There are primarily two popular schools of thought behind Kenyan runners’ phenomenal dominance of endurance running.
The first is nature. There are physiological capacities that are genetically predetermined. And Kenyan running genes predispose them towards certain physical qualities which contribute to success in distance running
- thin limbs
- short trunks
- long legs
- slim waists
- good running metabolism
The second is that nurture (the environment) enhances everything. It goes a long way toward explaining Kenya runners’ success beyond just living at high altitude. It might be child-rearing practices and cultural respect.
Generation altitude from aptitude
For decades, many observers of the Kenyan success story have guessed at a simple cause. Due to the absence of paved roads and affordable public transport, children who go to school in Kenya run. They run to and from school at incredibly high altitudes. But while novel,
..there was no difference in aerobic trainability between Kenyan village and town boys, it has been speculated that the physical activity in childhood, combined with intense training as teenagers, were related to the high aerobic capacity in Kenyan runners.Pui W. Kong and Hendrik de Heer
The failure to explain the Kenyan success story can be presented with one word: complexity. The scholarly literature has been minimal and uninformative outside of the elite-athlete realm. It focused on the history of athleticism not as part of a societal narrative but instead as an isolated (if essential) cultural artifact.
And what’s more cultural than the food we eat?
Running has been a central part of everyday life for most Kenyans for centuries. Moreover, Kenya has abundant flora and fauna. That allows its population to eat almost any kind of food they want, making its runners among the healthiest and fittest versions of aerobic capacity.
And while it is important to note that dietary practices change among different tribes and regions. The typical diet along the Great Rift Valley favors carbohydrates, including starchy root vegetables and ugali (pounded maize flour).
So it must be genetic.
We have all heard that Kenyans are born to run. Yet very little is known about what gives them this natural talent.
A 2014 study concluded that Kenyan distance runners have notable skeletal differences from a sample of American and Dutch distance runners. Kenyan runners had shorter torsos, longer legs, more slender limbs, and less overall mass for their height. Making them more economical runners and aerobically efficient.
Similar to the Greatest Olympian of All-Time Michael Phelps’ short torso with long arms and legs, or Kawhi Leonard’s wingspan, somethings you can’t train.
Or it could be what’s inside
Superiority in aerobic exercise at a high fractional utilization of VO2 max is likely related to the muscle features primarily involved in running. And both Kenyan and Scandinavian elite runners have a high proportion of type I muscle fibers (Saltin et al., 1995).
The most efficient physiological profile of an athlete has been shown to depend on the specific motor task. So a significant incease in the percentage of type I muscle fibers appears to be related not only to maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), but also to endurance running performance.
Moreover, Kenyan junior runners have a ratio of type I muscle fibers that is high and not much different from Kenyan elite runners (~70% type I fibers). Perhaps preparing themselves for the training to follow.
It’s good to be a Kenyan long-distance runner.
The success of Kenyan running raises an interesting question. Do Kenyans consider running a sport, or has it become a part of their national identity? The answer could tell us which components of Kenyan culture are responsible for their supremacy in long-distance running.
Do they have a psychological and social advantage in any race because of their network of success? Cultivating an unbeatable perception on the global stage simultaneously creates expectations and fuels belief.
“There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.”David Epstein
The truth is a combination of all these factors and other possible ones that have yet to be identified. But no one factor can explain why the Kalenjins are so good at running.