Kenyan Dominance in Distance Running: Nature or Nurture?
Many visitors to Iten are coming to find the answer to the question; why are Kenyans such amazing runners? Why do the people of the Rift Valley in Kenya dominate the running world? I also get this question often. I decided to give my view here.
For those who don’t want to read this whole story , let me start with the conclusion: Based on everything I have learned, read and seen, I strongly believe that the Kalenjin people are genetically gifted as runners. They have an inborn talent for running, which mostly translates to a superior running style. So there is a very large talent pool and apart from that, almost everyone in that talent pool, enters into running. While in other nations only some of the talented runners discover and develop their talent, almost all talented Kenyans do so, already from a young age.
What exactly do I mean when I say that Kalenjin people are gifted as runners?
1. Kenyans (as a whole) are not talented long distance runners. The Kalenjin tribe, which is one of the 44 tribes in Kenya, is by far the most talented tribe. There are runners from other tribes, like the Maasai, the Kikuyu and the Kisii, but the vast majority are Kalenjins. So we will specify this to Kalenjins.
2. It should be clear that in this discussion we talk about groups, which is very different from talking about individuals. You can’t mix the two. When I state that “Kalenjins are the most talented runners in the world”, this does not mean that all Kalenjins are talented runners. Plus; the fact that sometimes one single Caucasian is faster than all Kalenjins, does not prove that statement false. It’s still possible for others races/nations to produce world class athletes and to run world records, it’s just that the chances are smaller, because “as a group” there is no nation/race that performs in running like the Kalenjins do. Only other East Africans are coming close.
3. It’s mostly the form/shape/build of the Kalenjin body that is pretty unique and that gives them their running talent. This is what I believe, based on the research I have read and by using my eyes and knowledge. Kalenjins have extremely narrow hips, which is known to be a positive factor for distance running, since it helps the running mechanics/style. They have relatively long and thin legs, which is also helpful in distance running. The extremely thin lower leg, increases the efficiency of running, since it’s easier to ‘swing’ a thin leg than to swing a heavy leg. Finally, and also very important; Kalenjins have a long Achilles tendon and a very short calf muscle. The Achilles tendon is ideal for running, since it stores and releases elastic energy, which is “free energy” in that it does not require oxygen.
4. Summing up what I wrote under point 3 I would say that among the Kalenjin you can find an extremely large number of people who have a very smooth, bouncy (thanks to the Achilles tendon), efficient running style. Thanks to their body structure they can run faster, while using less oxygen. They don’t have muscles that work better, or that can carry more oxygen, or that are stronger than the muscles of other races. I don’t believe it’s about the muscles. It’s mostly about the body structure and how that translates to a superior running style.
5. When saying that Kalenjins are genetically better runners, this does in no way mean that their performances are only or mostly based on their talent. No distance runner can reach the top without very hard training. I really want to make this clear, because some people might say; so the Kenyans are not training very hard? They are just talented? What we should understand is that talent only means that you can reach a very high level, once you start training very hard! People without talent can train very hard, but they never reach the top. People with lots of talent will never materialise this talent, if they don’t train for it.
This brings me to the next point; apart from the genetic advantages that Kalenjins have, which other reasons (on the nurture side) are there for their world dominance?
6. Many Kalenjins run a lot at a young age and they often do this barefoot. This counts for the majority of the world class Kalenjin runners and still for many of the Kalenjin children now, although it’s getting less each year. Those Kalenjins who grew/grow up in a village, typically run to school and back (twice a day, because they come home for lunch). They also have other duties after school, like collecting water from the river, collecting firewood from the forest. Boys can go for a rabbit hunt in the weekend where they run the whole day chasing rabbits. Because of this childhood, they build an aerobic base that is extremely strong. They also train their muscles, including their foot muscles (from running barefoot). As a result of this, once they start serious training (often at age 18-20 years, after finishing high school) they can increase their training load much faster than people who grew up in Western nations. Kenyans who start training, often start with once a day and after a few months they start training twice a day. They are able to do this, without getting injured, because they trained their bodies (in a playful way) at a young age. Their huge aerobic base allows them to almost immediately train as a professional runner, while Western runners would first need 5-8 years to build that same base.
7. There are thousands and thousands of Kalenjins who train hard. Reason is that:
They know they are talented. Most Kalenjins themselves believe they can become professional runners, simply because they are Kalenjins. They have many examples of neighbours, relatives and friends who became professional runners. They believe they have an inherited talent. Apart from this, running is part of the school curriculum so any kid who is a talented runner (meaning; even more talented than his/her fellow Kalenjins) will find this out and is likely to go on with it.
Running is their best chance to improve their life. Many of the runners are not well educated and would probably earn $50 per month IF they would get a job. This is $600 per year. A runner who is not world-class, but good enough to run races abroad, can easily make 5 times that amount. The best ones earn 1000 x this amount. So many Kalenjins have a very strong motivation to do what a top runner has to do: train extremely hard and the rest of the day just relax, lie on your bed and wait for the next training.
Kalenjins are not so poor that running is considered a luxury. Most Kalenjins, or people in the Rift Valley, do not consider themselves poor. According to Western standards they might be poor, but they have a house, food, some land, some cows and sheep. Someone can afford to train for some years and be supported by his family.
