Athletics, and running in particular, first caught my attention in the days when Seb Coe couldn’t stop breaking world records, Steve Cram could run away from the pack in the mile and Liz McColgan could dominate in the marathon. Apart from Mo Farah, distance running is now completely dominated by East Africans, in both male and female races, and especially in the marathon. Kenya in particular has come to the attention of Sports Scientists across Europe and the USA as we try to work out the secret of how the pendulum has swung in the direction of East Africa.
Kenya currently has a population of approximately 32 million people, which is 0.5% of the world’s population. Nowadays in the major city marathons across the world, 50% of the top ten finishers are Kenyan, not to mention athletes like David Rudisha, retaining the 800m Olympic title after setting a new world record at London 2012, along with their domination of other events such as the steeple chase. The last three marathon world records have also been set by Kenyans. That is an extraordinary record for a country with half of the population size of the UK. Many theories of this domination have sprung up and have been studied in recent years but do these theories hold strong or is there a hidden secret?
When I first started writing this article I had never been to Kenya before. My research consisted of reading a plethora of articles, books and websites. This article consisted of a number of subheadings, like Genetics, Ugali (a Kenyan food), Altitude Training and Running to School Barefoot. However, since having been to Iten, the home of champions, Kenya, and my thoughts have changed somewhat.
Every Kenyan likes to ask the question, “Are you a runner?” Every time I was asked this, I questioned myself, what do they mean by a runner? Yes back home I am runner, but out here the town is full of Olympic athletes, world record holders and even Kenyan runners who are unheard of can run a marathon in sub 2:15. So my answer normally begins with . . . . . “Yes . . . . but I’m not as good as you guys ” . . . . . . And then every Kenyan follows up with the response. . . . . . “You can also be this good, all it takes . . . . . is practice.” Surely it’s not that simple.
After a few days of running on the brutally hilly trails around Iten, with numerous Kenyan athletes speeding past me, I longed for some flat ground to run on. I asked a local athlete, who just happened to be one of the world’s top 10,000metre runners, if there are any flat areas that I can run on. He paused for a few seconds with a look on his face of somebody who was deep in thought and answered my question with a question of his own. “Do you have a car?” So there we have it. There are no flat areas within running distance of Iten. This was all I needed to know, the only flat area to train on would have to be the running track.
And so my first visit to the Kamariny stadium running track came to fruition the next morning. It was a sight to behold. Groups of 5-30 or more Kenyans storming round the track in a train like formation with the one at the front controlling the pace while the rest of the train try to hold on. Numerous reps of 400m, 800m, 1000m etc., whatever they were doing it was relentless and brutal, the session seemingly endless. This session apparently done 1-3 times a week in between the normally twice daily hill runs, long runs, recovery runs, clocking up well over 100 miles a week. Not a heart rate monitor or any other recording instrument in sight other than a simple stop watch and a finish line scraped into the red dusty track with a stick.
And hence I came to quickly realise the secret to Kenyan success. Yes altitude training helps, the diet lends itself to running and the general lifestyle is tough. Many of these things do accumulate to provide a special and unique running environment but being out here in Kenya the answer is obvious. Back home we call it training. Out here the Kenyans simply call it practice.
Colin is a freelance Physiologist, writer and speaker who helps runners, beginners to elite, all over the world to reach their running goals. He has spent time in Kenya with some of the world’s best coaches and athletes. A runner himself with a current marathon pb of 2.33.