September 30, 2004
by Owen Anderson, Ph. D.
If you want to find the origin of the Nile, there's no use paddling back and forth in its middle regions: You've got to travel up the darned thing until you find its source. Likewise, if you need to know how to become a great runner, you shouldn't talk to the man on the street, the middle-of-the-pack competitor, the exercise physiologist locked away in a university laboratory, or the coach who has tutored just one or two really successful runners over a career. You must go the country which has the highest number of world-class runners per capita - a country where world-champion harriers are sighted on the streets as often as taxis, where teen-age runners are so good that they often out-compete Olympic medalists, where shoeless seven-year-olds sizzle past you as you run along country roads, and where 28:45 10-K runners and 4:03 milers are considered strictly back-of-the-pack material.
You should go to Kenya, the cradle of endurance runners. Kenyan athletes have been dominating the world of running for more than a decade, and experts have suggested that the Kenyan superiority is the result of special genes, altitude, diet, or incredibly intense training. However, after visiting the Kenyan-team's cross-country camp on the slopes of Mt. Kenya and interviewing dozens of elite Kenyan athletes, I realized that no single factor could explain the Kenyans' almost-unbelievable successes. The Kenyan runners themselves understand the reasons for their dominance better than anyone, and they were kind enough to give me not just 10 - but 20 - "running commandments" to transport from Mt. Kenya back to the rest of the world. Just to make things extra challenging, the 20 edicts, outlined below, are divided into two categories - principles which you should follow in your own training, as well as a couple of factors which are very difficult for you to control.
Here are the 20 rules of Kenyan running:
- Avoid distractions. Compared to American youngsters, Kenyan children have fewer toys, watch less television, and fiddle with fewer computer games, so there is a much-smaller chance that a Kenyan young person will become sedentary. While 31 percent of American youngsters spend at least five hours per day watching television (!), zero percent of Kenyan kids put that much time into ogling the tube (We're Number One, Andrew L. Shapiro, Vintage Books, p. 71, 1992). Because Kenyan youngsters are so active, they build up a tremendous base of aerobic development, strength, coordination, and speed between the ages of five and 16 and are more than ready for intense endurance competition while still in high school. After their high-school days are over, young Kenyan runners are not lured away from physical activity by the business world, because corporate job prospects in Kenya are not especially bright. Also, runners, along with soccer players and politicians, are the most-successful, best-known people in Kenya. As a result, young runners tend to stay fit and interested in running, and there is a higher chance of discovering individuals who can be successful on the international endurance-running stage.
- Don't run on concrete or asphalt. Kenyans prefer to carry out their workouts on trails or dirt roads, which simultaneously increase their leg-muscle strength and save their legs from too much hard pounding. The trouble with concrete is that it is a perfect energy-return material: It allows you to bounce from foot to foot quite readily as you run but also transmits mega shock waves up your legs. In contrast, dirt provides more cushioning but usually forces you to work harder to run at a specific speed. Since dirt offers less "energy return" than concrete, you must actively pull your feet out of small depressions in the ground after each impact. The bottom line is that trail and dirt road running produce greater leg-muscle power, with less total damage to muscles, tendons, and ligaments, compared with hard-road rambling.
- Do more race-speed training. A favorite workout of top Kenyan runners involves a two- to three-mile warm-up and then about 10K of running over very rolling terrain. During the 10K, Kenyans alternate back and forth between about two minutes of fast running (at 10-K pace or faster) and around one minute of easy, relaxed ambling. Even during their long (15- to 22-K) training runs, the Kenyans usually finish the workouts by sizzling through a mile or two at close to race pace. Race-speed training is specific training, which prepares you for competition most effectively.
- Make sure that outstanding running performances are rewarded with substantial financial bonuses. In Nairobi, bus fares are six cents, five-course gourmet meals cost no more than a few dollars, and cab drivers apologize because the fare from the airport into the city is a lofty $5. In Kenya, $5000 is considered a king's ransom, yet a decent Kenyan runner can easily win that amount in a single road race in Europe or the United States. In fact, some fortunate Kenyans can retire for life after just one successful season of road racing. Needless to say, this kind of financial-reward system intensifies young Kenyans' interest in running.
- Have great role models. In Kenya, there is of course Kip Keino, but there is also a whole host of world-record holders, world champions, and Olympic medalists for young runners to admire. Almost every Kenyan young person knows about these top stars and takes pride in their achievements. Plus, Kenya's running heroes are not cloistered away from the average citizen. Instead of communicating with the public through rare interviews with the press, they are out on the street - where everyone can talk with them. With so many great runners providing encouragement to up-and-coming competitors, young Kenyan runners begin to believe that it is normal - and almost routine - for Kenyans to win major international competitions. When they journey to international events, Kenyans are not intimidated by the top runners from other countries, nor do they think that it is enough just to be present at the competitions. They know that the world's top runners are just flesh-and-blood folks who have been beaten in the past by Kenyans, and the Kenyans confidently know that they have a great chance to win.
