In Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 1, I introduced the topic that I wanted to discuss and defined some end points that I was going to use in the discussion. I also introduced the first group/sport I wanted to talk about which was Kenyan distance runners. If you want the details, read Part 1. For now just accept that starting in about 1970, Kenyans rose from total anonymity to what amounts to simple overwhelming and absolute dominance in the men’s distance events.
And a question that has been posited since they started winning is why this is the case. And the answer is not simple. Demonstrating that, to look at this in the detail I want, it’s going to take me today and Friday to cover factors ranging from physiology, sociology, economics, incentives, and who knows what else. This should give you some idea of what I’m going to try to address in this series as a whole to answer the original question.
And don’t worry, I won’t be going into this kind of nauseating detail for every sport and every group. I’m doing it in this first case to try and express the degree that all of these different factors contribute, just to give the scope of complexity of this topic and why simple answers of “Just do this one thing” are invariably so wrong.
In any case, back to the Kenyans. Over the years folks have looked intensely for the reasons behind Kenyan running dominance and early studies focused, somewhat logically on physiology. Examination of other factors that might play a role came later. Today and Friday, of course, I’ll look at all of it.
Early studies of Kenyan runners focused on physiology and genetics since they were fairly easy to measure (and physiologists were really getting a hardon for such about the time the Kenyans came to dominance). However, no real differences in VO2 max showed up. This is no surprise, at the top levels of endurance athletes there is not only a clear limit to VO2 max but by itself it holds little predictive value for performance. A high VO2 max is required for top endurance performance but, in and of itself it is not sufficient and this is true in all endurance sports.
There is some indication of improved efficiency (due to a low body weight, very skinny lower legs and other factors), along with very high Type I fiber number (and very oxidative Type IIa fibers) in Kenyan runners and both would be expected to provide a benefit to distance running.
Metabolically, Kenyans appear to produce less ammonia (which causes fatigue during exercise) and they rely more on fat for fuel (and less on protein which is probably why they produce less ammonia in the first place) both which would have benefits for long distance running. They probably also thermoregulate better due to being tall and lanky (and having evolved in Africa); this is important for long events as once core temperature gets above a certain point, performance simply stops.
Of great interest, Kenyan runners have been found to be able to maintain a whopping 92% of VO2 max for extended periods (most other athletes top out at maybe 87-88%). Coupled with the increased running efficiency this means that at any given running speed, the Kenyan runners are expending less effort. And when other runners have hit their limit, Kenyans have another gear to access. If all of the above is Greek to you, please read Predictors of Endurance Training Performance for explanations of those terms.
So there is certainly at least some evidence to indicate physiological adaptations that would predispose Kenyans towards great running performance. It’s worth noting that Kenyans who have occasionally tried to cross-over to other endurance sports haven’t had much success since different body types tend to be ideal for different sports and Kenyans don’t have it; they are built to run and that’s about it. So it’s all just genetic, right? Well, no. That may be part of it but separating what is genetic and what is due to their intense training (discussed below) is problematic.
The Genetic Factor
While on the topic of genetics, there is something interesting worth mentioning Because sometimes people take the idea that ‘All great runners are Kenyans’ and reverse it to ‘All Kenyans are great runners’ (it’d be the same logical fallacy as saying ‘since all oranges are round, all round things are oranges’).
Not only is that wrong, there is simply no indication that this is the case. Certainly Kenyan runners are dominant but there are far more Kenyans who are non-runners (or who fail) than there are runners who succeed. The majority of Kenyans are neither runners nor champions. It’s simply that the subset of Kenyans who do run well just crush the rest of the world.
I mention this as research indicates that, among blacks, there tends to be more genetic variability than in other ethnicities (again I hesitate to use the word ‘race’). Basically there is more spread around what might be some average in blacks compared to non-blacks. You’ll see both more data points at the low end and at the high end for anything you look at.
