Did the British running gene migrate to Kenya?

Last year more than 258 Kenyan marathon runners ran the marathon distance in under two hours and fifteen minutes. Britain, with a population twice the size of Kenya’s, delivered only a single performance under that time. These days, British men do not even manage to run into the top ten in their very own London Marathon. It was last won by a British runner in 1993 when Eamonn Martin crossed the finishing line with a time of 2:10:50. But why is the British runners in general so far behind today? And what is the Kenyan secret?

It is exactly the same secret that explains why Asian Americans kids significantly outperform American kids academically. They simply work harder. Much, much harder.

For years we have clung to the explanation that the Kenyan runners must be equipped with special genes, perfectly designed for running. It just doesn’t explain, for instance, why 102 British male runners in 1985 ran under the elite time of 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only five managed this same feat twenty years later. Neither it explains why Britain dominated middle distance running in the 80’s and churned out middle-distance stars such as legends David Bedford, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.

Have previously efficient British genes got lost in evolution? Did British men suddenly start accumulating lactic acid in their muscles? Of course not. The genes of the British are as good as they ever have been.

It is a classic mistake when observing high performance to naturally lead it back to a genetic advantage. We tend to think that those high performers were so gifted that they did not have to work particularly hard to succeed. They make everything look so easy. But the opposite is actually the case. Almost invariably the best performers are those who train the most.

Posted on 6th Aug 2013 by Rasmus Ankersen

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