Why Are Kenyan Runners So Good?

Kenyan Runners

They could be a secret society, an almost unbeatable clan of focused, single-minded, fanatical runners who at the 2011 World Championships, won an incredible 17 medals in the middle-distance and long-distance running events. Unbelievably in 2011, the world’s top twenty fastest runners were all from Kenya. So, just what is the Kenyan runner’s secret and what is it that makes then so much better than any country in the world?

Running is the most accessible sport in the world, requiring no specialist equipment or knowledge; it’s an activity that almost everyone does at some time, and nearly every child knows the joy of running as fast as they can, the wind in their face, the adrenalin pumping – and perhaps it is here that Kenya’s running success is founded.

Kenya is a very poor country and nearly every Kenyan runner comes from a poor, rural background where motor transport is scarce and expensive. From an early age Kenyan children run everywhere barefoot, they run miles to school and then back again. They are so used to running long distances that it isn’t questioned; running is just part of their lives which are usually hard. Daniel Komen, the world record holder at 3,000 meters, said in an interview: “Every day I used to milk the cows, run to school, run home for lunch, back to school, home, tend the cows. This is the Kenyan way.”

Running is seen by many Kenyan children as a way out of poverty. The rewards of winning competition money – enough money to support your family, buy a cow, a farm, even a car – means already talented runners take on the commitment and strive to succeed, dedicating themselves to running. High in Kenya’s Rift Valley, there are thousands of aspiring runners living the “Kenyan Way”, training with an intense, almost monastic focus and according to one of Kenya’s top running coaches, Brother Colm O’Connell: “This is the bit people miss when they look for the secret; sheer hard work and dedication, that’s the key.”

Hard work & dedication… can it really be that simple?

Much has been made of genetics by way of explaining Kenya’s dominant position in long-distance running, but as yet there is no scientific evidence to suggest that this is the case. Dr Yannis Pitsiladis, from the University of Glasgow, who has spent 10 years conducting research into why the Kenyans are so good believes that a more likely reason is simply that Kenyan children are driven by the hunger to succeed. He goes on to say: “My daughter is a great gymnast, but she probably won’t become a gymnast. She’ll probably go to university and become a doctor. But for a Kenyan child, walking down to the river to collect water, running to school, if he doesn’t become an athlete then there are not many other options.”

So, if there are no genetic explanations, what other factors could be at work here? Well, there’s the fact that Kenyan runners have light and lean bodies, and a healthy diet of little meat but with plenty of vegetables and pulses, plays a part in this. But a nutritious diet is needed to train hard by all runners, so this probably isn’t a significant factor in explaining the success of the Kenyans. There is evidence however to suggest that Kenyan runners are more efficient (often called “running economy”) and the main explanation for this is that they carry a few less grams on their feet and ankles, and thus require less energy to maintain a fast pace.

And of course, these runners are “altitude natives”, living and training at high altitude which increases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen (an advantage for long-distance running). Many of the finest runners come from the hilly region surrounding Eldoret, about 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. It’s an area with a pretty mild climate, allowing for year-round running. Even so, the Kenyan’s are not alone in the altitude stakes, training at altitudes over 2000 meters is possible in Mexico, the Andes, and parts of central Asia, and yet in these locations running has not developed anywhere near as significantly as in Kenya

Obviously, training plays an important part and the Kenyan training regimes are notoriously hard and rigorous. The famous (some might say infamous) Kenyan training camps – where athletes will live, eat and sleep running for months at a time – are privately run, and sometimes this leads to bidding wars for the athletes to attend camps. In part, it’s the sheer quantity of runners that makes Kenya so special. Competition is fierce amongst the many troops of runners, they spur each other on to greater and greater achievements and no village is without its star. Of course with so many in the game there are more stars to rise to the top and this in part accounts for the volume of Kenya’s running successes.

Another aspect, and maybe the most important and significant factor, is the nation’s running culture, particularly among the Kalenjin tribe. Kalenjins make-up only about 12 percent of Kenya’s population but provides three-quarters of the nation’s elite runners. The trend started with Kip Keino, who won Olympic gold in the 1,500 meters in 1968 and added an Olympic steeplechase title in 1972. Perhaps this world-famous, ex-policeman’s success inspired generation after generation of Kalenjins, who grew up revering him almost as a god.

Diet, location, tradition, physiology, training, hunger – all combine to play their part in Kenya’s runaway success. But just what is the secret that makes this society of runners so much better than the rest of the world? Well, it seems it isn’t a single secret at all but many parts which make the whole.