Athletic Training: Kenya’s Distance Runners Reveal Secrets To Athletic Success

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 9:28am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

If you follow distance running, you know about the dominance of East Africans in the sport. Male and female Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have consistently kicked distance running butt for the past several years.

Distance running: is success due to genetic, physiological advantages or just hard work?

What makes athletes from this region such strong contenders in endurance events? It’s tempting to suggest a genetic component. Kinship groups, particularly those that have been clustered together in a particular region for a long time, do tend to share certain biological characteristics. For example, indigenous peoples whose families have lived in remote areas such as Canada’s Arctic or Peru’s Andes mountains for thousands of years have adapted physiologically to their often-extreme environmental conditions. People who can trace their heritage to these indigenous groups in such areas typically have distinctive characteristics as a result of population selection over the centuries.

Additionally, nobody becomes an elite athlete without some kind of inherent physiological advantage. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of observing an internationally-ranked competitor in action, you’ll realize that mere mortals don’t even come close to these biological freaks of physical superiority. Some years ago, I trained at a university gym that also trained high-level athletes. Because the weight room had Olympic weightlifting platforms, a former weightlifting competitor from South America used to drop in about the same time that I worked out. He was a small, wiry man, probably about 5’3” and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet with work boots on. One day, I looked over at him and my jaw dropped. He’d loaded up 405 pounds on the bar. Barely breaking a sweat, he lifted it off the power rack and jerked it (an explosive press) overhead. My brain could hardly comprehend the number of plates on the bar that that tiny man was casually holding over his cranium (yep, that’s eight 45-pound plates plus the bar). Other athletes, such as the national-level runners, looked like greased gazelles as they glided effortlessly with their long limbs past us average folks sweating and clumping along on the indoor track.

However, genetics don’t tell the full story. No matter how great the physical gifts mom and dad gave out, nobody becomes an elite athlete without a lot of hard work, skilled coaching, and support either. It doesn’t matter how fast you can run or how smoking your curveball if you aren’t prepared to get out of bed and haul your butt around the track at 6 a.m. while some person with a clipboard yells at you from the sidelines.

A study on Kenyans revealed additional factors

A recent article in the Journal of Sports Sciences1 examines the factors that make Kenyans such running superstars. A study like this has to be carefully designed. For one thing, it’s incorrect to assume that any biological advantage is simply due to the differences between "blacks” and "whites”. These are very large groups with immense variation between them, and skin color alone can’t indicate whether running ability is attached. It’s more precise to look at subgroups that are geographically related via kinship and marriage networks. Even within Kenya itself, there are many subpopulations that do not always intermarry or speak the same language. So in studying this issue one has to be quite careful to examine the right research subjects. A subgroup called Kalenjin who is part of one of the three main language groups, the Nilotic (the other two are Bantu and Kushitic), makes up about 10% of the total Kenyan population, but has won about 75% of all running races in Kenya. It’s also important to have a control group in a study, so the researchers found some non-runners for comparison.

Here’s what the study found. First, there were differences between national and internationally-ranked athletes in many measures. The elite international athletes were mostly from a particular region, the Rift Valley province, and mostly from the Kalenjin Nilotic language group, with many folks from a Kalenjin subgroup, the Nandi. It would seem that the evidence points to a genetic, kinship-based component. But here’s where it gets interesting. Another thing that distinguished athletes was that they traveled long distances to school, occasionally more than 10 kilometers (over six miles), but more frequently five to 10 km (about three to six miles). And they ran; they didn’t walk. Over 80% of the international athletes ran those many kilometers to school every day, compared to only about 20% of the non-runner group (who was also much more likely to take some form of transit). So was running long distances to school the cause or the consequence of a natural running ability? The jury’s still out, and most of us won’t ever make it to the Olympics (or even through an entire marathon) but it does suggest that hoofing it a little more often can bring great things!

1 Onywera, Vincent O., Robert A. Scott, Michael K. Boit, and Yannis P. Pitsiladis. "Demographic Characteristics of Elite Kenyan Endurance Runners.” Journal of Sports Sciences 24 no.4 (April 2006): 415-422.