Kenyan runners first became popular in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Since then, they have dominated long-distance running. A number of Western scientists have devoted their resources to understanding just what makes the Kenyans and other East African runners appear invincible. Let’s take a look at their various theories.
Could thinness be their edge?
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Most Kenyan runners are from the Kalenjin tribe and live at high altitudes in the Western Rift Valley. A 2000 Danish Sports Science Institute investigation reportedly inferred that “Kalenjins must have an inborn, physical, genetic advantage.”
The scientists reported that the Kalenjins had a plethora of red blood cells. This position seemed to reinforce the theory that being elevated gives their bodies the ability to manage oxygen more effectively. The Danish scientists also observed that the Kalenjins had exceptionally thin and long, “bird-like legs” that make them able to run faster and better, while consuming less energy in the process.
Genetics with the Midas touch?
A report by The Atlantic states:
“It turns out that Kenyans’ success may be innate. Two separate, European-led studies in a small region in western Kenya, which produces most of the race-winners, found that young men there could, with only a few months training, reliably outperform some of the West’s best professional runners. In other words, they appeared to have a physical advantage that is common to their community, making it probably genetic. The studies found significant differences in body mass index and bone structure between the Western pros and the Kenyan amateurs who had bested them. The studied Kenyans had less mass for their height, longer legs, shorter torsos, and more slender limbs. One of the researchers described the Kenyan physical differences as ‘bird-like,’ noting that these traits would make them more efficient runners, especially over long distances.”
According to an article on Active.com, such claims have garnered mixed reactions from Kenyan runners themselves:
“Mike Boit, a Kenyan Commonwealth Games gold medalist in 1978, agreed, saying: ‘The genetic inheritance is there.’
But Kip Keino, a Kenyan who won Olympic gold in 1968 and 1972, condemned the research as racist.
‘There’s nothing in this world unless you work hard to reach where you are, and so I think running is mental.'”
A Case of Nature and Nurture?
Analysts argue that both nature and nurture favour the Kenyans when it comes to long-distance races. Some scholars believe that since many Kenyan children from the Western region are trained as nomads/herdsmen, their jobs enable them to run a lot and cover long distances due to the fact that “they chase their sheep across the countryside.”
According to the same report from The Atlantic:
“Another argument notes that many of Kenya’s best runners come from the sunny highlands in the Great Rift Valley, which also happens to be the birthplace of homo sapiens. The land there is flat with mild year-round weather, encouraging regular outdoor running. The high elevation — about 7,000 feet — could help runners here develop lungs capable of functioning in thinner air. When these runners descend to the relatively low-elevation courses at Boston or Beijing, the thicker atmosphere there would give them, in effect, a sustained oxygen boost. This may help explain why they developed physical traits better suited for running, although it’s possible that these features are also due to something called ‘genetic drift’.”
Does their diet hold the secret to their success?
Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, observes that good nutrition might also play a role in the effectiveness of Kenyans in long-distance races. He says, “We have known that the kids are physically active from an early age, live at high altitude, and get no junk food.”
A cocktail of success secrets
However, another study led by Alexander R. Gibson and Robert Ojiambo reportedly concluded that although the Kalenjins ate mostly vegetables, their best runners spent only an hour running every day, “with only about 23 minutes of quality running.” This has led to the realization that the effectiveness of Kenyans at long distance running is due more to a “combination of factors” than one factor alone.
Owaahh, a contributor on quora.com sums it up thus:
“To win a marathon, a runner has to have enough juice left to sprint through the final miles. The real race starts in the gap between 18 and 20 miles. That is where the packs break up and it becomes a dash to the finish. This is where many things kick in, including endurance training, diet, and to some extent, genetic predisposition.”