Running With Kenyans

Back in August 2013, I wrote a blog post called How To Run Like A Kenyan, where I touched upon some of the things that made Kenyan runners so fast.

A similar version of the same article appeared in Triathlon Plus magazine around that time. It was one of my favourites.

A few weeks ago I finished reading a book on a similar subject called “Running With The Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn. It’s an entertaining book and a great way to learn more about how to improve your running.

The thing that struck me about the Kenyan running methods is that they’re all so simple and obvious. It’s like we all spend ages looking for some magic formula or a new gadget when the answers are staring us in the face all along.

Whether you’re an IRONMAN triathlete, a marathon runner or a complete beginner, you’ll learn some important running lessons from this blog post.

Run On Soft Ground

At the beginning of the book, the author (Finn) visits a group of Kenyan athletes living and training in London. He goes for a training run with them and is surprised when they opt to walk the first couple of kilometres to a park simply to avoid running on hard surfaces. They do this because they believe it helps them avoid injuries.

Back in Kenya they also avoid running on hard surfaces, preferring to train on dirt roads or forest trails. This helps the Kenyan runners avoid the high injury rates experienced by Western runners, enabling them to train more consistently.

The Kenyan Diet

In the town of Iten, where the majority of the best Kenyan runners train, you cannot buy pizzas, burgers, chocolate, fries, crisps, beer and all those other things that we all get tempted into having from time to time.

The Kenyans diet consists largely of Ugali (boiled maize-meal), vegetable stew and beans. They eat very little meat or fatty, sugary processed foods.

Which explains why the athletes that Finn meets are very light. For a similar height, they are around 20 kg (44 pounds) lighter than he is. Bear in mind he’s a 38 minute 10k runner himself, so hardly overweight.

Running is essentially a series of small leaps, so the less weight you carry the less energy you expend for a given pace. And that’s one of the reasons the Kenyans are so fast.

Training Camps

When a Kenyan wants to get fit, they leave their home for several months at a time to join a training camp where they can dedicate themselves 100% to running. They don’t try and balance their training around their job and home-life as you or I might do.

We’re not just talking professional runners either. We’re talking about any aspiring amateur who dreams of racing abroad one day. On these camps, they live cheaply and simply, without luxuries. They train early in the morning, rest all day and then run again in the late afternoon. It’s nothing complicated, but it’s effective.

This is also something that the multiple Olympic Gold Medalist Mo Farah has incorporated into his training, since living with a group of Kenyans in London in 2005. He’s a devoted family man now, but he still leaves them behind for three months at a time to train in the basic surroundings of Kenya or Ethiopia.

Keep It Simple

Kenyan athletes do not have Garmin GPS watches, underwater treadmills or heart rate monitors.

At most, they have a simple stopwatch to time their interval sessions. They learn to pace themselves by listening to their bodies and by striving to keep up with the people around them.

If you think money is the answer to your running goals, think again.

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Barefoot Running

It may surprise you to know that Kenyan athletes do not train barefoot as a rule. They train in normal running shoes in order to protect themselves from stones on the roads.

It is thought that running in cushioned shoes encourages you to land heel-first, which acts as a braking force and contributes to injuries.

However, the author notes that the Kenyans all land on their forefeet and not their heels, despite wearing shoes. He believes it’s because they spent a large part of their childhoods running around without shoes. And when you run without shoes, you naturally land on your forefeet.

So the Kenyan’s ability to run efficiently is ingrained in them from a young age, rather than specific technique coaching.

That’s all for this fortnight’s Serious Triathlete Blog. If you want to learn more about Kenyan running secrets I highly recommend the source of this blog post: Running With The Kenyans by Adharanand Finn.

Phil Mosley (Coach & Founder)
Phil Mosley (Coach & Founder)

Phil is a recognised endurance expert who founded MyProCoach in 2010 to offer smart training plans that still leave quality time for your family, friends & career - complete with highly-rated coach support (he has sold over 40,000 so far). Learn more here!

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