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Purpose:

This study aimed to determine whether biomechanical characteristics such as ground-contact time, swing time, and stride length and frequency contribute to the exceptional running economy of East African runners.

Methods:

Seventeen elite long-distance runners (9 Eritrean, 8 European) performed an incremental maximal running test and 3 submaximal running bouts at 17, 19, and 21 km/h. During the tests, gas-exchange parameters were measured to determine maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and running economy (RE). In addition, ground-contact time, swing time, stride length, and stride frequency were measured.

Results:

The European runners had higher VO2max values than the Eritrean runners (77.2 ± 5.2 vs 73.5 ± 6.0 mL · kg−1 · min−1, P = .011, effect sizes [ES] = 0.65), although Eritrean runners were more economical at 19 km/h (191.4 ± 10.4 vs 205.9 ± 13.3 mL · kg−1 · min−1, P = .026, ES = 1.21). There were no differences between groups for ground-contact time, swing time, stride length, or stride frequency at any speed. Swing time was associated with running economy at 21 km/h in the Eritrean runners (r = .71, P = .033), but no other significant association was found between RE and biomechanical variables. Finally, best 10-km performance was significantly correlated with RE (r = –.57; P = .013).

Conclusions:

Eritrean runners have superior RE compared with elite European runners. This appears to offset their inferior VO2max. However, the current data suggest that their better RE does not have a biomechanical basis. Other factors, not measured in the current study, may contribute to this RE advantage.

Santos-Concejero and Tucker are with the Dept of Human Biology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. Oliván, Muniesa, Montil, and Lucia are with the Dept of Morphological Sciences, European University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain. Maté-Muñoz is with the Dept of Sport Sciences, Alfonso X El Sabio University, Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain. Address author correspondence to Jordan Santos-Concejero at jordan.santos@ehu.eus.