The last few decades have been transformative for East and West African countries. We’ve seen many athletes from these places break world records and win at Olympic levels. I’m mainly referring to the Kenyans, one of the most accomplished running tribes at the Olympics known for endurance running.
Their amazing performances have been attributed to factors like genetics. The Kenyans have superior genes for running relative to those of us of European descent. You’ve also heard that, as children, they run tens of miles to school and back every day. Whilst these factors are true, we haven’t had as much insight into their training routines. Or the volumes of training they endure to become those ‘superhuman runners’.
A book I picked up the other day gives the full explanation for their extraordinary performance. It also teaches principles from dozens of coaches and Kenyan athletes, all intended for the regular Joe who wants to become as good a runner as the top athletes from Kenya.
To help you get the gist of the book by scanning this article, I divided the main takeaways into groups. These include:
- Environmental and cultural factors
- Advantages from genetics and biomechanics
- Training methodology and principles
Environmental and cultural factors
Kenya is a place designed for runners. In short, this place has:
- Lots of hilly terrain
- Average altitude of 1800m
- 20-28 degrees Celsius year-long
- Plenty of trails and fell with a lack of tarmac or other hard surfaces
- The culture where people embrace the challenges of their environment daily
Kenyans love running in groups and challenging each other. Their training is always based on social interaction. So no wonder their athletes train in villas designed for endurance training, which can house 30 athletes (+1 coach) at a time. The villas don’t have running water or electricity so the conditions are rather harsh.
50% of the population live below the poverty line, 40% are jobless, and life expectancy is only 48 years
It is not a secret that Kenya is a rather poor country. 50% of the population live below the poverty line, 40% are jobless, and life expectancy is only 48 years! The average income per day is just $1. Thanks to their natural inclination to move, many Kenyans strive to become athletes. This is by far the best way for them to prosper in this harsh environment.
Advantages from genetics and biomechanics
Countless studies have shown how genetics have made Kenyans such superior athletes. Here are the most common differences between their biomechanics relative to people of European descent:
Kenyans are able to resist fatigue for longer because lactic acid, generated in oxygen-deprived muscle, builds up slower
- Exposure to high altitude for most of their lives (1800-2000 m), means their bodies produce more of red blood cells. It’s these cells that transport oxygen to soft tissues like muscle. If an athlete trains at high altitude all the time, when they step down from the mountain to race at sea level, they will outperform everyone else. Or that’s the popular thinking, right? There is some true to this, but it’s why Kenyans are superior distance runners…
- The Kenyan diet consists of carbohydrates and little meat. Unlike athletes of European descent, Kenyans have evolved to break down heavy sugar intake (carbohydrates) without the horrible effects on insulin resistance. This doesn’t answer the why either…
- Elsewhere in the world, most people have an average ratio of muscle fibers. The split between slow and fast twitch muscle fiber is usually 50:50. Meanwhile Kenyans have a higher ratio of slow twitch fibres – perfect for endurance training.
- Kenyan athletes are also lean: on average weighing just 50-60kg. They have narrow hips that allow for a straight and fast stride, longer and much thinner legs. The latter is the most important aspect of all. Compared to Europeans, Kenyans are on average 10% faster due to having almost 400g less of muscle mass in their calves. On top of that, their legs are about 5% longer too.
Ok, these are all great metrics, but they still don’t answer the why… Why are Kenyans so good at distance running?
The answer is in a gene called ACE, otherwise known as the endurance gene. It’s a rare gene that influences control of blood circulation in muscle. In short, it means that Kenyans are able to resist fatigue for longer because lactic acid, generated in oxygen-deprived muscle, builds up slower. It also means that Kenyan athletes get 10% more mileage for the same oxygen intake as Europeans.
And on top of that, Kenyans also have a distinct muscle enzyme profile (3-hydroxyacyl COA dehydrogenase), which allows them to use their body fat (fatty acids) for fuel more efficiently.
Training methodology and principles
European coaches have run Olympic training camps in Kenya for decades. These camps are based in villas I mentioned before, with 30 athletes training together.
This is very different from European camps where each athlete has their own coach.
The fact that Kenyans train together is an advantage: they motivate each other. Every athlete in the camp does the same workout every day, as a pack.
Kenyans don’t use: heart rate monitors, pacing and GPS devices, fancy cushioned shoes, supplements, … They keep running to the rudimental minimum and have fun with it.
Although they train together, every athlete has a specific running routine which consists of:
- High volume long-distance running
- Fartlek / speed training workouts
- Hill running
- Easy running
Looks much like what you do? Yep, but they do it for insane amounts of mileage. The book lists 200-300km as the weekly distance goal for Kenyan athletes. That’s 3-4 hours of running every single day!
Their coaches advise Kenyans to run only on soft terrain, since hard surfaces are a shortcut to injuries, especially at large training volumes.
Every athlete also completes a mobility and strength training workout 2-3 times a week.
These bullet points are just highlights of what Kenyan athletes are exposed to everyday. Can you imagine how much you could achieve if you trained to this extent under such harsh conditions? No wonder Kenyans rule distance running. I believe they are too alien for the European and North American athletes used to comfort.
I also can’t wait for OCR to become such a big sport that we see athletes from West and East Africa appear at the start line. Because when they do appear, they will surely dominate the longer obstacle course races.