That Explains It: Avid Runners Are Genetically Gifted to Feel Less Pain

Updated: Apr. 17, 2017

Does it take you twice as long to reach the finish line? Blame your genetics.

Whether you’re a gentle jogger or a serious sprinter, you may have dreamed of achieving the pinnacle of success—the marathon. At 26 miles and 385 yards, it represents the ultimate goal for runners.

Not all athletes are equally equipped to go the distance. That was true about the original marathoner—Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens following the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE to report the glorious victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Sadly, his body wasn’t prepared for that test of endurance and he died after delivering his message.

Are-You-Born-to-Run--Why-Marathons-Could-Be-in-Your-DNAMikael Damkier/Shutterstock

But today, even with modern training, there’s a vast difference in marathon ability. Some athletes manage to complete the race in a little over two hours, and others take up to six or eight hours, despite following the same training regimen. Scientists have discovered the answer, based on a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

A team of researchers from the Exercise Physiology Laboratory of the Camilo José Cela University in Spain investigated whether your DNA makes a difference in how well muscles stand up to the rigors of running 26 miles.

After all, completing a marathon is a serious challenge, involving around 30,000 steps. With each stride, your legs absorb between one and a half and three times your own body weight. This relentless pounding damages your muscles, releasing chemicals into the bloodstream, which contributes to the famous “hitting the wall” phenomenon that can happen around the 20-mile mark.


Scientists measured the levels of these chemicals—creatine kinase and myoglobin—by taking blood samples from 71 athletes before and after racing. Creatine kinase is an enzyme that speeds up chemical reactions in the body—the more kinase in the blood after a race, the greater the damage to the muscles. Myoglobin is responsible for carrying and storing oxygen in the muscles, which is critical to their ability to function well as the race progresses.

One of the scientists, Juan del Coso, explained the significance of the blood tests. “A higher plasma concentration of these proteins means that there has been greater damage of muscle fibers and, therefore, a greater probability of fatigue,” he told Science Daily.

The team analyzed the genetic variation between runners, focusing on seven specific genes. They assigned scoring levels to each athlete, then looked to see if there was a link between a genetic propensity towards better muscle resilience and the levels of kinase and myoglobin in the blood after running.

The results were conclusive: Some runners had a genetic advantage. They suffered less pain and muscle damage than those with lower resilience, proving that your genes truly do make a difference to how well you can endure long distance runs.

Of course, running is a fabulous form of exercise, which has great benefits for your body.

Whatever your genetics, you can still be an accomplished runner and even tackle a marathon. Start by learning to train for a half marathon before undertaking proper training for a marathon. And make sure you avoid the running mistakes that can affect your performance. Of course, if running’s not your thing, that’s fine too. Here are 15 great reasons to take a 15-minute walk today.