Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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The World vs. Kenya!

East Africans dominate middle and long distance running and last year during the Olympics I did several posts on them.  Recently, there was a remarkable paper published documenting very high levels of physical activity and VO2 max values in “untrained” Kenyan school children.  The tables below tell the story.  The Kenyan kids were small traveled on foot an average of 7.5 km to school and did an hour or more of vigorous physical activity per day.  Some of these very high values are due to the fact that these kids are so small.  It is complex but VO2 is scaled to body size and when the scaled values (expressed as body weight to the 0.75 power) in the second table are converted for say a 60kg 14 year old, a value of 65/ml/kg/min would be physiologically similar.







This Data & International Competition

A superficial look at this data suggests that perhaps the rest of the world should just quit trying to do well at distance running, but there is another way to look at the data.  For example is there enough “aerobic talent” in the U.S. to compete with the Kenyans?  To look for an answer to that question I went to a database of Minnesota high school track times and found that in 2013 almost 50 boys had broken 4:30 for the 1600m run which is about 10m less than a mile.  Minnesota has a population of just over 5 million and the U.S. has a population of `310 million.   So if you extrapolate the Minnesota numbers to the entire country it seems reasonable to suggest that perhaps about 3,000 high school boys per year can run a 4:30 mile.  How many of these kids were well trained, how many ran year round, and more importantly how many might improve dramatically if they continued for a few years with good coaching?  A generation of runners is lasts perhaps 4-8 years so that means there are between  12-24,000 people in a given generation of potential US runners with at least some ability and this does not count the people that are either doing other sports or doing nothing.  Anyone who has been around distance running for a while knows a 4:30 miler who went on to great things.  Below is a quote from Frank Shorter related to John Parker’s novel on distance running “Once a Runner”.


…….a quote by Frank Shorter, from a conversation he had with the author during one of their training runs (they were roommates and friends): “How did I know you ran the mile in 4:30 in high school? That’s easy. Everyone ran the mile in 4:30 in high school.”…….


Does Matthew Elliott Prove My Point?

Recently, a miler named Matthew Elliott emerged onto the world scene.  He is a 27 year old school teacher who ran 4:42 for the mile in high school.  Elliott went to a small college with a cross country but no track team:


“At Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, Elliott ran cross country, but there was no track team. He used his final year of eligibility while going for his masters in early childhood education at Winthrop in Rock Hill, where he ran indoor and outdoor track, “and that’s where I found that I had a little bit of talent,” he says. He qualified for the NCAA Championships in 2008 but did not make the 1500-meter final.  Still, that was enough for him to keep running beyond college.”


Elliott found a coach and continued to improve and is now in a position to potentially represent the U.S. in the World Championships.   Elliott also works full time as a teacher of young children with special needs.



When you look at my talent pool estimate above, read about Matthew Elliott, and talk to longtime observers of distance running and hear the many stories of wasted natural ability about the kid who “ran 4:15 with no training”; one conclusion is that there is more than enough talent in the U.S. to compete with the Kenyans and Ethiopians.  When you consider what the rest of the world has to offer it is hard to believe that there is not enough talent out there, if identified and cultivated, to give them a run for the money.



One Response to “The World vs. Kenya!”

  1. July 20th, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Greg Fink says:


    I really enjoy this site and have recommended it to quite a few friends and colleagues. I was hesitant to write because of some potential COI (you know what I mean), but great stuff…and quite unique. Thanks.


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