Part 3: Why can African’s close faster than their Western counterparts?

It is astonishing to see a runner like Bekele close the last 400m in 53 during a fast 10k. It’s generally recognized that most Americans can not close that fast off of even slower paces. Off of comparable paces based on their PR’s, American’s can not get as close to their 400m best at the end of races as many Africans can. Why is this? Why aren’t our athlete’s kicks as strong?

Many coaches and athletes assume that the kick is based on basic speed. They surmise that if we can increase the basic speed of our athletes, then they will have a better kick. But this is not the case. It does not matter how much speed an athlete has if he can not use it. Many of our athletes have comparable 400m PR’s and sometimes even better basic 100m speed. For example, it is widely reported that Geb’s 100m PR is around 11.8. That is not fast. I can sprint faster than that. The difference is that at the end of a race Geb can run much closer to that top speed than just about anyone.
Renato Canova (yes I realize I am leaning heavily on him in this piece) provided some very interesting physiological data that could help explain why Africans are able to close at a much higher percentage of their top speed.

He simulated both 5k and 10k races with some of his athletes while taking lactate. What he found is something that won’t be found in your physiology books. In traditional physiology, the lactate threshold or maximum lactate steady state (MaxLASS) concept is well established. It is the fastest pace in which lactate production equals lactate clearance. Thus, lactate levels in the blood will remain relatively constant at a given pace. In the literature, you’ll no doubt find that the fastest pace that most athletes can keep a steady lactate is around their best 10mi- half marathon pace. At paces faster than that, such as 10k pace or 5k, the lactate will steadily rise throughout the run at that pace. Thus lactate production is outpacing clearance.

However, Canova’s data suggests that many African athletes can run at as fast as 5k pace while having constant lactate values in the blood for at least a portion of the race. This is big because it means that they are running at a steady state during the middle of a 5k or 10k race! Because of this, lactate remains relatively low. Then at the end of the race, an athlete can still produce energy glycolytically and dramatically increase their lactate production.

On the other hand, the western runner with ever increasing lactate levels, does not have as much of a “Glycolysis reserve.” They can’t start producing larger amounts of lactate because they are already at high levels.

Let’s look at the actual data from Canova’s work first and then see what we can apply:

Steeplechase World Record Holder: Saaeed Saif Shaheen:
Over a 4 month period, Canova had Shaheen do a test interval session that essentially simulated a 5k. It was 5 x 1000m (13:10 pace – 2:38)with 1min to 1:15 rest. Remember that this session was done at altitude, thus while the pace is slower than his 5k pace, it’s comparable since it’s at altitude.

The first test showed the following lactate levels after each 1000m:

6.8 mmol
9.4 mmol
11.8 mmol
13.9 mmol
15.8 mmol

What you can see from this data is that lactate increases after every 1,000m. This is what is expected according to the common physiology beliefs. However if we look at the last test, 4 months later, the lactate shows a different picture.
6.5 mmol
8.0 mmol
8.3 mmol
8.8 mmol
10.2 mmol

As can be seen, from the 2nd through 4th 1km, the lactate is essentially steady! That means for about 8min in the middle of a 5k, if the pace is consistent, Shaheen is running at lactate steady state. This phenomenon is what Physiologists expect to see during an hour long race, not one for 13min. Furthermore, the before and after data shows that with training it’s possible to change the lactate dynamics of a runner.

Canova tested two more of his athletes and the same phenomenon occurred. For sake of brevity, let’s look at one more of his athlete’s James Kwalia. Similarly to Shaheen, Kwalia performed a series of intervals over a 4 month period. His intervals were 4 x 1200m (3:09 + 1 x 800m max. speed) with 1min rest. The first set was the following:
8.4 mmol
9.8 mmol
11.8 mmol
14.6 mmol
14.8 mmol

Like we expected no steady state. Pay particular attention to the last two numbers. After the 4th 1200m, his lactate was 14.6, but he still had a max 800m after only 1 minute rest. He wasn’t able to raise his lactate very much at all. The time in that 800m reflects that. He was not able to pick up the pace at all, even though it was supposed to be all out. He only ran that 800m in 2:05.6, essentially the same pace as the 1200m.

