Track Coach

Letter from Kenya

By Jason R. Karp, PhD, MBA

This is the second Letter From Kenya by Jason Karp who recently spent six months living, coaching and training in Kenya. He debunks some myths about Kenyan distance runners.

Dear Coach,

Hello from Kenya! I’m writing another letter to you, this one from the dirt, stone-littered track at Tambach Teachers College. Tambach, which overlooks the Rift Valley, is the main track where the local Kenyan runners do their workouts. We are here today for my athletes’ workout: unlimited reps at lactate threshold pace, starting with 1,600 meters, then cutting the distance of the reps down to 1,200 meters, then 800 meters, then 400 meters as the athletes fatigue. We try to squeeze out as much volume as we can at threshold pace to train their threshold and their aerobic endurance.   

While the Kenyan runners have specific habits that complement and support their immense talent, there are many myths swirling around about what goes on here. Here are a few of them.

Myth #1: The Kenyans run barefoot.

Kenyan runners don’t run barefoot, nor do they want to run barefoot, nor do they think running barefoot makes them faster runners. They run in used, hand-me-down shoes from visiting runners from other countries. They desperately want running shoes. When I took them shopping for shoes, they chose the most cushioned ones. They couldn’t run barefoot even if they wanted to because nearly all the running they do is on rocky dirt roads. No matter how calloused your feet or how strong and stable your ankles, you would hurt yourself if you tried to run barefoot on these roads. It’s hard enough in shoes! Even the kids in Kenya wear shoes or sandals. No one is walking or running around barefoot. And there is no scientific or empirical evidence that running barefoot makes anyone (Kenyan or otherwise) a faster runner.

Myth #2: The Kenyans stretch.

If you’ve ever run with a dog or watched a horse race, you may notice that animals don’t stretch before or after they run. Humans are animals, too. Your athletes’ muscles, bones, and tendons work exactly the same way as other mammals’ muscles, bones, and tendons.

The Kenyan runners, who are also animals just like your athletes, don’t stretch. I have not seen one Kenyan runner stretch before or after running. I have asked them about it. “It’s rare,” I have been told.

Most runners think or are told that they should stretch before or after running to prevent injuries, improve performance, and alleviate soreness after a workout. 

Stretching may reduce injuries for explosive or bouncing activities, by increasing compliance of tendons and improving their ability to absorb energy. For low-intensity activities that don’t include bouncing movements, like running, cycling, and swimming, stretching doesn’t prevent injuries.

Stretching also doesn’t improve performance. Your athletes won’t run faster or longer because they bend down to touch their toes before or after they run.

When your athletes run faster or longer than what they’re used to, microscopic damage occurs to their muscle fibers, which is a normal part of training. In response to the muscle fiber damage, inflammation occurs as more blood travels to the site, bringing with it white blood cells to start the healing. Your athletes can feel sore a day or two after a hard workout because of the damage-induced inflammation, which is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Stretching doesn’t make muscle fibers heal more quickly, so stretching won’t make them feel less sore. Only time and optimal nutrition (carbohydrate and protein) will alleviate the soreness.

Myth #3: The Kenyans eat very healthy. 

Although the Kenyan runners don’t eat processed food, it is only because they don’t have access to it. Iten is a rural town, with no refrigerators or freezers to store food. Meals are prepared from scratch. Milk comes from the local cows. 

Except for the best Kenyan runners who have the financial resources to buy food, most of the runners in Iten don’t have money for food. They don’t eat before morning workouts and have little food the rest of the day. No burgers, no pizza, no meatballs and spaghetti, no salads with chicken strips on top. Just rice, beans, potatoes, lentils, local vegetables, ugali (a stiff, maize flour porridge), milk straight from the local cows, chapati, and chai tea. Their diet is mostly carbohydrate but low in total calories. Research on Kenyan runners has shown that they’re frequently in a negative or borderline caloric balance. It is remarkable that the runners here are able to train at such a high level without consuming many calories. They are either born or have become metabolically very efficient. 

While it could be said that the Kenyans’ diet is healthier than the average American diet because it is devoid of processed foods, it is very basic with not much variety of nutrients, and it is lacking in total calories.    

Myth #4: The Kenyans strength train.

The Kenyan runners don’t strength train. They don’t do bodyweight circuits, core stability exercises, or heavy deadlifts, squats, or power cleans. They run. A lot. Twice per day every day, with long, exhausting workouts. Even if they wanted to strength train, they would not have the energy to do so on top of all that running. 

Distance running is not about strength; it’s about oxygen delivery by the cardiovascular system, oxygen use by the muscular system, and motor unit recruitment by the central nervous system. This latter factor perhaps gets the most attention from strength training proponents, but there’s no scientific or empirical evidence that strength training actually makes someone a faster runner apart from the effects of increasing running volume and intensity. And there’s no evidence that strength training prevents running-related injuries. Running and bounding exercises up hills are perhaps the best forms of strength training for a runner.

Myth #5: The Kenyans are good runners because they live and train at altitude.

Although many coaches and athletes attribute much of the success of the Kenyan runners to their altitude training, there is little evidence that training at altitude is superior to training at sea-level for improvements in running performance. There is some evidence that living at altitude and training at sea-level (“live high/train low”) may improve sea-level running performance by inducing the increase in red blood cells (erythropoiesis) associated with altitude exposure while maintaining sea-level training intensities. 

Historically, the best U.S. distance runners (with the exception of a few) have been born, raised, and trained at sea level. If altitude were the reason for the Kenyans’ success, the same phenomenon in the U.S. would occur, with a disproportionate percentage of elite U.S. runners coming from altitude compared to the percentage of the population that lives there. Even my own published research on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers found that there was no difference in marathon performance between athletes who trained at altitude and those who didn’t.  

Altitude has nothing to do with why the Kenyan runners are so good. 

Coach, I hope my letter sheds some light on the myths of the Kenyan runners!  

Mpaka wakati ujao (Until next time),

Coach Jason

Dr. Jason Karp is an American distance running coach living and coaching in Kenya. He is founder and CEO of the women’s-specialty run coaching company Kyniska Running. The passion for running Jason found as a kid placed him on a yellow brick road that he still follows as a coach, exercise physiologist, speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books and more than 400 articles. He is the 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and two-time recipient of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Community Leadership award. His REVO2LUTION RUNNING™ certification has been obtained by coaches and fitness professionals in 25 countries.