The Secret to Why Kenyans are the Best Distance Runners

Dennis Kipruto Kimetto. Wilson Kipsang. Emmanuel Mutai. Whether you're an ardent runner in Singapore or not, you may have come across their names somewhere. Top long-distance runners in the international ring are majority Kenyans.

For example, in 2011, the world's top 20 fastest runners in marathon running were all Kenyan. Almost all hailed from the same Western Rift Valley in Kenya, a grass-filled ridge that stretches for miles and miles. 

No matter what the Kenyan champions say about hard work, grit and passion for running, there's something more to it than that.

But what are they? We look at a few helpful factors.

The Harsh Environment of Kenya  

Before Mo Farah, a European multi-Olympic champion achieved his current accolades, he once moved in and stayed with a group of top Kenyan runners in London. Spending every moment with them changed his view on competitive running completely, and his passion and determination to excel in it.

His housemates ate, slept, trained and did nothing else. To him, the level of dedication was on another level. When he emulated them, he went on to rake in his now-known achievements.

Yet in the Rift Valley, dedicated runners are a dime a dozen. This religious focus on running is so ingrained in their life that it becomes the Kenyan way of living.

Many successful Kenyan runners hail from poor families that stay in the rural areas. From young, they run from place to place, for they have no transport. And since young, the notion of working hard is deeply rooted in them, for otherwise they cannot subsist.

And for many of them, becoming a great runner to compete on international arenas or staying a farmer is the only two options they have. Factories are sparse and formal education neglected. They hardly have any other choices.

No doubt all these factors admixed together may have created a population of excellent barefoot runners ready to dwarf many from more affluent countries.

A Close-to-ideal Food and Macronutrient Intake 

Don't say avid runners and sportspeople; even those such as scientists outside the circle are interested.  And some got down to studying the Kenyan runners diets.

A 2004 research found their diets are high in carbohydrates (76.5% of total daily calories) and low in fat (13.4% of total daily calories). Their daily protein intake is 10.1% of calorie intake, equalling to 1.3g of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Their diets closely match that recommended by sports nutritionists worldwide, for high-mileage running. What's amazing the elite Kenyan runners are not privy to the science of sports nutrition, and nor are they supported by a sports nutritionist. It just happens they follow a close-to-ideal diet for high-intensity, high-mileage training.

Also, they eat five times a day. A typical meal pattern for a day is:

  • Breakfast at 8 am
  • Mid-morning snack at 10 am
  • Lunch at 1 pm
  • Afternoon snack at 4 pm
  • Supper at 7 pm

As for what foods they ate, the Kenyan runners stick to a high-sugar diet, with 86% of total calories coming from vegetable sources. They consume teas with milk and sugar; fruits such as watermelon and cantaloupe; and Ugali (a dish of maize flour mixed with chicken or beef stew). This may have given them well-needed energy to push for the extra mile.

This religious focus around running is so ingrained in their life it becomes the Kenyan way of living.

Higher VO2 Max Level

This refers to how much oxygen a person can use when exercising, as your VO2 max level can affect running performance. A higher level means more oxygen is used, and the efficiency of your muscles in extracting and using the oxygen.

In a 2013 study, young Kenyan runners from the West Valley and other rural areas were found to have phenomenal VO2 max levels. An active lifestyle in a high-altitude environment is likely the main contributor, with a little genetic help.

It is hardly unsurprising when you consider they need to run seven to ten kilometres just to get from home to school, and school to the market fetching water included. They need high VO2 max levels just so they can go about their daily grinds.

A Recipe For Success

Many people point at genetics as the reason for the Kenyans' dominance in competitive running, but no concrete evidence exists. Rather, their secrets lie in their dedication to thrive in an environment and life that is tough from the get-go.

It's a hard life out there for Kenyans. And Brother Colm, an Irish missionary and top running coach in Kenya, has this to say as a result: Every hill represents an opportunity.

And that's their secret the mindset to see opportunities in hardships, overcome and succeed.


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LIV3LY Editor
LIV3LY Editor

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