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Why Kenyans are so dominant in long distance running

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I’ve just finished a book about a runner’s investigation into how Kenyan runners are so fast. Adharanand Finn (Runner’s World magazine contributor) travelled with his family to Iten in Kenya, the ‘running capital of the world’ and immersed himself in their culture for six months, trained with Kenya’s top athletes in the Rift Valley and ran his first ever marathon in blazing heat in a time he never thought possible (2hr 55).

Ultimately, Finn discovers, it is not one thing that makes them so fast but a number of factors, which combined seems to have an enormous impact on the Kenyans’ running ability and success in world running events. Finn says there is no running gene, no training secret that we could replicate elsewhere, just these simple set of circumstances :

1. A tough, active, rural childhood where jobs around the home means hours of physical labour each day, which therefore produce very fit young people.

2. Running to school in bare feet. Barefoot running is something that Westerners experiment with, maybe to become faster or avoid injury, being a more natural, closer to the ground way of running. But apparently it takes a long time to adapt to this way of running when we’ve worn shoes all our lives and have comparatively weak feet. Kenyans grow up running in bare feet which makes their feet strong, springy and robust.

3. The altitude. 2,400m in Iten, on the edge of an escarpment in the Rift Valley. The temperature at that altitude is cool and ideal for running.

4. The diet. A simple diet, taken only to resolve hunger. Mainly ‘ugali’ made from cooked maize flour and water, with vegetables and beans. Kenya’s obesity rate in 2016 was 7.1%. Compare this to the UK figure of 27.8% in the same year.

5. Role models. Kenya has provided many excellent long distance running champions since the 1980s, whose success today’s runners look to emulate. Their men and women hold most of the world records in marathon, half marathon and 3000m track, along with Ethiopia. (Britain’s Paula Radcliffe still holds the world record for the fastest marathon in 2hr 15 – 5 min10 per mile!!)

6. Running camps. In the Iten area there are many running camps where runners do not work but train, eat, sleep and train again. The athletes are focussed and dedicated to running. Their aim is to win world class races where monetary prizes are on offer. If they can come in the top few runners they can provide a better life for their families.

Finn also cites these other reasons for success – an expectation that they can win, mental toughness, lack of alternatives (to earn money), an abundance of trails to run on, time spent resting, the all pervading running culture and the reverence for running.

This was an interesting read, and although we can do nothing now about our childhood, our altitude, and mostly we cannot dedicate our lives to running, it is still very inspiring to read about the Kenyan way of life, the importance of running for them and how they have become world leaders in long distance events. For the author, six months of running in Kenya with the best athletes in the world led to a new PB in the 10k of 35 minutes; 3 minutes faster than his previous best.

Lisa 🙂