How to Train the Kenyan Way

Jul 27, 2012   //   by Neil Scholes   //   Triathlon And Endurance Coaching  //  30 Comments  //  Affiliate Disclosure  

Observations from my time with the Kenyan Olympic Team

With The KenyansOver the last two weeks it has been my privilege to work with the members of the Kenyan Olympic Athletic Squad, at their holding camp at Bristol, prior to the Olympic Games in London.

I took this as an  opportunity to watch them train, to look at how what they did in training, and to see them outside of the training situation.

Some food for thought

In this  blog post I simply want list of some of the things I saw during my time with them. In later posts I’ll perhaps then try to expand on some of these points.

N.B. The aim of this specific post isn’t to dissect or analyse their training methods and practices.  I just want to give a brief account of my overall impressions having spent two weeks working with the squad.

If you’d like some particular insight then please comment and I can tailor follow-up blog posts to cover these points in further depth.

  • They did every training session as a group. I saw no indication of any solo training.
  • Their warm up routine was long and meticulous, not unusual for a track session.
  • They conducted a great deal of ballistic movement in this warm up.
  • I never once saw them run barefoot nor did I see them in what we would call minimalist shoes.
  • The coach had to borrow my watch; neither of the female athletes I worked with owned a watch. I can’t say if this is typical.
  • I never once saw them eat between meals but I wasn’t with them 24/7.
  • I never once saw any form of sports nutrition at training or outside of training.
  • Their main sets were short and sharp. 2 x 450m fast was the extent of one session. They went through 400m in 51s.
  • They seemed always to be happy and positive.
  • They never once ran on the road. It was track or grass only in their time with us.
  • Technically they were naturally adept but not “perfect” – if such a thing exists.

About The Author

Neil is one of the most knowledgeable endurance coaches you'll ever be likely to meet, both in terms of qualifications and valuable experience. He's well into his second decade in the sport of triathlon and third decade as a competitive runner.

In recent years Neil has worked with Runners, from those looking to complete their first 5k through to Elites racing the Olympic Marathon, and Triathletes, from those looking to finish their first ever sprint event, through Age Group medallists at World Championships, Ironman Age Group winners to the Elite Squad at University of Bath.

As an accomplished Ironman triathlete, Neil races for Royal Navy Triathlon and has represented Great Britain at Age Group Level across various distances.

2013 has seen him run a sub 3hr at the Rotterdam Marathon, then complete his second 56 mile Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa in June; he is now making his return to racing Ironman Triathlon.

Neil is available for Triathlon & Running Coaching.

 

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30 Comments

  • My God, so interesting to this! I want more!!!! :-)

    • Thanks Gregory, it was fascinating working with the group. More to follow!

  • Neil, thanks for the post. Great insight into what makes Kenyan runners great. We organize trips to Kenya for running enthusiasts so that they can immerse themselves into the culture of running and for a few weeks live and train like a Kenyan runner. Our website is http://www.runwithkenyans.org. We would love to work with you.

    Wilson

  • really interesting, sounds like listening to your body rather than gadgets is a good thing. can’t wait to read more, particularly around nutrition.

    • Hi Joanne, thanks for your comments. Gadgets can have their place in terms of honing a pace but if you knew a courses distance you could get away with just a watch for pace. Listening to and knowing your own body will ultimately reap rewards; you will then know if you are going too slowly or too quickly regardless what your gadget tells you.

      I’ll definitely include nutrition in a future blog post but like many things in Kenya they do keep it simple!

  • Can’t wait to read more…..loved the book ‘Running with the Kenyans’ inspiring read. Your list above already has me thinking about my training routine – the power of training as a group is so simple yet clearly works.

    Very excited to hear your follow up.

