Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners: What makes them so good?

Athlete Performance Laboratory, United States Olympic Committee, Colorado Springs, CO, USA.
International journal of sports physiology and performance (Impact Factor: 2.66). 06/2012; 7(2):92-102.
Source: PubMed


Since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have dominated the middle- and long-distance events in athletics and have exhibited comparable dominance in international cross-country and road-racing competition. Several factors have been proposed to explain the extraordinary success of the Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners, including (1) genetic predisposition, (2) development of a high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of extensive walking and running at an early age, (3) relatively high hemoglobin and hematocrit, (4) development of good metabolic "economy/efficiency" based on somatotype and lower limb characteristics, (5) favorable skeletal-muscle-fiber composition and oxidative enzyme profile, (6) traditional Kenyan/Ethiopian diet, (7) living and training at altitude, and (8) motivation to achieve economic success. Some of these factors have been examined objectively in the laboratory and field, whereas others have been evaluated from an observational perspective. The purpose of this article is to present the current data relative to factors that potentially contribute to the unprecedented success of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners, including recent studies that examined potential links between Kenyan and Ethiopian genotype characteristics and elite running performance. In general, it appears that Kenyan and Ethiopian distance-running success is not based on a unique genetic or physiological characteristic. Rather, it appears to be the result of favorable somatotypical characteristics lending to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency; chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high-intensity training (live high + train high), and a strong psychological motivation to succeed athletically for the purpose of economic and social advancement.

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    • "The results emphasize the necessity for a specific somatotype to reach a high profile in the selected area of sport as has also been stressed by other authors [2] [9] [37]. Furthermore, the results show the needs and requirements for such morphometric oriented studies in these and other sports with an importance of differentiation by age and sex. "
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    ABSTRACT: Somatotyping is helpful in sports in which the body shape could influence the resulting performance. The purpose of this study was to determine the somatotype of high profile Lithuanian athletes in kayaking, basketball and football and to compare between disciplines and with low level sportsmen of the same age.
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    • "Several factors in the complex interaction between genotype and phenotype have been proposed to explain the particular success of African runners, or the “African runners phenomenon”, including: genetic predisposition; high maximum oxygen uptake (O2max) values; highest concentration of hemoglobin; relatively high hematocrit; the development of good metabolic efficiency (based on somatotype characteristics); favorable muscle fiber composition; profile of oxidative enzymes; the traditional Kenyan/Ethiopian diet; constant altitude training; and motivation to achieve economic success and social mobility.3,7 However, evidence for a genetic component in physical performance is mounting, and more than 200 identified genetic variants may contribute to the observed variations in physical fitness.3,8 "
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    ABSTRACT: The current dominance of African runners in long-distance running is an intriguing phenomenon that highlights the close relationship between genetics and physical performance. Many factors in the interesting interaction between genotype and phenotype (eg, high cardiorespiratory fitness, higher hemoglobin concentration, good metabolic efficiency, muscle fiber composition, enzyme profile, diet, altitude training, and psychological aspects) have been proposed in the attempt to explain the extraordinary success of these runners. Increasing evidence shows that genetics may be a determining factor in physical and athletic performance. But, could this also be true for African long-distance runners? Based on this question, this brief review proposed the role of genetic factors (mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid, the Y chromosome, and the angiotensin-converting enzyme and the alpha-actinin-3 genes) in the amazing athletic performance observed in African runners, especially the Kenyans and Ethiopians, despite their environmental constraints.
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    • "Ethiopian athletes boast a success record in international distance running second only to Kenya [32]. Wilber and Pitsiladis [33] proposed a multifactorial model taking genetic, physiological and psychological factors into account. For these athletes, a successful running career gives them a unique opportunity to leave poverty behind and reach the highest socioeconomic level in their societies. "
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