Physiological Differences between Ethiopian and Caucasian Distance Runners and Their Effects on 10 km Running Performance


Objective: Ethiopian athletes currently dominate long distance running events in Israel. In an attempt to explain the apparently superior running ability of Israeli Ethiopian athletes at distances >5 km, we compared anatomical and physiological measurements in the fastest 21 Israeli Caucasian (CA) and 22 Israeli Ethiopian (ET) long distance runners with similar mean age, years of training, and weekly volume of training. Methods: Two to six months prior to or following official 10 km track race, subjects underwent an incremental maximal and sub-maximal exercise testing in an attempt to identify which of the measured anatomical and/or physiological variable/s explain best the success of the of Israeli Ethiopian long distance runners. Results: The ET runners were significantly shorter and lighter and possessed a lower BMI than the CA runners. Whereas mean  VO2peak (ml/kg/min) was 10.3% lower in the Ethiopian runners (p = 0.007), their mean 10,000 m run time was 6.2% faster than their Caucasian counterparts (p < 0.001). Although anaerobic threshold-related variables were similar in the two ethnic groups, the Ethiopians’ running economy (cost) was significantly higher than that of the CA ( VO2sub = 40.3 vs. 45.5 ml/kg/min in the ET and CA respectively) (p > 0.001). Conclusion: The results suggest that factors associated with running cost, independent of body size, play a crucial role in the performance of 10 km running. The results also suggest, though indirectly, that genetic and early life phenotypic factors are more dominant than later-life environmental factors (including training) at the 10 km performance level.

Share and Cite:

