Human Limits

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

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Who Will Beat the Kenyans?

Way to go Mo and Galen!

On Saturday, Mo Farah of Great Britain and Galen Rupp of the U.S. broke the East African monopoly on the 10,000m by winning gold and silver respectively.  Their performances raise the general question of “who will beat the Kenyans?”  The short answer to this is the Ethiopians who have shared in this dominance since both countries emerged as distance running powers in the 1960s.  But is what happened in London the start of something new?

Farah was born in Somalia and immigrated to the U.K. as a child, so I want to focus on Rupp who is white kid from Oregon and the first U.S. athlete to medal in the 10,000m since Billy Mills in 1964.  Rupp is also a product of the NIKE sponsored “Oregon Project” which seeks to develop U.S. talent in distance running to compete with the East Africans.  Directed by Alberto Salazar, the idea is to nurture selected people in a controlled and scientific way to combat the hordes of East Africans who seek to use running as a means of very basic economic advancement.


This has happened before.

The first thing that needs to be appreciated is that since reliable world records started to be kept in the early 1900s, there have been three periods of regional dominance in distance running.   A good example is seen in the world record progression for the 10,000m for men.  It shows that runners from Finland held every world record from 1912-1944.  From 1949-1962, the Eastern Europeans held 9 of 10 records.  Since 1977, East Africans are 11 for 14.  Currently runners from Kenya and Ethiopia dominate the list of 25 fastest times for the event and have won the vast majority of Olympic medals in the 10,000m since 1968.

It is hard to compare eras for a number of reasons, but the old days were dominated by archaic amateur rules, limited high quality competition, and later the Cold War.  However, I want everyone to realize that there is nothing new about regional dominance in selected track and field events.


Is there anything “special” about the East Africans?

To answer this question we need to take a quick look into the physiology of what makes an elite distance runner.   There are three factors critical for success, they include:

  1. VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake.  This is essentially how big the engine is.
  2. The so-called lactate threshold.  This sets what might be called a physiological “red-line”.
  3. Running economy or efficiency.  How much oxygen is used to go how fast?


The idea is that VO2 max sets an upper limit and the fraction of VO2 max that can be sustained in competition is related to the lactate threshold.  If you know these two values they tell you how much energy a given runner can use for over a given period of time.  If you know running economy you can make a pretty good guess of the speed that can be generated with that energy.   In a couple of scientific papers, my colleagues and I have explored these concepts in detail.  We have focused on the marathon, but the principles also apply to the 10,000m.

So, do the East Africans have exceptional values for any of these factors?  A careful review of the scientific studies shows that their values are nothing special for elite distance runners.  However, many do have outstanding values for running economy, but these values are not better than those seen in the most efficient whites.  Also, no genetic factors have been identified to explain their success.

There is an important caveat here.  A time of 26:40 for 10,000m is 1600 seconds.  A one percent margin would be 16 seconds, or about 100m on the track in a real competition, which would equal a big win.  One percent is also within in the limits of the measurements we can make in the lab that are related to real performance in real competitions.  So, it is possible to determine who is world class in the lab, but very difficult to slice it any thinner than that.

If the East Africans have something special it is likely due to hard and active lives at high altitude from an early age.  A typical story is the one I heard from my college teammate Harrison Koroso from Kenya.  He described, beginning at age 8, running two miles to school, coming home for lunch, running back, and playing soccer for fun; all of this at 7-8,000 feet.   The highlands of Kenya are also likely to be pretty free of video games and carpools to play dates.

My main conclusion is that there is way more to the East African success than some physiological secret sauce.  In fact there is no physiological secret sauce.   I did not go into it here, but there are no secret innovative training techniques either.  Top runners have been training essentially as “hard as you can” since the 1950s or early 1960s.


Plenty of talent in the U.S.?

I also want to argue that there is in fact plenty of talent in the U.S.  If you look at the all time U.S. high school lists they are pretty impressive.  What is also impressive is the number of people on these lists that either faded and never became world class, or became world class but for whatever reason never medaled in Olympic competition.   The video clip at the end of the post is of Jim Ryun setting a world record for the mile in 1967 when he was 20 years old.  His 3:51:1 on a dirt track would be perhaps 6-7 seconds faster on a synthetic track and close to the current world record.  He also ran this fast with no pace maker or rabbit.

Ryun did medal; he got silver in the 1968 games at Mexico City, which is about 7,000 feet high.  He was coming back from mononucleosis and defeated by Kip Keino of Kenya.  Keino ran an Olympic record 3:34.91, a remarkable time at high altitude.  Ryun was tripped in 1972 and failed to advance and his career was over at 25.  Rupp is 26, how would Ryun have faired in the corporate sponsored environment Rupp has?

When you get past the top 10 lists, most people connected to the running subculture in the U.S. know stories about the kid who ran a 4:15 mile in high school with minimal training and never pursued it much further.   We have also heard stories about the kid who was good but not great in high school and blossomed later.  If this talent were harvested and nurtured in the way the Rupp’s has been, what would be the result?

My conclusion here is that there is more than enough talent in the U.S., some of it actually gets identified but what happens after high school is a crapshoot.  There are about 120 million people living in Ethiopia and Kenya combined and the good runners come from selected ethnic subgroups.  With more than 300 million people, there has to be sufficient talent in the U.S. to challenge the East Africans.


Return on investment thinking and who does what.

