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The African running phenomenon seems to be a topic of much debate. We have even discussed the topic on this site by looking at genetic factors influencing various athletic achievements. Before we go on I will provide my conclusion on the topic of genetic and racial factors that seem to have a bearing on performance. I will keep it brief.
First of all genetics and race clearly play a role in athletic achievement. Look at northern Europeans. They are generally quite large and possess very muscular frames. It is obvious that they are suited to strength sports. On the other end of the spectrum there are short, light, muscular Asians that dominate sports like diving and gymnastics. These factors are quite clear and not essentially up for debate. However there are less obvious things that are yet to be explained and are still being argued by scientists and sports coaches.
Why is it that northern Africans dominate middle distance running? Why do east Africans dominate long distance running? And why do west Africans dominate sprinting events? By the same token why don’t they dominate other sports that require similar metabolic exertion? I mean why is it that east Africans aren’t champion cyclists? Why aren’t west Africans great track cyclists? Why do Caucasians and Asians seem to always win swimming events? One look at a champion road cyclist would suggest that they should be equally good at running marathons. However the podium says otherwise.
This evidence has led my scientific, inquiring mind to certain conclusions. Firstly lets look at environment, influence and opportunity with regard specifically to east African distance runners. Why are they not champion road cyclists? Is it because they aren’t genetically programmed that way? That’s impossible since they are great at sustaining phenomenal running speeds for upwards of two hours. The explanation has to come from opportunity and environment. Running is highly valued in countries like Kenya. Athletes who would otherwise live a life of poverty are given the opportunity to make something of themselves and become a national icon. There is big money in east African running.
The African running phenomenon appears to have developed out of sheer simplicity and accessibility. Running costs next to nothing. So what sport do the Africans take up when they have no money for equipment and no access to sporting institutions? Well running of course. In addition to this reason it has also been a necessary skill for longer than it has been in western societies. In Australia and America we stopped needing to run a long time ago. In Kenya people have been travelling on foot right up until today. They have to walk places, there is persistence hunting, nomadic tribal traditions etc. It makes sense then that running is highly valued in a nation where it is just another everyday activity. The skill of running long distances in parts of east Africa is like the skills of driving, banking, washing dishes, making custom t shirts or using a computer to a western city slicker.
Next we have the training methods. Have you noticed that east African runners train much different than runners from everywhere else in the world? No one seems to notice this. Everyone is so focussed on their superior genetics and use this to explain away their own losses. Kenyan runners in particular are brutal in their training methods. A Kenyan running group or a cross-country training camp is scary. Athletes need to reach an elite level before even being invited to attend. The training is at such a level that even some of the world’s best struggle. This is influenced again by the value they place on running and the fact that they need short term success.
Finally we can see that genetics does play a role in the African running phenomenon but not as much as previously thought. East Africans were once thought to have a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres, which would explain why they have the ability to sustain certain speeds for longer periods of time. However they have since been found to actually have a very high percentage of fast twitch muscle fibres. This goes contrary to what we believe about endurance activity. Fast twitch muscle fibres fatigue faster and are better equipped for explosive, high force, short duration activities. However the fast twitch muscle fibres that dominate most east African muscular systems has been shown to possess highly oxidative characteristics. This gives the athlete the best of both worlds.
Other genetic factors influencing east African distance runners are large lung capacity, narrow hips, thin and wiry build, strong nuchal ligament and superior gait. Note though that these characteristics exist in other races of people that don’t dominate distance running. The reason has been thoroughly discussed above.
All the evidence and my conclusions can also be applied to other athletes such as west African sprinters. Sure, they have a genetic advantage but it is slight when compared to the contribution of environment, training and influence. Simply put, certain athletes of specific sports have superior training methodologies and more influence and incentive to compete in certain things. Combine this with even slightly favourable genetics and you naturally get more champions.
Non-Genetic Influence on the African Running Phenomenon
Africans have been the dominating force in most running events for many years. This, as discussed above, is written off as genetic advantage. However certain studies suggest other factors. We will discuss these studies below…
First of all lets take a look at some of the running records from the 100 metres right up to the marathon.
