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Revista Brasileira de Cineantropometria & Desempenho Humano

versão impressa ISSN 1415-8426versão On-line ISSN 1980-0037

Rev. bras. cineantropom. desempenho hum. vol.20 no.2 Florianópolis mar./abr. 2018 

Original Article

Performance analysis of both sex marathon runners ranked by IAAF

Análise do desempenho de corredores maratonistas de ambos os sexos ranqueados pela IAAF

Anselmo José Perez1 

Adilson Marques2 

Kamilla Bolonha Gomes3 

1Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo. Centro de Educação Física e Desportos. Vitória, ES. Brasil.

2Universidade de Lisboa. Faculdade de Motricidade Humana. Dafundo, Lisboa. Portugal.

3Secretaria de Saúde da Prefeiturade Serra. Serra, ES. Brasil.


Running a marathon has become the motivation to achieve success and economic independence for athletes, mainly from African countries. This feeling is more evident among the black community, considering that they have been presenting better results than white athletes. The objective of the study was to analyse the ranking of marathon runners around the world, in the last 15 years considering: 1) nationality; 2) best average time of the 100 best classified runners from the Top 100, Top 50, Top 25, Top 10 and Top 3. An analysis was made to the ranking available on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) website, for the 100 best world results for both sexes, focusing on records from 2000 to 2014. The analysis was subdivided into ranking groups (Top 3, 10, 25, 50 and 100), resulting in 3000 records. African runners, Kenyan and Ethiopian, dominate the male ranking representing 70% of the total of runners in Top 100, keeping this proportion up to Top 3. African runners, Kenyan and Ethiopian, dominate the male ranking representing 70% of the total of runners in Top 100, keeping this proportion up to Top 3. The same is observed for females, however with a significantly lower percentage (34%), with Japanese, Ethiopian and Kenyan (17%) and an English athlete as the world record. The average time of a marathon has been decreasing in males more than in female competitions, both in Top 3 and Top 10, however still presenting a large gap from world records.

Key words Athletes; Athletic performance; Running; Track and field


As corridas de maratona se tornaram motivantes para os atletas africanos na busca de sucesso e independência econômica. Esse sentimento é mais evidente entre a comunidade negra, considerando que apresentaram melhores resultados do que atletas brancos. Analisar o ranking dos maratonistas mundiais nos últimos 15 anos considerando: 1) a nacionalidade; 2) comportamento dos tempos médios do 1º ao 100º (Top100), do 1º ao 50º (Top50), do 1º ao 25º (Top25), do 1º ao 10º (Top10), ou do 1º ao 3º (Top3). Analisou-se o ranking dos maratonistas disponível no site da International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), do ano de 2000 até o ano de 2014, analisando-se os 100 melhores resultados do mundo a cada ano de ambos os sexos, subdivido em grupos pela colocação (Top 3, 10, 25, 50 e 100), totalizando 15 anos de estudo e 3000 dados. Os africanos (quenianos e etíopes) dominam o ranking masculino com 70% do total de corredores no Top100, sendo essa proporção mantida até o Top3. O mesmo é observado para o sexo feminino, porém com percentual bem mais baixo (34%), tendo as japonesas entre as etíopes e quenianas (17%), e a recordista mundial uma inglesa. O tempo médio vem reduzindo entre os homens mais do que para as mulheres, principalmente para Top3 e 10, porém ainda distantes dos recordes mundiais.

Palavras-chave Atletas; Atletismo; Corrida; Desempenho atlético


The marathon is the biggest Olympic sport and its growing popularity among all ages can be perceived as a legacy of the evolutionary ability of the human species to run long distances1. More than a social phenomenon characterized by the large number of participants, road running, and in particular marathons, encourage the athletes to become professional and have become the path to follow to achieve success and economic independence, mainly for runners from African countries2. It is important to highlight that this has been observed in black African athletes, considering their higher scores in comparison with white South African athletes3.

Researchers have been analysing what contributes to the athletic success3-7, considering, economy in running, social factors, genetic predisposition8, body composition, nutritional differences in diets among Kenyans and Ethiopians and macronutrients intake recommended for endurance athletes9, general physiological reasons10-12, and/or economy in running5, living in high altitudes6,7,13, skeletal muscle fibre composition14, and better efficiency of tendon tissues14-16, enzymatic oxidative profile4, psychological advantage8,15, higher motivation to achieve economic success7,8.

