In Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting Part 2 I looked at some of the factors potentially to Kenyan dominance in distance running. This included looking at some potential physiological issues that might give them an advantage, the issue of genetics (in a general sense) and then briefly looked at sociopolitical factors and finally their training (where I spent the most time). Shockingly, I was only half way through.
Today I will wrap up this discussion and look at a bunch of other relevant factors. Again, I’m only spending this much time on this particular group once; the other groups I’m going to look at will get one part or less. Mainly I’m going into such depth here to give you some idea of the complexity of this topic in terms of what is required for sports success.
I finished up on Wednesday by talking about Kenyan training and what it entails. I’ll pick up from there and then move into a discussion of perhaps one of the most important factors in all of this.
When They Aren’t Running
Outside of running their brains out, the Kenyans do little else training wise. They do a lot of the evil static stretching and some ‘exercises’ which appear to be more or less a plank type series with some other basic movements. They don’t cross-train, don’t lift weights for the most part (gyms are unheard of in the country). They run and run and run some more. And then run some more for good measure. And they do this from the start to the end of their career. Specificity rules and the results are the proof of that, but that’s a topic for another over-written series I’m working on.
There are few distractions for runners, no TV, no Internet, no Facebook. Many run first thing in the morning and then take a nap before run number 2 a few hours later; they go to bed when the sun goes down. This ensures plenty of sleep, a key for recovery. That’s in addition to naps that are often taken between runs. They train, rest, eat, repeat.
In a related vein, between blocks of hard training, Kenyans often do no running. No cross training, no active recovery, no nothing. They will take 2 months to recover (and do things like work on the farm and spend time with family) and then train like maniacs when it’s time (and you can bet they are rested and ready to go when it’s time). When they go hard, they go hard. When they go easy, they go easy. There’s nothing in-between.
Basically they are full-time athletes, training as much as they can handle and resting the rest of the time. But being able to do that is predicated on arguably one of the single most important factors, one you’ll see coming up again and again.
Very simply, without support to pursue the sport, no amount of training, passion or what have you will get an athlete very far. Whether it’s financial support for equipment and food, moral support, paperwork support or what have you. Without it it’s tough to succeed. As Charlie Francis famously put it “You don’t get full-time results out of part-time athletes” and support is a huge part of that.
And this manifests itself in Kenyan running in a bunch of different ways, much of which comes out of the tribal/communal nature of the group. For example,Kenyans do a lot of their training in large groups on a daily basis. It’s apparently not uncommon to see groups including everyone from world champions and record holders to complete newbies. Nobody is excluded; if you can keep up you can be part of the group.
That sort of environment not only encourages everyone to try (making it more likely that a huge talent might show up) but also pushes everyone to a higher level. What’s more motivating for a new runner than to beat a world champion when they are having an off day? What’s more motivating to a champion to see the guys who are trying to out do him and challenging him? The newbies are pulled to produce their best and the established runners see that they can’t rest or someone else will take their place.
This also extends to supporting runners who want to pursue the sport; when Kenyans decide to pursue running, they are given the support that they need. Sometimes it’s as simple as showing up at a fellow Kenyan’s homestead where the wanna-be runner can expect food and lodging and everything needed to allow them to train full time.
There are also the training camps some of which are organized by the Kenyan sports federation, some by schools, some by the military and some of which are sponsored by the big shoe companies. Regardless of who is involved, they all provide the same type of support so that the athletes can train unfettered by having to worry about anything else.
Although they appear to have come about a little bit later in the development of this entire ‘system’, there are now Kenyans sporting federations that, along with the shoe company training camps, help with other important aspects of support. Stuff like travel visas, making sure athletes are taken care of when they are out of the country.
There is also a developing group of European sports agents who represent Kenyan runners who fulfill a lot of the same roles. And, of course, all of this is critical, your runner can’t win if they aren’t at the races. And they can’t get to the races if they can’t travel, don’t have the right visas, don’t have lodging, etc. It’s all covered to ensure that the athletes can get to the races ready to win.
Diet and Drugs
Dietarily, Kenyans are one of the few groups of endurance athletes that actually hit the recommended 70% carbs with pretty much all of their food coming from unrefined sources (including a maize based food called ugali, an evil grain that doesn’t seem to be hurting them too much). Dietary supplements are unheard of and go unused when provided. This isn’t actually a topic I’m going to address in later parts of the series, I bring it up here primarily for completeness (and to poke fun at the anti-grain cultists some more).
I suppose I should touch on the drug issue, a notable few Kenyan runners have come up positive for banned substances including ephedrine and one or two for anabolics. It’s unknown what the degree of drug use is among this group; some feel that this has increased since European sports agents have started handling Kenyan runners but nobody seems to know for sure what the extent of use is or whether it’s just less talented runners who are using in an attempt to win. Most argue that cultural attitudes towards such would keep most runners from using but clearly some athletes have gotten popped. It’s really a big question mark.
I made a joke once that I had read two books on sports psychology and considered myself an expert; I was only half-joking. And while I’m not going to get deeply into this issue, it is felt by those in the know that there are some important psychological aspects of Kenyan runners that contributes to their success (along with all of the other factors). Again, the issues span multiple topics.