    Shona

    • Hi Shona

      Yes like you I love Adharanand’s book and in fact I am going to Iten, Kenya in March next year for a couple of weeks – can’t wait! Group training is something that was the staple of British runners and the Kenyans merely implemented it from days gone by. From a psychological perspective it disassociates you from the negative feedback your body is sending you; feelings of being hot, how much this hurts, etc are put aside as you concentrate on keeping up with the group. We are after all pack animals and I think this resonates deep within us. We also are competitive so keeping up with others is an innate desire.
      Go find your local running club and awaken that pack desire!

  • WOW!!! That’s very encouraging for me! Just starting out with training and racing, and hearing so many so called ‘experts’ saying everything from needing the latest and greatest to minimalist shoes…. it’s all rather confusing at times. But it’s nice to hear that none of that really is necessary, and we can run just for the pleasure of running!

    • Hi Suzanne, thanks for your insightful comment, you are spot on! The act of running is truly a natural act and whilst we can improve performance and reduce injuries with better technique and appropriate strength and conditioning we really were “born to run”. What we were not born to do is sit at a computer, at the wheel of a car or slouched on a sofa all day. No footwear is going to correct that. A really good resource which independently cuts through much of the “advice” you will read out there is here http://www.kinetic-revolution.com/book-review-of-tread-lightly/
      We at Kinetic Revolution very much go along with Pete Larson’s viewpoints and do not promote a particular footwear or foot strike (forefoot, mid foot, heel strike) more it is WHERE your foot strikes rather than how or what the foot is shod in when it strikes. Running IS pleasurable so keep on running!

  • I am particularly interested in any specifics on ankle strengthening and flexibility!

  • Really interesting read and looking forward to finding out more.
    I always train with my son at his running club. They always run together and the coaches never over train them and just 1 dad has a stop watch (which is timing the recovery) again, any injuries the kid slows down and misses out a set. It’s a great setup and I’m improving all the time

    • Hi Deborah, thanks for your input to the blog. Club running was always the staple of the British running scene and all of our great athletes have come from this type of environment. It sounds like you and your son are part of a great setup. The increased level of competition ensures you are honest with the sessions you do and you are always looking to catch that person in front. The recovery times are important to monitor to ensure adequate rest to be able to perform in the next repeat but equally not too long a rest such that you are not loading the system.
      Keep up your own training and enjoy being part of that club structure!

  • […] my left ankle. Pain seemed to rise up the inside of my calf. I terminated the session immediately (this is the Kenyan way – if there is a niggle, you simply do not train!) and gingerly walked home. Spent the evening with a pack of frozen peas firmly pressed to my left […]

  • […] this second article, based on my observations working with the Kenyan Olympic Team, I wanted to highlight three elements of their training that we can all bring into our own […]

  • Great oberservations and very much resonates with what I observe when have our athletes here in the UK from Ethiopia and Kenya. The group mentality is so dominant yet here we tend to see athletics/track work/ etc as an individualistic sport….the group comes into play from time to time but not an integral part of training.

  • This is great, thanks! Can I ask what ankle strengthening and flexibility exercises they did?

  • I believe they work hard, but can you give more detail on that. Your brief observation of their work out gives the opposite impression

    • Yes initially it was the impression that I got until I thought about it. What I observed however is that they exemplified the mantra “make your easy sessions easy and your hard sessions hard”; although the session volume looked light the intervals were performed with true intensity. There was no mediocrity here at all. Their intervals were not run at a comfortable pace they were run flat out. In terms of working “hard” they worked incredibly professionally; they were very relaxed before and after the session but when the session was on they were completely focussed on what they were doing. That in itself was a real lesson.

  • They work hard? What a novel idea, particularly as we are generally told that the key to improved perormance is in very expensive energy drinks and gadgets.

    Great article and looking forward to hearing more. Particularly interested in how they seem to “run by feel” as Matt Fiztgerald wrote, running hard when they felt good, holding back when they didn’t and not running if they felt injured. So many people I know get injured because a spreadsheet they are following tells them they “have” to complete a session.

    And having no idea of their weekly mileage? That would probably torment me.

