Rocket Fuel – What’s fuelling the greats of Ethiopia?

May 2015

2 mins read

It’s long been established that Ethiopian runners, hailing from the uplands of North East Africa have incredible athletic ability. This has been proved time and time again: on the road, over the field in cross country and on the track. For the curious mind, it begs the question – what is it about these athletes that makes them so unique?

While many a supposition has been put forward, one of the more interesting ideas, is that the day to day dietary intake of these athletes, is the stuff of champions. Many a scientist has travelled to this quiet, majestic part of Africa to search for clues.

Lukas Beis of the University of Glasgow, UK led a team of researchers to a small rural part of Ethiopia, in 2011. They wanted to search for clues. What is about the dietary intake of these greats that is promoting global dominance in the endurance running events? Learning a lesson or two may be of value to athletes trying to mimic their success in other parts of the world.

Athletes preparing for a big competition

Figure 1 – Athletes preparing for a big competition

The researchers monitored the food and fluid intake, as well as the training habits, of the athletes over a 7 day period. The athletes were training at altitude (2,400m above sea level) prior to a major competition.

It was found that the athletes were eating a diet high in carbohydrate (500 – 600 grams per day). Carbohydrate is the primary fuel for the body during endurance activity such as marathon running. Fat intake was moderate (21 – 25%), while protein intake (required for recovery, growth and immunity) was found to be about 1.6 – 2.0 grams for each kilogram of body weight. Interestingly, these all fall within the guidelines published by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2008 regarding nutrient needs of athletes for sporting participation.

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Figure 2 – foods typically eaten by the elites – the white food (centre) is referred to as Ugali

This is in line with previous findings in Kenyan runners. One would wonder was this a disappointment to the researchers. Perhaps they were hoping to find a ‘magic bullet’ in the diet of these ‘champions of champions’. But could it be something else that drives these superhuman performances? Could the answer lie in the genes? Maybe it is a desire for a better life? To date, the answer alludes us!

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