What’s the secret behind the extraordinary success of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes in distance running? Here’s a deep-dive report analysing and decoding the trend.
Kenyans and Ethiopians have become synonymous with long distance running as New Zealand is to rugby, Jamaica is to sprinting and India to cricket. They dominate every major world championship, track events in the Olympics, international marathons, especially the American and European road racing circuits. Studies attribute numerous factors to the success and domination of runners of East African origin, especially Kenya and Ethiopia, in competitive distance running. Ethiopian runners Abebe Bikila, Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie have all trained at one point or the other on the steps of Meskel Square in Ethiopia.
Authors and runners have spent years training or writing about running in Kenya or Ethiopia
- Adharananad Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans, spent six months living in Kenya’s Rift Valley to find out what makes them supreme runners.
- Michael Crawley, a 2:20 marathon runner and assistant professor in social anthropology at Durham University, spent 15 months in Ethiopia training alongside some of the country’s best runners and refined his findings into the excellent book, Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia.
- An elite New Zealand runner, Zane Robertson, who lived in Ethiopia for a decade, puts it: ‘The key to their success is playing the hand they were dealt like it was the card they wanted.’
Statistics on the dominance of East African athletes in middle and long distance running
The Kalenjin (a small Kenyan ethnic group with a population of 3 million) has the maximum number of Kenya’s most successful runners (nearly 50 Olympic medals in middle and long distance events). Middle and long distance runners from Ethiopia and Kenya hold over 90% of the all-time world records and occupy the current top 10 positions in world-event rankings.
Athletes from the Ethiopian town of Bekoji (outside of the capital Addis Ababa) has won 10 Olympic gold medals.
Kenya and Ethiopia participated in the Olympics for the first time in 1956 when they sent a small group of runners and boxers to the Melbourne Games. Ethiopia won its first Olympic medal in athletics in 1960 when Abebe Bikila won the marathon at the Rome Olympics, an accomplishment he duplicated four years later at the Tokyo Olympics.
Kenya won its first Olympic medal in athletics in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when Wilson Kiprugut won a bronze medal in the 800m event.
Four years later, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the Kenyan men dominated the distance running events by bagging seven medals, led by Kipchoge “Kip” Keino, who won a gold medal in the 1,500m run and a silver in the 5,000m run.
- Since 1991, 26 of the last 29 times, the men’s winner has been either a Kenyan or an Ethiopian.
- Since 1988, 20 of the 25 first place men have been from Kenya.
- East African women have won the race 21 times in the last 24 years.
- In 2019, the top six finishers were East Africans. Three of the four top women finishers were from Kenya or Ethiopia.
Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge in 2019 recently became the first human to run the 26.2-mile marathon distance in less than two hours, clocking a 1:59:40.
Kipchoge, in 2018, ran the second fastest marathon in history. He also won in 2019 at 2:02:37.
A Kenyan or Ethiopian man has won each of the last 17 races. The East African elite women runners have won the last 10 London marathons.
Below are well-researched reasons for the East African dominance in middle and long distance running. Many theories have been proved and disapproved, while some are steeped in legend and continue to be publicised as possible causes of their success.
The physiological characteristics which contribute to athletic success (body type, biomechanical, metabolic, and cardiovascular, running economy, neuromuscular) are strongly influenced by muscles- or metabolism-related genes.
There is also a common opinion that East African runners completely dominate the genes that code for endurance performance. There have been many research studies around the role of these genetic factors (genes and their variants) in their path to world class performance.
A gene called ACE (angiotensin I-converting enzyme), also known as the endurance gene, influences control of blood circulation in muscles. Few researches show that East African runners possess these genes and hence they can resist fatigue for longer periods because lactic acid, generated in oxygen-deprived muscle, builds up slower. This gives them advantage to get 10% more mileage for the same oxygen intake when compared to non-African counterparts.
The Scientific American guide had once predicted that performances at the 2012 Olympic Games would depend on the insertion of key genes into the nuclei of athletes’ muscle cells.
