East Africa has had a long standing tradition of producing world class long distance runners that dominate the biggest profile races in the world. If we take the results of the annual London Marathon alone, an East African runner, specifically from Ethiopia or Kenya, has won the London Marathon a whopping 18 consecutive times. The last non-East African runner to win the London Marathon was in 2002, where Morrocan-American runner Khlaid Khannouci took home the gold medal with a finishing time of 2:05:38 and became the world marathon record holder at the time. The dominance of the East African runners is most likely due to a variety of factors, including genetics, diet, and environment. All of these factors, however, boil down to the biological level.
Studies have shown that there are several genetic factors that could explain the high performance of East African runners. It has been found that VO2 max is not only largely genetic but also largely fixed. In specific, VO2 max is defined as the maximum amount of energy in ml/kg/mins that your body can utilize during incremental or vigorous exercise. This means that there is no proven method to improve your VO2 max. A strong VO2 max is arguably the most important trait in a distance runner because it is the number that expresses just how cardiovascularly fit you are. Another predominantly genetic factor that influences running performance is the lactate threshold, also referred to as the anaerobic threshold. Theoretically, the reason why East African runners have such high lactate thresholds and VO2 Max is related to the adaptation of elevation over time.
Nutrition of East African runners also contributes to this recent success.
With a focus on healthy, nutrient and carbohydrate rich foods such as green vegetables, milk, beans, eggs, fresh fruits, and bread, runners like Kipchoge are able to maximize the amount of energy they receive from food. Through the process of cellular respiration, a human is able to convert the food that has been consumed into usable energy in the form of ATP. Seeing that, on average, East African runners’ daily calories are made up of nearly 90% carbohydrates, it is clear how important energy is to living organisms. Nearly every biological process needs energy in order to occur, even cellular respiration.
Lastly, it is the fact that certain areas of Kenya and surrounding East African countries are located at over 2000 meters above sea level that benefits the training of their runners. Because of the reduced air pressure at higher altitudes, oxygen diffuses into red blood cells more slowly. Therefore, your heart, lungs, and other essential organs are forced to work harder to get the necessary oxygen to your muscles. Breathing in “thinner” air has significantly less oxygen and pressure that air from an area at sea level or slightly above sea level.
All of this comes together, along with hard work and dedication to achieving life-long goals is the driving force behind the dominance of East African runners. Just in the past 20 years has witnessed countless Kenyan and Ethiopian runners destroy world records. Through the power of biological processes, the best is yet to come.