One of the things I find the most interesting in running is contrasting the East African style with the more ‘Western’ style. Often very simplistically summarised as intuition and feel versus more methodical and scientific. Essentially this is a metaphor for my life growing up as an athlete with a Kenyan mother and British father. Training with Wilson reminded me of this yet again. East Africans pass a lot of key information by word of mouth through groups and down generations not websites 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 with Wilson Kipsang in 2015.
1) Psychological. They grow up with an intense belief that nothing beats hard work and 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. And I don’t need to go on too much about their ability to suffer and withstand huge amounts of hardship and pain.
2) 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 me – 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 their muscles extremely elastic. Elastic recoil efficiency 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 calfs, then you’re doing really well.
3) Physical. Of course they 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.
4) 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 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).
5) Psychological. Kenyans have 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.
6) Spiritual. 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 analyse anything. Because they believe in Gods 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.