On January 4th I posted a back-and-forth with marathon legend Bill Rodgers in which we discussed the continued dominance in the sport by altitude-born runners from Kenya and Ethiopia:
Among Bill’s points was “We need a Ross Tucker type (Science of Sport) to give us their input. What is the EXTRA time EPO gives a sea-level born marathoner and an altitude-born marathoner? Is it a 5% factor? Fun to speculate. ”
I actually saw your interview with Bill on Letsrun, around the same time that you sent me this. Very interesting indeed.
I don’t have a definite answer for you or Bill. It’s so difficult because we have to make inferences about what would happen in elite athletes, because all the research is done on sub-elite runners. One of the great shortcomings of sports science is that it too rarely assesses the very pinnacle of human physiology. In this case (doping), there are obvious ethical reasons for that, but nevertheless, its’ an answer nobody really knows.
What I can tell you is that recently, some research on EPO in decent runners (9 min for 3000m guys, so good, though not world class) has shown a similar improvement regardless of altitude origins which is really interesting. That study found a 30 second improvement over 3000m in people born at sea-level and altitude. So that suggests an improvement of around 5% for that caliber of athlete.
The problem with this comparison is that a sea-level athlete who runs 9 min is probably a better runner than an altitude native running 9 min at sea level. At least, they may be, and so perhaps the very best altitude natives get less of a boost from EPO than the very best sea-level natives.
The improvement available to an elite runner is likely a lot smaller, simply because they are already near the physiological limit. Those limits, or glass ceilings, can be nudged higher, but never broken in my opinion. At least, not shattered. There is a physiological failure point and so providing EPO might allow the athlete to go faster, but something else would eventually get them – maybe energy depletion, maybe body temperature, or fatigue of the muscles and joints because of impact forces and load, something like that.
So that’s why I suspect the very best runners get a much smaller benefit – they’re so close to all those potential limitations that their margins are maybe 1%. That’s a minute or so over a marathon, which I think is reasonable. Maybe it’s more, who knows? These Kenyan doping cases are wreaking havoc with perceptions of those runners, that’s for sure.
In cycling, the benefit seemed to be 5%, even in the elites. Maybe cycling, with less impact, and also altitude (the mountain top finishes are usually at 1500m) have more margin for improvement. Or maybe running would improve by 5%. That’s hard to conceptualise though – it suggests a 6 min improvement in a marathon. Then again, if you apply that to Jeptoo, you get a 2:26 – 2:27 performance, which may be about right! On the other hand, if you assume that Kipsang or Kimetto are not doping (damn cynicism), then you’re saying that they’d run 1:56 with EPO.
Mmmm, all in all, you can see how I’m just going around in circles, because we simply don’t know! Maybe, and this is hedging bets, responses to EPO are like responses to every medicine – huge individual variation, and so some people get huge improvements, others none, and the altitude effect might be general but not consistent across all individuals. I know that in cycling, teams looked for guys who they classed as “high responders” to EPO, which is to say, they had low red blood cell volumes to start with, because then there was more change before it got “illegal”.
It is a fun topic, nice to speculate, but unfortunately unanswerable.
Regarding what Bill was saying about separate competitions for altitude-born runners, that’s interesting. It goes to the whole “Deterministic” aspect of sport – if you’re born short, you’re not playing pro-basketball, and they aren’t going to create a category for anyone shorter than 5’10”! Boxing is different – being born small is not a disadvantage because you just compete in one of about 14 categories.
It’s all very random, and an altitude birth issue would be like the boxing one – trying to correct for an accident of longitude and latitude!
On the note of altitude, I have just recently published a paper with my colleague Jordan Santos looking at brain oxygenation in Kenyan runners, and we found that they are able to defend their brain oxygenation levels during a 5km time-trial. The problem here is comparison – our guys were 61 min half marathon runners, so very good. A few had one marathons internationally, though not quite at the level of the Marathon Majors.
Problem is, there are so few non East Africans with those performances, that we have nobody to compare them to. We’d have to gather about 30 of the world’s best European or North American runners and hope that 15 would let us test them, and only then would we be comparing athletes at the same level. Not going to happen!
In any event, we found that they defend oxygenation – whether it’s a Kenyan thing, an altitude thing (all were born at altitude) or perhaps just a training status consequence, we don’t know yet, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
Well, that’s my thinking out loud! Sorry about the long delay getting back to you! Hope this helps a little.