One reason Ethiopian distance runners are better is due to their proper forefoot running form learned from barefoot running. Unfortunately the research on this topic is lacking and researchers are still trying to find if genetics plays a major role in the enormous success of these runners.
However, the data simply reflects that there is not enough evidence to support that Ethiopian distance runners are genetically gifted and turns the theory of a ‘super-endurance gene‘ into a myth.
For instance, a study by Scott et al., in the Journal of Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, compared the distribution of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) among elite Ethiopian distance runners to the general population of Ethiopia (non-athletes) to determine if the mtDNA of the elite Ethiopian runners contained mutations or variants that coded for enhanced endurance performance.
What is mtDNA?
mtDNA is a circular-stranded DNA that is highly mutable and some experts think that certain mutations in the mtDNA positively influences endurance capacity.
Therefore, the researchers hypothesized that the selection for the variants beneficial to endurance capacity would increase in frequency among elite Ethiopian distance runners compared to the general population of Ethiopia.
But as usual, the researchers found no association between endurance athletic status and mtDNA variants as the elite Ethiopian distance runners did not differ significantly from the general population of Ethiopia.
The researchers concluded that elite Ethiopian distance runners are not genetically distinct or ‘gifted’ compared to the general population of Ethiopia.
Why Are Ethiopian Distance Runners Better?
Dire Tune of Ethiopia and a 2008 Boston Marathon winner asked the same question in an interview in Canadian Running Magazine:
“I don’t think North Americans train as hard. They have all the technology and support. I want to know why they can’t run like us?” Tune asked.
Ethiopian marathon runners run over 200 km per week, running twice a day with more speed sessions, and ran barefoot for many years before turning pro. Maybe, running barefoot over many years is a major advantage, allowing earlier adaptations for the proper forefoot running form.
- Barefoot running encourages forefoot running over heel running and may allow the neuromuscular system to interact economically and efficiently during running.
- Saltin et al., suggested that ‘special’ biomechanical make-up may account for the high mechanical efficiency in Ethiopian distance runners.
The ‘special’ biomechanical make-up most likely reflects early and extensive experiences with barefoot running.
Although the mechanical properties of the lower leg in Ethiopian distance runners is poorly understood, barefoot running during childhood fosters the proper forefoot running form and employs key mechanical strategies to resist injury.
Perhaps, the answer is plain and simple: Ethiopian runners are better because they run properly allowing them to dodge injury, and train consistently. Who really knows, but that is my guess.
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Anderson et al. (1981). Sequence and organization of the human mitochondrial genome. Nature, 290:457-465.
De Wit, B., De Clercq, D and Aerts, P. (2000). Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running, 33(2):269-78.
Divert et al. (2005). Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running. Int J Sports Med, 25(7):593-8.
Kram, R and Taylor, CR. (1990. Energetics of running: a new perspective. Nature, 346:265-7.
Scott et al. (2005). Mitochondrial DNA lineages of Ethiopian athletes. Com Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Bol, 140(3):497-503.
Sqaudrone, R and Gallozzi, C. (2009). Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 49(1):6-13.
Run forefoot because you are faster than you think!
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.