June 27, 2000 -- Plant yourself at the finish line of any long-distance race in the world, and, chances are, the first face you'll see run across the finish line will be Kenyan -- or at least African.
The fact that Africans dominate long-distance running is widely known, but why they dominate is not so clear. In a study published in the June issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Adele Weston, PhD, and colleagues offer some suggestions as to what may account for the many excellent African runners.
The researchers compared eight African runners and eight Caucasian runners. They were evenly matched according to their body size, although the Caucasians were slightly taller. All 16 runners reported their primary race distance to be 10 kilometers, and they all were competitive at the distance.
The runners were put through various treadmill tests, one at race pace. According to the researchers, "this study indicates greater running economy and higher fractional utilization of VO2 peak in African distance runners. Although not elucidating the origin of these differences, the findings may partially explain the success of African runners at the elite level." The technical language really has a simple explanation.
Basically, the Africans used less oxygen to accomplish the same results as the Caucasians. Their running economy -- or how well they used the oxygen consumed -- was 8% better than the Caucasians when adjusted for weight. The Africans still were able, according to Weston, to run at a higher level of intensity with a higher heart rate.
A key aspect of the Africans' success has to do with lactate buildup. Too much lactate in the blood is the bane of any athlete, leading to fatigue and the feeling that "we'd have the bear climb up our back," David E. Martin, PhD, tells WebMD.
Martin, the chairman of sports science for USA Track & Field and a professor of physiology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, explains that the "fractional utilization" Weston wrote about was related to an athlete's peak oxygen consumption in relation to the point of lactate accumulation in the blood.