By: Nikki Reiter
In an attempt to answer this question, Josh Tremblay joined multiple UBC researchers as a lab assistant to study the dominance of Kenyan distance runners. The question? To see if the Kenyans’ near-impossible performances could be scientifically analyzed. Being an avid runner himself, Josh’s interest is not only scientific, but personal as well.
So why are East Africans, namely Kenyans of the Kalenjin tribe, better distance runners than the rest of the known world? UBC researchers thought that perhaps they have different pulmonary limitations. In order to attempt to answer some questions, the researchers connected with Kenyatta University in Africa, as they are they only university with adequate testing equipment in the region. Could you imagine otherwise transporting multiple treadmills and metabolic testing equipment into the Rift Valley?
Josh explains what it means to test pulmonary limitations; “we’re trying to see if they have different breathing limitations to performance than the rest of the world.” Why would this be important? Well, according to research assistant Josh, “gas exchange can limit performance, since exercise requires a greater demand of muscles for oxygen – in order to provide oxygen, we need to efficiently transport it from the air, to lungs, to blood, to muscle. In running, we reach a point where we cannot match the demand to fuel our working muscles and so we were seeing if these runners were demonstrating a different way that oxygen delivery differed from what we consider to be the traditional mechanism”
And the result? “We found that when it comes to pulmonary limitations, Kenyans are the exact same as the western world.”
So why do they perform better? Josh claims it could be a number of things, including genetics and environment since the tribe has been living at altitude and herding cows for days on end for centuries. However, Josh also believes there is a psychological component; “a Kenyan will always tell you it’s because they have more drive, greater mental toughness, and strong desire to win and be the best. African society holds runners in such high regard – ultimate celebrity status – and so being a successful runner will elevate one’s family status. It’s a factor of pride and desire for a more comfortable life for you and your family. American kids grow up worshiping pop stars and actors, while the Kalenjin children grow up idolizing world-class runners.”
How can we be better runners, based on this? Run like a Kenyan. “We’ve learned that if physiology can be controlled, it’s really a mental game.” Josh recommends to “run with a purpose – work towards a goal, whatever it might be (stay driven) – work hard and stay focused.”
Nikki Reiter is a Mizuno Running Brand Ambassador from Kelowna, BC. She holds a master’s degree in biomechanics, coaches Cross Country at UBC Okanagan and is the founder of Run Right Gait Analysis Service (run-right.ca).