Inspired by Kenyan runners?
I sure am. Want to become a Kenyan, or at least like a Kenyan runner?
I sure have, and I am not alone.
There are two ways to become Kenyan:
1. Move to Eldoret or Iten, eat ugali and sukuma wiki every day. Run a ton with the various training groups and live and breathe running until you get fast. Adharanda Finn tried this, and wrote an interesting account of a European living, training and racing in Kenya in his book Running with the Kenyans.
Don’t want to pack up the kids and live in a third world country like Finn? The you’ll have to improvise and adapt. Here are a few Kenyan secrets that could be modified to fit a Western lifestyle.
- Build the Biggest Aerobic Base You Can: I recommend the Maffetone Method. A large part of Kenyan success is the years of easy to moderate aerobic running they do as kids. Many people are also surprised at how slow even elite Kenyans train much of the time. Aerobic fitness is the most important factor, and you can’t fake it for long.
- Don’t Run Barefoot, Run Like You Were Barefoot: Remember that Kenyan runners get shoes as soon as they can. But years of running barefoot have given them a fantastic stride. For Westerners who have lived their lives in shoes, a different approach is needed. Spending more time barefoot, running in less supportive shoes, training on natural surfaces and focusing on a high cadence efficient stride can pay off big.
- Simplify: The more you focus your life energy on running, the more improvement you can make. Take a close look at lifestyle factors that interfere with training and recovery. See what you can eliminate or reduce. Read Thoreau and remember his maxim, Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
- Periodize: Know when it’s time to train, and when it’s time to take a break. Know when it’s time to go hard, and know when it’s time for recovery.
- Rally the Troops: Find others to train with. Kenyans rarely train alone, and they feed off that group energy to get more done. Join a club, find a partner, go to races, get a dog. Lots of folks get more done when part of a team.
Eat a simple starch based, vegetarian diet. The Kenyan dietary secret is not the ugali and sukuma wiki, but that it is starch based with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are many ways to do this based on a number of different starches, fruits, and veggies to suit anyone’s taste.
OK, so you can’t really become a great Kenyan runner, especially if you missed out on a Kenyan childhood. But you can still learn from some of their habits. Who knows? Maybe a PR is in store for you this season.
Last time I served up five reasons that the Kenyans will always be faster than you or me. But it takes more than those five reasons to dominate the world. So here are five more to learn from. The only question I have about these amazing runners is: Will the relentless push of the modern world will some day sink the Kenyans? Will they eat junk food? Will the kids quit running around for years? Will some other country get hungrier and work harder?
6. Group training- Kenyans don’t train alone like most endurance athletes. They always train in groups, and feed off each others’ energy. The power of a community devoted to the same project and supporting each other helps everyone.
7. Heroes- By now, Kenya has amassed so many great runners that it is easy for a young runner to look up at a clear path to success. Everything from how to train, to top notch competition is easy for a Kenyan to picture. Quick, name today’s greatest American marathoners? Drawing a blank? Most do. There are not many, and one of them is of Kenyan descent, naturalized, but grew up here. We have football and basketball stars, they have runners.
8. Competition- Can you imagine what it must be like to compete at the national level in Kenya? It must be like the World Championships every single time. Only the fastest survive. If it were not for the rules limiting a country’s entries, the World Championships and the Kenyan Nationals would be the same thing. Out of this crucible comes world class running.
9. Renato Canova- Well, coaching, in general, not just Canova. Seeing the immense potential in East Africa, a number of European coaches have taken to living in a third world, developing country just to train he world’s fastest runners. That is a beautiful thing. With a talent pool as deep as Kenya, new training and coaching techniques can be tested to the maximum level possible. It would be lIke working in Ferrari’s Formula 1 racing division. You do not hold anything back, you figure out the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Nothing else.
10. THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON: DESIRE
They are hungrier than anyone else. I mean that mostly figuratively, as in they want it more, and they do what it takes. They run more. A lot more. Running and racing is a chance to make a life that is very hard to come by in East Africa. They do not mess around, they chase it and wrestle it down or die trying. How many American runners have that simultaneous pressure and motivation? And in many cases, they are literally hungry. Poverty can be a great motivation, and if you have the stride that might win an international marathon or Olympic gold, you chase that with everything you’ve got.
Everyone wants to know the Kenyan secret. Why are they so darn fast? Well, there is no one reason. We all want the easy some explanation even while we know that there is no such thing. If there was, we could all do the same thing. Or we want to find some genetic explanation so that we can believe that everything is out of our control and excuse ourselves from trying. It’s not genetics, if it was they would be battling the the Tanzanians, but that’s not happening. Instead, the Kenyans have a perfect storm of advantages that have led to their dominance for decades. Since it’s complex, don’t expect much to change any time soon.
1. Diet- well, sorta. The near vegetarian diet works really well. I admit my bias. I think this is a bigger reason than people acknowledge. Not eating the standard Western disease promoting diet for most of their lives gives them an advantage. As modernity continues its invasion, this advantage may disappear.
2. They Run as Kids- A lot! By the time they start competition training, they have an incredible aerobic base few Westerners have achieved. They do this by running to and from school twice a day, running to visit friends, running everywhere.
3. They Run as Kids- They do most of this running barefoot, so develop a fantastic, efficient stride. The first thing they do when training seriously is get shoes, but their formative years are barefoot developing on incredible foot and lower leg strength. And a stride that everyone agrees is the most beautiful in the world.
4. Simplicity- When they train in a training camp, they literally eat, sleep and train. There are no distractions like Internet, TV, movies, mass media, social media etc. Being so focused makes recovery easier. Contrast that to our hectic lifestyle, where many athletes skip sleep to train. Kenyans sleep whenever they want, since there is nothing like a post workout recovery nap.
5. Periodization- Kenyans focus their training in intense blocks for specific races where all distractions are eliminated. Then, when it’s over, they go home, relax, forget about running, rest, recover, eat, put on some weight and refuse to worry about it until the next training period. Spending lots of time with family maximizes their recovery and keeps a work and life balance that us Westerners can only envy.
The Vegan Mofo project over at sister blog The Vegan Training Table is taking up nearly all time allotted to blogging. So I’ll split a post in two to prove to Google that Vegpedlr is alive and well and still blogging. The Vegan Training Table project is based on a theme of spotlighting and celebrating plant-based athletes both traditional and contemporary. It grew from my great respect and admiration for the Tarahumara and East Africans who have had tremendous success in distance running eating plant-based diets. They are not traditionally vegan, and they eat so little animal food out of necessity rather than choice. But they show that not only do athletes not need any animal food, they can do very well without. It is my opinion that such a diet is optimal. While East African and Tarahumara runners may not be vegan, their typical dishes can be easily adapted. I hope that they make me just as fast!
I already blogged about the Tarahumara, made famous in Born to Run, now it’s time to look to the great Rift Valley in East Africa, where the most successful competitive runners come from. No one country has dominated a single sport more than Kenya has dominated distance running. If you add in next door neighbour Ethiopia, you have near total domination. Many people have investigated this dominance, and there is no one answer to explain their continued success. Rather it is a number of factors, from living at altitude, barefoot running and a simple plant-based diet. Both of these countries are poor, and the dietary staples of runners are the same: unrefined starches in the form of whole grains and legumes along with seasonal fruits and vegetables. Very little meat, some dairy, and no supplements. That’s it. Simple.
For Ethiopians, the staples are injera, a fermented crepe like bread, and vegetable or legume stews. For the Kenyans, it’s ugali, a cornmeal like porridge similar to polenta, and leafy greens and legumes. Meat is for special occasions, since it’s just too expensive. And on this simple diet, these East Africans have won practically all international track races from 800m to the 10K, and most road marathons as well. That goes for both genders. They’re not held back by a “poor” diet, they lead the pack!
More on the typical nutrition of an African runner and why it works
Coming up at The Vegan Training Table:
Kenyan inspired dishes