It has been observed that a great majority of the elite athletes of medium and long distances are originated from eastern Africa6, and their success is attributed not only to one significant factor, but to the combination of the variables identified above. From 1986 to 2003 the number of Europeans participating in running competitions of 800 m from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), has decreased to 11.7%, while the percentage of Africans in the Top 20 has increased to 85%. More than half (55.8%) of the athletes were Kenyans, more precisely, from an ethnic group named Nilotic, from Vale do Rift in Kenya12.

Considering that the economy applied in running of Top 10 athletes is significantly higher comparing to other runners17, do the results of the marathon athletes in the IAAF ranking differ throughout the years? Moreover, is the African hegemony visible for both sexes? This study has analysed the ranking of worldwide marathon athletes in the last 15 years considering: 1) the nationality of the athletes in the ranking and its distribution throughout the years; 2) evolution of the results during the years, characterized by the decrease of average times; 3) behavior observed in the ranked groups from 1º to 100º (Top 100), from 1º to 50º (Top 50), from 1º to 25º (Top 25), from 1º to 10º (Top 10), or from 1º to 3º (Top 3).


For the present study data were collected from available data in the IAAF website ( The 100 best results from years 2000 to 2014 were analysed, considering both sexes and subdividing the results into groups by their ranking (Top 3, 10, 25, 50 e 100), resulting in a total of 3000 data. Descriptive statistics has been used to represent the percentage of nationalities. To compare the average number of runners in Top 100, among the most representative countries, it was performed One Way ANOVA followed by Tukey HSD post hoc test. Statistical analysis was performed using SPSS 22. The significance level was set at p<0.05.


The overall results and the percentage of runners by nationality, according to the information available in IAAF ranking of the Top 100 best performances from 2000 to 2014, is presented below.

The proportions of runners by countries, from 2000 to 2014, are presented in figure 1. Most male runners were from Kenya (54%), Ethiopia (16%) and France (7%). The rest, between 2% and 3%, were from Morocco, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Portugal. Among female, most runners were from Ethiopia (18%), Japan (17%), Kenya (16%), Russia (11%), and China (7%). Runners from Italy, United States, Germany, and North Korea represent 2% to 3% of the ranking.

Figure 1 Nationalities of the Top 100 male (1a) and female (1b) runners from years 2000 to 2014 by percentage. 

For male runners, the distribution of the most representative nationalities in Top 100 is presented in figure 2. Over the years the number of Kenyans and Ethiopians increased, and the number of French decreased, mostly in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. The average of runners in Top 100 from 2000 to 2014 were 53.9±9.0 from Kenya, 16.5±11.5 from Ethiopia, and 7.1±4.5% from France. The average of runners by countries is statistical significant (F(2, 43)=112.7, p<0.001). Tukey HSD post hoc test showed that the three countries were different from each other (p<0.001).

The distribution of the most representative nationalities of female runners in Top 100 is presented in figure 3. The number of Japanese runners decreased, and at the same time African runners increase. Ethiopian athletes begin to gain visibility in the last two years of the analysis (2013 and 2014), as well as Kenyan athletes in regards to Japanese runners. The average of runners in Top 100 over these period of time were 18.3±12.3 from Ethiopia, 16.5±3.8 from Japan, and 16.1±4.5 from Kenya. For female it was not observed statistical differences among countries (F(2, 44)=21.5, p=0.738).

Figure 2 Distribution of the most representative nationalities in Top 100 for male runners. 

Figure 3 Distribution of the most representative nationalities in Top 100 for female runners. 

Figures 4 and 5 show the average times performed by men and women respectively, from Top 100, Top 75, Top 50, Top 25, Top 10, Top 3 for each studied year. One can observe a downward trend of the average marathon time, especially among males in all Tops, except for Top 3. For women there has been a slow downward trend since 2011.

Figure 4 Male average time performed in marathons from 2000 to 2014 in accordance with ranking. The isolated dots represent the average time of the 100 best results up to that point, and to the record in each run. 

Figure 5 Female average time performed in marathons from 2001 to 2014 in accordance with ranking. The isolated dots represent the average time of the 100 best results up to that point, and to the record in each run. 


This study confirms that male athletes, Kenyans and Ethiopians, have a tendency to be well positioned based on the IAAF marathon rankings. However, and in order to better analyse this phenomena, we have looked carefully into the results of Top 3 in comparison with the other rankings. Kenyan and Ethiopian female athletes start to present the same profile as men in terms of ranking domination, with scarce representation from Japan. Contrary to what was observed for men, there is no decrease of average time, mainly after 2012, for Top 3 to Top 100.

