One of the things we find the most interesting in distance running here at Runfisix is contrasting the East African training approach with the more, for want of a better term ‘Western’ style. Often very simplistically summarized as intuition and ‘feel’ versus more ‘methodical’ and scientific. This approach is reflected in the fact that East Africans pass a lot of key information by word of mouth, through groups and down generations, not through websites, social media and magazines. Most often they don’t fully understand why they do what they do, but they don’t waste time questioning it, they just get on and use it.
Why Kenyans run so fast. A synthesis of in-person discussions whilst we worked with Wilson Kipsang in 2015.
1) Psychological. Runners in Kenya grow up with an intense, culturally ingrained belief that nothing beats hard work as well as a commitment to push themselves as far as needed to make something of themselves. And they don’t wait to be helped, they do it themselves with no support and no pat on the back. Their independent spirit to take the initiative is immense. Not to mention their ability to suffer and withstand huge amounts of hardship and pain. Useful traits if your goal is to run fast marathon times.
2) Psychological. The reality of rural of life in rural Kenya is that here is little to no money or material wealth and young runners most often grow up in conditions of relative poverty. However at the same time it is also widely known that winning just one major international running race can provide enough income that the recipient runner would likely not need to work a job again for the rest of their lives. Hence the lure of having a chance to ‘win’ in running is extremely powerful. So much so that thousands of young Kenyans are pushing themselves to be the country’s next big running star. This in turn creates an incredibly competitive environment that ultimately develops a very high average standard and hence a perpetual funnel of world class talent.
3) Physical. People from outside East Africa can train hard and eat the right foods but even with this they lack Kenyan elastic efficiency. People comment to us – how can they run so fast but have no muscle. Simple, its elastic efficiency. From a young age their tendons are taught to be extremely strong (there is also evidence to suggest their Achilles tendons are significantly longer) and extremely elastic. Elastic recoil efficiency, particularly in the lower leg is what makes runners able to hold a fast pace with little effort for so long without large volume muscles. If you can tolerate Kenyan running group hopping and skipping drills sessions without burned out calves, then you’re doing really well.
In one session with Wilson he spontaneously demonstrated a sequence of single leg hopping drills for a total of 10min without a break and then immediately walked away as if it was just the start of a warm-up.
4) Physical. Of course Kenyans are mostly very slender and light and at the most basic level this means they do less work moving their bodies and they are able to better control body temperature. A tendency toward longer legs relative to their torsos also provides a slight mechanical advantage. Which all added together creates high efficiency traits for long distance movement.
5) Psychological. Kenyans have a cultural heritage that is based around farming the land, herding livestock and hunting/tracking wildlife. Sometimes these hunts can continue for days without food. So it’s not that they possess special long distance genes, it’s more that they are immersed in a way of life and youth development process that nurtures distance running. And yes there is also the argument that many kids travel long distances to/from school on foot from age 7 or 8 (but not all – ref Paul Tergat) providing additional early age conditioning.
6) Psychological. Kenyan runners grow up with role models and inspirational figures everywhere around them. With Wilson for example, he grew up just one valley over from Paul Tergat. Their families knew each other. So Wilson had a role model close by to his home who had become one of the best distance runners in the world. Supplanting the notion of – if he/she can do it then so can I.
7) Psychological. The final word is left for God. Most Kenyans are committed Christians and hold an unflinching belief in God. What’s so important about this is that they don’t dwell on anything and they don’t over analyze anything. Because they believe so deeply in God’s will and have so much faith, they effectively free-up their brains to perform. Hence they can simplify their lives and train under just a few very basic guiding principles. Taking running training back to it simplest and purest ideal.
Wilson Kipsang is a former world record holder in the marathon (Berlin 2013), an Olympic bronze medalist (London 2012) and one of the most prolific sub 2:05 marathon runners in history.
We would like to thank Wilson for his very gracious hospitality and the time he spent explaining his background, his thoughts on Kenyan running and sharing his training workouts and drills. If you would like to learn more about how the fastest runners in the world train, let us know in the comments and we'll add more articles on this subject. You can also check out the ASR Podcast here for more knowledge on this Art and Science of Running.