13 Oct The Secrets To Long Distance Running
For decades, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, both male and female, have dominated long distance running on the world stage. With their dominance comes the curiosity and intrigue looking for answers about how and why they’ve risen to the top in such an impressive and sustained manner. Kenya and Ethiopia first competed in the Olympics in 1956. In 1960, Ethiopia won its first Olympic medal with Abebe Bikila taking the gold in the marathon event in Rome. Shortly thereafter, Wilson Kiprugut won Kenya’s first Olympic medal, with a third-place finish in the 800m event in 1964. Since then, Kenya and Ethiopia have come to dominate the middle and long distance events at the Olympics, World Championships, and other international events, including IAAF World Cross-Country Championships and major marathons and road races across the world. Here we attempt to uncover the secrets to long distance running, and factors that may explain the unparalleled success of East African long distance runners!
Long Distance Running: Understanding VO2 Max Physiology
Vo2 max is a measure of an individual’s aerobic energy output capacity. More specifically, VO2 max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise, and it is an excellent measure of aerobic endurance fitness. There is a significant positive correlation between high VO2 max and running performance. Therefore, it stands that VO2 max could offer a possible explanation for East African dominance in endurance running if differences were found between them and other elite runners from around the world.
Numerous studies have compared elite East African runners against their non-African counterparts, both at altitude and at sea level. Those findings have repeatedly shown no significant differences in VO2 max (1, 2). When measured at sea level, Saltin et al (1) reported that the elite Kenyan runners had an average VO2 max of 79.9 mL/kg/min, whereas Scandinavian elite runners averaged 79.2 mL/kg/min. Furthermore, at an altitude of 2100m, the Kenyans’ VO2 max average was 66.3 versus the Scandinavians’ at 67.3. These findings have been reproduced when comparing elite German runners to Kenyans as well (2).
The repeated VO2 max findings of East African runners place them within the average VO2 max (70-85 mL/kg/min) of elite male runners of non-African descent and therefore, it can be concluded that East African runners’ VO2 max does not offer them an advantage in run performance.
Vo2 Max Numbers For Different Sports
The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Relative Utilization of VO2 Max
Relative utilization of one’s VO2 max is the ability to maintain a high percentage of their given VO2 max for prolonged periods (in this case, during a race). Similar to VO2 max, research has found that East Africans are able to sustain very high percentages of their VO2 max (93-96%) (3). While these numbers are impressive, when compared to other elite European runners, they are not substantially higher (4) and thus do not explain the differences observed in run performance.
Furthermore, an indicator of relative utilization of VO2 max is the lactate response with running. Blood lactate accumulation during endurance running is a good measure of the metabolic efficiency of the primary muscles utilized during running. During high-intensity exercise, lactate production increases along with other byproducts as the body uses glucose for energy. Elevated levels of lactate and other byproducts can interfere with muscle contraction capacity and ultimately impair performance. Studies have found that elite Kenyan runners have less blood lactate accumulation at a given work intensity when compared to other runners (8, 9). This was found to be true at both sea level and at higher altitudes. Furthermore, as work intensity increases, the disparity between the Kenyans and non-East African runners increases.
Ammonia concentration is another measure of metabolic function of muscles during exercise. As exercise intensity increases, ammonia levels increase, and fatigue results. Research shows that individuals with muscle composition favoring higher numbers of slow-twitch fibers are more resistant to increases in blood ammonia levels associated with exercise (10). Saltin et al. found that the same Kenyan runners mentioned above also experienced increases in ammonia levels, but only with very high work intensities. More importantly, compared to Scandinavian elite runners, the Kenyans’ ammonia levels were significantly lower (8). Following max intensity testing, ammonia concentration levels were one half to one third that of the Scandinavian runners. Blood ammonia and blood lactate levels are indicators of metabolic regulation during exercise and are contributing fatigue factors. Therefore, the disparities seen in East African runners’ ammonia and lactate levels, especially at higher intensity exercise performances when compared to other elite runners, may offer insight into the performance success of the East African runners.
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The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Quality Economy
Running economy is a multifactorial measure that is a good predictor of performance in endurance events such as marathons and half marathon races. Scientifically speaking, it is a measure of the oxygen consumption at a given running velocity and provides a measure for the energy cost of running for an individual. The lower the VO2 at a given running speed, the less the oxygen demand is and the better the running economy. A study by Saltin et al (6) found that elite Kenyan runners had lower oxygen demands at a given running velocity when compared to other elite runners.
Running economy factors in neuromuscular and biomechanics, as well as metabolic and cardiorespiratory functioning. The neuromuscular and biomechanic factors contribute to muscular output that translates into movement (running). The metabolic and cardiorespiratory factors include the efficiency of mitochondria, heart rate, muscle fiber composition, core temperature regulation, among others.
