We all know that some of the best runners in the world are Kenyans. At the recent Gold Coast Marathon (July 2010), the top four runners in the marathon event were Kenyans. The Sydney Marathon, which is held in September each year, was won last year by Julius Seurei, a Kenyan. And at the New York Marathon last year, the second spot was taken by, you guessed it, a runner from Kenya. In fact, Kenya has the most number of world class runners per capital!
Experts have attributed the superior endurance running capability of Kenyans to be due to their diet, the intense training, the altitude which they train in and also the their special genes.
Dr. Owen Anderson, from Gloucester Catholic Cross Country, visited the Kenyan cross country camps on the slopes of Mt. Kenya to interview dozens of elite Kenyan athletes. They provided him with 20 “running commandments” which outline their running success.
The 20 rules of Kenyan running are outlined below and are divided into two categories, principles which you should follow in your own training, as well as a couple of factors which are very difficult for you to control.
- Avoid distractions.
Compared to Australian youngsters, Kenyan children have fewer toys, watch less television, and hardly go on facebook, so there is a much-smaller chance that a Kenyan young person will become sedentary. Because Kenyan youngsters are so active, they build up a tremendous base of aerobic development, strength, coordination, and speed between the ages of five and 16 and are more than ready for intense endurance competition while still in high school.
- Don’t run on concrete or asphalt.
Kenyans prefer to carry out their workouts on trails or dirt roads, which simultaneously increase their leg-muscle strength and save their legs from too much hard pounding. Dirt provides more cushioning but usually forces you to work harder to run at a specific speed. Trail and dirt road running produce greater leg-muscle power, with less total damage to muscles, tendons, and ligaments, compared with hard-road rambling.
- Do more race-speed training.
A favorite workout of top Kenyan runners involves a two- to three-mile warm-up and then about 10K of running over very rolling terrain. During the 10K, Kenyans alternate back and forth between about two minutes of fast running (at 10-K pace or faster) and around one minute of easy, relaxed ambling.
- Make sure that outstanding running performances are rewarded with substantial financial bonuses.
For Kenyans, the prize money they receive from winning competitions can allow them to retire for life. Needless to say, this kind of financial-reward system intensifies young Kenyans’ interest in running.
- Have great role models.
In Kenya, their world class athletes are out on the street – where everyone can talk with them. With so many great runners providing encouragement to up-and-coming competitors, young Kenyan runners begin to believe that it is normal – and almost routine – for Kenyans to win major international competitions.
- Eat cheap, simple, healthy foods.
The Kenyans’ high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet revolves around ugali (corn-meal porridge), delicious vegetable stews, beans and bean soup, greens, plantains, passion fruit, cabbage, and rice. All of these foods are filling and satisfying and contain rich lodes of vitamins and minerals. Contrary to popular belief, Kenyan-runners’ diets are quite adequate in protein, provided by complementary combinations of grain and vegetables as well as sprinklings of lean chicken, goat, milk, and an occasional egg. Overall, dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is as sparse as slow race performances.
- Be part of an excellent running team.
The Kenyan cross-country teams are true teams – not just collections of people thrown together for a competition. They train together for several weeks prior to the world championships, and everyone completes the same workouts.
- Train with a very accomplished runner.
At the Kenyan camp, young Kenyans worked out with world class athletes. Fledgling runners learned exactly what it took to win and found out that they could handle the workouts carried out by their illustrious peers. Young runners – at first unsure about their abilities – gradually developed an attitude of “I’ve got what it takes to win, too.”
- Take regular, prolonged breaks from training.
European, American and Australian athletes tend to think, “If I don’t train strenuously all the time, someone may get ahead of me,” but the Kenyan maxim is, “I work so hard that my body periodically needs a great rest.” Five-time world-cross-country champion John Ngugi trained very, very lightly at various times during the training year, and Moses Kiptanui, former world-record holder in the 3000-meter steeplechase, 5K, and two-mile run, was known to take four- to eight-week breaks during which he carried out no running at all. Such recovery periods allow the muscle-rebuilding process – an essential part of any training program – to be optimized and completed fully and leave runners highly motivated and mentally fresh for subsequent, intense training.
- Carry out some of your training at altitude.
Altitude training is great for you mentally. Altitude makes every workout feel tougher, so you can develop a higher mental tolerance for pain. As veteran Kenyan runner Ondoro Osoro said, “When I come down from altitude, competition at sea level feels no more difficult than sitting in a rocking chair.” The altitude training must be completely wisely, however. At altitude, the Kenyans like to practice running at the precise pace which will be needed to win an upcoming race at sea level. When the sea-level race takes place, the required pace seems fairly facile, because it has been practiced under much-more stressful conditions – at altitude. Don’t forget, too, that a three-week residency at altitude can boost the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.
- Take chances.
Kenyans occasionally go to extremes, including running unbelievably tough schedules (with a high frequency of fast intervals, hill repeats, and scalding fartlek sessions) for about three weeks at a time. These “crash cycles” of training seem to push fitness to extraordinary levels. Naturally, it is important to monitor oneself during these periods to make sure that the risks of overtraining and injury are kept low.
