Nowadays you hardly see a single photo of the winners’ podium at a marathon race in Europe or the USA without a smiling Kenyan face. But what makes athletes from this East African country able to run so quickly and with so much endurance? Could there perhaps be a scientific explanation that makes us Europeans genetically inferior and without a chance of winning when it comes to distance running?
As with many other things, the reason for the dominance of Kenyan athletes cannot be reduced to one single factor. It is rather the interaction of a series of different factors which together form the ideal basis for a career as a top athlete.
The majority of Kenyan athletes come from the region west of Nairobi which lies at an altitude of between 1700m and 2500m. The athletes’ “living situation” at this altitude is often mentioned as the main reason for their extreme physical endurance qualities. However, a study carried out by the University of Bayreuth in Germany of European and Kenyan top athletes in terms of blood volume and haemoglobin, which are the primarily Indicators of the effect of altitude, showed only minimal differences between the two groups.
Who is not aware of the story of Kenyan schoolchildren who have to run many kilometres each day to school and then back home again afterwards? Haile Gebreselassie, the running legend from Ethiopia, has also related such a story from his childhood. And of course there are many examples in Kenya too of athletes who as schoolchildren were forced to start running from necessity, although for the most part it is walking not running that predominates.
Almost no one owns a car, and as public transport is also expensive for most people, they walk. To school, in the town, to the shops, to visit friends, to church … and not just a short walk either but often many kilometres there and then back again. This gives them an inherent advantage in comparison with the highly mobilised society in Europe and North America in terms of walking and running economy.
Until now a much underestimated factor; the economically efficient running style of the Kenyan athletes due to a more advantageous biomechanical condition is one of the most important reasons for their efficient running performance. Who has not been amazed by how easy and relaxed the Kenyans reel off kilometre after kilometre of a marathon race at high speed?
It often looks as though they are just hovering and only rarely can any sign of effort be seen on their faces. This special running style can be learnt and trained, even by Europeans, shoulder to shoulder with the top athletes at all of the training sessions at our running camps.
Low body weight means that a runner needs less oxygen and thus his/her endurance capacity is increased. As simple as this explanation sounds, it is also a very important one. We Europeans also quickly notice during sports activities when our body weight is reduced, even if only slightly.
The reason for the low body weight of Kenyan runners though is not genetic but a consequence of their diet – very little meat but still very nutritious food. Only very small amounts of fat, no sweets and no alcohol provide the right basis for high-level sports performance. You will gain an insight into the Kenyan runners’ diet on a daily basis at our running camps. Our guests will be able to learn the secrets of Kenyan cooking either by preparing food together with the athletes in the kitchen or at least at the dining table.
In our experience the most important factor! An extremely high unemployment rate, an extreme abundance of children and the consequent lack of opportunity for many young people serve as the ideal growing ground for enormous motivation. Running is a beacon on the horizon for many youngsters who dream of achieving success at international marathons in the USA, Europe and Asia and thus of making the leap out of poverty. This motivation gives a toughness that is alien to most Europeans and which is more than evident in their daily training, and which pays off when they compete in races. When you train with Kenyan athletes, you are always hearing the words that are the essence of the Kenyan approach: Train hard, win easy!
In athletics, as everywhere else, successful role models reinforce this motivation.
What Haile Gebreselassie is to Ethiopia, the current Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, and in the preceding decade Paul Tergat, are to Kenya, and Kipchoge Keino in turn was before.
Paul Tergat, the marathon record holder and five-time world cross-country champion, is a living legend and idol for all Kenyan athletes. He continues to be successful in numerous international marathons and trains just a few kilometres west of Nairobi in the town of Ngong.
The grand old man of Kenyan athletics is Kipchoge Keino. Born in 1940 he became Olympic champion in 1968 and 1972 at 1500m and 3000m steeplechase respectively and thus the great idol of all Kenyan athletes. After his running career ended he became the President of the Kenyan Olympic Committee and also founded an orphanage in western Kenya (the Kip Keino Foundation) which from then on became his main focus.