The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Proper Recovery
Check out this video focused on education and a handful of simple movements and stretches every runner should make time for after a run, or on recovery days. It has been suggested that 90% of running injuries are due to training errors. This includes doing too much too soon in terms of mileage, not being physically fit for running, and not letting the body recover.
With busy lifestyles today, some people run and then immediately jump into a chair for work or become stationary for long periods of time after a run. The least you can do is quickly stretch out after running or take a movement break using these movements after you’ve been stationary in the same position for a few hours. This will help with perceived stiffness and flexibility issues for sure.
The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Anthropometrics
Anthropometrics is the science of measuring the size and proportions of the body. This includes measurements of height, weight, body mass, body mass index, femur length, tendon length, among others. Assessing anthropometrics can provide insight into an athlete’s running economy because metabolic costs can vary depending on these variables.
In one study, Sano et al (5) investigated muscle-tendon functioning of elite Kenyan runners compared to height-matched controls. They found that the Kenyan runners had significantly longer gastrocnemius-Achilles tendons. The longer tendon length improves running economy for an athlete due to the increased levels of stored elastic and more efficient energy utilization resulting in reduced muscular fatigue.
When looking at somatotypes, or general body types that are not affected by training or amount of caloric consumption, Kenyans and Ethiopians do not fall into the same category. There are three basic somatotypes: endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph. Kenyans typically fall into the ectomorph category, which is classified by lower body mass, long, slender legs, taller height, and very little body fat and muscle mass. In contrast, Ethiopians generally are considered to be mesomorphic, with shorter frames and larger muscles and body mass that is greater than ectomorphs.
When specifically looking at the Kenyan somatotype, Larsen et al (7) found that elite Kenyan runners had 5% longer legs than elite Scandinavian long distance runners. Additionally, the Kenyans had 12% lighter gastrocnemius muscles. They concluded that the innate ectomorphic body type provided an advantage to the Kenyan runners through increased mechanical efficiencies. Furthermore, the lighter overall body mass of the ectomorphic somatotype allows for less metabolic demand with running, as motion of the limbs contributes to high metabolic demands, and the greater the weight of the limbs, the higher the energy cost for movement. However, it should be noted that runners from South Africa and India, who have similar running economy measurements and body types, have not demonstrated nearly the same success as those from East Africa (17).
The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Muscle Fiber Composition
There are two general types of skeletal muscle fibers in the body. Type I skeletal muscle fibers are known as slow-twitch fibers. These slow-twitch fibers are resistant to fatigue and are the primary muscle fibers working during endurance events, such as long distance running. In contrast, type II fibers are fast-twitch fibers are responsible for quick, powerful movements like sprinting, jumping, and weightlifting.
Type I Versus Type II Muscle Fibers
There is a positive correlation between endurance running performance and type I muscle fiber composition. Therefore, assessing the makeup of Kenyan and Ethiopian runner’s muscular composition could provide answers to explain their dominance in endurance running. When comparing East African and Scandinavian elite runners, one study found no difference in type I muscle fiber composition or size (5). However, they did find differences in the enzymatic activity that is involved in lipid-generated energy production for “running muscles”. The East African runners in the study utilized fat metabolism as a source of energy production better than their Scandinavian counterparts. This distinction is important as the efficiency and utilization of lipid-based energy becomes an important factor with longer distance events.
The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Diet
Diet plays a critical role in the success of any elite athlete, no matter the sport. Researchers, therefore, have investigated the diets of Kenyan and Ethiopians in an attempt to determine if the secret to their running abilities resides in the food they eat. Onywera et al found that the traditional Kenyan diet is comprised largely of carbohydrates (77%), with lower amounts of fat (13%) and protein (10%) (11). Similarly, the traditional Ethiopian diet consists of 64% carbohydrates, 23% fat, and 13% protein (12). This diet is consistent with recommendations for endurance athletes (13). Both Kenyans’ and Ethiopians’ carbohydrate intake includes vegetables, fruit, and rice. Additionally, the Kenyan maize dish, ugali, is a staple in the Kenyan diet. Kenyan runners also consume traditional Kenyan tea after running. Both ugali and their tea have very high glycemic indices which allow for glycogen store replenishment after training which may assist in optimal recovery. Both the Kenyan and Ethiopian diets appear to be favorable for endurance running performance. However, their diets are similar to other elite distance runners and do not appear to be uniquely different nor advantageous compared to their counterparts around the world.