- Warm up thoroughly at the beginnings of workouts, and spend lots of time stretching after workouts are over.
Even the very best Kenyan runners begin most workouts by completing a couple of miles at a leisurely, eight- to nine-minute per mile pace. Kenyans settle into fast training speeds only when their muscles are warm and blood vessels leading into their hearts and leg muscles are full-bore open. Kenyans do not do much stretching before they run, so the initially easy ambles also unkink tight muscles. A diverse array of stretches and calisthenics are carried out for 15 to 30 minutes after almost every workout and help prevent muscles from “locking up” in between training sessions. The post-workout stretching also “opens up” leg muscles to incoming carbohydrate, so that more glycogen can be stored between workouts.
- Get your local schools involved in fitness.
In Kenyan high schools, 10 to 12 weeks are sometimes devoted exclusively to physical education. Phys-ed programs teach young people appropriate exercise techniques and help to create and maintain a large, highly fit “pool” of young individuals, from which nationally and internationally successful athletes can emerge.
- Don’t keep a log book or follow an absolutely rigid training schedule.
Instead, monitor yourself closely and keep your training “in synch” with how you are feeling. If you keep a log of your running, it’s easy to add up your mileage for the week, and there is a great temptation to run at least that many miles during the following week – even if you are feeling pretty worn-out. There is also a temptation to complete a scheduled workout even though you feel like hell – because it is written down in the log. Attempting to lock step to the dictates of a written training program and working hard on days when you are really tired are guaranteed ways to maximize the risk of overtraining. The Kenyans don’t count miles and prefer to carry out solid amounts of training on days when they feel good and minimal quantities on days when they are fatigued. This can actually involve more discipline than simply following the commands written down in a training schedule, and it is a more effective way to build a training schedule which optimally balances hard work and recovery.
- Develop a good financial-support system, so that you can concentrate fully on your running.
In Kenya, talented young runners usually join the police or armed forces, where they can train with other topnotch harriers and don’t have to worry about putting bread (or in the Kenyan case – ugali) on the table.
- Don’t worry too much.
When troubles arise, the Kenyan runners often invoke the motto, “Hakuna noma,” which simply means, “There’s no problem.” Bad things happen to runners all the time, including missed workouts, slower-than-expected races, illnesses, and injuries, just to name a few. The Kenyans simply acknowledge these disappointments and then look forward to better workouts and races in the future. The focus is on gradual progress toward a better future – not on beating oneself up over disappointing events.
- Train on hills nearly constantly.
Top Kenyan runners carry out almost all of their workouts on very hilly terrain. Hill running transforms your leg muscles from thin strips of sinew into powerful dynamos which can use oxygen at incredibly high rates, when needed, and which can provide incredible, stabilizing support for the body during movement. At the same time, hill training improves running economy, so that you do not need as much oxygen as usual – even when you are cruising along at tough intensities. As a result of their hill training, the Kenyans have huge aerobic capacities but require only puny percentages of those dynamic oxygen reservoirs to keep up with the runners with whom they compete.
The Final Three Commandments You Can’t Follow Now… It’s Too Late
- Choose ancestors who were pastoral people with a fondness for the “bride-price” system of marriage.
Although there are at least 35 different tribal groups within Kenya, the majority of Kenya’s internationally successful runners have come from a single tribe called the Kalenjins. That’s a bit strange, since Kalenjins make up only about 4 percent or so of the entire population. Historically, Kalenjins lived a nomadic life tending roaming herds of cattle, and a young Kalenjin male was considered suitable for marriage only if he possessed an adequate number of beeves (this was the “bride price”). Since livestock didn’t exactly grow on trees, enterprising young men would raid wandering herds at night (often those belonging to a different tribe) in an attempt to purloin enough hooves to impress the family of the potential bride. This involved running the cattle away from the main herd as quickly and for as great a distance as possible – before the theft was discovered. Thus, a direct link was established between outstanding endurance-running performances and fatherhood, an effect magnified by the tendency of Kenyan males to marry several times.
- Exercise a lot when you are a child.
Little kids in Kenya really do carry out a lot of aerobic training, but they call it “running to school.” As I jogged on the trails and roads near Mt. Kenya, little folks padded past me, cruising easily at six-minute per mile tempo in bare feet on uneven ground, with heavy school bags draped over their shoulders. The average Kenyan youngster covers eight to 20 kilometers per day just ambulating back and forth between home and school (more Ks are often covered while doing chores around a rural home), and this sole-to-ground mode of transport increases the strength and flexibility of leg, ankle, and foot muscles. Later, when a young Kenyan begins to train seriously for competition, the support system – the feet and legs – can handle the stresses of training with relative ease.
- Grow up at an altitude of 5500 to 7000 feet.
Maturing at such elevations gives you slightly thicker blood, a stronger heart, more blood vessels per muscle cell, and slightly smaller muscle fibers which can be more easily and quickly penetrated by incoming oxygen molecules.