100 metres - 9.58 - Usain Bolt (Jamaica), west African decent
200 metres - 19.19 - Usain Bolt (Jamaica), west African decent
400 metres - 43.18 - Michael Johnson (USA), west African decent
800 metres - 1:41.11 - Wilson Kepketer (Denmark), northern Europe
1000 metres - 2:11.96 - Noah Ngeny (Kenya), east Africa
1500 metres - 3:26.0 - Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco), north Africa
Mile - 3:43.13 - Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco), north Africa
2000 metres - 4:44.79 - Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco), north Africa
5000 metres - 12:37.35 - Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia), east Africa
10,000 metres - 26:17.53 - Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia), east Africa
Half marathon - 58:33 - Samuel Winjiru (Kenya), east Africa
Marathon - 2:03.59 - Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) east Africa
Looking at that list of world records it is obvious that Africa dominates all running disciplines. There is only one exception to this trend and that is the 800 metre world record holder, Wilson Kepketer from Denmark, but hang on, wait a minute, surprise surprise, he's of African descent, so he's not really Danish at all.
Many studies have tried to explain why east African runners have dominated distance running throughout athletic history. Some findings point to superior psychological advantage through stereotype threat. Others look at their environmental circumstances such as running long distances for the purpose of travel. I’m sure you have heard of the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners that had to run 20km to and from school every day. Well it turns out that this has some truth to it.
It has recently been shown that elite east African long distance runners had to travel long distances to school and did so mostly by running. Some athletes had to run upwards of 20km per day. A good example is Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. He would run over 10km each way to school and back every day. When he started competing he would run with a crooked arm. No one knew why until they figured out that it was a patterned response to having to carry books every day whilst running to and from school. No wonder he’s a marathon champion.
A study by Saltin et al. has shown that east African runners who used running as a means of transport regularly during their childhood have a VO2 max up to 30 percent higher than those who did not grow up under such circumstances. They didn’t have bicycles, so there was no chance of excelling in road cycling. Given the genetic predispositions and environmental factors, there is no reason why, if given the opportunity and steered in that direction, that east Africans wouldn’t dominate the endurance sport of road cycling.
In addition to the lifestyle factors as discussed, there are other non-genetic things contributing to east African endurance running performance. It must be noted that most of the Kenyan distance running champions come from the Rift Valley Province, which accounts for a mere 20 percent of the total population of the country. Also, east Africa is, on average, a high altitude group of countries in most regions and the Rift Valley Province is even higher than the other regions. Endurance athletes have long used altitude training to increase production of red blood cells and haemoglobin, which are the cells that carry oxygen through the blood stream to be distributed to the working muscles. Combine this altitudinous environment with travelling on foot and a high incentive to run and you have a perfect recipe for a champion runner.
The success of west African sprinters in the last few decades has augmented the idea of black athletic supremacy. This idea developed due to the belief that similar skin colour means similar genetics. As a result there have been a number of studies comparing physiological characteristics such as VO2 max, lactate accumulation and running economy and higher fractional utilisation of VO2 max at race pace. In one study it was shown that black South African runners had lower levels of blood lactate than white athletes for a given pace. They also discovered that black athletes had better running economy. These things can all be explained mostly by non-genetic factors such as environment, lifestyle and training methods. However this would not be entirely accurate as there is some evidence to suggest that genetics also plays a significant role.
Being that west Africans are superior sprinters and not so good at endurance events, the black superiority theory has no grounding. For a theory such as this to have any foundation it would need to be consistent. If the colour of skin or continent someone is from were a determining factor then there would be consistency among athletes. If Africans are all genetically superior then why are all parts of Africa not dominated by the same running events? This is a complex issue and, in the case of west African sprinters, is more biologically determined than for the east African distance runners.
During a study by Saltin et al. it was discovered that Kenyan runners had a lower level of lactate accumulation during given training intensities when compared to Scandinavian runners of a similar calibre. They also found that the Kenyan runners had better running economy. However VO2 max was similar in both groups. Kenyan runners were found to also contain a higher density of muscular capillaries than the Scandinavians. What is interesting is that when junior Kenyan runners were compared to both the senior Kenyans and the Scandinavians there was no sign of superior lactate accumulation, running gait or capillary density. On the contrary, they were found to be inferior on each of these factors. This evidence points to the training, lifestyle and environment as being largely responsible for the differences since it‘s not an in-built characteristic. If genetics were the dominating factor then the junior Kenyan runners would show signs of superior endurance markers.