The genetic make-up has an impact on physical characteristics, especially on fat and body muscle mass. It’s been observed that the best distance runners (with exceptions of course) tend to be relatively short in stature with slender limbs and low upper body masses (Body Mass Index). This reduced BMI allows them to run more economically with minimal energy used for swinging the limbs.
Outstanding performance in long distance running requires primarily an optimal combination of high capacity for aerobic energy output, a high fractional utilization of VO2 max during competition, and good running economy. Many studies and research reveal that while some of these factors have been examined objectively in the laboratory and field, others have been assessed from an observational standpoint.
High capacity for aerobic energy output
V02 (max) is basically the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. A high maximal oxygen uptake during exercise represents the ability to integrate the components of transport and utilization of oxygen, cardiac output, respiratory gas exchange, haemoglobin, blood flow, muscle oxygen extraction, and the rate of aerobic ATP (adenosine triphosphate – form of energy) resynthesis. Since oxygen is critical to running fast, VO2 max is the one of the best measures of running fitness.
Studies show that 6% of Kenyan international-level runners and 73% of elite Ethiopian marathoners used to run to their schools when they were young instead of walking or using a mode of transport. Researchers conclude that elite Kenyan male runners (VO2 max values between 70 and 85 mL/kg/min) performing well in long distance running on the international arena have developed the high capacity from running long distances at an young age.
It is the steady state maximal oxygen consumption at a given running velocity. Different studies on running economy were performed on Kalenjin elite runners which concluded that this group has superior running economy than their other non-African counterparts.
The ability to sustain a high percentage of VO2 max or use high fraction of it during competition has long been identified as a predictor of endurance performance.
Kip Keino had utilized his whole VO2 max when running 5,000m and above 97%–98% of VO2 max in a 10km race. This observation is consistent with more recent findings where Kenyan runners can sustain 93%–96% of the velocity associated with VO2 max at 10,000m speed while running on treadmill.
Relatively high haemoglobin and haematocrit
There is minimal data available regarding the haemoglobin or the total blood cell volume of elite East African distance runners, and those studies are difficult to compare due to conflicting methodologies. This is clearly a fascinating area, and additional research is necessary. However, by virtue of being born and raised at high altitudes, their body produces more and bigger red blood cells. This increases delivery of oxygen to the muscles and boosts performance.
Development of good metabolic “economy/efficiency” based on physique and lower limb characteristics
An average Kenyan’s leg is 400g lighter, 5% longer and 12% lighter or thinner calves than those of their European competitors which translates to being more metabolically economical with an energy saving capacity of 8% when running at race-pace running velocities. Over long distances, this small advantage makes a lot of difference.
The Kenyans, particularly those from the tribes of the Great Rift Valley, have an ectomorphic somatotype (body type) characterized by long, slender legs that are typical of central and southern African tribes. The Ethiopians, in contrast,
are generally more mesomorphic (medium frame with more muscle mass) and exhibit physical characteristics of people of northern Africa, and also some European and Middle Eastern physical traits.
These physical attributes may offer enhanced biomechanical efficiency and thereby contribute to their success on the track.
Favourable skeletal-muscle-fibre composition and oxidative enzyme profile
Skeletal muscle is made up of individual muscles – slow-twitch type I and fast-twitch type II muscle fibres. The slow-twitch muscle fibres are more effective at using oxygen to generate more ATP/energy fuel for continuous and extended muscle contractions. They trigger more slowly than fast-twitch fibres and can go for a long time before they fatigue.
It has been suggested that the success of the Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners is based on skeletal muscle fibre characteristics and enzymatic capabilities that favour endurance activity. Studies show that Kenyans have a higher ratio of slow-twitch fibres.
Studies also show that the Kenyan runners may be able to generate energy more efficiently from lipid-based sources than their peers. They have a distinct muscle enzyme which allows them to use their body fat (fatty acids) for fuel more efficiently. This gives them a slight advantage in long distance events in which lipid-based energy production is a component.
