Weekly musings, 6/4/17: Distance running

If you follow distance running, you are probably familiar with the fact the Kenyan athletes are a powerhouse. Athletes from the Kalenjin tribe have won three times more Olympic medals in distance running than any other nation.* This is an impressive feat for anyone, and bit incredible when you consider this small village only makes up 1/2000 of the world’s population.

We believe there are a lot of factors that allow athletes to excel. In the US, we have coaches and trainers. We hire nutritionists to manage our micro and macronutrients, and we have devised a number of techniques to ensure we recover in the most efficient way possible. Over the last three decades, researchers have tried to pinpoint what allows the Kalenjin tribe to excel in the world of running. Possible theories that have fallen flat include:

  • They live and train at high altitude, influencing oxygen capacity. No difference in maximal oxygen uptake was found between elite Kenyan runners and elite Scandinavian runners.
  • Their nutrition is somehow superior. It turns out their diet is actually lacking adequate vitamins and minerals. They also go into a negative energy balance during intense training cycles, which means they lose weight. (A recent Runner’s World magazine cover promised to teach readers how to not gain weight during training season. I guess we have the opposite problem in the west).
  • Genetics. No association between genetic makeup and performance has been found. 

So what allows these runners to excel? Maybe it’s partially due to the exposure they get to running long distances at an early age. Between the ages of 6-14, the way they get to school is by running and walking 5-13 KM each day. They build a solid base during a time when their tissues are adaptable, but it’s not through formal training or coaching. No one tells them how to be more efficient or that they should change their running stride to match a certain aesthetic or idea of what is “right.” They just run and walk, finding the most economical means of getting from point a to point b. Maybe one of the reasons they become running phenoms is because their movements aren’t micromanaged at a young age? Or maybe the fact that there is no outcome associated with the early years of running in these athletes contributes to a different mindset around running? Whatever it is (and I’m sure the “it” is a lot of things), can’t be copied or packaged into the perfect training plan. But maybe we can learn something from the lack of early coaching and giving children the opportunity to learn from self practice. 

*Abstract, with link to full text here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24149957