You don’t have to be in the running world long before you know that the Kenyans are the gold standard for success. Last year, 340 Kenyans broke 2:15 in the marathon. To put that in perspective, the United States had just 13 men go under that time. What is it about this east African country that churns out distance running superstars like no other? What can we learn from them to help us become better runners? Over the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to coach athletes from around the globe, including Kenya. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t have to be an elite runner to benefit from incorporating Kenyan training techniques into your daily regime.
Warm Up Into The Run
Many Kenyan runners begin their runs at a crawl. They almost stumble at the beginning until they gradually warm up into their run. As the run goes on, they allow themselves to pick up the pace—and pick up the pace some more—finishing much quicker than their pedestrian beginning. Think of it like a pot of water coming to a boil: there's not an instant where you can pinpoint when the water started to get hot, but the end result is undeniable. Instead of following orders from your Garmin, allow your body to loosen up gradually and give your cardiovascular system time to adjust to the effort ahead.
Training camps are huge in Iten, Kenya, where all of the elites congregate. Rarely will you see someone running solo. Instead, large groups run together. Here, how often do you see someone running alone instead of with a pack of fifty? In Kenya, peer pressure isn’t about going out on Friday night; it’s to meet up for a run at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Kenyans use group accountability and the strength of the pack to keep their training honest.
Americans tend to focus on quantity, while Kenyans focus on quality. If our training log calls for fifteen 400-meter repeats, we will gut through all fifteen no matter how ugly the last few may be. But if a Kenyan is scheduled to run the same, he may only run ten if he starts fading off pace. So what if he didn’t complete all fifteen? The ten he did run were perfect. Kenyan runners’ ability to listen to their bodies and adjust their workouts accordingly allows them to optimize what they have to give.
Kenyans do a tremendous job of focusing on the task at hand while still relating it to the big picture. They never go too far down the rabbit hole searching for personal bests in practice because they know it will take away from their bigger mission of PR-ing in their goal race. This single-minded focus allows them to ignore the urge to annihilate a workout if doing so would compromise the bigger picture. There is a time for training and a time for racing. Kenyans do not train to train, but instead they train to race.
Drill It In
Kenyans do form drills almost daily. On any given day, any dirt track in Kenya (there are only two all-weather tracks in the entire country) will be teaming with training groups doing calisthenics. Training your legs to work in coordinated and powerful motion takes years of practice. The Kenyans know this. It is through diligent work in form drills that the Kenyans’ beautifully powerful strides are honed.
FLEET FEET can help you put these training points into action. Our training programs use many aspects of the Kenyan approach to running as the groundwork for what we do. Whether you are part of our Half or Full Marathon Programs, Speed School, or Training Center classes, we want to help you find your inner Kenyan. As the T-Shirt says, "In my mind, I'm a Kenyan." Check us out and see how we can introduce you to taking that next step.
Good Luck and Happy Racing!
Tim Cary is FLEET FEET's Assistant Training Manager, coach of the FLEET FEET-sponsored Runnababez Elite team, and manager of the FLEET FEET Racing Team. Over his 20 years of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors. Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.