Blood lactate levels and muscle oxidative potential
It is observed that the Kenyan elite runners have lower blood lactate levels when running at a given exercise intensity compared to other elite runners. It means they can resist fatigue for longer periods because of slower build up of lactic acid generated in oxygen-deprived muscles. The blood lactate response to submaximal running is a good predictor of endurance running performance and reflects the metabolic response in the “running muscles”.
More mitochondria, larger muscle-lipid consumption during exercise and lower level of blood lactate at a given work-rate lead to higher activity of the oxidative enzymes. The oxidative potential of the muscles engaged in running in turn directly impacts performance, as running speed remains high before blood lactate starts elevating.
If we watch any elite Kenyan or Ethiopian in a competition, they all seem to glide, barely touching the ground. Daniel E Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist and professor of biological science at Harvard University, published a paper showing that running in cushioned shoes pushes athletes to strike the ground harder than running barefoot. Kenyans and Ethiopians often run miles to school barefoot which is believed to give them a special advantage. Ethiopian Abebe Bikila even won the 1960 Olympic marathon running barefoot (even though it is the only major world record that is set barefoot).
Traditional Kenyan/Ethiopian diet – “You are what you eat”
Carbohydrates are the source of energy for endurance athletes. The low fat-high carb diet, followed for centuries by the African population, plays a major role in their running success.
The staple diets of Kenyan runners, include ugali (porridge made from maize or millet flour), green leafy vegetables, milk, kidney beans which are high carb-low fat.
Kenyan runners drink the traditional Kenyan tea (with high glycemic index) immediately after training sessions and with their meals. This tea serves as the “energy drink” to effectively replenish glycogen stores post-training.
It is approximately 13% lower in carbohydrate than the traditional Kenyan diet but 3% higher in protein and 10% higher in fat.
Living and training at altitude – Live high and train high
The sunny highlands in the Great Rift Valley (plateau area 4,921 feet above sea level) has many successful Kenyan marathoners. Many other key training centres such as Iten, Kaptagat and Eldoret in Kenya are also located at high altitudes.
Ethiopia’s high central plateau ranges from 4,200 feet to 9,800 feet with many training centres in Bekoji and Addis Ababa located at these higher altitudes.
The high elevation air is thin and oxygen scarce.
Runners develop lungs capable of functioning in thinner air by increasing the capacity and efficiency.
The human body adapts by producing more red blood cells to capture and deliver the limited oxygen available.
Many research shows that the advantages gained from being born and raised at high altitude places are greater than flatlands. Kenyans have the innate ability to train at consistent race-pace running velocity, or even faster at high altitudes. They can train at relatively high intensity despite the physiological strain and limitations imposed on humans during exercise.
Strong psychological advantage and motivation to achieve economic and social success
Some researchers have suggested that Kenya’s long distance runners have a psychological advantage. Not only these runners, but their competitors, also now see them as invincible in the racing circuits.
Being a successful runner in Kenya and Ethiopia translates to economic and social success for the athlete. These athletes are motivated to pursue professional running careers. They are willing to chase every opportunity that presents itself.
Meskel Square is often referred to as Ethiopia’s “field of dreams,” where the country’s most promising runners have come for years to train in pursuit of running excellence.
Many champions come from, or have trained at the Rift Valley which is known as “the city of champions.”
Both the East African nations have established a long tradition of excellence in the sport of distance running, which continues to fuel the dreams and the training principles of current and future champions.
Having discussed all these factors, it becomes imperative to know the research studies and other conclusions which contradicts them.
Many studies show that VO2 max was not significantly different between elite East African distance runners and their European counterparts. But there has been a difference in the performances at world events. Although their diets appear to be favourable for endurance running training, they do not appear to be uniquely different from the training diets of other elite competitors and therefore, probably do not provide any obvious competitive advantage.
There is a theoretical rationale that psychology plays a critical role in the dominance of the East African runners. The attitude advantage is one of the many other tangible factors that has been studied well.
