Catch Me if You Can – East Africans, The Premier Distance Runners

Great individuals can come from anywhere, but some populations will be more likely to produce the right combination of genetics to make greatness possible.

The domination of long distance events at the Olympics by East Africans has many people believing that these runners have a genetic advantage.

The Ethiopian Lioness Tinrunesh Dibaba won gold in a remarkable victory at 10, 000m leaving the competition 30 meters behind in the dust. She became the first woman in history to retain the Olympic women’s 10,000 m race title.

Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia climbed to her feet after falling from a collision with another runner and set an Olympic record to win the women’s marathon.

The Somali-born British athlete Mo Farah, blowing away the field with a remarkable final lap, won gold in the men’s 10,000 m.

Kenya's Ezekiel Kemboi dominated and won gold at the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2012 London Olympics.


How Come East Africans Dominate Middle – Distance & Long-Distance Running?

Since the earliest days of competitive sport, athletes and their trainers have known that athletic performance is modifiable by dedicated training. However some individuals appear to be naturally gifted with athletic ability, such that their performance is above average.

East African runners have dominated distance running events for over five decades. 

Suggested reasons include, among others, a genetic predisposition, diet, living at high altitude as well as sociocultural background.

East African athletes are generally short in stature but with long slender limbs, narrow-shouldered, and tend to be ectomorphs, or lacking in muscle. This makes them perfect for endurance events such as distance running.

East Africans seem to have more ability to mobilize the energy stored in adipose tissue and to use that energy for prolonged periods of exercise.

South African researchers recently noted that the triathlon run times were much faster among a group of triathletes with a collagen gene that would have given them stiffer, less flexible tendons and connective tissue.

Such stiffness has been associated with increased running economy. East Africans are also believed to have excellent running economy.

East Africans trace their ancestry to mountainous terrain. Leading a vigorous outdoor life in the thin air at high altitudes has been shown to help create the high aerobic capacity that’s vital to distance running.

Although many physiological and anatomical factors have been proposed to explain East African dominance, research into these variables has not yet revealed any definitive advantage.


The Running Tribe

Kenyan runners, and especially those originating from the Kalenjin tribe, have dominated international middle- and long-distance running for over five decades, prompting significant interest in the factors contributing to their success.

The Kalenjins, a tribe in Kenya with half a million people, win 40 percent of top international distance running honours, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.

The fact that the majority of internationally successful runners originate from a small tribe that accounts for approximately 3% of the total Kenyan population also points to a possible genetic component.

Whether this is subject to influence from other co-factors, such as altitude or training effects acquired during childhood, remains as yet unresolved.

A variety of studies have looked at muscle, skeleton and body type to analyze the factors contributing to both endurance and speed. An essential clue is the Kalenjin’s capability to withstand fatigue longer.

Research shows that Kalenjins have an elevated concentration of an enzyme in their skeletal muscle that stimulates high lactate turnover and low lactate production. 

Lactate, which is produced by exhausted, oxygen deprived muscles, builds up more slowly in their blood. 

The capacity of the skeletal muscles to use oxygen has both genetic and training components. Kalenjins are able to convert oxygen into energy more efficiently than other groups.

Scientists are definitive in their findings that athletes of West African ancestry are the most anaerobically efficient athletes, East African are the fittest aerobically, and caucasians fall in the middle.


A Research Team from South Africa and Australia, has found an apparent link between oxidative capacity, resistance to fatigue, and race.

The researchers measured “running economy”- the amount of metabolic work (and therefore oxygen consumption) that is required to run at a given speed, much like the fuel economy of a car.

Running economy can be affected by a variety of factors both environmental, such as running technique, and physiological, such as body-mass distribution and muscle elasticity.

In a study comparing African and caucasian athletes with nearly identical race times, the researchers found that Africans were both more efficient runners and able to utilize a considerably higher percentage of their maximum oxygen potential.

These findings may partially explain the success of African runners at the elite level.

Kalenjins Diet:

Science has also looked at the nutritional factors that may influence performance for Kalenjin runners.

The Kalenjins diet is very basic: small amounts of roasted meat, cooked greens and other vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk and their favourite—ugali, which is made from white corn flower, water, and salt and is very bland. 

The Kalenjins eat two times a day and their diet provides richness in carbohydrates and very little fat. The greens, fruit, and milk give them essential nutrients.

Diet can be replicated but its effects on highly conditioned runners have been nominal.


A Collective Genetic Gift

This is a touchy subject and there’s no replicable scientific data to support the idea.

An obvious thought is that the Kalenjin might be endowed with some sort of collective genetic gift.

Kalenjin marry mainly among themselves; they’ve lived for centuries at altitudes of 6,000 feet or more; and, at least by tradition, they spend their days chasing up and down hills after livestock.

So it’s not unreasonable to suggest that over time some sort of genetic adaptation has taken place that has turned out to be helpful in competitive distance running. 

The tribe’s austere warrior culture prepares young Kalenjin almost from birth not to quail under pressure and in this ability to perform under pressure, the Kalenjin are supreme.

While the training of an elite athlete may not differ hugely, the Eats African style has some unique aspects. It combines huge mileage with massive intensity. A training level which not every athlete can cope with.

While genetics will determine if you have a chance to be an elite athlete, intelligence, dedication, and hunger for success are the final arbiters of who wins and loses.


Further Reading:



1. “Demographic characteristics of elite Kenyan endurance runners”,Vincent O. Onyweraa, Robert A. Scottb, Michael K. Boita & Yannis P, Journal of Sports Sciences, Volume 24, Issue 4, 2006 

2. “The dominance of Kenyans in distance running”, Yannis P Pitsiladisa, Vincent O Onyweraa, Evelina Geogiadesa, William O'Connella and Michael K Boita, Cambridge Journals, 2004, vol.1, Issue 04

3.”East African running dominance: what is behind it?”, Bruce Hamilton, Br J Sports Med 2000;34:391-394,

4. “East African Success: Cultural, Physiological, or Collagen Genetics?, Peak Performance, June 3, 2011,