“If someone trying to run marathons says, ‘I’m trying to do all the endurance training, but it’s just not working out. I can’t keep up with the workouts,’ or they are trying to lose weight and they say, ‘I’m going to the gym and I just can’t do these workouts,’ we can say, ‘You need to train in a different way,’ ” Carruthers said.
Bradley Marston of Bountiful, Utah, had his 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, tested last year because he was curious to learn more about why she excelled at soccer.
“I already knew she had that something special. This is just a tool to help me determine what to do with her strengths as well as some of her shortcomings,” Marston said.
Elizabeth’s test indicated that her muscles are predisposed more to quick spurts of power than to long trials of endurance.
“I am not the type of father or parent that is pushing my daughter to succeed. It’s not all about winning. The focus is about having fun. This tool can just help us,” Marston said.
Genetics of performance
Although the ACTN3 gene has been linked to enhanced performance among some elite sprinters, it does not seem essential to Olympic-level athletics.
“It looks like the gene does contribute something, but only a very small amount at the very, very elite levels,” said Stephen M. Roth, who studies the genetics of physical performance at the University of Maryland. “For 99 percent of the world, it does not matter.”
More recently, American International began screening for the ACTN3 gene, as well as six others that the company says influence strength, energy and endurance. In addition, the $200 test checks cheek swabs for variations of three genes that the company says can signal risks for fatal heart muscle and rhythm emergencies. Sports X Factor can also supposedly identify those who are vulnerable to concussions and need more rest after suffering a head injury to minimize the risk of brain damage.
“One of the main target audiences is kids,” Miller said. “We want to make sure they are not out there blindly playing with one of these mutations and have a heart attack or a concussion. It gives parents peace of mind that their kid is not going to drop dead in the middle of a workout.”
Critics, however, argue that too little is known about the genes in the test panel to reliably interpret the results.
“If the test comes back negative, the parent might say, ‘Put them back in,’ ” said Carl Foster, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. “If you get your kid back into competition too quickly and he gets another concussion, the kid is dead now.”
Several experts expressed concern about including the gene called ApoE for information about concussions. ApoE plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease, which means youngsters excited about tomorrow’s soccer game and their parents may find out that they are at risk for a devastating brain disease decades later.
“I think this company is a good advertisement for the need for more regulation of . . . genomic testing,” said Hank Greely, a Stanford University lawyer and bioethicist.
Despite such concerns, one of American International’s first clients was Ryan Muetzel, who was trying it out for clients at his Athletes Edge private training company in Boca Raton, Fla. Muetzel’s test concluded that he’d be good at track and field but prone to knee injuries — all of which he said is true.
“If kids are trying to get college scholarships, or just be happy and successful, what is going to make them happy?” he asked. “No one wants to be the worst kid on the team.”