- Eat cheap, simple, healthy foods. The Kenyans' high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet revolves around ugali (corn-meal porridge), delicious vegetable stews, beans and bean soup, greens, plantains, passion fruit, cabbage, and rice. All of these foods are filling and satisfying and contain rich lodes of vitamins and minerals. Contrary to popular belief, Kenyan-runners' diets are quite adequate in protein, provided by complementary combinations of grain and vegetables as well as sprinklings of lean chicken, goat, milk, and an occasional egg. Overall, dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is as sparse as slow race performances.
- Be part of an excellent running team. The Kenyan cross-country teams are true teams - not just collections of people thrown together for a competition. They train together for several weeks prior to the world championships, and everyone completes the same workouts. Older Kenyan runners give younger harriers lots of advice, support, and encouragement. During races, some Kenyan team members block competitive runners from other countries as their Kenyan teammates sprint far ahead into the lead. In addition, most Kenyan runners develop in a team environment, as the various branches of the Kenyan military and the Kenyan post office and prison system all put together fine, well-coached teams.
- Train with a very accomplished runner. When I was at the Kenyan camp, young Kenyans worked out with battle-scarred (and gold-medal-winning) veterans of international competition such as John Ngugi, William Mutwol, Ondoro Osoro, Sammy Lelei, Paul Tergat, Esther Kiplagat, and Pauline Konga. Fledgling runners learned exactly what it took to win and found out that they could handle the workouts carried out by their illustrious peers. Young runners - at first unsure about their abilities - gradually developed an attitude of "I've got what it takes to win, too." After all, if you have held you're own while training with a world champion or an Olympic medal winner, international competitions no longer seem so frightening.
- Take regular, prolonged breaks from training. European and American athletes tend to think, "If I don't train strenuously all the time, someone may get ahead of me," but the Kenyan maxim is, "I work so hard that my body periodically needs a great rest." Five-time world-cross-country champion John Ngugi trained very, very lightly at various times during the training year, and Moses Kiptanui, former world-record holder in the 3000-meter steeplechase, 5K, and two-mile run, was known to take four- to eight-week breaks during which he carried out no running at all. Such recovery periods allow the muscle-rebuilding process - an essential part of any training program - to be optimized and completed fully and leave runners highly motivated and mentally fresh for subsequent, intense training.
- Carry out some of your training at altitude. This is a contentious issue, but here's the bottom line: You can actually train more intensely at sea level than you can at altitude, so lowland training is better for your physiologically, despite altitude's blood-thickening effects. However, altitude can be great for you mentally. Altitude makes every workout feel tougher, so you can develop a higher mental tolerance for pain. As veteran Kenyan runner Ondoro Osoro said, "When I come down from altitude, competition at sea level feels no more difficult than sitting in a rocking chair." The altitude training must be completely wisely, however. At altitude, the Kenyans like to practice running at the precise pace which will be needed to win an upcoming race at sea level. When the sea-level race takes place, the required pace seems fairly facile, because it has been practiced under much-more stressful conditions - at altitude. Don't forget, too, that a three-week residency at altitude can boost the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity.
- Take chances. Kenyans occasionally go to extremes, including running unbelievably tough schedules (with a high frequency of fast intervals, hill repeats, and scalding fartlek sessions) for about three weeks at a time. These "crash cycles" of training seem to push fitness to extraordinary levels. Naturally, it is important to monitor oneself during these periods to make sure that the risks of overtraining and injury are kept low.
- Warm up thoroughly at the beginnings of workouts, and spend lots of time stretching after workouts are over. Even the very best Kenyan runners begin most workouts by completing a couple of miles at a leisurely, eight- to nine-minute per mile pace. Kenyans settle into fast training speeds only when their muscles are warm and blood vessels leading into their hearts and leg muscles are full-bore open. Kenyans do not do much stretching before they run, so the initially easy ambles also unkink tight muscles. A diverse array of stretches and calisthenics are carried out for 15 to 30 minutes after almost every workout and help prevent muscles from "locking up" in between training sessions. The post-workout stretching also "opens up" leg muscles to incoming carbohydrate, so that more glycogen can be stored between workouts.
- Get your local schools involved in fitness. In Kenyan high schools, 10 to 12 weeks are sometimes devoted exclusively to physical education, while in the United States physical education has all but disappeared from the curriculum. Phys-ed programs teach young people appropriate exercise techniques and help to create and maintain a large, highly fit "pool" of young individuals, from which nationally and internationally successful athletes can emerge.
- Don't keep a log book or follow an absolutely rigid training schedule. Instead, monitor yourself closely and keep your training "in synch" with how you are feeling. If you keep a log of your running, it's easy to add up your mileage for the week, and there is a great temptation to run at least that many miles during the following week - even if you are feeling pretty worn-out. There is also a temptation to complete a scheduled workout even though you feel like hell - because it is written down in the log. Attempting to lock step to the dictates of a written training program and working hard on days when you are really tired are guaranteed ways to maximize the risk of overtraining. The Kenyans don't count miles and prefer to carry out solid amounts of training on days when they feel good and minimal quantities on days when they are fatigued. This can actually involve more discipline than simply following the commands written down in a training schedule, and it is a more effective way to build a training schedule which optimally balances hard work and recovery.
