Lance Smith considers if Kenyans are born better runners.
Kenyans dominate the world of distance running. The question is, why and how? Is it genetic; are Kenyans born to be better? Evidence suggests no. And yes!
Peak Performance, a UK coaching, and sports science newsletter reported on the findings of Swedish exercise physiologist Bengt Saltin who compared non-running adolescent Kenyans, Kenyan high school runners, and elite Kenyan runners with top-level Scandinavian runners.
Saltin found that sedentary Kenyan youths had the same aerobic capacities as inactive Danish teenagers. If Kenyans were born better runners, you would expect them to have higher VO2maxs than Scandinavians.
Saltin found that untrained Kenyan adolescents had the same VO2max range as untrained.
Active but non-running Kenyans were similar to equivalent Scandinavians while serious Kenyan high schools runners provided similar VO2max figures to hard training Scandinavian high schoolers; likewise elite Kenyan and European distance runners.
Americans mirror the progression in VO2max readings from inactive youths to elite athletes. As Peak Performance said, the advancement in VO2max values is the same in Kenyans as it is in Americans! (The Truth Behind Kenyan Endurance Runners, P2P Publishing, 2009).
Some have credited being born at a high altitude with Kenyan superiority. Jurg Wirz, a Swizz writer who lives in Kenya, also wrote about the Saltin studies in his book 'Run to Win – The Training Secrets of the Kenyan Runners' (Myer & Myer Spoprt, 2006). Wirz reported that scientists found altitude is not the key to Kenyan performance. If it were a Kenyan child would be born with a superior oxygen uptake and transportation system (VO2max), but as Saltin discovered, this is not the case.
Having a more significant proportion of slow-twitch (endurance) muscle fibres is also a consideration. Wirz wrote that Kenyan runners do not have a muscle advantage over other world-class athletes; muscle biopsies show that there is no difference.
What is different, however, is the way Kenyans train. Young Kenyans train harder than Europeans, Americans, and New Zealanders. On average over half of a high school Kenyan mileage was at heart rates of 90 percent of maximum or higher!
There is no doubt Kenya has a running culture. Running is also seen as a way to get rich or escape poverty. But when you consider the depth of Kenyan athletics, hard training (or training harder than your opposition) is a necessity. You can be ranked 25 in the world as Ndiwa was last year in the 5000m with a time of 13:05.02and still be only 15th on the Kenyan rankings. Or be the world's fourth-best marathoner (Wanjiru, 2:05.10) and potentially not make the Kenyan Olympic team as the three ahead of you are also Kenyans.
It is a similar story for all distance and middle distance events: whether the Kenyan Olympic trials, world cross-country selection race, or your local high school championship the standard is high. If you are a Kenyan runner, you train hard because you have to.
This, according to Saltin, is the key. Challenging (but sensible) training improves VO2max. There is evidence that intensive long-distance training can convert fast fibres to slow-twitch fibres, thereby improving endurance. And as pointed out by Peak Performance, "Kenyan runners - including the high schoolers – were more economical than the elite Scandinavians and also produced less lactate during high-speed running. This makes sense: one of the best ways to boost the economy is to train fast. Also, fast training lowers lactate output, which probably explains why Kenyans have lower lactate levels during strenuous running. Since high lactates are associated with fatigue, that is a very good thing!" Saltin state that this allows Kenyan runners to generate out around 10 percent more mileage from the same amount of oxygen than Europeans.
But Wirz does point out that Kenyans have a physical advantage: body shape. Saltin concluded that the optimal shape for a distance runner is small height, slender body, and thin lower legs. Kenyans from the tribes that produce the bulk of the country's champions fit this description. Then again, high volume-high intensity training and light bodyweight go together.
So, it seems Kenyans are born with no metabolic genetic advantage. But there is a better chance of being born in the right shape for running if you are born in the highlands of Kenya.
There are also sociological, economic, and societal reasons for Kenyan athletic superiority, but one reason stands out above all else: Kenyans train harder, they train smarter.
Hopefully, there is a moral in there somewhere.
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About the Author
Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in track events and jumps.