3 Reasons for Kenyan Supremacy in Marathon Running
If we look at the statistics of Marathons over the years, we will notice something quite odd - while in the early days of the sport usually Europeans won the competition, starting from the 1960s we see an incredible increase in African victories - achieved particularly often by runners from Ethiopia and Kenya. The initial success of the Europeans can be quite easily rationalized by the fact, that most participants were actually from Europe and other parts of the world - being still colonized or drastically less developed - were mostly excluded from joining the races.
So, can the East African Domination be explained by coincidence? To give you a further idea of just how strong the dominance actually is – every single one of the all-time top 25 male Marathon runners is either Kenyan or Ethiopian while the top 25 female runners list consists of only 4 non-African athletes, everyone else is - you guessed it - again either Kenyan or Ethiopian. The best overall time was achieved by Eliud Kipchoge at the Berlin Marathon in 2018 - setting a historic benchmark with a time of 2:01:39 hours. He even managed to run the distance in under 2 hours (1:59:40) even though this run does not count as a world record because the conditions did not comply with the rules of the World Athletics Federation.
The current marathon world record holder for women running in a mixed-sex race is (do I even have to mention she is Kenyan?) Brigid Kosgei, with a time of 2:14:04 achieved on 13 October 2019 at the Chicago Marathon.
Many scientists from around the world wanted to get to the bottom of Kenya’s runners secret and found not only one, but numerous reasons for the astonishing performance of the region's athletes. We've collected the 3 most important (and convincing) ones for you!
#1 Origin & Terrain
Not only are many of the best Marathon runners from Kenya, even within the country, most of them (like Kosgei and Kipchoge) are native to an area around the city of Iten in the West of the country, called the Rift Valley. It's home to the ethnic groups of the Kalenjins and Nandis which make up around 70% of all medals won by Kenya in international running competition. What's special about the region is, that it's situated at an altitude of 2400 m - 2750 m.
In this height, oxygen is scarce. The human body adapts to the thin air by producing more red blood cells that subsequently increase the ability to capture and deliver the limited oxygen. Regular training under those conditions gives you a real advantage in the long run, especially when the competition takes place in much lower altitude.
Furthermore, the terrain - one which the athletes train mostly barefoot - consists of rolling hills and dirt rolls, perfect for running.
#2 Health & Diet
As so often, the saying "You are what you eat" proves to be true. While in most parts of the world Junk Food is widely spread, it's still quite uncommon in most parts of Africa. Other countries struggle with increasingly obese populations that - especially in endurance running - have a harder time trying to compete with their East African counterparts every year.
The typical food of the native regions of Kenyan Elite runners on the other hand consists mostly of maize, green leafy vegetables, milk, kidney beans and eggs which are all rich in carbohydrates, similar to diets of other top athletes. A low amount of fat further contributes to the runner's efficiency.
In this part of the world, becoming an Elite athlete is a serious opportunity to escape poverty. Many young children grow up surrounded by successful runners, and the prospect of earning money with sports surely is a major cause that motivates to keep training. A few international competitions can win you enough money to change not only your life but, the ones of everyone in your village.
Another hypothesis suggests that the fact that for years now Kenyans and Ethiopians have won competitions gives them a psychological advantage, with a higher confidence in winning the race and a feeling of being unbeatable. Therefore, their mind is much better prepared to cope with the stress associated with a Marathon.
Other theories also involve genetics, which up to this day provide no sufficient basis for argumentation. Most scientists and experts of the field agree that it's the combination of many factors that make the difference. And there is no reason to believe that the East African Dominance in endurance running will come to an end anytime soon. To all runners from other parts of the world, remember - being part of the competition is everything!
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