Clearly the dominating theme in non-genetic contributions to east African distance running success points to increased bipedal travel, specifically running, as a mode of transport combined with the environmental and cultural incentive attached to running in east African countries.
Genetic Influence on the African Running Phenomenon
Just for something different we will start this section by looking at sprinters from west Africa as our predominant topic of discussion here. The reason being that west Africans (including Jamaicans and most African Americans), are more genetically predisposed to their events of dominance than east Africans are to theirs.
Jamaicans have recently been dominating the sprint events in world class track meets. Jamaicans are of west African decent. Previously it was African Americans that dominated the sprints. This is partly due to training, opportunity and lifestyle. Jamaica places a huge emphasis on their track sports. But there is also overwhelming evidence in favour of genetic predisposition to explosive sports in west African athletes.
One study conducted in Quebec in the mid 1980s showed that west African sprinters had significantly higher percentages of fast twitch, or white, muscle fibres. This obviously contributes to advantages in explosive events. But lets look at a few other factors before moving on. West Africans are built for speed. They have a perfect running build with narrow hips yet large, powerful thighs. They also have muscle fibre alignment that supports rapid contraction as opposed to just high force production as seen in northern European strong-men.
What is perhaps most supportive in proving genetic dominance is what was found by exercise physiologists at the University of Glasgow and the University of West Indies. The team has begun to analyse genetic data and their preliminary findings indicate 70 percent of west Africans, particularly the kind found in Jamaica, have the strong form of the ACTN3 gene, which is linked to superior sprinting performance. Since this gene is not exclusive to west Africans there is no reason why whites or Asians with this strong form of the gene cannot reach the same world record levels.
This is strong evidence pointing to why west Africans dominate sprinting events. It also explains why east Africans are not superior sprinters, because they contain either a gene variant or a null form of the gene. But what evidence is there to suggest that east Africans are genetically superior at distance running?
The limited studies conducted on the African running phenomenon leaves little insight into why champions arise from very small, isolated regions of small countries such as the Arsi region in Ethiopia and the Rift Valley province in Kenya. Most evidence, or lack thereof, points to the conclusion that there are no limited genetic isolates that indicate increased endurance running performance.
Without going into the scientific jargon of the study of genetics, we will look at a few reasons that point to east African distance running dominance…
Firstly they are built for it. Biomechanically east Africans have an efficient running gait.
Secondly they live at altitude, which for various reasons, contributes to increased oxygen uptake and utilisation efficiency.
East Africans have, on average, a higher lung capacity than other races. This may be due to living at altitude or maybe an evolutionary response to their need to run. However lung capacity only goes a small way to increase distance running performance. Elite rowers have some of the largest lungs of all but would make lousy distance runners.
The structure of east African’s muscle fibre distribution supports endurance activity.
These are a few reasons for their dominance. There are a few studies available that help to at least partly explain the genetic advantages that contribute to the African running phenomenon. However, at present it is largely theorised knowledge.
Making the Most of Genetics
Genetics and environment aside, the African running phenomenon has a lot of contributing factors. One of the main ones is training. Africans are well known in running circles for their gruelling training practises. It is intensity, frequency and volume of effort that makes a champion. The human body is incredibly adaptable and will make attempts to adapt to just about any stimulus. There have even been children found living with wild animals that could bound through the grass with gazelles, reaching heights and speeds generally considered impossible for humans. Now that’s adaptability.
East Africans play to their strengths, as do west African sprinters. The heart, soul and effort that goes into their training is a major factor. After all, if you come from a western nation full of opportunity and choice then what motivation have you got to make a living as a professional athlete? You always have your college degree, job opportunities or investments to fall back on. Take the average American for instance, he/she is likely sacrificing wealth by pursuing running as a career. A Kenyan on the other hand is highly valued in their country if they have running ability at Olympic level. They have the opportunity to multiply their income hundreds of times by becoming a champion.
The African running phenomenon is not entirely explained by genetics. Remember that your body is highly adaptable. Linford Christie or Usain Bolt could develop the ability to run impressive marathon times if they directed their training that way. That’s how adaptive the human body really is. Don’t use genetics as an excuse, everyone has a strength and everyone is adaptable to most physical and psychological environments.
If a person with so-called “inferior” genetics were to train with the same gusto as an African runner, he/she is likely to gain at least some noteworthy success. Give the Africans some credit instead of explaining their success by lucky “Darwinian fitness”.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.