For the past 30 years, East African runners in general and Kenyan runners in particular have dominated the world distance running scene. They’ve won more Olympic medals in middle and long distance running events than any other country and a quick look at the results for any big city marathon shows Kenyans dominating the top 10 finishers.
So how do they do it?
There are a lot of theories about the reasons for their success, ranging from genetic advantages, to the benefits of altitude training, socio-economic factors and so on, but whether any of these are true or not, it doesn’t much help the rest of us who are trying to find ways to run faster and better no matter what level of talent we have.
In search of something more practical, I’ve researched everything I could find about Kenyan runners and came up with a list of things they do in training that not only contribute to their success but can be copied by average runners like the rest of us.
Here’s how you, too, can run like a Kenyan:
1. Live a more active lifestyle. Kenyan kids do not grow up playing Nintendo or surfing the internet for hours on end. While the stories of Kenyans running vast distances to school and back each day seems to be a bit of an exaggeration in many cases, they still have a much more active lifestyle than the average Westerner. According to the most recent statistic I could find there is only 1 television for every 106 people in Kenya, and the vast majority of Kenyans are rural farmers who perform a great deal of physical labour each day. Now, most of us aren’t about to take up subsistence farming as a hobby, but we can all get off the couch a little more and add some extra physical activity to our lifestyle.
2. Hard work. Even a quick glance at an elite Kenyan’s training schedule shows that there is an awful lot of hard work involved. Most Kenyan runners believe that the winner of any race is the one that has worked the hardest in training, thus the key to being a champion is simply to work harder than anyone else. While there is a limit to how hard you can work without getting injured or burnt out, there’s no doubt that training harder, while respecting your need for recovery, is a reliable way of finding improvement.
3. The importance of recovery. Despite all this hard work, Kenyan runners aren’t afraid to take it easy when necessary. When a recovery jog is on the schedule for top runners, they are quite happy to trot along at a pace many average runners could easily match. In addition, many Kenyans take a day of complete rest each week, usually Sundays for religious reasons. On the other hand, many recreational runners I know are afraid to run slow enough to recover on their easy days or to take days off from running because they fear losing fitness. You’re not going to lose the fitness you’ve built up over months and years by taking a day off or by jogging ridiculously slowly some days, but you might push yourself over the edge into an injury that puts you out of commission for a while and does cost you some hard-earned fitness.
4. Start slow finish fast. Most training runs in Kenya start at the pace of a stumbling jog and only increase once the runners have had several minutes to thoroughly warm up to the run and get their legs and lungs working in sync. This is in contrast to many recreational runners who start each run at the same pace (or even faster) than they finish it. Giving yourself a chance to warm up to a run helps prevent injuries and in my experience, lowers the energy cost of the entire run.
A few years ago I went through several months of wearing a heart rate monitor on all of my runs and gradually noticed that on the days where I started slowly, my heart rate stayed slightly lower than normal even when I picked up the pace later in the run. On days where I started the run a little more quickly, my heart rate got elevated quickly and stayed that way, even if I slowed down more towards the end of the run. Starting too fast also left me with the subjective feeling of struggling a bit more no matter what the eventual pace of the run turned out to be.
5. Hill running. Kenyans place a lot of faith in hill running, usually including at least one workout of uphill repetitions every week. This builds a great deal of strength and stamina in all the muscles you use for running. This strength is one of the reasons that most Kenyan runners have such long, fluid strides. The more strength you have in your legs, the more force you can generate each time you foot hits the ground and the farther you’ll travel with each stride. (Of course, it’s important to run with proper mechanics and not try to force longer strides than usual – longer strides should simply be a side effect of stronger legs muscles) Many recreational runners could benefit from dedicating a day a week to hill running.
6. Group training. It’s extremely unusual to see a runner training alone in Kenya. Most of the time they train in large groups, with many runners taking their turn at the front and pushing the pace. Group training ironically not only helps them train harder, it also makes it easier for them since the runners who aren’t feeling good on a particular day can sit in the pack and let the others pull them along. Most Kenyan running camps have runners as young as 16 or 17 training in the same group as Olympic champions and learning, day in-day out what it takes to reach the top. Group training is also simply enjoyable, having companions to run with makes it easier mentally and the interplay of all the various personalities builds bonds of friendship and camaraderie that are difficult to replicate in daily life.
7. Trail running. Many Kenyan runners and coaches warn against the dangers of running on asphalt too frequently, especially for young runners. Most of the “roads” in Kenya are dirt roads, rather than paved asphalt and almost all of the training is done on the softer surface. This helps prevent overuse injuries and builds strength in the feet, ankles and calf muscles that are forced to compensate for the uneven surface. For Western runners, it might be tougher to find soft surfaces to run on, but even occasional trail running can give your legs a welcome break.
8. Drills baby drills. Kenyan runners regularly go through a series of plyometric drills that build strength and flexibility in their running muscles and contribute to their form, flexibility, speed and ability to resist fatigue. This doesn’t have to take more than 10 or 15 minutes per day, but it will make you a better all around athlete and have a positive effect on your running. For an example of some of the standard running drills, here’s an excellent video of elite runner Lauren Fleshman demonstrating some of the drills she uses:
9. Self-belief. Kenyans believe they can run fast because, well … they’re Kenyans. They train in groups and they see others running well and say to themselves, “Why not me as well?” This self confidence can have a significant effect on performance and is something that we can all cultivate at our own level. When you approach your training and racing, look back at the training you’ve done, the workouts you’ve handled and remind yourself that you are an athlete who can go out and compete with others at your level. You may not succeed all the time, nobody does, but you’ll be a better runner (and incidentally, a more enjoyable person to be around) if you continually emphasize the positives in your preparation, rather than the negatives.
10. Focus. In the weeks and months leading up to major competitions, the Kenyans train in primitive camps where essentially all they do is run, eat and sleep. A typical schedule involves:
- 6am – first run of the day, an easy jog.
- 7am -10am – breakfast and rest time.
- 10am - the hardest workout of the day, ie. interval training, tempo run or hill reps.
- 12-4pm – lunch, afternoon nap
- 4pm - final run of the day, an easy jog (sometimes optional)
- 5pm-9pm - dinner and social time
- 9pm lights out.
Clearly, this is not a practical schedule for most of us, and is unnecessary for a recreational runner, but the principle is that to do something well, you have to invest a certain amount of time and energy. Trying to fill each minute of our waking days with outside activities and not getting proper rest or nutrition saps our energy and limits our ability to benefit from all that hard training we’ve been doing. A practical way for a normal runner to apply this knowledge is to limit your outside activities during the week or two before a goal race such as marathon or another race that you’ve targeted for a significant time and want to give your best effort.
While the vast majority of us will never run as fast as the Kenyans, incorporating these Kenyan training “secrets” can help make our running better and more enjoyable.
- Running from poverty to become world champions (theglobeandmail.com)
- Iten, a Kenyan Town Made for Marathoners (nytimes.com)