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Demographic factors of elite Kenyan runners: Research review

By Iris Saar, Master of Exercise Science candidate, Concordia university of Chicago


In this study, published recently in a popular media website called “The Conversation”, the question of what makes Kenyan runners so unique and successful in top world endurance events, such as the marathon, has been of a longtime interest both for the academic community and the general public. Studies were conducted to explore more of the attributed physical components to that success; in a recent study, (Eksterowicz, Napierala & Zukow, 2016) significant relationship between torso length and foot width has been related to success in both marathon distance and 10KM races (of the 9 elite Kenyan runners sampled). The cultural, ethnic and motivational factors however has not been widely studied and the referenced study gathered a group of demographic variables as hypothesized in connection to the runners’ performance in both national and international competitions (Onywera, Scott, Boit and Pitsiladis, 2006).

Since the country of Kenya is a world-leader in its high rate of leading world athletes in running it was chosen as the study’s population; approximately 70% of the silver medals won in international running competitions were claimed by Kenyan runners (Onywera, Scott, Boit and Pitsiladis, 2006). It is therefore interesting to examine the possible influence environmental factors have on such high rate of athletic success, and the study gathered a group of demographic variables to survey in relation to that success. Those variables included the place of birth, spoken language, distance and methods of arrival to school.


The study used a test group of 404 elite runners, compared with a control group of (non-runners) 87 Kenyan residents. The runners were then divided into two sub-groups of competing in national versus international competitions. It is interesting to note the runners’ group included both males and females, however the relative success of Kenyan female runners does not equal to their male counterparts (Manners, 1997). Both groups were handed questionnaires which included questions about their province of origin, spoken language and distance and methods of travelling to school.

The place of birth sampled the 8 provinces of Kenya (more specifically, locating geographical regions which yield an unproportioned number of elite runners in comparison to their relative part of the entire country). Spoken language was surveyed between the three main languages spoken in Kenya and distance (between five to ten kilometers) and methods of arriving to school was the last variable included in the questionnaires.

Data analysis

To examine if there was a difference between the actual data (distribution of individuals between the demographic variables) and the hypothesized ones (a concentrated group of values within one or more variable), the study utilized both types of chi-squared tests. A contingency chi-squared test measured the difference between the groups in general, and an individual test was run to identify the groups that differ. Alpha level was declared as p ≤ 0.05.


The control group well represented the general Kenyan’s population distribution in places of birth as it was not found to be of a difference; among the runners, a larger amount (82%) of international athletes came originally from a province called the Rift valley. The language spoken differed between the control and test groups; most of the runners spoke Nilotic and also differed amongst them, with the international runners tending to speak the language of Bantu. The distance travelled to school presented a difference both between the control groups, were individuals travelled in general the shortest distance, and the runners’ group which travelling longer. The mode of travelling also differed: while the control group used also motorized methods or riding a bicycle, the runners’ group mainly ran or walked to school (with the international runners mostly running to school). One variable that was tested only among the test group was motivation (since the test group was not comprised of runners per se). It was found that both runners types were motivated to run and selected financials as their reason.


A distinct background was found to be related to runners when compared to the general population in the study, with the province of Rift valley being well represented. It is worth noting that the valley accounts for less of a quarter of the entire Kenyan population, so it yields an unproportioned number of athletes in comparison to its relative part of the country. While this has been considered to be demographic factor, the altitude of this region is high and could be responsible to physiological changes (higher number of red blood cells, for example), therefore a more physiological variable. Altitude training has been found in the past to produce favorable hematological changes in runners (Schmidt et al., 2002)

A higher rate of Nilotic speaking (79%) was noted with international runners, with respective lower rates among the national runners and control group. This correlated with the province of origin where most of the international runners came from, the Rift valley. In that region, a tribe called “Kalenjin” (Onywera, Scott, Boit and Pitsiladis, 2006) presented a high amount of international runners (75% compared to only 8% controls and 49% national runners).

Higher proportion of international runners ran a distance greater than 5 kilometers to school; gradation of running rates were shown, with the highest number running as the international runners (82% international, 735national and 22% controls). Those differences remained even after excluding controls who travelling modes other than running. This again is viewed in the study as a demographic factor, however can be classified as physiological as well, due to the metabolic adaptation running each day can lead to.


Eksterowicz, J., Napierala, M., & ukow, W. (2016). How the Kenyan runner’s body structure affects sports results. Human Movement, 17(1), 8-14.

Manners, J. (1997). Kenya’s running tribe. The Sports Historian, 17(2), 14 – 27

Onywera, V. (2019). Kipchoge’s marathon success remains a mystery: some clues from my research. Retrieved from

Onywera, V., Scott, R., Boit, M., & Pitsiladis, Y. (2006). Demographic chrectaristics of elite Kenya endurance runners. Journal of Sports Sceiences, 24(4), 415-422.

Schmidt, W., Heinicke, K., Rojas, J., Gomez, J. M., Serrato, M., Mora, M., ... & Keul, J. (2002). Blood volume and hemoglobin mass in endurance athletes from moderate altitude. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(12), 1934-1940.