Some feel that the Kenyan upbringing teaches them to endure pain. They are circumcised without anesthetic as teens and expected to make no noise. Effectively, they are taught to internalize pain and show nothing and some think that teaches them to suffer and do it in silence.
As well it’s thought their overall lifestyle of relaxation and sitting around doing a lot of nothing teaches them to endure the monotony inherent to distance running training. They don’t have the distraction of the Internet or TV or whatever or the short attention span/subclinical ADHD of most in the west. So they don’t really have a problem with ‘boredom’. When you’re used to sitting around all day doing jack all, running for 2-3 hours is no big deal; especially given the potential rewards (see below). Contrast that to folks who must jump through endless hoops just to ‘get through an hour of cardio’ without going nuts.
As I noted above, Kenyans don’t run for recreation, most runners stop running after their competitive career is over (and many do have a short career, whether this is from burnout, because they have all the money they need, or because the talent is so deep that up and comers take over is unknown). They run to compete and that’s it. When they are done competing, they are done running for the most part (there are occasional exceptions). They are plenty active tending to the farm, they don’t exercise for recreation or to keep from getting fat and don’t understand why people in other cultures do.
Some also feel that Kenyan dominance has also instilled a belief that Kenyans simply can’t lose; they go into each race supremely confident of their victory (or at least the victory of a tribesman) so they aren’t hampered by any negative thoughts that might keep them from producing their best performance. Some feel other athletes simply give up when they see 7 Kenyans at the line; why give it your all if you’re competing for 8th place? Kenyans in contrast believe they can win and will go as hard as they can as long as they can to make it happen.
In sort of the ‘amusing’ category (and this ties into diet above) that Kenyan runners believe that maize from Kenya (to make ugali) is stronger than maize from anywhere else. They will often bring a bag with them when they travel overseas and all of the Kenyan runners will get together to mix up ugali the night before the race. Magic? Voodoo? Belief? It sort of doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Mojo is mojo and whatever your mojo is, you need it to compete optimally (as I discussed in the section on Random Reinforcement is not Reinforcing Randomly in Because We Let Them: Addendum).
But even that wouldn’t be sufficient, everything I’ve talked about so far, the physiology, location, support, etc., to produce results without another important factor.
Incentives and Motivation
One question that we might ask is what drives them to go through all of this in the first place. What’s their motivation to suffer this much, what are the incentives for even trying. Because without both of those (to one degree or another), nobody is willing to put up with the type of training required.
Make no mistake, sport is part of Kenyan childhood in the schools (for those who can attend school) but that doesn’t explain why the entire country (and the specific groups) are basically just run crazy or work as hard as they do. So what motivates Kenyans to put themselves through all of this in the first place, to put their life on hold for 2 years to run themselves into the ground?
And, as always, there are a multitude of reasons why they run. One big clue is that while Kenyans have dominated in races with big prize purses, they haven’t typically done as much at the Olympic level (especially in things like the marathon). And the reason is simple: money.
Kenya is a poor country and one year’s success on the international running circuit can earn a Kenyan more than they’d make in 10 years of working the farm. For example, consider that winning the NY marathon is worth $130,000 ($200,00 for a past winner); second place get $65,000. That’s a pretty big motivator.
In contrast, a gold medal isn’t worth a ton in a culture/country where an endorsement doesn’t mean anything; winning a marathon or setting a world record in one of the big races can be big money so they put their focus where it will pay off. Winning at running is a way to a better life and that’s often the most motivating thing of all.
Another reason is tradition. Since Kenyans started winning back in the 1960’s, a feed-forward cycle has developed where Kenyans grow up wanting to be runners and follow the tradition of their tribesmen. Or they see the money top runners are making and that motivates them. The end result is the same. Tons of people enter the sport, into hard training (and there are also training camps and good coaching and all of the other factors) which makes it more likely that potential talent will be expressed and maximized. As more Kenyans are successful at the world stage, more Kenyans should want to pursue running to try and do the same. Success breeds success here as kids have heroes to emulate.
Interestingly, one thing that does not appear to motivate Kenyans is national pride, it’s almost never mentioned as a reason to run when they are asked (although they do seem to have a bit of a rivalry with Ethiopian runners who are starting to show stronger results).
During races, while they are always trying to win individually, if the situation won’t allow it, runners will help fellow Kenyans to be victorious, using tactics similar to what is seen in cycling to ensure that a Kenyan crosses first. But this has as much to do with the community as anything. If Kenyan runner A helps Kenyan runner B win today, it’s understood that Kenyan runner B will help out Runner A in turn at some later date. It all comes around when your competitors are also your tribesmen; you have everything to gain by helping out and nothing to lose.
Let’s Talk About Sex (Well, Gender)
One thing worth noting is that, by and large, Kenyan women have not dominated running to the same degree but even this has an explanation: social tradition. Kenyan females are not supported to become runners in the way that the men are; rather they are expected to become wives and work the homestead/take care of the children. There is simply not the opportunity for Kenyan females to pursue the sport to the same degree; the few who have had had success which you’d expect because all of the other factors are still present. But for purely sociological/cultural reasons the numbers just aren’t there to produce true dominance as with male runners.