- Develop a good financial-support system, so that you can concentrate fully on your running. In Kenya, talented young runners usually join the police or armed forces, where they can train with other topnotch harriers and don't have to worry about putting bread (or in the Kenyan case - ugali) on the table. In most other countries, support systems for runners are less organized and more chaotic. In the United States, good young runners may win a college scholarship, but only the really top runners obtain sponsorships after their school days end. The rest of the lot - including many potentially outstanding runners - are sucked out of running careers into demanding 9-to-5 jobs which drain time and energy from athletic pursuits.
- Don't worry too much. When troubles arise, the Kenyan runners often invoke the motto, "Hakuna noma," which simply means, "There's no problem." Bad things happen to runners all the time, including missed workouts, slower-than-expected races, illnesses, and injuries, just to name a few. The Kenyans simply acknowledge these disappointments and then look forward to better workouts and races in the future. The focus is on gradual progress toward a better future - not on beating oneself up over disappointing events.
- Train on hills nearly constantly. Top Kenyan runners carry out almost all of their workouts on very hilly terrain, and a favorite training session involves running up the western edge of the famed Rift Valley near Eldoret, Kenya (near Kip Keino's current home), an effort which covers about 21K and involves an elevation change from approximately 4000 to 8000 feet, yet is completed in only 85 minutes. Hill running transforms your leg muscles from thin strips of sinew into powerful dynamos which can use oxygen at incredibly high rates, when needed, and which can provide incredible, stabilizing support for the body during movement. At the same time, hill training improves running economy, so that you do not need as much oxygen as usual - even when you are cruising along at tough intensities. This sounds like a paradox, and in a way it is: It's akin to producing an automobile with a very powerful engine which at the same time does not need much gas to move along at very high speeds, or like letting a supremely wealthy person buy everything he/she needs at steeply discounted prices. As a result of their hill training, the Kenyans have huge aerobic capacities but require only puny percentages of those dynamic oxygen reservoirs to keep up with the runners with whom they compete.
The Final Three Commandments You Can't Follow Now... It's Too Late
- Choose ancestors who were pastoral people with a fondness for the "bride-price" system of marriage. Although there are at least 35 different tribal groups within Kenya, the majority of Kenya's internationally successful runners have come from a single tribe called the Kalenjins. That's a bit strange, since Kalenjins make up only about 4 percent or so of the entire population. Historically, Kalenjins lived a nomadic life tending roaming herds of cattle, and a young Kalenjin male was considered suitable for marriage only if he possessed an adequate number of beeves (this was the "bride price"). Since livestock didn't exactly grow on trees, enterprising young men would raid wandering herds at night (often those belonging to a different tribe) in an attempt to purloin enough hooves to impress the family of the potential bride. This involved running the cattle away from the main herd as quickly and for as great a distance as possible - before the theft was discovered. Thus, a direct link was established between outstanding endurance-running performances and fatherhood, an effect magnified by the tendency of Kenyan males to marry several times. It's all speculation (the Kalenjins have never been checked for performance-enhancing genes; indeed, we have a poor general understanding of which genes would be looked for in such a check), but it seems possible that the traditional bride price, cattle-rustling lifestyle might have selected segments of DNA which code for improved long-distance running.
- Exercise a lot when you are a child. Little kids in Kenya really do carry out a lot of aerobic training, but they call it "running to school." As I jogged on the trails and roads near Mt. Kenya, little folks padded past me, cruising easily at six-minute per mile tempo in bare feet on uneven ground, with heavy school bags draped over their shoulders. The average Kenyan youngster covers eight to 20 kilometers per day just ambulating back and forth between home and school (more Ks are often covered while doing chores around a rural home), and this sole-to-ground mode of transport increases the strength and flexibility of leg, ankle, and foot muscles. Later, when a young Kenyan begins to train seriously for competition, the support system - the feet and legs - can handle the stresses of training with relative ease. American-kids' feet are better suited for handling the stresses of pushing down on their automobiles' accelerator pedals.
- Grow up at an altitude of 5500 to 7000 feet. Maturing at such elevations gives you slightly thicker blood, a stronger heart, more blood vessels per muscle cell, and slightly smaller muscle fibers which can be more easily and quickly penetrated by incoming oxygen molecules. Growing up at even higher altitudes (than 7000 feet) is not as good for endurance performance; otherwise we would be talking about the 20 Sherpa Commandments right now.
Can runners from the rest of the world catch up with the Kenyans? Sure - if they simply follow all 20 Kenyan commandments. Just adhering to one of the dictates - like going to altitude for a few weeks (or months or years) - is not enough: It is necessary to swallow the whole package. If that's not possible …………… well, it's still lots of fun to watch the Kenyans run so amazingly quickly! ©