Running economy of African and Caucasian distance runners

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Abstract

Purpose

Anecdotal evidence suggests an advantageous physiological endowment of the African endurance athlete. Higher fractional utilization of V̇O2max has been suggested but not measured directly, and investigations of running economy have been inconclusive. The aim of the current study was to measure a) running economy and b) fractional utilization of V̇O2max, in African and Caucasian 10-km runners of similar body mass.

Methods

Eight African and eight Caucasian runners had no significant difference in mean race time (32.8 ± 2.8, 32.0 ± 2.5 min, respectively), body mass (61.4 ± 7.0, 64.9 ± 3.0 kg), age, body fat, or lean thigh volume. Caucasian runners were 6 cm taller (P < 0.05). Subjects completed a progressive treadmill V̇O2peak test. On a separate day, subjects completed two 6-min workloads (16.1 km·h−1 and 10-km race pace) separated by 5 min.

Results

Mean V̇O2peak was 13% lower in the Africans (61.9 ± 6.9, 69.9 ± 5.4 mL·kg−1·min−1, P = 0.01). At 16.1 km·h−1, the Africans were 5% more economical (47.3 ± 3.2, 49.9 ± 2.4 mL·kg−1·min−1, P < 0.05). This difference increased to 8% (P < 0.01) when standardized per kg0.66. At race pace, the Africans utilized a higher %V̇O2peak (92.2 ± 3.7, 86.0 ± 4.8%, P < 0.01) and had higher HR (185 ± 9, 174 ± 11 b·min−1, P < 0.05) and plasma [ammonia] (113.2 ± 51, 60.3 ± 16.9 μmol·L−1, P < 0.05). Despite the higher relative workload, the plasma [lactate] was not different (5.2 ± 2.0, 4.2 ± 1.7 mmol·L−1, NS).

Conclusions

This study indicates greater running economy and higher fractional utilization of V̇O2peak in African distance runners. Although not elucidating the origin of these differences, the findings may partially explain the success of African runners at the elite level.

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