Yuki Kawauchi Is Distance Running’s Elite Oddball Express News
“I can’t imagine going to work the next day,” said Meb Keflezighi of the United States, who won the 2014 Boston Marathon, the 2009 New York City Marathon and a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “I can’t walk normal for four or five days. I’m walking downstairs backward. I feel like I’m 80 years old. And he’s going to work and going for a run.”
Many factors affect performance, including training, nutrition, psychology and genetics. Kawauchi possesses a variant of the widely studied ACTN3 gene — the so-called speed gene. But his version, known as 577RR, is more closely associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers and the explosive power of 100-meter sprinters than with the endurance of marathon runners.
“It could be that he’s done well despite having the wrong genotype for endurance runners,” said Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Brighton in England and a leading researcher on the effect of genes on sports performance.
Yet some recent studies have found provisional evidence that the ACTN3 gene may affect performance beyond speed. According to Noriyuki Fuku, a researcher at Juntendo University in Chiba, Japan, who has studied Kawauchi’s DNA, the potential benefits to Kawauchi’s version of the gene could limit muscle damage during training, enhance recovery, reduce the risk of injury and increase muscle stiffness in his legs, giving him a springiness that could enhance his running efficiency.
Asked if he had studied another athlete with such recovery powers, Fuku said: “In Japan, not really. It’s really surprising, something else.”
Genes are only one factor, though. Kawauchi has been building a base of running endurance since the age of 6. Because he works, he trains once a day, not twice, as most elite marathoners do. He averages about 375 miles a month, while runners in the Japanese corporate-sponsored system average more than 600 miles.
Top runners train to race. Kawauchi often races to train, using half marathons and lesser marathons to help him prepare for more important ones.