The Physiology of a Kenyan runnner

Characteristics of a Kenyan runner

Kenyan Training System – from a physiological standpoint

During the last decades the East African runners, especially the Kenyans, have dominated the world of running. One question that arises is what makes these Kenyans so successful. Several factors may play a role, but the most important may be the genetic endowment in combination with intense training at moderate altitude (2000-2600 m.a.s.l.). However, this section gives only a short schematic description of their middle- and long distance training. These data are obtained from the daily training and from laboratory facilities.

  • Measurements of the VO2 uptake during different type of training and lab tests
  • Measurements of the HR during different type of training and lab tests
  • Measurement of blood lactate during different type of training and lab tests
  • Analysis of biopsy samples during different type of training and lab tests
  • Analysis of other blood parameters related both to sea and altitude training

Shortly, the results form our study suggests that most of the basic training carried out by the Kenyans consists of exercise close to lactate threshold (90% of VO2max). Our biopsy data support that exercise related to lactate threshold both at moderate altitude (2000-2600m.a.s.l.), and at sea level is very effective to improve the performance in already well trained elite runners and cross-country skiers, compared to controls carrying out training far under and above the lactate threshold (Evertsen et al, 1997, 2000a, 2000b, and unpublished data obtained between 1991-2000).

No changes were found in the VO2max, but the performance at lactate threshold and the performance were increased significantly. These changes in physiological feature and in performance were significantly higher compared to controls. Less positive correlations were found between the biopsy data and the performance.

In summary, the physiological characteristics in Kenyan runners, running 5000m from 13:24 to 12.56 are:

  • VO2max >80 ml kg-1 min-1
  • High capillary density
  • Many and large mitochondria
  • Highly developed running economy
  • High running velocity at lactate 2, 4, 7 mmol L-1
  • High aerobic enzyme activity, but less anaerobic enzyme activity
  • High red blood cell mass (35 ml/kg)
  • Normal Hemoglobin and Hematocrit (14-18 g/dl)
  • High ability to utilise fat even during intense exercise (% VO2max)
  • High blood and muscle buffer capacity
  • Normal EPO values
  • High Hemoglobin-oxygen affinity
  • Larger slow twitch muscle fibre pool than FT muscle fibre pool

(Evertsen, unpublished data, 1990-2000)

Category Training HR <HRmax Blood Lactate mmol L-1 (haemolysed blood) Duration per session Days per week (n)
S0 Warm- up/down 65-70  below 0.8
S1 Easy 65-75 below 0.8 30-90 7
S2 Medium 30-25 2.5-3.0 30-90 4
S3 High 25-20 3.0-4.0 45-60 4
S2 Med 30-25 2.5-3.0 30-60 1
S3 High 25-20 3.0-4.0 30-45 3
S4 Very High 20-15 ³ 5.0 30-45 1

Frank Evertsen, Copyright