For quite some time runners from Kenya and Ethiopia have shone in athletics at international level, especially in long-distance running events, such as the marathon.
From Olympics to World Championships their success has been unquestionable. But, is there anything that makes them stand out from their opponents?
With this post we start a special about Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. In this one we will explore the different factors that could give them that “advantage”.
Most successful athletes come from ethnic subgroups within their respective countries. The Arsi, in Ethiopia, and the Kalenjin, in Kenya.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is uniquely maternally inherited and allows to determine the ancestry lines by studying specific sections of the chromosomes called haplogroups.
Investigating the genetic ancestry of the elite East African runners no genetic differences were found that could explain their success. Kenyan and Ethiopian populations were not genetically isolated in East Africa during evolution. The typically Eurasian haplogroups M and R were present at a frequency of 10% in Kenya compared with 45% in Ethiopia.
Regarding some performance-enhancing genes appear two candidates:
- The angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), with two alleles:
- L – associated with endurance performance and altitude tolerance
- D – associated with power performance
- The alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) gene, associated with physical performance.
However, no differences were observed between elite runners and the general population. Thus, it looks that genetics would not be the reason behind Kenyan and Ethiopian runners’ success.
Maximal Oxygen Uptake (VO2max)
It has been postulated that extensive walking and running from an early age could enhance VO2max. 86% of Kenyan and 68% of Ethiopian international-level runners run to school as children, with distances up to 20 kilometres.
Comparing VO2max from Kenyan with Scandinavian or German elite runners at sea level no differences were observed. Once again it looks that VO2max would be unable to explain these runners’ success.
The Kenyans are characterized by long, slender legs that are typical of central and southern African tribes. The Ethiopians, in contrast, have physical characteristics from northern Africa with some European and Middle Eastern physical traits: more light-skinned, shorter and with a greater thigh circumference than Kenyans.
Kenyan runners could benefit from these differences by being more “mechanically efficient”.
Maybe running efficiency is a contributing factor for these runners, especially Kenyans.
Blood composition and skeletal muscle fibres composition
No differences were observed when comparing these characteristics between elite runners of these nationalities and other ethnic backgrounds.
Traditional Kenyan diet is composed of 10% protein, 13% fat, and 77% carbohydrate, a composition consistent with recommendations for endurance-sport athletes. Carbohydrate comes from vegetables, fruit, rice, unrefined sugar and a traditional maize dish, ugali, with very high glycaemic index. Also, they use a traditional tea, called chai, immediately after training and with their meals. Its high glycaemic index helps to recover glycogen stores.
Traditional Ethiopian diet is composed of 13% protein, 23% fat, and 64% carbohydrate. The carbohydrates come from vegetables, fruit, rice, bread, pasta, and unrefined sugar.
These diets do not appear to be very different from the training diets of most of their competitors. It doesn´t look that they would give Kenyan any distinctive competitive advantage.
Living and training at altitude
Most of the successful runners from Kenyan and Ethiopia were raised at an elevation of approximately 2000 to 2500 metres in Eastern Africa. They “live high” and “train high”. Other nationalities´ athletes do training periods at altitude but seem unable to do it consistently for long periods without breaking down.
So chronic altitude residence and moderate-volume/high-intensity altitude training could contribute somehow to their exceptional performances? Although it doesn´t explain why other countries such as Nepal or Bolivia don’t produce also so many great runners.
Motivation to achieve economic success
Kenya and Ethiopia still show high levels of unemployment and people living below the World Health Organization poverty line. Success in distance running is a way of economical and societal progress for them and their families. Economic success was the primary reason for training and competition for a third of Kenya´s elite runners.
Thus, motivation could join the reasons behind Kenyan and Ethiopian success.
In summary, Kenyan and Ethiopian distance-running success appears to be the result of a series of favourable characteristics:
- exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency,
- chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume/high-intensity training (live high + train high),
- and a strong psychological motivation for economic and social advancement.
Kenyan and Ethiopian Distance Runners: What Makes Them so Good? Wilber RL & Pitsiladis YP. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, (2012), 7(2), 92-102.