Now, let’s flash forward 4 months with the same test
8.7 mmol
9.0 mmol
9.3 mmol
10.8 mmol
20.6 mmol

Note the very small increase in lactate during the first 3 reps. That means he was essentially running at a steady state of lactate production at 63sec pace for 9min. Then to top it off, his lactate was much lower after the 4th rep, and he was able to increase it substantially on the all out 800. Not surprisingly, he ran 1:54 to finish it off and went 58,55 to boot. What this shows is that with the athlete being able to keep his lactate low AND having the anaerobic abilities to increase it be quite a lot, he was able to close much faster than in the earlier interval set.

What all this means is that the data suggests that one reason African’s might be able to finish fast is that they are able to run at MaxLASS during racing situations. Which then allows for them to access their anaerobic capacities much more so than if they were steadily increasing there lactate levels. That is why it sometimes looks like athletes such as Bekele are full out sprinting at the end of races.

How do they create this special MaxLass?
We know that it can be created from the above examples, at least for Africans. The question then becomes how did Canova develop this in his athletes and how would you develop it in American athletes.
In Canova’s article entitled Development of Strength Endurance, he speculates on why African’s are able to create this MaxLASS and how he went about creating it in his athletes. We’ll start our investigation there.
One of the most important things to remember when looking at someone’s training is that you have to consider more than just the brief glimpse of what that athlete has done when he is at the top of his game running fast times. Often times it is what the athlete did in the many years prior to his top performances that are the most important.

One good example of this is former World indoor Champion, David Krummenacker. For a short period after he changed coaches from one that used much more mileage/aerobic strength work to one who used lower mileage, higher intensity work, his performances improved dramatically. He went from a good runner in the U.S. to one of the top in the world. However, his performances only stayed this way for a relatively short time (~2 years). When he improved by so much, the assumption was that it was entirely the new training, which obviously played a large role. However, it was probably the combination of the larger aerobic base combined with a decrease in mileage and increase in intensity that did the trick. After several years, his aerobic base was gone, and performances declined.

On that topic, Canova sums it up nicely when he says “ When we speak about African runners we must think that, normally, the best athletes are able to start their official athletic careers from a level of 90% of their final performance because they are already well prepared, without official coaches, using at home the most important type of training for a distance runner: long runs (from 5 to 12-15 km), very fast.” American runners normally do not have this background when they start “official” training.
Thus our response to the same exact training will be different than that of an African. This is one reason why going to Kenya and exactly copying the Kenyans doesn’t always work. So, a prerequisite to developing this special MaxLASS may be a very high level of general endurance.

Canova then goes on to say that this special MaxLASS is highly dependent on a strong Lactate Threshold and high Strength Endurance. For more info on strength endurance work, search my blog as I’ve covered this topic many times.

Finally, seeing as how Canova’s athletes created a MaxLASS over a period of 5 months, what training did they do to accomplish this? Below are several quotes from the article that help answer this question.

For Shaheen before the last test:
”We used some Specific Workouts to improve SPECIFIC ENDURANCE and STRENGTH ENDURANCE.”

For Nicholas Kemboi, his training before the last test was focused on:
“programme some workouts for STRENGTH ENDURANCE and SPEED ENDURANCE without, of course, reducing training of LONG ENDURANCE”

What does this mean for you?

1. Develop a High level of General Endurance and strength
2. Develop a High Lactate Threshold
3. Develop Strength Endurance
4. Top it off with Specific Endurance and specific endurance combined with strength end.

This is all rather vague, so to wrap things up, we’ll look at the practical implications of what we have learned and how to apply some of those lessons.


Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Alex on February 22, 2009 at 4:48 pm

      Very interesting stuff here!

      Also glad to hear your training is still going well under adverse conditions…it seems things only get better once the weather clears up.

    2. Michael Snijders on September 14, 2010 at 7:14 am

      This has been known for at least a decade amongst sprint coaches. However, middle and long distance coaches tend to ignore these findings precisely because of your very correct conclusions. Following these conclusions would implicate abandoning a lot of safe distance running dogmas and would also implicate that distane runners would need to train more like sprinters. Which in itself is scary enough for many coaches.

      So good to see that the word is being spread!

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