Study finds Kenyans have greater brain oxygenation during competition

December 10, 2014

Topic: sports medicine

A study may have found why Kenyans have a tendency to perform so well in marathons, and it does not have to do with practice.

A study may have found why Kenyans have a tendency to perform so well in marathons, and it does not have to do with practice. Researchers from the University of the Basque Country found that top-performing Kenyan runners have greater brain oxygenation than other runners during instances of maximum physical exertion. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

A noticeable difference
The study is the first of its kind in sports medicine to investigate the physiology of exercise when it comes to Kenyan runners. The researchers aimed to investigate the levels of cerebral oxygenation at the maximum level but also at progressive levels among Kenyan runners. The findings revealed that Kenyans were able to consistently keep their cerebral oxygenation level within a certain range, which might indicate why they are so successful in long-distance running.

The Atlantic reported that since 1988, 20 of the 25 male winners for the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan. Since 2000, nine of the 13 female winners have been Kenyan. Seven of the last eight London marathons have been won by Kenyans. The magazine also noted that Kenyans may have a completely different body structure than runners in Western civilizations, with longer legs and a shorter torso.

The runners were examined in several trials that took place at the laboratories of the Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine in Cape Town University and the University of Stellenbosch. Approximately 15 elite Kenyan runners were chosen to participate, all of whom achieved great success in half marathons. The study authors examined the cerebral oxygenation levels by looking at blood flow, oxyhaemoglobin, deoxyhaemoglobin, arterial saturation and so on. They used oximetry readings and near-infrared spectroscopy to look at the results while having the runners go a distance of approximately 5 kilometers.

Lead study author Jordan Santos-Concejero, M.D., noted that the Kenyans maintained a stable oxygenation level during the distance, indicating a greater level of athletic performance.

The brain's involvement
In the past, research has found that when cerebral oxygenation levels drop, the neural activity in this part of the brain also drops. This region of the brain is associated with movement and decision-making. So, a decrease in the neural activity in this part of the brain may be why there is a reduction in athletic performance. Though this decrease seems to happen to European and American athletes, it does not happen to Kenyans. That means this region of the brain remains active during the marathon.

The researchers believe that Kenyans may have an advantage over runners from other nations because of their environment. This African nation is known for its high altitudes and high energy levels of Kenyan children. The study authors suggested that these adaptations may even begin in the womb, when children experience greater blood flow to the arteries in the mother's uterus, which may cause greater cardiopulmonary capacity when the child is a grown adult and allow him or her to perform better in high-intensity exercises.

The study authors also noted that children who are more physically active may have better motor coordination, lower cytokines levels and greater vascularization of the encephalus, which may explain the higher levels of oxygenation during athletic performances. 

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