Kudos for Kenyans

Posted on June 6, 2012

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What is it that makes Kenyans the best long-distance runners in the world? Adharanand Finn spent six months training in the country to discover their secrets. He recorded his story in his book Running with the Kenyans.

I turned the final page yesterday and found myself embraced from cover to cover in Finn’s fabulous ability to tell stories that quite easily transport you to the hand-ploughed fields and mud huts of Kenya’s Rift Valley.

Set in a town called Iten, you could easily assume it’s just like any other small Kenyan town. But rise at dawn and it’s a different story. In the half-light, hundreds of Lycra-clad runners emerge, like commuters in any other city, their long legs charging at a pace to put most of us to shame.

Running is the world’s most universal and accessible sport.

Every weekend throughout the globe there are marathons staged with runners in their thousands. Yet last year, the 20 fastest marathon runners in the world were all from Kenya. Kenya’s dominance of long-distance running is one of the most remarkable achievements in the annals of sport.

Finn spent six months living and training it Iten. Armed with a barrage of questions and a determination to get to the root of the Kenyan running secrets, he hoped a little of their magic would somehow rub off on him.

As for the secrets?

Relentless focus

All across the Rift Valley there are thousands of dedicated athletes who do nothing but eat, rest, sleep and train. In fact, elite athletes from Mo Farah to Paula Radcliffe turn up in droves every year and all say the same thing … that the great thing about Iten is that there’s nothing else to do here but train.

What you put in, you get out

A great deal of what the Kenyans can teach us boils down to the fact that simplicity works when it comes to running. Running is a simple activity. To be good at it is simple. The problem is that being simple is not easy, especially for Western runners.

In the West, runners are obsessed with Garmins and Polars, heart rate monitors and running apps. Runners spend as much time training as they do analysing their stats and clocking up their mileage …

And perhaps that means losing sight of the bigger picture?

I ditched my Garmin a couple of years ago, no longer even run with a watch and prefer to listen to my body. Kenyans are great at this. If they’re tired or have a slight niggle, they skip a training session, or take it easy. It’s hard for them to get decent treatment for injuries so they’re careful not to overdo it … a far cry from our approach … I know I’ve been guilty in the past of thinking, oh well, I can get some physio … on my health insurance.

The problems arise in learning to listen to your body properly and be able to differentiate between backing off when you need to and just being lazy.  I know for me, this is an ongoing journey but I’m definitely getting there and suggest others try.

Why stick religiously to some schedule that will often result in injury and over-training?

Without all the gadgets to record and measure their training, Kenyans need rely entirely on feelings to assess their fitness. It also helps that it is in their nature to work hard. When they see a hill, they see it as an opportunity … an opportunity to train harder, to work harder.

How much do you want it?

It also comes down to how badly you want it, an innate desire to succeed. For a Kenyan child, walking down to the river to collect water, running to school, if he doesn’t become an athlete then there aren’t many other options.

Add to the mix …  

Runners from around Iten have a big advantage in being at high altitude which helps endurance athletes to run faster by increasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen around the body. Almost every international distance runner includes high-altitude training in their schedules. The Kenyan runners, born and raised at altitude, gives them a big advantage.

Food also plays a role. In the Rift Valley, everyone grows up eating a simple staple diet of beans, rice, ugali (a dough made from maize flour and water) and green vegetables. What you won’t find them tucking into is cakes, ice-cream, cheese, burgers, pizzas … they just don’t exist.

Group therapy

Runners can often lead an almost monastic life but one thing that Finn really noticed in Iten was the companionship of other runners when training. I guess we all know it’s easier to get up at 5.30am if you’re meeting others.

Rest assured

Another thing Kenyans do well is rest well.  In the West, we tend to be rubbish at this.  I know I am. Kenyan runners spend most of their day sitting around chilling out. Sleep is also an integral part of their training. If you ask a Kenyan athlete why he sleeps so much, he won’t quote stats from a recent research paper. Rather, he’ll just tell you that he needs to sleep more when he’s in training because his body gets tired.

Perhaps then if you want to emulate the Kenyans, start by turning the light out and going to sleep instead of sitting up late plotting your latest training on a distance chart?!

It all boils down to one simple question: how badly do you want it? Whether it’s running a marathon PB, losing x kilos or completing your first ultra, the greatest lesson we can learn from the Kenyans is that if you really want it, you can achieve it …

yet another reason why running is the greatest metaphor for life.

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