Research reveals that East Africans are fastest runners in 50k ultras

Patrick Makau of Kenya during a group training run on February 8, 2012 in Ngong, Kenya
(Image credit: Getty Images / Michael Steele / Staff)

We’ve all known it for a long time, but now rigorously researched statistics appears to back up the (overwhelming) anecdotal evidence: East Africans make the fastest ultra runners. Well, when it comes to 50km ultra races anyway.

In a study recently published in Scientific Reportsresearchers investigated the age and race locations of elite ultra marathon runners, paying specific attention to their countries of origin. The researchers, headed by a team at the University of Zurich, and involving various sports science bodies from across Europe and South America, used data from over a million race records.

Their results indicate that the fastest runners of 50k ultras are indeed from Africa such as Ethiopia and Kenya, with the fastest races occurring in Middle Eastern countries and Europe, with peak performance age being between 20 and 24 years.

Studies on longer races, like the 100km and 100mile races, identified top performers from Japan, Russia, Brazil, Sweden, and Hungary (with potential influences from doping scandals). Meanwhile, previous research on 50km ultra marathons has concentrated on performance linked to age, sex differences, inflammatory responses, nutritional needs, cardiovascular impacts and running biomechanics. But performance relating to geographical origin is a new area.

Kiplangat Tisia

Kenyan ultra runner Kiplangat Tisia (Image credit: Kiplangat Tisia / Facebook)

The study analyzed data from 1,398,845 race records from 549,154 runners (1,026,546 men and 372,299 women) from 122 countries, who competed in 50km races held in 86 locations between 1894 and 2022.

Men averaged faster speeds (8.2 km/h) than women (7.4 km/h), with the 20-24 age group being the quickest (8.3 km/h).

The fastest runners were from Ethiopia (14.1 km/h), Lesotho (13.1 km/h), Malawi (12.4 km/h), and Kenya (12.3 km/h). East African dominance in distance running is attributed to genetic predispositions, high-altitude training, traditional diets, and sociocultural factors.

The fastest races occurred in Luxembourg (11.4 km/h), Belarus (11.3 km/h), Lithuania (11.2 km/h), Qatar (11.2 km/h), and Jordan (10.7 km/h).

In fact, the country where an event was held had a biggest influence over the speed of a race, with athlete gender (23%), age group (7%), and athlete country of origin (5%) following.

But while previous studies had shown marathon performance peaking around 35 years or older, this study found that younger athletes (20-24 years) excelled in the 50km races. Future research will seek to uncover the specific physiological and psychological traits that allow young runners to excel in 50km races.