Ethiopian Marathon Runners Genetics: Is This Why They’re So Good?

The relation of Ethiopian marathon runners genetics with performance has been widely studied, yet results showed that genetics exerted no influence on endurance capacity.

Ethiopian marathon runners geneticsNan et al. (2005) analyzed the extent of the Actn3 genotype (a gene variant linked to human elite athletic performance) in Ethiopian marathon runners and found no difference in genotype frequencies when compared with Caucasian runners.

The researchers concluded that the Actn3 gene does not contribute to the phenomenal success of Ethiopian marathon runners. So why are they better?

Forefoot Running: A Power Enhancer

Unlike in heel strike running, the leg behaves more like a spring in forefoot running.

The degree of leg-spring contribution during running dramatically affects energetics.

Ethiopian marathon runners ran barefootLeg-spring is further optimized when running barefoot and barefoot running habitually during the early stages of life and onward, strengthens specific neuromuscular interactions that enhance running economy. This includes a learned forefoot running technique that is of high mechanical efficiency compared to habitual shod runners most of which show significant differences in biomechanics than Ethiopian marathon runners.

Ethiopian marathon runners forefoot strike
Most Ethiopian marathon runners are forefoot strikers with better leg-spring mechanics due to barefoot running.

And of course, many studies have found that energy savings and elastic contributions was most pronounced in barefoot runners who ran with a forefoot strike.

The Take Home Message

The extraordinary endurance capacity of Ethiopian marathon runners is not really reflected in their genetics, but in how they learned to run in the first place via habitual barefoot conditions.

High mechanical efficiency derived from barefoot running clearly is a critical advantage of Ethiopian marathon runners over elite marathon runners of habitual shod populations.

Ethiopians just run better. Watch Tirunesh Dibaba and you will see what I mean.

More From Run Forefoot:

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P.S. The Run Forefoot Facebook Page is a great place to ask questions related to forefoot running mechanics, injury, barefoot running and footwear. I’m always happy to help!


Ishikawa et al. Economical running strategy for East African runners. J Phys Fitness Sports Med, 2013; 2(3):361-63.

Nan et al. Actn3 genotype is not associated with elite endurance athlete status in Ethiopians and Kenyans. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2005; 35(7):S472.

Nan et al. ACTN3 genotype is associated with human elite athletic performance. Am J Hum Genet, 2003; 73(3): 627–631.

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

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.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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