African’s vs. Western Runners: Why do they dominate and what can we learn:
Part 1- Fun with Statistics
Part 2- Should our Athlete’s move up in distance?
Part 3- Why can African’s close faster than their Western counterparts?
Part 4- Muscle Recruitment’s role
Part 5- Putting Theory into Practice
Part 6- Kick Development
Powerpoint presentation- African Runner Dominance in Distance Running

For the next couple blogs I’ll be exploring a couple topics that center around comparing Western athletes (basically Americans and some Europeans) versus their African counterparts.

The first topic is a general introduction and a look at some statistics.
Then I’ll delve into why our runners are so far behind at 5k and 10k.
And finally, I’ll get into some of the lactate dynamics of the two groups and how this might impact the ability to finish so fast on the last lap.

Africans vs. Westerners Part 1: Fun with statistics.

Distance running’s version of Monday morning quarterbacks, always suggest or are intrigued by the prospect of runner’s moving up in distance. Whether the question is what Jeremy Wariner could run for 800m, or the idea that Alan Webb should be a 5k runner, people seem enamored with what a runner could do at the next distance up. Some even go further, saying that the reason we are not as successful at the world level is that the athlete’s who should be running the 1,500m are instead running the 800 or even the 400m. But is that really the case? Should we be moving our athletes up in distance?

Part of the reason for this infatuation with moving up is that we have a belief that endurance is very easily trained and speed can not be trained. Therefore, it’s easy to take someone with speed and tack on some endurance and he is good to go. Similarly, we know what an athlete has done at his particular distance and it is exciting to think what an athlete could do if he ventured into the unknown.
Let’s first look at some stats.

The percent of speed maintained with increasing distance (based on PR’s):

Country 15/3k % 15/5k % 3k/5k % 5k/10k %
USA 94.65% 91.37% 96.72% 96.21%
Kenya 95.26% 92.41% 97.44% 96.68%

These are averages based on the top 15-20 athletes that had made legitimate efforts at both distances (I threw out PR’s that were obviously because the event was seldom run by the athlete)

So, what does this mean? Well, the sample size is small so none of these are significant, but it is interesting to note that Kenya has better maintenance of speed (what we’ll call specific endurance from now on) across the board. Also, while it’s not in the chart above, it should be noted that in each case, the best percentage (and thus best speed maintenance) for each group came from Kenya. In terms of seconds, what is the difference?

If we give each runner the same starting 1500m performance you’ll be able to see.

Country 1500 (per 100m) 5k 10k
Hypothetical USA runner 3:35 (14.333) (15.57) 12:58.52 (16.16) 26:54
Hypothetical Kenyan runner 3:35 (14.333) (15.42)12:51.06 (15.93) 25:31.2
Difference 0 7.48sec 22.8sec

Based on this chart, you can see that the AVERAGE world class Kenyan runner with the same 1,500m speed as the average American world class American runner, would be 7+ seconds faster over 5k and almost 23sec faster over 10k.

Seeing this, then you could assume that one place we might be falling behind is our specific endurance. And I’d say on average you’d be correct.

But things get a little murky. We assumed that each runner had the same 1,500m best for the purposes of this test. When in reality, the 1,500m best for the African 5k and 10k runners is almost ALWAYS faster than that of their American counterpart. In fact, some of our runners have as good specific endurance at the 5k and 10k level (Bob Kennedy for example) as the best Kenyans or Ethiopians do. For example, Kennedy was able to preserve 93.51% of his 1,500m speed over 5k compared to Bekele’s 93.78%. That is pretty dang close. But the problem for Bob, seemed to be while he had a very high specific endurance, his 1,500m best wasn’t as quick as Bekele’s.

So what I’m saying is that our 1,500m guys should move up right?
Wrong! The picture gets even muddier here. 1,500m runners who have made serious attempts at 3k or 5k, have much less specific endurance than is needed. For instance, instead of the 95% speed preservation from 1500 to 3k they tend to have speed preservation percentages of 93% or lower. And this holds true for not only Americans but also Africans.

To point out a few:
Isaac Songok- 93.5% for 15/3k% and 91.0% for 15/5k. Both below average
John Kibowen- 93.6% for 15/3k and 90.3% for 15/5k.
Said Aouita- 93.2% and 89.6%
Nourdine Morceli- 93.1%
Hicham El Guerrouj- 92.98% and 89.1%
Sydney Maree- 92.54% and 89.51%

There are many more examples, but the point is that all are below average for the tops in the world. In fact if I take the best 15/3k % of over 200 world class athletes who have seriously attempted both, it isn’t until number 60 where you get an athlete who was a serious 1500m runner who moved up, and that’s Songok.

Why the difference in specific endurance?
There are several possibilities:

It’s training.
It’s some physiological mechanism that prevents attaining as high of a specific endurance.