Wishnizer, R. , Inbar, O. , Klinman, E. & Fink, G. (2013). Physiological Differences between Ethiopian and Caucasian Distance Runners and Their Effects on 10 km Running Performance. Advances in Physical Education, 3, 136-144. doi: 10.4236/ape.2013.33023.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Beaver, W. L., Wasserman, K., & Whipp, B. J. (1986). A new method for detecting anaerobic threshold by gas exchange. Journal of Ap plied Physiology, 60, 2020-2027.
[2] Billat, V. L., Lepretre, P. M., Heugas, A. M., et al. (2003). Training and bioenergetic characteristics in elite male and female Kenyan runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35, 297-304. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000053556.59992.A9
[3] Bosch, A. N., Goslin, B. R., Noakes, T. D., et al. (1990). Physiological differences between black and white runners during a treadmill mara thon. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 61, 68-72. doi:10.1007/BF00236696
[4] Buchowicz, B., Yu, T., Nance, D. M., et al. (2010). Increased rat neo natal activity influences adult cytokine levels and relative muscle mass. Pediatric Research, 68, 399-404.
[5] Coetzer, P., Noakes, T.D., Sanders, B., et al. (1993). Superior fatigue resistance of elite black South African distance runners. Journal of Applied Physiology, 75, 1822-1827.
[6] Costill, D. L., Fink, W. J., & Pollock, M. L. (1976). Muscle fiber com position and enzyme activities of elite distance runners. Medical Science Sports, 8, 96-100.
[7] Costill, D. L., Thomason, H., & Roberts, E. (1973). Fractional utiliza tion of the aerobic capacity during distance running. Medical Science Sports, 5, 248-252.
[8] Daniels, J. (1974). Physiological characteristics of champion male ath letes. Res Q, 45, 342-348.
[9] Enomoto, Y., & Ae, M. (2005). Biomechanical comparison of Kenyan and Japanese elite long distance runners’s technics. In: Book of Ab stracts, XXth Congress of the International Society of Biomechanics (abstract no. 852). Cleveland, OH: International Society of Biome chanics.
[10] Fay, L., Londeree, B. R., LaFontaine, T. P., et al. (1989). Physiological parameters related to distance running performance in female ath letes. Medical Science Sports Exercise, 21, 319-324. doi:10.1249/00005768-198906000-00016
[11] Flouris, A. D., Spiropouous, Y., Sakellarious, G. J., et al. (2009). Effect of seasonal programming on fetal development and longevity: Links with environmental temperature. American Journal of Human Bio logy, 21, 214-216. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20818
[12] Holden, C. (2004). Peering under the hood of Africa’s runners. Science, 305, 637-649. doi:10.1126/science.305.5684.637
[13] Inbar, O., Dlin, R., Rotstein, A., et al. (2001). Physiological responses to incremental exercise in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Medical Science Sports Exercise, 33, 1463-1470. doi:10.1097/00005768-200109000-00007
[14] Jensen, K., Johansen, L., & Secher, N. H. (2001). Influence of body mass on maximal oxygen uptake: Effect of sample size. European Journal of Appllied Physiology, 84, 201-205. doi:10.1007/s00421
[15] Joyner, M. J., & Coyle, E. F. (2007). Endurance exercise performance: The physiology of champions. Journal of Physiology, 586, 35-44. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.143834
[16] Julian, C. G., Wilson, M. J., & Moor, L. G. (2009. Evolutionary adapta tion to high altitude: a view from in utero. American Journal of Hu man Biology, 21, 614-622. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20900
[17] Kong, P. W., & de Heer, H. (2008). Anthropometric, gait and strength characteristics of Kenyan distance runners. Journal of Sports Science Medicine, 7, 499-504.
[18] Kyrolainen, H., Belli, A., & Komi, P. V. (2001). Biomechanical factors affecting running economy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exer cise, 33, 1330-1337. doi:10.1097/00005768-200108000-00014
[19] Larsen, H. (2003). Kenya dominance in distance running. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, 136, 161-170.
[20] Lucia, A., Esteve-Lanao, J., Oliván, J., et al. (2006). Physiological cha racteristics of the best Eritrean runners-exceptional running economy. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 31, 530-540. doi:10.1139/h06-029
[21] Morgan, D.W., & Daniels, J. T. (1994). Relationship between VO2 max and the aerobic demand of running in elite distance runners. Inter national Journal of Sports Medicine, 15, 426-429. doi:10.1055/s-2007-1021082
[22] Noakes, T. D. (2000). Physiological models to understand exercise fa tigue and the adaptations that predict or enhance athletic performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 10, 123-145. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0838.2000.010003123.x
[23] Noakes, T. D. (2002). Interactions among dietary fat, mineral status, and performance of endurance athletes: A case study. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 12, 381-382.
[24] Noakes, T. D., Myburgh, K. H., & Schall, R. (1990). Peak treadmill running velocity during the VO2 max test predicts running perform ance. Journal of Sports Science, 8, 35-45. doi:10.1080/0264041900
[25] Nummela, A., Keranen, T., & Mikkelsson, L. O. (2007). Factors related to top running speed and economy. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 28, 655-661. doi:10.1055/s-2007-964896
[26] Pollock, M. L. (1977). Submaximal and maximal working capacity of elite distance runners. Part I: Cardiorespiratory aspects. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 301, 310-322. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1977.tb38209.x
[27] Ruiz, J. R., Gómez-Gallego, F., Santiago, C., et al. (2009). Is there an optimum endurance polygenic profile? Journal of Physiology, 587, 1527-1534. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2008.166645
[28] Rusko, H., Havu, M., & Karvinen, E. (1978). Aerobic performance ca pacity in athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Oc cupational Physiology, 20, 151-159.
[29] Saltin, B. (2003). The Kenya report. New Studies in Athletics, 18, 15-24.
[30] Saltin, B., Kim, C. K., Terrados, N., et al. (1995). Morphology, enzyme activities and buffer capacity in leg muscles of Kenyan and Scandi navian runners. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 5, 222-230. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.1995.tb00038.x
[31] Saltin, B., Larsen, H., Terados, N., et al. (1955). Aerobic exercise capa city at sea level and at altitude in Kenyan boys, junior and senior run ners compared with Scandinavian runners. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 5, 209-221. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.1995.tb00037.x
[32] Scott, R. A., Moran, C., Wilson, R.H., et al. (2005). No association be tween Angiotestin Converting Enzyme (ACE) gene variation and en durance athlete status in Kenyans. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 141, 169-175.
[33] Scott, R. A., & Pitsiladis, Y. P. (2007). Genotypes and distance running: Clues from Africa. Sports Medicine, 37, 424-427. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737040-00039
[34] Svedenhag, J. (1995). Maximal and submaximal oxygen uptake during running: How should body mass be accounted for? Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 5, 175-180. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.1995.tb00033.x
[35] Weston, A. R., Karamizrak, O., Smith, A., et al. (1999). African run ners exhibit greater fatigue resistance, lower lactate accumulation, and higher oxidative enzyme-activity. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86, 915-923.
[36] Weston, A. R., Mbambo, Z., & Myburgh, K. H. (2000). Running econ omy of African and Caucasian runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32, 1130-1134. doi:10.1097/00005768-200006000-00015
[37] Williams, K R. (2007). Biomechanical factors contributing to marathon race success. Sports Medicine, 37, 420-423. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737040-00038
[38] Williams, K. R., & Cavanagh, P. R. (1987). Relationship between dis tance running mechanics, running economy, and performance. Jour nal of Applied Physiology, 63, 1236-1245.
[39] Wyndham, C. H., Strydom, N. B., van Rensburg, A. J., et al. (1969). Physiological requirements for world-class performances in endur ance running. South African Medical Journal, 43, 996-1002.

Copyright © 2023 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.