Kenyan distance runners have been dominating the world scene for more than 30 years. Just last month, a Kenyan, Mary Keitany, was the first woman to break one hour and six minutes in the half-marathon when she set the world record at 1:05:50. Last year, Kenyan men won four of the five world major marathons and lay claim to 60 of the top 100 ranked marathoners.
An astonishing 239 Kenyans broke two hours and fifteen minutes last year in the marathon. (By contrast, Canada had three under the same time - and that was a good year for us.) Factor in the population of the two countries (Kenya, 39 million, Canada, 34 million), and it's evident just how excellent the East African country is at producing world-class distance runners.
As a marathoner, I wanted to observe first-hand how these great athletes were training and living. For one month this winter, I went to Iten, Kenya, and immersed myself in the culture of Kenyan running. Iten is a small town of 4,000, about 300 kilometres northwest of the capital, Nairobi, and is home to many of the world's best distance runners and hundreds more who make a living winning road race purses.
It's not a coincidence that the rural town sits about 2,400 metres (about 8,000 feet) above sea level where athletes benefit from training in thin air. I soon learned, however, that there are many other reasons why Kenyan runners dominate. Here are some tips that all runners can incorporate into their training in order to run like a Kenyan.
Consistency. Running - a lot - is the key to distance running, and the Kenyans are no exception when it comes to logging many kilometres day in, day out. Most of the runners I met run at least twice a day but some run up to three times. If you can squeeze a few more kilometres into your week, without compromising quality, you will reap the benefits.
Train hard. The motto "train hard, win easy" is exemplified by Kenyan runners. If you want to run hard come race day, it's best to prepare with some sort of speed session (intervals, fartlek, tempo) one to three times a week to get used to the specific effort of your race pace.
Rest hard. After bouts of hard training it is vital that the body has time to repair and recover for the next training session. Kenyan runners incorporate naps into their days and get to bed early. Plus, they don't run hard all the time; most people would be surprised on how slow they run their recovery runs. Make sure you're not running hard every day and take it easy the day or two after a hard run.
Soft surfaces. Running on dirt trails rather than pavement is much easier on the body. When I was in Iten, all of my running was on trails and dirt roads (of course, this is easy to do when there is only one paved road in the area). Seek out soft surfaces for most of your running, and your body will thank you.
Group training. Seeing a Kenyan run alone is the exception to the norm. Kenyans run in groups during speed sessions as well as their easy runs. Running with a group can provide that extra push during hard runs and it can help keep the easy runs leisurely with chit-chat. Many running stores offer group runs if your friends are too lazy to join you.
Proper warm-up. Many times while I was running with Kenyans I was surprised how slowly they would start off. It's best to ease into your runs, and it is especially important to do some easy jogging before any type of speed session or race.
Nutrition. In Iten, a 100-mile diet would seem absurdly long. Kenyans eat fresh food that usually comes from small-scale farms in their region. Ugali (a cornmeal dish) is their staple carbohydrate of choice and is served with beef or chicken stew and veggies. It's important to replenish carbohydrates and protein soon after a run and get the proper fuel into your body.
Hakuna matata. The Lion King popularized the Swahili phrase "hakuna matata" which, loosely, translates to "no worries." Kenyans keep stress to a minimum by embracing hakuna matata in their everyday lives. It's important to leave stress behind to allow your body to perform at its best, and sometimes the best way to relieve stress is to head out the door for a run.
Throughout my month in Kenya, I gained fitness, but more importantly, I came away motivated and inspired. To test out my fitness I went to Belgium to compete in a 10-kilometre cross-country race where I surprised myself with a fifth-place finish; the rest of the top eight were African. Training with the best runners and taking advantage of altitude training allowed me to perform much better.
Reid Coolsaet is the top ranked marathoner in Canada. At the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last September his time was 2:11:23 - the fastest by a Canadian in 24 years.
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