I know it can be argued that with proper training these 1,500m runners specific endurance would increase, and you are probably right, but some of these athletes DID make the move up to 5k and weren’t able to get their specific endurance to that of the endurance athletes levels. Having said that, training is probably part of the picture, but I don’t think it is the entire picture.

The rest of the story
There isn’t much data out there on this next subject, so I’m taking a bit of a leap. This is where this theory could be torn apart, because it isn’t on concrete data, because there is none.

If you look at the data, it’s easy to establish that our 5k/10k guys lack the 1,500m speed of our African counterparts. Why is this?
Most people blame it on the athletes lacking “speed.” The theory goes that the African runners have much better footspeed and because endurance can be trained so easily, they just tack that on and they’re great! They think that African runners are faster at 400m, thus with their endurance, they are faster at every distance.

However, what is the reality? It is tough to say since so few distance runners ever have official sprint times. So we have to rely on information from coaches and other second hand information. Let’s look at three examples.


49 high-50 low




In these charts I have taken accounts from the athlete’s coaches as to what they can run or from other reliable sources. Geb’s comes from a combination of what Jos Herman and Renato Canova have said. Shaheen comes from Canova. Rupp from Salazar. Bekele from Canova. Meb is off the top of my head. I can’t remember the exact number but it was in a Vigil presentation, which unfortunately is back in Houston.

(excerpt from Canova: for example, I’m sure that Stephen Cherono and Nicholas Kemboi are not able running under 50.0, and I think that also Gebre and Bekele are not able running under 50.0…. Now, I realize that there aren’t many American names in there, but that’s because there is no data. The point is that our American guys can run 400m close to that of the Africans, but there 1,500m are way off. To look at it another way, where we have more data, look at what our 1,500m guys PR’s are in the 400m. We have guys who can run 47-48 who are running in the mid 3:30’s. The same speed as the African’s with slower 400m PR.s

Is 400m speed the issue, or is it the specific endurance over 1,500m? That is the question…

To Sum things up, what do we suspect:

  • Africans, on average, have better specific endurance than Americans.
  • African’s have better 1,500m speed.
  • Basic speed might not be better for the Africans.
  • The difference might be in the specific endurance between 400m and 1,500m. Africans MAY preserve more of their speed.

This is not meant to be definitive in any way, shape, or form. There is too little data to suggest anything major. But the purpose of this was not to give a clear exact answer, but to throw out some data to try and look at things in a different way.

Plus, it’s a good way to start in on some theories I’ve come up with. They are in the infant stages of development and I hope to do more research/testing on the ideas at some point.

Next, we’ll continue along the same route, looking at if our athletes should move up from a training stand point. After that, we’ll look at why the African’s can close much faster than their American counterparts.

Hopefully I’ll be able to tie in some actual hard data and some observations with some of the statistics that were in this post.

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    1. Anonymous on February 11, 2009 at 9:06 pm

      Is that with the foot landing on the outside of the forefoot first rolling in slightly, then heel landing last and only for a brief moment? I remember reading in a sprint book that even sprinters heel touch the ground with the exact same mechanics.

    2. stevemagness on February 11, 2009 at 9:47 pm

      Yep, for most sprinters, the footstrike is very similar. The heel will come down at the end and touch the ground.

    3. Nick on February 12, 2009 at 1:26 am

      Whats the training been like lately?
      Best of luck this season

    4. Anonymous on February 14, 2009 at 10:34 am

      any tips to train to achieve this footstrike? I land straight up flat footed. is the foot fully dorsi flexed?

    5. Bill Blancett on February 15, 2009 at 3:04 pm


      With these last 2 posts you are really bringing in some quality posts. It’s got me thinking long after reading the post. I didn’t agree with some of your misconceptions post, but nevertheless, it got me thinking.

    6. stevemagness on February 15, 2009 at 4:30 pm

      Anonymous- Landing flat footed is good. Generally, when I look at footstrike my major concerns are if a runner is heel striking andif his foot is underneath his center of gravity.

      If you’re landing flat footed, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Almost everyone will initially strike on the outside of the foot first, like seen in the video, it just happens so fast that you don’t notice it.

      On changing form, I think I’ve posted on that subject before so check the archives, but the key is to practice what you want to accomplish. You have to change your form through actual running. All sorts of sprint drills aren’t good for changing mechanics.

      Bill- Glad you enjoyed the last couple posts. And glad that you didn’t agree with everything. I don’t necessarily care if you agree or disagree with something I’ve said. The goal is to promote thinking, like you said. It’s to promote us to ask the question of why we do something and if it works. As runner’s sometimes we get stuck in our own little routines and do stuff just because we always have.

      Nick- Training’s been great. I’ll update that in the next post.

    7. Anonymous on February 16, 2009 at 3:18 am

      Great information. Good luck to you. Thanks for sharing this for other runners to learn. It is a treat in the times when alot of people tear others down in what they do. Keep it up.

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