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Anthropometrics and Body Composition in East African Runners: Potential Impact on Performance

Martin Mooses and Anthony C. Hackney

Maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max), fractional utilization of V̇O2max during running, and running economy (RE) are crucial factors for running success for all endurance athletes. Although evidence is limited, investigations of these key factors indicate that East Africans’ superiority in distance running is largely due to a unique combination of these factors. East African runners appear to have a very high level of RE most likely associated, at least partly, with anthropometric characteristics rather than with any specific metabolic property of the working muscle. That is, evidence suggest that anthropometrics and body composition might have important parameters as determinants of superior performance of East African distance runners. Regrettably, this role is often overlooked and mentioned as a descriptive parameter rather than an explanatory parameter in many research studies. This brief review article provides an overview of the evidence to support the critical role anthropometrics and body composition has on the distance running success of East African athletes. The structural form and shape of these athletes also has a downside, because having very low BMI or body fat increases the risk for relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) conditions in both male and female runners, which can have serious health consequences.

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Kenyan and Ethiopian Distance Runners: What Makes Them so Good?

Randall L. Wilber and Yannis P. Pitsiladis

Since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have dominated the middle- and longdistance events in athletics and have exhibited comparable dominance in international cross-country and roadracing competition. Several factors have been proposed to explain the extraordinary success of the Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners, including (1) genetic predisposition, (2) development of a high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of extensive walking and running at an early age, (3) relatively high hemoglobin and hematocrit, (4) development of good metabolic “economy/efficiency” based on somatotype and lower limb characteristics, (5) favorable skeletal-muscle-fiber composition and oxidative enzyme profile, (6) traditional Kenyan/Ethiopian diet, (7) living and training at altitude, and (8) motivation to achieve economic success. Some of these factors have been examined objectively in the laboratory and field, whereas others have been evaluated from an observational perspective. The purpose of this article is to present the current data relative to factors that potentially contribute to the unprecedented success of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners, including recent studies that examined potential links between Kenyan and Ethiopian genotype characteristics and elite running performance. In general, it appears that Kenyan and Ethiopian distance-running success is not based on a unique genetic or physiological characteristic. Rather, it appears to be the result of favorable somatotypical characteristics lending to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency; chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high-intensity training (live high + train high), and a strong psychological motivation to succeed athletically for the purpose of economic and social advancement.

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Gait-Cycle Characteristics and Running Economy in Elite Eritrean and European Runners

Jordan Santos-Concejero, Jesús Oliván, José L. Maté-Muñoz, Carlos Muniesa, Marta Montil, Ross Tucker, and Alejandro Lucia


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.


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.


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).


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.

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World Records in Half-Marathon Running by Sex and Age

Pantelis T. Nikolaidis, Stefania Di Gangi, and Beat Knechtle

, 2016 ; Nikolaidis, Onywera, & Knechtle, 2017 ). It has been shown that East African runners were the youngest and the fastest ( Aschmann et al., 2013 ; Knechtle, Nikolaidis, Onywera, et al., 2016 ). Their age is at (mean ±  SD ) 29.7 ± 4.0 years for Kenyan women, 28.9 ± 4.2 years for Kenyan men, 25

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Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport in Male Athletes: A Commentary on Its Presentation Among Selected Groups of Male Athletes

Louise M. Burke, Graeme L. Close, Bronwen Lundy, Martin Mooses, James P. Morton, and Adam S. Tenforde

level of EA that is associated with negative health/performance effects in male and female distance runners from East Africa compared with White population? • Do cultural dietary practices of East African runners (e.g., energy spread, high intakes of fiber and vegetable food sources) contribute to, or

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Contemporary Nutrition Strategies to Optimize Performance in Distance Runners and Race Walkers

Louise M. Burke, Asker E. Jeukendrup, Andrew M. Jones, and Martin Mooses

in the heat if the athlete chooses a pace that leads to a higher thermal load Commentary 1: Dietary Practices of East African Runners East African athletes have dominated distance running for decades, with their superior performance drawing speculation about a range of potential contributing factors

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Concurrent Training for Sports Performance: The 2 Sides of the Medal

Nicolas Berryman, Iñigo Mujika, and Laurent Bosquet

argument, it was shown that East African runners who dominate international competitions 25 are particularly economical runners in comparison with Europeans and American runners. 24 In addition to this observation, a case study presenting physiological parameters of the women’s marathon world record

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International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): 2018 Update

Margo Mountjoy, Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, Louise Burke, Kathryn E. Ackerman, Cheri Blauwet, Naama Constantini, Constance Lebrun, Bronwen Lundy, Anna Melin, Nanna Meyer, Roberta Sherman, Adam S. Tenforde, Monica Klungland Torstveit, and Richard Budgett

restriction is likely to negatively affect performance and health ( Tornberg et al., 2017 ). This finding is supported in a study of East African runners ( Mooses & Hackney, 2017 ). Woods et al. ( 2017 ) followed male and female national team rowers through a 4 week intensified training period, which was

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Energy Availability in Athletics: Health, Performance, and Physique

Anna K. Melin, Ida A. Heikura, Adam Tenforde, and Margo Mountjoy

. These results suggest that achieving or maintaining a lower body weight through long-term LEA is likely to negatively affect performance and health ( Tornberg et al., 2017 ), a finding supported by results from a study of East African runners ( Mooses & Hackney, 2017 ). The potential negative effects of

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Stereotype Threat in Sport: Recommendations for Applied Practice and Research

Daniel M. Smith and Sarah E. Martiny

ability in volleyball, field hockey, or sport in general. As mentioned in the introduction, beyond race and gender, many other groups may be stereotyped. Some stereotypes relate to athletes’ country or region of origin, for example, the superiority of East African runners ( Baker & Horton, 2003 ) and the