So, the fact that there are so many Kalenjins training hard, of course contributes to their dominance. Any Kalenjin who has talent for running, will explore that talent. In my country (the Netherlands) there are probably lots of people with a talent for running, who enrolled in another sport like football (soccer), hockey, ice skating, or who don’t do any sport at all. This counts for most nations around the world. But in Kenya, all running talent goes into running.Another thing I should add here; people ask me “Do Kenyans train harder?” My answer is; as a group yes, as individuals no. I don’t believe that Kenyan top athletes train harder than top athletes from other countries. I have not seen that. I trained harder than many Kenyans myself. I know lots of top athletes from different countries. There is no difference (in training) with Kenyans. If anything, many Kenyans could be even better if they had a good coach and a good training program. But in the Netherlands, only a couple of people train as hard as I used to train, because it asks for total determination and one cannot have a full time job, so no wonder very few people choose for that life. In Kenya there are thousands who train extremely hard, so we can say that as a group, they train harder.
8. Environmental factors. In Kenya’s Rift Valley the conditions for running are pretty ideal. To mention a few things;
The weather is comfortable throughout the year. Almost always between 20-25 degrees Celsius, with colder nights. Perfect for training!
There are lots of dirt roads, which are ideal for training.
Many runners live and train at high altitude (2000 – 2400m). Research shows that people who are born at that altitude, have stronger lungs than people born at sea level
The typical Kenyan diet is healthy. It could be more diverse, but in general Kalenjins eat very healthy.
There are those who might say: “Why do you think it’s first and foremost nature (the inherited talent) and not nurture? Because you just gave us some nurture reasons which could also explain the Kenyan dominance”.
There are many other tribes/nations around the world where children also run to school, walk around without shoes and are generally very active. But they don’t produce world-class runners. Even in Kenya there are examples; children from the Luo tribe in general grow up exactly in the same way as the Kalenjins, but they don’t produce any distance runners. Even the idea of a Luo beating a Kalenjin in distance running, is something most Kenyans will laugh about. Luo people are built for football and rugby, is the general belief. They might produce sprinters, but no distance runners.
Around the world there are other peoples, living the same kind of life, sometimes living at altitude, with good weather, good food and good roads to run on, but all of them don’t produce a good number of world-class distance runners.
Also the fact that thousands of Kenyans are training, contributes to the Kenyan dominance, but it cannot be enough for their dominance; there are a lot more serious runners in the whole world than there are in Kenya. If Kenya has 10.000 serious runners, the whole world might have 100.000. I don’t know the exact figures, but based on numbers alone, you would expect Kenyans to do well, but not to dominate so much as they do now. In fact, there might be more serious runners (who are training hard) in Japan and Japan is a great nation when it comes to distance running, but not even close to Kenya, in terms of performance.
Finally; when Kalenjins move to other countries and have a Western lifestyle, they are still likely to become better runners than the ‘locals’. Of course, this does not count for all of them. In fact, a good number of them will not become runners at all. But the percentage of foreign Kalenjins that does become good runners, is still much higher than the average of the total local population (see the book “The Sports Gene” from David Epstein). This does not only count for Kalenjins. The most famous example is Mo Farah, who migrated from Somalia to the UK at a young age. It could well be that people from Somalia are as talented as the Kalenjins or the Ethiopians, but due to several factors (like war) we have not yet seen them dominate the running world.
Now when looking at the future, if Western nations want to catch up with the Kalenjins, or with the East Africans, when it comes to running performance, there are a few things that have to happen:
Children in developed countries should get a more active lifestyle. This includes implementing daily sports/exercises in the school curriculum in primary and high school. I hope this will happen.
More people from other countries should start training hard. This is not likely to happen.
Kalenjins and other East Africans (Ethiopian and Somali people) migrate and run for other nations. Like my wife did, and Mo Farah, and Paul Chelimo, etc. This is not unlike what we see in a sport like table tennis, a sport that is dominated by athletes who have roots in China, even if they compete for many different countries. I think this is very likely to happen. I think 50 years from now, many countries will have world-class runners, who are either born in East Africa, or who have parents who are born there.
Other nations can also ‘catch up’ with East Africans, if the level of the East Africans goes down. This is also very likely to happen. The main reason will be the fact that East African countries also develop and get a growing middle class. In Kenya we see that more and more children who grow up in a comfortable way, for instance the children of world-class athletes, are not likely to run when they are older. First of all, they don’t have the same tough upbringing as their parents. Secondly, they have no motivation to run. They think it makes them tired, it’s painful and they see no reason to do it. They prefer to go to school and look for a regular job. This is happening in Kenya and will probably reduce the dominance of the Kenyans, although their dominance will not disappear, due to genetic reasons.
To point number 3, I just want to add this: just like East Africans dominating the world of distance running, it’s clearly West Africans that are dominating the world of sprinting. It’s only that West Africans have migrated much more (unfortunately due to slavery), so that is why there are many more countries that pick up the sprinting medals. But more than 90% of top sprinters have roots in West Africa. They all have different living conditions, they all grew up in different ways, some in rich families and some in poor. Yet they all have roots in West Africa. So with sprinting it’s even more clear; there must be a genetic advantage that West Africans have, when it comes to sprinting.
This leads to another questions; do African people and people with roots in Africa have a genetic advantage that (in general) makes them better in most sports, especially sports that require strength and endurance? I don’t have the answer to that, but it would be interesting to investigate.
Thanks for reading,
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