Why do East Africans Dominate the Endurance Events

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Nashville, TN- I went to the AmericanCollege of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Annual Meeting in Nashville last week to make a couple presentations. If you’re not familiar with the ACSM,it is the leading sports science group in the U.S. covering all of the fields in sports medicine from clinical assessment to biomechanics,strength, and physiology. This was my second year attending the annual meeting and as in the past two years there were some pretty interesting presentations one of which I thought would be of particular interest to the readers of ELITETRACK.
On Thursday there was a great symposium on why East African distance runners dominate the endurance events in track and field. Various speakers examined the diet, training, genetics, environment, anthropometry, physiology and cultural factors with interesting conclusions. The general observations were as follows:
  • East Africans have similar muscle fiber type distribution as many peoples from European and European descent who do not dominate the distance events.
  • The diet ofEast Africans is deficient in many aspects (vitamins and minerals) and is more likely a detriment than an explanation for their success.
  • The VO2 max of East Africans is the same and in some cases worse than athletes of other nationalities.
  • East Africans train amazingly hard.
  • Many East Africans live and train at altitude.
  • The anthropometry of East Africans is dramatically different than that of their Asian and Caucasian counterparts.
    • East Africans were lighter, had longer legs, shorter torsos, and much smaller lower leg mass.
  • EastAfricans had significantly better running economy than their Asian andCaucasian counterparts. In other words, they were able to run at equalspeeds as their counterparts at a much lower metabolic cost.
Overall,it was concluded that diet, physiology, environment and training alone do not account for the success of the East African distance runners. It was concluded that the physical structure of the East Africans(especially their extremely light lower leg mass) made them extremely efficient runners who were able to run at the same or faster speeds than their counterparts without being affected by fatigue. Their mechanical efficiency may also be the reason why they are able to handle such high training loads.
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