Can Westerners learn from Kenyan runners?

Adharanand & Tom in Iten, Kenya
Adharanand & Tom in Iten, Kenya. Photo courtesy of       Tom Payn.

As mentioned in his recent Guardian running blog article ‘Why are Kenyans the best distance runners?‘, Adharanand Finn first met Run-Fast athlete manager Tom ‘Kiprop’ Payn when, having both sacrificed their lives in the UK, their paths crossed in the unlikeliest of places. Kip wrote the following piece some time ago but we thought it would be nice to revisit his thoughts to compliment the interview.

In a small town in the heart of the Kenyan Great Rift valley you will find more Olympic and World Champions than most countries put together can produce. This town is called Iten, “The Home of Champions”, and it is where I spent around six months of 2011. I moved to Iten to live and train with these incredible athletes, hoping that by training with the fastest men and women in the world it would bring out the best in me.

So what did I learn? Did I find the “secrets” of the Kenyan athletes?

The answer to those questions is that I learnt a lot and in my opinion there is no single secret as to why they are so good.

1. First and foremost the athletes in Kenya train hard, very hard. Out at 6am every morning, doing hill sessions, fartleks, tempo runs, killer track sessions and the all-important long run. A second easy run follows at either 10am or 4pm, making up the high mileage needed for world class distance running.

2. Altitude. Iten is at 2400m altitude which makes it very tough to run. Add in endless rolling hills and no run is done without getting somewhat out of breath, so that when you get back down to sea level, running is a breeze.

3. Attitude. Western athletes, in general, dwell on their bad results for a long time. If a Kenyan has a bad run, they will instantly forget it saying to themselves “oh well, I will win next time”. I think we can all learn from this! They also all have the belief that they will be a champion no matter where they finish in training or races.

4. Run your hard runs very hard and your easy runs, very easy. Does it sometimes seem that you do nearly all your running at the same steady pace? Well the Kenyans either run very fast or very slow. The first time I went for an easy run out in Iten I thought they were joking since it was barely above a walk, but this enables a quicker recovery and means you can run your hard runs harder.

5. Rest is serious business. One thing that we all neglect in our hectic Western lives is rest. For the Kenyans resting and sleeping is as important as running, with most sleeping at least ten hours a day. I know for most people this isn’t possible but we could all do with a bit more sleep and I guarantee if you get more this will help your running.

6. Diet. No fast food, no chocolate, no pizzas. The Kenyan diet is very simple and includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the farm, meat or milk and lots of the magical “ugali” (basically carbohydrate). Essentially, all the energy and nutrients you need to run fast and recover quickly.

There are plenty of other reasons as to why the Kenyans are so good at long distance running but hopefully you can use some of the points already mentioned above to improve your own running.

The infamous Ugali
The infamous Ugali

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