Runners with this brain "superpower" can out run the rest—high-intensity interval training may help you to harness it for yourself
Get ready to win the race: Turns out, there's a physiological reason elite Kenyan athletes are so freaking fast. They have greater “brain oxygenation” (more oxygen-rich blood flowing to their brain) during intense exercise, per a new study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. (Check out This is Your Brain on... Exercise.)
“Brain oxygenation is measured in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a fundamental role in movement planning and decision making, as well as the control of pacing,” explains study author Jordan Santos, Ph.D. With their optimal oxygenation abilities, elite Kenyan athletes have better muscle recruitment and less time to exhaustion during running and other high intensity activities. (Find out how to Run Faster, Longer, Stronger, and Injury-Free.)
So, how exactly do so many Kenyans get this superpower—and how do we get some ourselves? The study authors say it could be because of exposure to high altitudes before birth (which triggers “cerebral vasodilation”—or widening of blood vessels in part of the brain known as the cerebrum). It could also be thanks to exercising at an early age, which also helps with developing blood vessels in the brain (important because it's that blood that is rich in oxygen!).
But even if you didn’t get much exercise as a kid or live at sea level, you can still train like a Kenyan—and get faster—by incorporating high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your workout routine. (Try this New Way to Do HIIT.) “Kenyan runners do a lot of high-intensity training which together with their “live high, train high” life-style, makes them almost invincible,” says Santos.