According to Hamilton18, the dominance of ranking by runners (medium and long distance) from a specific part of the world is not a new phenomenon. Research still needs to confirm if there are genetic or physiological advantages for athletes in east Africa, and it is likely that the success variables add up. There is a rumour that these runners are unbeatable. If this is true, it is possible that this notion gives them a psychological advantage towards their opponents19, even though their training methods are similar20.

Despite their permanent representation in the podium, Kenyan runners do not have a distinct pulmonary system to explain physiological advantage21, or have a better diet and hydration9. Considering this, researchers have looked for other variables. According to Larsen22 there are 3 main factors in comparison to Kenyan runners and others: the use of the fraction of VO2max and running economy. Moreover, their trainability is also important, however investigators have not been able to identify evidences to assert that there are indeed differences between Kenyans and Americans or Europeans. The genetic characteristics of elite Kenyan athletes seem to allow good body structure and excellent VO2max, which helps the economy in running and their continuity in the top runner’s group22. There is no certainty though that thesegenetic features are the explanation for the African runners success10-12. The dominance of Kenyan runners as compared to Caucasians cannot be explained by differences in the energy parameters of running such as maximal oxygen uptake, speeds in maximum oxygen consumption and lactate threshold, and sustained fraction of the maximum oxygen consumption23. Noakes19 observed that for elite Kenyan athletes, fast running can be attributed to the number of muscle motor units in their lower members during competition.

Despite these findings regarding elite African athletes, when observing Nandi children from Kenya cities and villages24, no differences were observed in the trainability regarding VO2max, economy in running, sub maximal heart rate and blood lactate and ammonia concentration. There is no available information regarding the economy related to running on Kenyan non-athletes25.

Bosch et al.3 have observed that when analysing several physiological responses during a competition (42.195 km), South African runners, when compared with other white athletes, presented clear differences in their running ability with higher VO2max percentages. This has also been observed when running longer than 3 km, African runners have shown higher fatigue resistance26.

Wilber and Ptsiladis7 observe that the success of Kenyans and Ethiopian runners is not based on one single genetic or physiological characteristic. On the contrary, it appears to be the result of favourable somatotype characteristics that would lead to an exceptional biomechanical and metabolic condition allowing a better running efficiency; chronic exposure to altitude combined with moderate volume and high intensity training; and a strong psychological motivation to succeed athletically related with socioeconomic reasons7. There is speculation on whether the low body mass index (BMI) of Kenyan elite athletes is associated with thinner body members (long and slim legs) when compared with white runners, and if that is related with their higher ability to apply economy in running. Nonetheless, no differences have been found in their diet. The total consumption of proteins and amino acid ingestion of Kalenjin runners is within the normal recommendation for high endurance athletes, as well as carbohydrates ingestion, considering a slight variety in food27.

Kenya has a high unemployment and poverty rate. Becoming an athlete at a competition level corresponds to financial stability, offering Kenyans a way out of poverty12. Runners from eastern Africa prefer more profitable competitions in Europe, North America and Asia16.

Regardless of the advantage African runners might demonstrate compared with other athletes28, there is still a need to identify effective training methods to enhance the individual performance, break records, or to improve the perspective of winning medals20. Despite the limited information available, Midgley et al.29 believe that researchers can still propose training recommendations from a set of data obtained in recent studies, provided that it is done with caution due to the scarce amount of information. This would implicate more effective training methods to long distance runners. Considering all findings, the factors that make an endurance athlete become an elite runner are still unclear and require further study30.


This study results highlight the dominance of the African runners. Kenyan and Ethiopian dominate the male competitions, representing 70% of the total of runners in Top 100, keeping this proportion up to Top 3. The same was observed for females, however with a significantly lower percentage. Considering that African runners share some biological aspects, some must be impelled to think that there are some genetic aspects that contribute to this dominance. However, so far there is no sufficient evidence to conclude that. The motives behind African athletes performance seem to go beyond the racial, physiological and biomechanical reasons. Therefore, there is a need for future studies that should focus on environmental, social, cultural, and economic factors in order to understand the real factors behind the African runners’ performances in recent years.


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Received: October 12, 2017; Accepted: February 27, 2018

Anselmo José Perez, Av. Fernando Ferrari, 514, Goiabeiras. CEP 29075-910, Vitória, ES, Brasil. E-mail:

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