Running with Kenyans

In 2012 the Olympic Games was held in London. As is typical and essential all the competing nations arrive early to varying degrees to allow some acclimatisation to the climate, fight off jet-lag and keep athletes tuned up ready to compete. One of those teams – Kenya based themselves in Bristol and as such some of the athletes used Bristol University my employer at the time as a training base. Inevitably this allowed some relationships to be formed and a year later when I was travelling in Kenya I had the unique opportunity to live and work with Kenyan runners with one of their olympic coaches from the London 2012 Games. East Africa and Kenya has produced a mass of fantastic distance runners, you only have to look at the front a major Marathon or the Olympics and you’ll see a bunch of red, green and black vests symbolic of the Kenyan flag racing effortlessly.

I turned up to little high altitude town by the name of Embu to what in essence was a field with a track marked out purely from wear and tear in the grass from running. No state of the art gym, no recovery suite, no sports nutrition cafe or biomechanical lab.. .The list goes on! Instead what I witnessed was a group of runners who everyday wake up and run, eat, sleep, repeat. No fancy kit, no special diet, no ‘magic bullet’ you can purchase. Just simplistic fuel, technique and recovery. Of course if you have ‘good’ genes, you live at altitude and you’re surrounded by that strong culture you are likely to become a better runner, but that doesn’t replace hard graft and form. 

To dispel some theories about the ‘magic’ of Kenyan running such as ‘they run barefoot’ or eat a special diet, is not a valid reason for the depth of their success. Most of the runners I met were born into poor farming families with a talent for running. I met numerous runners who’s family were astonishingly funding them to live at the running camp. This raw talent for running can be a ticket out of poverty for them and their family if they train to a competitive level, sign with an agent and win competitive events.. and earn some cash!. A more plausible reason for their success credited less is the non-scientific reality that running offers a platform to provide the most basic health care and education that we enjoy whilst we train for a 10k closer to home. This is not to discredit that good footwear, sports nutrition, tech driven sports science does not work, it of helps! But underneath the bells and whistles needs to be real motivations, effort and an appreciation of good old fashioned training. 

As a visiting coach, Bruce the distance runners coach asked me to lead a strength and conditioning session, so with zero equipment and zero minutes to prepare I delivered a session off the cuff. My approach to this was to cover a few physical qualities and components as an opportunity to provide some training stimulus but also obtain an impression of the athletes abilities, strengths and weakness as a group…Just In case Bruce threw me back in the deep-end and I wanted to deliver something more prescriptive and helpful. The session from memory began with a dynamic warm-up flowing into a mobility “self check”, where I taught the athletes some quick self screens to help identify what areas could do with a stretch, roll, self-mob etc. Once loose and limber the athletes performed some single leg stability exercises, some plyometrics focussed on position, single leg control and landing stiffness. I rounded off the session with some resistance work, “resistance” requiring some creativity and some trunk conditioning. Quite a simple session design, a broad opportunity to understand them better as athletes and a humbling challenge in the moment.

When I look back on my Kenyan running experienced I am very grateful that I was able to witness an elite athletic culture that produces such incredible results, however, from paradoxically the most simple and most minimalistic setup. The take-home message is to never underestimate the effect or change that you can facilitate in an athlete from harnessing some of the simple basics.. motivation, intent, consistency, technique, bodyweight control.

Andy McDonald BSc MCSP CSCS

Andy McDonald BSc MCSP CSCS

Strength & Conditioning Coach,
Inform Performance Podcast Host