And the practical implication of that is that you could expect both the best and worst runners to be represented by Kenyan runners. It’s similar to the way that blacks of West African descent may be muscular, lean strength/power dominant types or suffer from terrible insulin resistance and obesity. Quite in fact, as discussed in the paper Influence of Racial Origin and Skeletal Muscle Properties on Disease Prevalence and Physical Performance it’s probably the same factors causing both potentialities (i.e. high Type II fiber dominance) and other factors which interact to determine what is ultimately seen.
Basically we would expect there to be just as many Kenyan runners who are terrible as there are who are just incredible. But it’s this variability that may give the potential for truly superior specimens to emerge. And since sport only cares about the best athletes (the ones at the opposite extreme or in the middle aren’t relevant), it’s only relevant in that this variability gives that potential for both the worst AND the best. And the best are all that matter here.
But that can only happen if a bunch of other factors are also present and that’s what I’m going to discuss next.
Location, Location, Location
Of course a logical place to look for clues had to do with where Kenyans not only lived and grew up but had evolved and this included multiple factors. An early issue that came up was the altitude factor. Kenyans not only evolved at altitude but grow up there; this might have an impact on a lot of levels. But other tribes live/evolve at the same altitude and haven’t produced the same number of runners so there’s clearly more than just that going on. It may be necessary or helpful but it clearly isn’t sufficient.
It was often argued early on that Kenyans ran everywhere as children but this is far from universally true. Some great Kenyan runners ran to school, some did not. However, cars are a rarity, most Kenyan kids do at least walk to school and it’s thought that their hard upbringing gives them a 10 year base (in terms of having conditioned their bodies, tendons, bones and ligaments walking or running on ground) so that transitioning to intensive training is less of a shock.
By the time they are 15 or whatever, they’ve already been pounding the ground for miles at a time as part of their activities daily living. It’s naturally occurring GPP as a function of the culture and environment. Contrast that to the US where people take the car down the block to the mini-mart and kids don’t even ride bikes for the most part.
The weather is such that they can train year round. There has been some recent speculation about Vitamin D and athletic performance and being outdoors in the sun training would contribute to optimal Vitamin D levels. The same probably applies to Jamaican sprinters training in Jamaica and may be part of their success in the short sprints. That and the sweet potatoes.
But again there are other countries in the area that share the commonality of location and they don’t produce great runners. The above is all probably beneficial as hell (certainly it’s hard to be a distance runner in places where you have to deal with months of brutal winter) but it’s clearly not sufficient to produce success.
For political reasons related to having been a British colony, most Kenyans are exposed to either soccer or running at an early age and few other options are available; there simply aren’t any other sports to get involved in or pull talent from running (and soccer includes a lot of running as part of the sport).
Remember, running is a universal sport; all cultures run and it requires little to no equipment so there are no real financial hurdles keeping anybody out. It’s not like having to pay for gymnastics or ice skating lessons or joining a gym where you often see ‘cultural’ or ‘racial’ dominance simply because only certain groups can afford to do it.
Want to run? Go outdoors and put one foot in front of the other and do it until you don’t do it anymore. As well, school kids often run in competition fairly early on as well; this is the type of situation that identifies talent and provides kids coming up with an incentive to pursue more training if they show some initial success at it. Competition starts to identify potential talents and give them some positive feedback for the activity (ribbons, bragging rights, the stuff kids and adults both love).
It’s the Training, Stupid
Of course, much has been written (much wrong) about how the Kenyans actually train. The first source below, Tanser is about the most accurate information you’ll find since he’s lived there and talked to the runners themselves. This is not second hand information.
Because once they decide to pursue competitive running (and they do it only for competitive reasons, Kenyans don’t understand the fascination with jogging for leisure among Westerners) the Kenyans train like absolute maniacs. Twice a day 6 days a week is normal. Many train three times per day, some even go four times per day to try and reach the next level.
There’s a funny story in one of the books below about some new runners at training camp, they were up at 8am and saw one of the current champs in bed sleeping. They thought they were ahead of the game out running at 8am. They didn’t realize he’d already been up at 6am to do his first run and was sleeping before his 10am second run of the day.