    • James
      Thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed the article.
      The first thing I do with 95% of my athletes is getting them to run to feel and understand what easy, steady, tempo and fast means and ‘feels’ like. I’m sure they get sick of me saying “Kenyans don’t own Garmins”. I take the point about spreadsheets however athletes need plans; if you are experienced to know the difference between really not being able to train and just not wanting to train or not being able to train then that is different but the process is about breaking your body down, recovering and adapting to come back stronger so if you are injured then do something different but if it’s raining and you have had a bad day at work or the partner is nagging you then sorry you need to do the session – after all what are you going to do in a race when it starts getting hard? DNF? You need to learn to deal with adversity.
      Neil

  • Great article!

    Since they don’t have a watch and don’t track mileage – how do they plan training sessions? How do they know how long to run for, etc? Do they go through periodisation? How do they keep track of progress?

  • Great article !
    Can I ask if they stretched post session!?
    I hear that they do not !?
    Many thanks

  • Hi, Really interesting stuff- been reading “The Gold MIne Effect” which looks at the set up in Iten- seems to me the biggest difference is mindset. Also they train in a group which gives immediate feedback, facilities are much more sparse which creates and environment to work hard and suffer rather than be comfortable which fosters a mindset that you’ve already made it when you haven’t. We’ve got the elite set up all wrong in this country, would love to know more after you’re trip out there, jo

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  • Hi! Just read your brief about how Kenyans train. I was enlightened and inspired. I am a triathlete and 69 yrs old. I have always thought along similar lines, but recently had doubts about running training and have been seriously considering quitting triathlons. However after reading your notes I am interested in having you coach me. Plz email info regarding your contact and relevant material. I have been competing for 5 years in Sprint distance, 5-8 kms run distance.

  • Hi,
    Could you give som exempels of warm-up exersices?

    //Joachim

  • I find these statements contradictory to each other…

    ■ Kenyan running is truly organic they do not limit themselves by modern gadgets

    ■ I never once saw them run barefoot nor did I see them in minimalist footwear

    I would consider the modern running shoe as a “gadget”. By any chance, were they all wearing shoes given to them by their sponsor(s)?

    Not disagreeing that footwear is but a very small part of the overall running equation but I do find it interesting that you decided to highlight this observation.

  • I have a few questions / observations that I think it would be worth exploring further…

    “They never once ran on the road. It was track or grass only”. Does this also apply to the road racers amongst them? If ‘yes’, how does this sit alongside the need to train on the surface you’re going to be racing on in order to ensure that your body has the appropriate adaptations? I readily encourage the people that I coach to train on the road up to no more than 60% of their total weekly mileage. Any thoughts on the Kenyans view on specificity, i.e. training on road (at least some of the time) if you’re racing on the road.

    I would echo Stan’s comment regarding minimalist footwear. Presumably they race in racing flats? If that’s the case, again where does the specificity of training come in? Racing flats are pretty minimal and you can’t just switch into them for race day only unless you’ve built up a base of running ‘minimally’.

    I’d be interested to read more about their nutrition and recovery from training sessions.Were training sessions butted up against meal times so they could eat directly after training – or did they literally train and then wait hours before eating? I’ve read a lot of conflicting opinions recently regarding either eating small, regular snacks to encourage a more stable blood glucose level versus theories about the stomach being a ‘periodic’ organ, i.e. one that needs to rest regularly.

    I’d be interested to hear about what specific gym work they do also and what focus they place on arm strength (if any) versus core strength.

    Everyone has raised good points in the comments – I look forward to reading more.

    Cheers,
    Gary.

  • Interesting observations, but here are some things that stuck out immediately for me:

    1) I’m certain their coach(es) know their weekly mileage. You don’t become an Olympian by training recklessly or in a totally unstructured way. Otherwise, why would the coach need a watch?
    2) Regarding barefoot running, this seems opposed to what A. Finn observed in “Running with the Kenyans” (drills were done barefoot).
    3) They are likely running in whatever shoes their sponsors want them to run in. Elite athletes rarely choose their own equipment: it is given to them based on what their sponsors need/want.

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