Per capita income in Kenya is about $800 per year and about $400 per year in Ethiopia according to the World Bank.  Become a good runner, place highly in a few major races and you can feed yourself and extended family for a long time.  If you become truly elite, you are wealthy.   You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in behavioral economics to understand that kind of motivation in poor societies.  If every kid with a shred of talent in the distance running areas of East Africa goes for it, what emerges from the competitive crucible is sure to be exceptional.

What would the equivalent of a $10,000 purse at a midlevel race be in western terms?  How many kids would keep running if the there was a distance running circuit with prize money on the order of that seen in the professional golf?  I don’t know but I bet it would be plenty.

A flip side of the coin is the recent example is Lukas Verzbicas, who is on several of the top 10 lists for U.S. high school runners.  He is also superb at the triathlon and has more or less opted out of running (he had a scholarship at the U of Oregon, a perennial power) to focus on the triathlon.   The speculation is the path to the top is less competitive in the triathlon and fame and glory (and perhaps money) more certain.



In this post I have argued that the primary factors responsible for East African dominance in distance running are cultural and economic.  The evidence for an explanation based on physiology, training, or genetics is pretty thin.  Is Rupp a one off, or will his impressive performance be catalytic like Greg LeMond’s victories in the Tour de France were?  LeMond won the Tour in 1986.  He came back from a life threatening hunting accident to win again in the 1989 and 1990.    His victories and courage broke the myth of European superiority in cycling and opened the way for competitors from all over the world.


7 Responses to “Who Will Beat the Kenyans?”

  1. August 6th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Battle of the Titans: Ethiopia vs. Alberto Salazar | Olympics says:

    […] I’m not convinced. I think Rupp is Rupp, and there aren't necessarily many more like him. (Here's a link to a great blog by an endurance physiology friend of mine, Dr. Michael Joyner. He's more optimistic than I […]

  2. August 6th, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Amby Burfoot says:

    Michael: Thanks. Great piece. I agree the genetics-physiology evidence is “pretty thin.” But also believe that applies to the cultural-economics evidence. It seems to me we have little evidence of any kind. Except most of us would agree that it’s not training; there are no training secrets.

  3. August 10th, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    George Brose says:

    Having spent a few years in East Africa and reading your commentary about the negligible differences in physiology, I’m for the argument about culture and economics being a factor. The Kalenjins and now Masai with David Rudisha are warriors with few outlets for living their traditions. Running on a track is an opportunity to live that aspect of their myths and traditions. There is so little opportunity economically in Kenya and Ethiopia that running is the only opportunity to get rich. Otherwise it’s back to herding cattle or farming with a hoe to survive. The areas of Kenya where running is popular are small. No one runs down on the coast as it is so hot and humid. Nairobi is too crowded to train. So up country in the Rift Valley just happens to be geographically ideal. Other countries where running has the potential to take hold but not yet might be Burundi and Rwanda, both with high altitude and some tradition. A Burundian Niyagambo won the 5000 at Atlanta. The current head of state is an ex Phys Ed. teacher who encourages fitness. I have never seen so many Africans of all ages and abilities running as one sees in the capital Bujumbura these days. There is a Burundian woman in the 5000 this year. Perhaps there is a future for running. There’s not much else for people to do other than farming.

  4. August 10th, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    George Brose says:

    correction to my earlier comment. Diane Nukuri of Burundi competed in the Marathon finishing 31st in 2hr30

  5. August 10th, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Colby says:

    Good article. I believe it mostly comes down to lifestyle. An almost required active life coupled with no over eating, excess grease, sugar, preservatives etc…throw in the altitude, economic incentive and you have the recipe for a whole bunch of people in superb fitness.

  6. October 22nd, 2012 at 6:27 am

    Running Fast While Getting Older | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] why will this work?  In an earlier post on distance running and the Olympics this summer I covered the concept of VO2 max and its role in setting the upper limit for endurance […]

  7. March 13th, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Dr Harrison Koroso says:

    Just to pmake a point many of you have not considered about the success of the Kenyan runner. Sure economic success is a big driver htrese days. Thisis true as w have many races offering prize money – something that was not there or was very limited. Imagine how much prize money there was during my competitive years – late 70s through the early 80s. I remember getting 300 dollars as prize money for a race. Also many college atheletes were “not allowed’ prize money. So where were the incentives to continue training or competing especially after college?
    Many of us graduated and took on corporate jobs or some went coaching.

    But back to the myth about the Kenyans: During my time in high school – there were no monies to be won. Just the pride of being number one in cross country or track at the secondary school level,or district and all the way to the national level. That is what drove me to compete. I enjoyed every bit of training – beating the crap out of my competition. I loved beating all those guys from the neighboring high schools, and especially when it came to nationals- beatign those Nandis.

    In 1975 I set the African high schools record of 9:00:04. I believe that was the world record at that for high schools (correct me if there was a faster time). What drove me to compete was the pride in winning. I enjoyed and wanted more of it. There were no monetary incentives. I did not make any money from it. Later on it let to my getting a track and field scholarship to the US, but that was not what drove me to train so hard everyday from when I was in grades 3. I just enjoyed it.

    The difference these days is that prize money is advertized upfront for many races. So runners train with one goal – win that particular race for fo rthe money. Runners now train specifically for that one race – be it the Boston marathon or Amsterdam/Rotterdam or New York marathon. This is what is driving many of the younger Kenyans.. the awareness that it can pull them out of poverty.
    The flip side of this is that education has taken a back seat. Ask how many of those world resord holders or Boston marathon winners went beyond or even finished high would be amazed how few…

Leave a Reply