This is why in the article I cited in Part 1, the author had to rely primarily on one or two non-Kenyan women making the podium to argue that Caucasians still had a chance in the sport. But the level of talent for the Kenyan women is simply not as deep in the sport of distance running for purely sociological and cultural reasons so it’s not shocking that they don’t take 1,2,3 in most events the way that the men do. If the same number of Kenyan woman got into running, they’d be likely to be just as dominant for all the reasons I’ve discussed.
So we have a situation that seems to have developed like this: once a Kenyan was successful, you had a situation where everyone wanted to follow in their footsteps for whatever reason Undistracted by other sports, this drove tons more into the sport to pursue it primarily for financial reasons, they train like absolute maniacs and coupled with what would appear to be some physiological advantages you get success in spades. And that drives more success. There are other factors including the lifestyle, psychology, community, support, etc. all that came together in one synergistic whole to create a true situation of dominance.
And currently it’s just one big feed-forward cycle: as Kenyans continue to be successful, the same factors that led to that initial success just push more to success because it benefits everyone to keep it going. The federations benefit from Kenyan dominance, so do the runners, so does everyone involved. Which doesn’t mean it will sustain forever; sometimes the most perfect system can collapse for various reasons. Kenyan society is changing becoming more modernized and Western; fewer are pursuing running and that means that Kenyan dominance may not last forever.
But that is ultimately in the future. As it stands, what happened in Kenya from about the late 1960’s until now give at least some indication of the factors that can and must come together to generate what is true sporting dominance. Which brings me, finally, to the final section of today.
The First Big Punchline, Pay Attention
And before I close this part out, here’s a critical punchline that I need everybody reading this to pay a lot of attention to; and I’m going to beat this into the ground. Especially since I already saw one truly dumbassed criticism of part 2 where someone seemed to think I was saying that 10 years of GPP and ‘hard training’ was THE key to Kenyan running dominance. Another was funny enough to call my conclusion ‘simplistic’ despite the fact that I’m not even close to reaching a conclusion. Ah, the Internets. Anyhow…
As the authors of the books sourced below have pointed out, many other groups in Kenya/East Africa share one or more of the factors present in Kenya. Whether it’s altitude or lifestyle or physiology whatever; you can find one or more of the factors I’ve discussed in the other tribes. Yet none of them have produced in the way that Kenya has (Ethiopia is making big strides in distance running and there is quite the rivalry forming). Clearly no single factor is sufficient for success, even if they may all be required at the highest levels. Note those bolded words, they are the important ones.
And this points out to what may be the most important part of this series: looking for a singular answer to Why Does X do Y? is a mistake. Kenyan dominance isn’t as simple as just physiology, just psychology, just sociology or just anything else I talked about. Thinking that it is therefore not only simplistic but just utterly wrong. Rather, it’s the combination of all of those factors coming together in just the right way that produced the end result. They are all important and success is predicated on all of them being there.
So imagine this vast interconnected web where if you removed any single ‘strand’ everything collapses. You can have the numbers of athletes, the support, the culture but if the talent isn’t there, you still don’t win. You can have the culture, the numbers and the talent but if you don’t do the training needed (for whatever reason), you still don’t win. Even if you have the talent and do the training, if you don’t have the money to get to the events (because the federation provides no support), you still can’t win. You can come up with any combination of these things, if all but one of the factors is present, you still won’t see the success you’d expect. You need all of them.
Get it? Just keep this in mind as we move along because while not every system I’m going to present is identical to the Kenyan situation, you will see the same factors coming up over and over and over again in one way or another. And yes, I know that this is a very roundabout way to getting to the answer of my original question. Hopefully it’s worth it. Also, as noted I’ll be a lot less verbose as we go now, spending less time on each individual system or country than I did on this one.
A Final Semantic Note
In a thread on his forum, Olympic lifting coach Glenn Pendlay of California Strength (who’s OL’ing Technique DVD I reviewed previously) apparently took a bit of an issue with the title of this series and my choice of the word ‘suck’ to describe US performance in OL’ing arguing that we do ok just not great. Fair enough and this is just semantics I suppose. But compared to where we were in the 60’s (medalling in nearly every weight class) compared to now (winning nothing at all), I stand by my choice. Anyhow, just wanted to address it sooner rather than later.
As promised, here are a few sources for folks wanting to delve into this issue specific further.
More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way by Toby Tanser. An eminently readable account of this. Tanser has spent an enormous amount of time with Kenyan runners and written several books about the topic looking at all the factors that go into Kenyan running success.
The Cybernetics of Kenyan Running: Hurry Hurry Has No Blessing by Randall Mayes. A more academic look at the topic, a bit dry in spots but a lot of the numbers I provided come from this book (there is at least one other book in this vein). Get the Tanser book before you get this one.
And that’s where I’ll cut it today. On Monday I’ll finally move away from Kenyan running dominance to look at a sport I doubt most are terribly familiar with: track cycling and how the UK went from nobodies to dominance in about a decade. As with the other recent mega-series, I’m turning comments off until the final part.