Why Kenyans Keep Winning Marathons

Men's Health |

And the top 10 fastest sprinters in the 100 meters are all of West African descent.

Well, they must have super-genes, right? Nope: There’s no direct genetic evidence to explain their speed, experts now believe. Instead, a runner’s performance has more to do with socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental factors, according to Yannis Pitsiladis, Ph.D., a biologist at the University of Glasgow. Pitsiladis presented his research at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting in Denver yesterday.

Particular conditions in Kenya and Ethiopia have led to native distance runners breaking more and more records, Pitsiladis says.

In a 2006 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, Pitsiladis found that three-quarters of the Kenyan runners he analyzed lived at least several miles from school when they were kids, and were much more likely to run to and from school, learning the value of distance running from an early age. Pitsiladis has found similar results among Ethiopian runners and Jamaican sprinters, like Usain Bolt.

But he hasn’t found any genetic link between the groups. Pitsiladis has tested Olympic athletes for ACTN3—a.k.a. the “speed gene”—which aids explosive movement in fast-twitch muscle fibers, but hasn’t found a single record-breaker with two copies of the variant in the gene that leads to speed. “To date there is zero predictive capacity in sports genetics,” he says. “So the stopwatch is a far better predictor than all the genetics to date.”

“Running long distances barefoot is a part of the African way of life. Eventually this platform serves as a means to escape poverty and emulate their heroes,” says Pitsiladis. “The phenomenon will, in my opinion, move to poorer countries like Uganda and Eritrea. And if there were the same socioeconomic and environmental elements in a country like Germany or elsewhere, you would still see the same phenomenon.”

Want to achieve the same burning speed that Bolt and Tyson Gay have? Exercise visionary David Weck developed a theory about how “spiraling” your arms could make you run faster, and it just might work.

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