Trade Secrets of the Kenyans

Simple strategies to train like the world's best runners
by Scott Douglas

Wouldn't it be great to run like a Kenyan?

Okay, so you're probably not going to move to 8,000 feet of altitude and devote yourself entirely to your athletics. One hundred twenty-mile weeks might not be on next week's agenda. And, yes, it's a little late to pick your parents with an eye toward getting dealt the best genetic hand. But that doesn't mean you can't still train like a Kenyan.

I spent December 2004 in Iten, Kenya, the country's unofficial running capital, where Olympic medalists, world champions and international marathon winners train. For a month, I ran with and talked with all types of runners-road racers, track specialists, cross country aces-to see what common elements ran through their training. Below is what I learned that all runners, regardless of race distance, experience, talent level and setting, can easily add to their programs.

Start Slow, Finish Fast

Every run I did with Kenyans started at a stumble, and most finished substantially faster. Contrast that with most recreational runners' practice of starting out the door at the pace they think they should be running that day, and maintaining roughly the same pace throughout the run.

Think of a pot of water coming to a boil-there's no one instant where you can pinpoint when it started to get hot, but the end result is undeniable. The same thing happens when you allow your muscles and cardiovascular system to ease into action-as you gradually warm up, you'll up your pace without really noticing it. Toward the end of your run, you'll be moving quickly and comfortably, and will be teaching yourself how to run fast but relaxed. Finishing faster than you start is also good practice for running negative splits in races.

Vary Very Much

One day I joined 12:52 5K man Isaac Songok and world junior cross country champ Augustine Choge for their morning run. We did a roughly 10K loop in 49 minutes. For their next run, Songok and Choge covered the same loop in just under 31 minutes-about three minutes per mile faster!

This great disparity in intensity level from run to run is common. To Kenyans, every run has a specific purpose, usually expressed in terms of "easy," "average" or "high" speed. When it's time to go easy, such as the run before or after a "high" session, Kenyans have no qualms about doing nothing more than a glorified trot. This low-intensity, active recovery allows them to still get in volume while leaving them ready to really nail the next hard workout. Most recreational runners, in contrast, run too hard on their easy days and carry around too much residual fatigue to hit the times they're capable of in quality sessions. To reach your racing potential, follow the Kenyans-easy runs easier, harder runs faster.

Get With a Group

One of the rarest sights in Kenya is a runner training alone. Nearly every Kenyan does nearly every run with at least one, and usually several other runners. Every runner I asked about the subject stated simply that she or he wouldn't be able to train as hard if forced to do so solo.

Regularly running with others of similar ability has several benefits. For starters, you're much more likely to stick with your plans if others are present and counting on you. Also, on days when you're not feeling great, you'll get pulled along to better performances than you could achieve on your own. Mentally, consistent training is less of a burden when you're often with others instead of always having to will yourself out the door and down the road.

Tread Softly

After more than 25 years of running, my body has its share of aches and pains. While I was in Kenya-despite the altitude, hills, speedy company and upping my mileage by more than a third-those niggles disappeared. Three days after getting home, my usual problems reappeared.

That's largely because at home I'm forced to do most of my running on asphalt, while in Kenya every step of every run was on dirt. If you don't believe that regularly running on soft surfaces will do your body a world of good, try this test: Bounce a golf ball on asphalt or concrete. Now try to bounce it on dirt. The same factors that cause the ball to shoot into the air off of asphalt and to barely rise from dirt are at play when you run; consider that, with every running step, you land with three to four times your body weight. Running on dirt and grass as much as possible not only feels better, but will lessen your risk of injury and, therefore, allow you to better reach your potential.

Hit the Hills

Iten is located in the highlands of the Great Rift Valley, so hills are unavoidable. It's rare to go for more than a half mile without having to climb or descend something significant, and doing this regularly has obvious cardiovascular and muscular benefits. Most of us, however, don't live amid such terrain. Does that mean there's nothing to learn from Kenyans on this matter?

Not at all. Because in addition to regular runs over hilly courses, Kenyans place great emphasis on specific hill workouts, usually done once a week. Marathoners, milers and everyone in between does them. Most concentrate on several repeats-15 or more-on short hills that take 30 to 60 seconds to climb, with a rest jog down the hill. These workouts improve your aerobic capacity, leg strength, explosive power and range of motion, among other benefits, even if you never race on hilly courses.

Don't worry that your area might not have Iten-style hills. Kenyan Henry Rono, who in 1978 set four world records in less than three months, was once asked on what type of hills he did repeats. How steep, how long, how constant a grade, the inquirer wanted to know. "The hill," Rono replied. "Any hill."

Run Diagonally

Another year-round staple, regardless of race distance, is what are known as diagonals. This session consists of running quickly from one corner of a playing field to another, jogging along the goal line to the opposite corner, striding from corner to corner, jogging the straight, and repeating. On the fast sections, the emphasis is on quick, graceful turnover and running relaxed while near top speed. These workouts improve your running form at all speeds and greatly enhance your finishing kick in races.

Most Kenyans do at least 30 minutes of diagonals, and some do as much as an hour. If that seems too much for you at first, shoot for at least 15 minutes, preceded by 10 or 15 minutes of jogging. Never strain while doing diagonals; instead, try to run as fast as possible while staying under control and with good form.

Do Drills

You might think that all Kenyans were born with perfect running technique. I did, until I saw nearly every run being followed by 10 or more minutes of flexibility, range-of-motion and form drills. Working daily on various aspects of the running motion helps Kenyans keep that long, flowing, seemingly effortless stride they're so often envied for.

To easily incorporate this practice into your routine, pick a handful of drills to do most days after your run. Key examples are high knees, quick feet, butt kicks and skipping. In just five minutes, you can do two sets of each, 30 to 50 meters at a time, and greatly improve your running style. You might not be as fast as a Kenyan, but you can at least look like one.

Scott Douglas is a former editor of Running Times and co-author of four running books, including Advanced Marathoning. His Web site is located at www.scottdouglas.biz.