Yes, Ethiopian runners perform better because of their biomechanics, which were harvested thanks to running barefoot during their youth years. But, research has found that you can boost your running performance if you adopt this style of running, which is a forefoot running style.
Historically, many attribute genetics as the sole reason for the stellar success of Ethiopian distance runners, but research is now demonstrating that genetics does not play a dominant role. Not to mention, Ethiopians have smaller lungs than non-Africans.
Why Are Ethiopian Runners So Good?
If you compare the gaits of Ethiopian runners to non-African runners, you will notice that most Ethiopian runners have a nicer, flowing stride full of elasticity which is due to the efficient muscle-spring mechanism of the lower leg as a function of forefoot running.
Ishikawa et al., published a study that embarked on a mission to uncover how and why Ethiopian runners outperform us and the answer seems to reside in the relationship between foot strike and Achilles tendon length.
Ethiopian distance runners were found to have a longer Achilles tendon than non-African runners. But, why is a longer Achilles tendon advantageous for running?
- A longer Achilles tendon is less susceptible to fatigue/damage because strain on the tendon is lower during contact when running.
- A longer Achilles tendon means more room for storage and release of elastic strain energy.
Since the elastic contributions of the Achilles tendon have been found to have a massive impact on running economy, scientists assume the excellent endurance capacity of Ethiopian runners reflect Achilles tendon length and the forefoot running technique.
Most Ethiopian runners do not become shod-runners until later in life, around mid to late adolescence. Therefore, much time is spent running barefoot whereby barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike landing which increases loading on the Achilles tendon compared with a heel strike landing.
Bare in mind that “greater loading” on the Achilles tendon is not a bad thing, it simply reflects the proposition that the spring functionality of the Achilles tendon is more active in a forefoot strike landing than in a heel strike landing.
Another facet of forefoot running that encourages greater Achilles tendon length is the eccentric phase (the lowering of the heel after contact). The eccentric phase is absent in heel strike running and may suggest why many heel strike runners who switch to barefoot running and adopt a forefoot strike may encounter Achilles injury.
However, Achilles injury in habitual barefoot running populations such as Ethiopia is much lower compared to habitual shod running populations.
- A shod-heel strike runner is predisposed to Achilles injury if a forefoot strike is adopted incorrectly.
Achilles injury can be avoided by gradually transitioning to forefoot running coupled with having a clear understanding of proper forefoot strike mechanics.
The Take Home Message
Although researchers have only a rough understanding of how variation in Achilles tendon length contributes to running efficiency, Ethiopian runners have an overabundance of elastic strain energy as a function of greater Achilles tendon length.
It would only make sense that adopting a proper forefoot strike through graded barefoot running or running in barefoot-inspired footwear as a potential propensity to improve gait efficiency by allowing the natural lengthening of the Achilles tendon.
More on the Disadvantages of Running with a Heel Strike:
- Why is the ground reaction force more harmful in heel strike running than forefoot strike running?
- Heel strike running imposes greater soft tissue vibrations than forefoot strike running
- How heel strike running causes leg pain
- Nothing good about heel strike running in the literature
Ishikawa et al. Economical running strategy for East African distance runners. J Phys Fitness Sports Med, 2013; 2(3):361-363.
Kulmala et al., Forefoot strikers exhibit lower running-induced knee loading than rearfoot strikers. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013; 45:2306-2313.
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.