Studies observed that their higher blood oxidative capacity makes running more efficient. But they also concluded that it’s their “bird-like legs” that contribute more towards their efficient running stride.
Given the complexity of genetic research, there are a few identified performance genes and their favourable variants that are possibly unique to the diverse African population and have been associated with world-class marathon running performance. These may facilitate any performance benefits but there are no conclusive studies in this regard.
There are many researchers who emphasise that the number of muscle biopsies obtained from Kenyan runners to date have been remarkably few and additional study is required to determine their muscle fibre composition. Moreover, researchers accept the need for further studies to identify whether the elite non-African athletes with the similar genetic variants when exposed to the optimal East African training environment can achieve similar success.
Hypothetical model to explain the extraordinary success of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners: By Wilber and Pitsiladis
Based on the above discussion, only a few genetic traits and physiological (VO2 max, skeletal-muscle-fibres characteristics, enzymatic profile, diet) or haematological advantages (total haemoglobin mass, total blood volume) have been identified that can conclusively explain the unique success of the East African runners. A well-researched model explains the Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance with the following three factors:
Biomechanical and physiological: Ectomorphic body type leading to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic efficiency.
Training: Consistent aerobic training from young age at high intensity and altitude.
Psychological: High motivation to succeed and continue the tradition of running excellence.
How to train like them?
The Kenyan and Ethiopian lifestyle might be difficult for us to adopt. Even if we can adopt a fraction of their methods, we can improve our own training and our love for running. The opportunity for improvement and enjoyment is everywhere, the Ethiopians and the Kenyans are just better at noticing them.
Mix up the runs: Do not always run same the route or run down on the same side of the road or surface. Invent your runs.
Running a lot is the key to distance running and the elite runners log in many kilometres (sometime even twice a day) day in and day out. They believe in “train hard and win easy”. So, run as much as you can, in accordance to well-proven marathon training plans.
Harness the power of group: Research shows that running in a group encourages you to run harder, faster, and longer. Do your tough runs (interval sessions or hill reps) in the company of other runners.
Don’t be a slave to technology: If the smartwatch is distracting you from the enjoying your run or pressurizing you to run harder on the easy run day, then ditch it. It’s not important to record the running details of all your easy casual runs. Just think of how many times you have really gone back and looked at those details other than just sharing them on social media.
Run all-out sprints at the end of the run: It’s often noted that if an Ethiopian runner and another runner are neck-and-neck with 100m to go, the Ethiopian runner will usually outsprint their rival.
Haile Gebrselassie famously did this against Paul Tergat in the 10,000m at the Sydney 2000 Olympics .
Shura Kitata (Ethiopian) outsprinted Vincent Kipchumba (Kenyan) at the 2020 London Marathon.
Do 20-second bursts at 80%-90% effort at the end of the run while concentrating on keeping good form.
An important factor in the success of the elite runners is their ability to do high intensity training on a consistent basis without over-training. Be consistent with your training.
Don’t be afraid of making sacrifices: If Sunday is your long run day, plan your Saturday evenings accordingly so that you are all set for Sunday morning.
Give equal importance to rest and don’t run hard all the time. Do not ignore the importance of easy runs. They are just as important as the sprints or intervals or long runs. Elite African runners’ easy runs are actually slow recovery runs.
Make the most of your environment: Enjoy the run as much as you can. If something goes wrong, it’s not your last run. Learn from your mistakes and be better prepared for the next one. If your plan is hill running, become the master of hills. If it’s flat road and the day for speed runs, concentrate on improving your flat speed.
Success in any sport is multi-factorial and often a complex phenomenon to study. It cannot solely be the result of physiological or genetic composition. Training plays a large role in determining what the race clock reveals when a runner crosses the finish line. In the case of elite East African runners, we have seen that there is considerable evidence that their training differs dramatically from the other elite endurance runners. It’s ultimately an inter-relationship between environmental, socio-economical, genetic, lifestyle, cultural, psychological and physiological factors along with training that creates an ideal environment for their distance running success.