What makes East Africans so good at distance running?

Mary Keitany, Lellisa Desisa, New York City Marathon
Winners Mary Keitany of Kenya and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia pose with their medals during the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon in New York on November 4, 2018. The 2019 edition of the race is Nov. 3. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Even those only casually aware of distance running probably know that runners from African nations dominate distance running, especially in the marathon.

Why, sport and the body
Since bursting on the scene at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners have dominated. Six factors contribute to this.

More specifically, it is East Africans that usually win major marathons. Since the 1968 Olympics, men and women from Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated the 26.2-mile event. 

Since 1991, the men’s winner at the Boston Marathon has been either a Kenyan or Ethiopian 26 of the last 29 times. And East African women have worn the laurel wreath 21 times in the last 24 years at Boston. 

The recently completed Chicago Marathon saw Kenyans Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei crowned champions in the men’s and women’s events, respectively.

And perhaps the greatest marathon runner of all time is Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge who recently became the first human to run the 26.2-mile marathon distance in less than two hours, clocking a 1:59:40. The feat won’t count as a world record because Kipchoge was not running in competition, he used pacers and he was given fluids on the run. The event was staged to allow Kipchoge to challenge the 2-hour mark.

But even before that attempt, Kipchoge was dominating the world marathon scene, having won gold medals eight times in major, globally recognized, marathons and breaking his own world marathon record of 2:03:05 when he won the 2019 London Marathon at 2:02:37. 

At the London Marathon, regarded as the world’s most popular marathon, a Kenyan or Ethiopian man has won each of the last 17 races. The last 10 on the women’s side were East Africans.  Kenyans and Ethiopians also have dominated runners from other African nations in races on that continent. 

A popular annual marathon in Lagos, Nigeria — the Access Bank Marathon — has never been won by a Nigerian.

And on Oct. 6, a Kenyan man and woman finished first in their categories at the maiden edition of the Onitsha City Marathon, a 21-kilometer or half-marathon-distance race in Nigeria.

To help keep it attractive to home-grown runners, the organizers provided separate prize money for Nigerian runners. The top 10 Nigerian men and women received prize money, a sign that West African nations do not expect to beat the East Africans. 

Why are Kenya and Ethiopian athletes this good at long distance races?

Here are some reasons to consider:

  1. Skinny lives matters: If you were parent or guardian to a 14-year-old American boy with a Body Mass Index of 15.5, the neighbors might whisper about neglect and possibly report you to a child-protection agency. But in Kenya, your home might be the envy of the neighbors, where future distance runners come to train. Being thin includes having skinny legs. And an average Kenyan’s leg is 400 grams lighter than those of their European competitors, which translates to an energy saving of 8% when running. Over long distances, this small genetic advantage can really give Kenyans a leg up. 
  2. The barefoot debate: Daniel E. Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist and professor of biological science at Harvard, caused an international stir nearly a decade ago when he published a paper showing that running in cushioned sneakers encourages athletes to strike the ground harder than when running barefoot. Kenyans and Ethiopians often run miles to school barefoot, an action Lieberman believes gives them a special edge. Ethiopian Abebe Bikila even won the 1960 Olympic marathon running barefoot.
  3. You are what you eat: It is believed by researchers that the routine diet of the Kenyans and Ethiopians — which is typically high in carbohydrates and low in fat – plays a role in their success. Their protein intake matches that of other elite athletes. Generally, the staple diets of Kenyan runners include ugali (stiff porridge made from maize or millet flour), green leafy vegetables, milk, kidney beans and eggs.
  4. Psychological advantage: Some researchers have suggested that Kenya’s long-distance runners have a psychological advantage as they now see themselves as unbeatable on the global stage — as does their competition. This edge over other long-distance runners has developed among Kenyan runners because they have an aura of invincibility, both in their own and their opponents’ minds.
  5. High altitude training: Another reason that might explain the  performance of Kenyans and Ethiopian athletes is the high altitude environment in which they live.

Kenya, for instance, is a mountainous country with the Great Rift Valley running through it from North to South. With plateaus reaching an average height of 1,500 meters — or 4,921 feet — above sea level, Kenyans get to experience “high-altitude training” daily, and such an environment lends itself well to running. Ethiopia’s high central plateau ranges from 4,200 to 9,800 feet.

At higher altitudes, air is thin and oxygen scarce. The human body adapts by producing more red blood cells to capture and deliver the limited oxygen available. Lung capacity and efficiency increases. 

  1. Social factor: Lastly,  many Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes are motivated to pursue professional running careers because of poverty in their country, which pushes them to chase every opportunity.

Young Kenyans and Ethiopians see that their countrymen and women have successfully lifted their village out of poverty by using their winnings from a few international races, and distance running becomes their chosen mechanism for opportunity.

Can the Kenyans and Ethiopians be beaten in a distance race?

Of course they can. In 2018, an American woman and a Japanese man won the Boston Marathon. Still, East Africans dominate the elite long-distance running scene. In 2019, the top six Boston finishers were East Africans. Three of the top four women also were from Kenya or Ethiopia. American Jordan Hasay, who finished third among the women, was the lone exception. 

Arinze Esomnofu is a Nigerian media professional, content editor and a freelance journalist. He is currently the country manager for Flashscore Nigeria.

Editor’s note: For the 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

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