The Secrets To Long Distance Running: Lifestyle
Beyond anatomical, genetic and physiological factors, economic success may also play a role in the success of the East African runners. According to worldbank.org, approximately 36% of Kenyans live below the established World Health Organization poverty line, while Ethiopia has roughly 30% of its citizens living in poverty (14). A study examining the motivational factors of Kenya’s elite runners found that 33% acknowledged economic success as the primary reason for training and competing (15). In comparison, other motivational factors such as “Olympic glory” were reported by only 14% as their primary training incentive (15).
Success in running for East Africans can translate into both economic gain and societal advancement in their respective countries. This motivation is further fueled by each country’s longstanding tradition of excellence in the sport. For the Kenyans, their first gold came in 1968 with the gold medal performance by Kip Keino in the 1500m race and for the Ethiopians, their tradition of international dominance began with Abebe Bikila’s gold medal win in the 1960 Olympics in the marathon. While difficult to objectively measure, economic motivation and the long tradition of success in endurance running in East Africa should not be dismissed as a contributing factor to their unrelenting dominance.
Secrets To Long Distance Running: Live High Train High
The concept of “live high, train high” refers to living at higher elevations and completing training at those elevations as well. The idea is that by training at high altitudes where oxygen is less readily available, one can train the body to more efficiently utilize the limited oxygen supply. From there, when athletes compete at lower elevations, their bodies are at an advantage because they have more oxygen supply but are still more efficient at utilizing that oxygen due to their previous elevation training. The disadvantage of training at altitudes though, is that most athletes cannot train as hard or at as high of an intensity compared to sea-level training.
The majority of the top Ethiopian and Kenyan distance runners were born and raised in their respective countries, at altitudes ranging from 2000-2500m. Roughly 75% of Kenya’s top runners come from the Kalenjin tribe, which is 1 of 40 tribes in the country and makes up 10% of the total population (16). The Kalenjin tribe lives at an altitude of 1830-2450m. The majority of elite Ethiopian runners come from the Arsi tribal region and the Shewa tribal region, which are at altitudes similar to that of the Kalenjin tribe lands of Kenya (12). Ethiopian runners will often train in the capital city of Addis Ababa which sits at 2355m altitude and the Entoto Hills which has elevations reaching 3000m.
At higher altitudes, the increased physiological demands due to the hypoxic conditions limit most runners’ abilities to train at relatively high intensities for long periods of time. Kenyan runners, on the other hand, have been found to have greater tolerance to consistent training at high intensities (race pace or faster) at elevation (1, 3) than their counterparts from other countries. Less research has been done on Ethiopian runners in terms of altitude adaptations, but due to the environmental similarities between the countries, it is believed that they have a similar innate ability to train at high intensities at elevation.
The East Africans’ apparent natural capacity for race pace training (and faster) at elevation offers evidence as a factor contributing to their success in the endurance sports world. However, little research has been done to identify if this adaptation is genetic, due to living at higher altitudes for millennia, or if some other factor is at play. If this were the key contributing factor, we should see similar running success from athletes from countries at similar altitudes such as Nepal or Columbia.
Learn More Secrets To Running!
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There exists some research showing anatomical, biomechanical, and physiological differences between East African runners and those from other countries, such as longer gastroc-Achilles tendon length, lower body mass, longer and more slender limbs that may contribute to their success in the sport. Additionally, the elite East African runners who have been studied have demonstrated high proficiency in terms of running economy. There are also differences in environmental and training tolerances, with the East Africans growing up at moderate to higher altitudes and for reasons that are still unclear, have greater capacities for consistent training at elevation. Psychological factors may also be a contributor, as success in distance running in both Ethiopia and Kenya can provide significant socioeconomic rewards for the individual as well as their families.
No single factor appears to offer a complete explanation for Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance in endurance running. Instead, it is most likely a combination of the factors mentioned above. It must also be considered that most studies have been undertaken by researchers from cultures outside of East Africa. Therefore, it is plausible that other factors, unknown and not previously considered as important from an outsider’s perspective, may hold the key to explaining the unrelenting East African dominance in long distance running.
About The Author
Kelly Wild, PT, DPT
[P]Rehab Content Creator
Kelly received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from St. Catherine University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Kelly attended The Ohio State University for her undergraduate degree, studying Psychology and while at Ohio State, Kelly played on their Division I Ice Hockey team. Kelly has extensive experience working with athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school level, and has a strong passion for guiding athletes in their return to sport, as safely and quickly as possible. Kelly works for Ironhorse PT & Pilates in San Ramon, CA. Outside of her work as a physical therapist, Kelly devotes her time to working as a CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting coach. She has continued training and competing in Olympic weightlifting at the national level, as a member of the California Strength weightlifting team.