With the Rio 2016 Athletics starting today, here’s an interesting read on the secret behind Kenya’s successful long distance running track record at the Olympics. Having spent over 10 days at Iten, Kenya’s High Altitude Training Camp, Shayamal considers the High Altitude Training camp as an ideal holiday getaway for a runner.
While interacting and training with some of the best runners across the world, Shayamal found some key insights on what makes the Kenyans world’s best runners.
They get drafted or invited into a training camp by the age of 15-17. Most runners who are drafted into a training camp don’t actually know if they HM, FM or 10K runners. Their specialization comes in on the track twice a week. They then need to undergo intense training with the best runners for about 8-10 years for them to peak, following which they get an agent who gets them a race internationally.
On a daily basis, the runners target to run 15-18 km daily unless they are doing a long run, where they will end up running about 30-35 km with support. They typically run twice a day – at 6am and 5pm. Kenyan runners follow a strict and disciplined routine when it comes to running. They all do a very similar mileage, which is upwards of 140-150km per week. They usually do 3 long runs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with track sessions on Tuesday, Fartleks on Thursday and other small runs ranging between 8-10km to get mileage. They run 6 days a week covering about 9-11 sessions depending on the group. Sunday is rest day. Everyone goes to church 🙂
One needs to acclimatize when you go up an altitude. Racing at lower altitudes doesn’t need acclimatizing. Since Kenyan runners are generally training at a high altitude, they have a huge advantage training high and competing low.
The Kenyan runners hardly ever go to the gym. They prefer to incorporate strength work on the road via hills and Fartleks. Sometimes, they do 15-minute core sessions on basic body weight core exercises in a group.
Brother Colm who is the guru coach in Iten believes in form. He uses the FAST principle in coaching – Focus, Alignment, Stability and Timing. All the runners here swear by this, as he is the man responsible for revolutionized running in Kenya. Most of the runners use minimal shoes as they grow up running around barefoot, which I believe could be the secret to their running prowess. In terms of breathing technique, they just run and breathe naturally. No scientific formulae at all.
The Kenyans stretch very little before or after their run. In Iten at the training camps, they meet at 6am daily and most runners run to that spot which becomes their warm up. They do a basic 10 min stretch routine after and a group core workout once a week. No yoga, gym or anything modern. Sleep and eat clean food is their secret to staying fit. All they do is train, eat and sleep. So rest is a big part of their regime to a speedy recovery.
Kenyans have mastered the art of doing lots of low intensity mileage. They believe that strength work should be done on the road. Yes, they do a lot of mileage, but really slow because Iten is at 2400m altitude. It’s fast for us but slow for them and that’s the secret to how they achieve such a high weekly mileage with low injury rates. Unfortunately, because of their heavy mileage they do get injured. It sometimes takes a while for them to get back but that’s because they have little access to quality physiotherapists or to good medical care. This is also largely responsible for their short careers at the top of the sport.
The Kenyan runners follow a simple, yet very nutritious diet. A standard meal usually consists of Ugali (a type of meal porridge), lots of kale or spinach, and beans. Meat is not a huge part of their diet, but that’s because it’s very expensive. The average Kenyan stays in a training camp, which costs him $40-80 per month for rent and food. No luxuries at all. Most of them don’t use any supplements either as they can’t afford it. They also tend to drink an abnormally small amount of water. In fact, they don’t drink water at all on any runs under 20km. This includes their intervals or Fartleks. I believe that training at an altitude and mildly dehydrated maybe a contributing factor to their stamina and strength.
In Kenya everyone trains in a group and to be invited into a group you need to show enormous potential or be recommended by a famous athlete. Most runners in groups run 10K in about 29min, Half Marathon in 63min and a Full Marathon in 2hr 15mins on an average. These athletes only reach their full potential after 7-8 years in a group because they join at 17/18 years. In fact, for many years they become the pacers for the main runners in the group who are the guys close to 2:06/7 for a FM.
Kenya probably has about 40-50 runners who can run a sub 2:15. It’s tough competition, but every single one of them believes they will make it. Almost all runners in every group have finished in the top 3 in a major marathon.
Kenyans don’t need to be motivated to run. They are mentally strong and live and breathe to run. The spirit of running flows through every cell of their body.