But they all end up trying to out-do one another in terms of who can train the most or hardest. And while this certainly destroys some, the ones who don’t break down simply succeed. It’s a grinder system to be sure but it developed totally organically without anyone imposing it or putting it in place. They do it because they feel that hard work will bring success. And once they devote themselves to running, they do whatever it takes.
Kenyan training philosophy seems to have integrated the best part of a lot of different training systems and ideas and it all comes together in a synergistic whole. Fasted morning runs (followed 4 hours later by a second run which might have some interesting gene expression implications), quality work depending on the specific event being trained for, the single weekly long run, etc.
When they run easy they run ‘very’ easy (they might amble along at 8 minute per mile when they can readily throw off consistent 5 minute miles); when they go hard they run themselves to exhaustion. They perform workouts that most couldn’t achieve in the first place much less run day after day. And unlike many athletes who work in the middle zone all the time, Kenyans Keep the Hard Days Hard and Easy Days Easy. Runs that start out at an ambling pace (not going faster until they warm up) frequently turn into race pace by the end. They often get volume and intensity in most of their runs.
They use no technology, heart rate monitors are unheard of and unused when given to runners; instead they train by feel. There is an auto-regulating aspect to their training; when they feel good they go hard. If that means 4 hard days in a row they figure why not take advantage and go hard. If they feel worn out, they go easier until they feel good again. Contrast this to systems where you will run speed work on Wednesday and hills on Saturday PERIOD.
Kenyans don’t lift weights and most are pathetically weak (a single push-up or chin being beyond them). However, their training is done on soft ground up and down mountains. So not only are their joints spared the impact of running on concrete (allowing them to train more often most likely), there is automatic stability training (try running on uneven trails sometimes).
The hill work (which Lydiard promoted decades ago) amounts to running specific strength training some of the hills are so steep that they end up on all fours scrambling up the thing. Coming down is a huge eccentric stress (trivia for the day: downhill running is often used to generate massive muscle damage). And they do this all the time. You don’t need special strength training or to dick around in the weight room when you can get the most specific running strength training going up and down the mountain.
They feel that running on softer ground makes them more springy and running is a sport where elastic rebound does contribute (studies have found benefits to plyometric training for runners for example and there may be long term adaptations to things like titin that play a role here). After a road race on concrete they will find soft ground to do their cool down on to bring their legs back so they can train the next day.
When they race, Kenyans give it their all, with new runners often going out at impossible paces just in case they can hold on (and usually dying on the vine). The depth of the Kenyan runners is such that they often go 1,2,3. Simply, their slow runners are still better than 99% of everyone else.
Many developing Kenyan runners attend or qualify for training camps (and a lot of the big shoe companies have set up training camps for Kenyan runners) where they are exposed to the type of training thought to require success. This rapidly weeds out those who can’t handle it; only the best survive. Some argue that if non-Kenyans could train like Kenyans, they could be competitive. But without the background, the anatomy (weighing 50kg soaking wet takes a lot of the pounding off the body), the location, and everything else it’s unclear if non-Kenyans could train like the Kenyans.
Quite in fact, when non-Kenyan runners have attempted to train with Kenyans in Kenya, they usually give up after about a week (notably, some Kenyan runners give up a week into training camps when they realize what’s expected by them; they’ve got the background and they can’t hack it). They simply can’t handle the training.
From a coaching perspective, in addition to feedback from other successful runners, Kenyan coaches now have 30 years experience producing the best runners in the world. They are located in schools, in the military (another fertile ground for Kenyan running stars), at the shoe sponsored camps. The coaches know how to produce champions and up and coming runners do not lack for guidance in how to train and develop their potential whether it comes from other runners or the experienced coaches.
And believe it or not, I’m only halfway through and going to cut it here. And don’t worry, future groups I’m going to look at won’t take nearly this amount of space, time or verbiage. See you Friday for the wrap-up on the Kenyans.