive prowess. It’s because of this that the studies he cites seem a less-than-perfect fit for climbing, which we climbers often describe as “more lifestyle than sport.” Gifted or not, what matters most in climbing isn’t how good we are, but how much we take from the act. Maybe this idealistic perspective holds for more popular sports, too, but it just gets lost in the whirlwind of fame and fans and records and money. It’s precisely such a state of affairs that many climbers fear when they rail against the commercialization of our little game on the rocks.

The Sports Gene is a solidly-researched, artfully-written work of non-fiction that is general enough to interest just about anyone. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to perform studies of the sort Epstein describes on climbers. How exciting to understand the biological factors that separate a great climber from an average one, or the what types of training work best for what types of people. But I also kept thinking about how little that knowledge would really mean to me or most climbers, and how besides the point it all is, anyway.

If there’s a gene for a positive outlook, for a deep love and appreciation of life regardless of medals or world ranking, that’s the gene I want to have. And whether I have it or not, I’m damn well going to work to cultivate those traits, no matter how long it takes or how far I am behind the pack. After all, as I learned on my send of Tuna Town, success after a long struggle and against the odds, no matter how minor and unworthy of the record books, is the sweetest success of all.

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

3 thoughts on “The Sports Gene and Climbing: A Not Really Book Review”

  1. Besides our genetic code itself which we can’t change, epigenetics, which from my layman’s understanding is the way our genes are activated, seems to be just as important. Epigenetics is influenced by the environment, including the activities we do. Diet and exercise have been shown to have an influence on our epigenome.

    Does this mean that muscle fiber profiles can be changed? I don’t know, but just wanted to point out that we have more influence over our “genes” than we previously thought.

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