Strong evidence for a genetic basis of variation in physical performance has accumulated. Considering one of the basic tenets of evolutionary physiology--that physical performance and darwinian fitness are tightly linked--one may expect phenotypes with exceptional physiological capacities to be promoted by natural selection. Why then does physical performance remain considerably variable in human and other animal populations? Our analysis of locomotor performance in the common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) demonstrates that initial endurance (running time to exhaustion measured at birth) is indeed highly heritable, but natural selection in favour of this trait can be unexpectedly weak. A manipulation of dietary conditions unravels a proximate mechanism explaining this pattern. Fully fed individuals experience a marked reversal of performance within only one month after birth: juveniles with low endurance catch up, whereas individuals with high endurance lose their advantage. In contrast, dietary restriction allows highly endurant neonates to retain their locomotor superiority as they age. Thus, the expression of a genetic predisposition to high physical performance strongly depends on the environment experienced early in life.