White Men Can't Run, Either?
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
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
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.
The fact that the African athletes could compete at a better
running economy than the Caucasians at a higher intensity, with about the same
amount of lactate accumulation, "suggests the lactate removal may be
enhanced in African runners," write Weston and colleagues.
According to Martin, this study is likely an outgrowth of a
past study showing that the lactate threshold seemed to be higher among African
runners than Scandinavian runners.
"What this study is saying is, it may be that distance
runners in Africa may be better than distance runners in other countries
because they can race at a faster pace. And, obviously, the person who races at
the fastest pace is the person who wins," Martin says.