Nearly every major road race in the world has one common trend: the vast majority of podium finishers come from East Africa. The runners from this region—primarily from Kenya and Ethiopia, but to a lesser extent from Uganda, Eritrea and Somalia—represent a dominant force in distance running. The top-10 fastest male marathon runners of all-time are either Kenyan or Ethiopian, while seven of the women’s top 10 are from East African countries.
What makes runners from this region so unique? And more importantly, what lessons can those of us farther back in the pack learn from these incredible athletes? While there are many angles to examine this subject—and this is a good read from The Conversation—there are three key takeaways that we can all apply in our own running.
1. Keep it Simple
Toby Tanser, the founder of Shoe4Africa and someone who has spent a good part of his adult life in Kenya, says what makes East African runners so unique is their simplicity. Tanser is referring to the lifestyle that most Ethiopians and Kenyans lead even after they have become world-class runners. “We in the West have taken the most organic and simple sport and turned it into the most overanalyzed and overcomplicated thing,” he says. Tanser points out that if a Westerner has a bad workout or race, they tend to go home and want to understand why they ran poorly by reading as much as possible on the Internet. The opposite tends to be true for Kenyans. “Kenyan runners will not read anything into a bad workout or race. They will just accept it,” Tanser says. For your own routine, try to simplify where you can. Consider not monitoring every mile or split in a workout. Try to run by feel more and perhaps even leave your fitness-tracking wearables at home. Examine the aspects of your running that may be overly complicated and simplify. Accept that it’s inevitable that you will have setbacks in workouts and races and that these setbacks are normal and can still lead you to PRs.
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2. Ease into Workouts
A few years ago, I trained with (or more appropriately, behind) a group of Ethiopians who ran for the same club I did in Westchester, New York. When I first started doing track workouts with them, I expected the pace to be breakneck from the moment we hit the start buttons on our watches. But that wasn’t the case. Our first few intervals or laps were always much slower than our finishing laps. We weren’t trying to hit consistent splits, but instead trying to ease into the workout so that we can finish it strong. Kenyan athletes apply a similar mindset with their progression runs that start out a good 2 to 3 minutes per mile slower than race pace in the opening mile. The pace is ratcheted up in subsequent miles until they are finishing at race pace (or faster). Starting out slower than you may feel like you need to run is a good way to get your mind and body adjusted to the inevitable suffering that you will face later in the workout. It’s a good way to reduce the risk of injury that can come from going too fast on muscles that haven’t been properly warmed up. And it’s also a great way to teach the body how to race—properly allocating effort so that you don’t go out too fast.
3. Run with Grit
Granted, no elite runners can reach the top of the sport without mental and physical toughness, but East Africans seem to have a little bit more than their “Western” counterparts. Given the relative poverty of the region, Kenyans and Africans are literally running to put food on their family’s tables. Most of them don’t have a career that they can fall back on if they fail to earn race winnings and gain lucrative sponsorships. Tanser observed this particular African grit when he accompanied 2:04 marathoner James Kwambai and a group of Kenya runners on a grueling 20K hill workout on a cold morning. “They jumped into the back of a pickup and got driven an hour to their starting point,” he recalls. Tanser said they simply ran as fast as possible to the top of the long hill and the climbed back into the truck to go home along the same bumpy roads. Afterwards, he didn’t notice any complaining from the group. “They didn’t complain about it, because they have learned from an early age that complaining gets you nowhere. They have learned that life is not about complaining. It’s about seeing what needs to get done and then going and doing it,” he says. For us mortals, we aren’t running to put food on our plates, but we can still get that grit from other aspects. Seek a newfound passion for your training. Aim high. Put it all on the line in your final kick or final lap. And if you find your motivation flagging, then pull up some marathons on YouTube and channel that East African grit as you watch runners like marathon world-record holder Dennis Kimetto sprint to the finish and break the tape having put in every ounce of energy into his incredible effort.