Africa calling: what all runners can learn from the East African masters!

East African runners dominate the elite distance running world. John Shepherd explores the reasons why, and asks what the rest of us can learn from their undoubted talent

East African runners dominate the elite distance running world. These countries’ athletes have won countless track, road and cross-country World and Olympic medals for decades. This has led many coaches to suggest that they are genetically superior to the rest of the world’s runners. But is this actually the case? It’s actually quite difficult to be precise about exactly how the East African runners train. However, there are numerous references to high-intensity work1. Dr Tim Noakes is one of the world’s foremost authorities on running. The exercise physiologist has for many decades looked into what makes great runners great, and is a very credible source on just what, for example, the Kenyans do. In an overview, he records the preparation of Kenyan runners for the World Cross-Country Championships in his book ‘Lore of Running’2. It is beyond the scope of this article to report Noakes’s findings in detail; readers with a specific interest are directed to his publication. You will however find some training information in box 1.


BOX 1: TYPICAL KENYAN WORLD CROSS-COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIP TRAINING METHODS

PHASE 1: OCT

  • Number of sessions: 3 a day, usually 7 days a week – 6am, 10am and 4pm (on some days the second session is replaced by a strength and conditioning workout).
  • Description: The first and third workouts are between 35-45 minutes’ duration and are run at a moderately easy intensity and cover 7km–10km. The second workout is the intense one. Its content can vary but involves high speed distance efforts – for example over 9km and 15 x 200m hill repeats.
  • Total weekly mileage: 180km-200km/111 miles-124 miles.

PHASE 2: NOV–DEC

  • This is the Kenyan cross-country season and due to the necessity to race, training is often reduced to two sessions a day. Quality is increased with around a third of efforts completed at 10k race pace. Some training may be done at altitudes of 2,400m.
  • Total weekly mileage: 100km/62 miles

PHASE 3: JANUARY

  • Number of sessions: 2 a day, usually 7 days a week
  • This is when the selection meetings take place for the National Championships and ultimately World CrossCountry Championships.
  • Key to this phase is a further boost to intensity. Around a quarter of all training is at race pace or faster.

PHASE 4: WORLD CROSS-COUNTRY PREPARATION

  • Training drops for the Kenyan trials and the selected athletes then go to a special training camp, where Noakes writes: “It is there that the real Kenyan training takes place.”
  • Number of sessions: 3 a day, 6 days a week, except Sunday. The first run is normally at 6am and lasts 40-50 minutes. The third session involves 12-16km, whilst the middle session includes such workouts as: a 22km run at around 3.25min per/km. Speed is increased over the last 6km, so that the final km is run in 2.28min; intervals between 100m and 1000m. The session continues until runners can complete no further reps.
  • Total weekly mileage: around 190km-230km/118 miles-142 miles

Train hard

Kenyan runners do train hard, but this alone is not enough to make them unique. After all, until very recently the might of East Africa had not been able to topple Mo Farah at World and Olympic level. Noakes takes it even further back and mentions the likes of Finland’s Lasse Viren, who like Farah, was a multiple Olympic 5k and 10k champion, and who likewise trained very hard – albeit in an era with not quite such East African track dominance.

The intensity and speed of the East African athlete’s training is important and a quality you need to hang onto. As Kenyan Olympian and 2:27-hour marathoner Alice Chelangat said: “…if (your) speed is not 100 percent, then you better say goodbye to have any chances to win races3”. So, if you aspire to run to your best you need to train consistently and systematically at race pace and beyond – but really this is nothing new.

Numerous sports scientists have tried to unearth further reasons for the success of the Kenyans and Ethiopians. A team from the US Athlete Performance Laboratory run by the United States Olympic Committee proposed a number of other factors (see box 2)4. However, numerous studies have looked into these factors and – perhaps contrary to expectation – disproved the majority.


ALICE CHELENGAT


BOX 2: POSSIBLE SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATIONS FOR THE SUCCESS OF EAST AFRICAN RUNNERS

  1. Genetic predisposition.
  2. The development of a high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of extensive walking and running at an early age.
  3. Relatively high haemoglobin and hematocrit (ironcontaining proteins in the blood and body tissues important for oxygen transport).
  4. The development of optimised running economy (efficiency) based on somatotype (body shape characteristics) and lower leg dimensions.
  5. Favourable skeletal muscle-fibre composition and oxidative enzyme profile (ie good energy-releasing chemistry).
  6. Living and training at altitude.
  7. Motivation to be financially successful.
  8. Diet.

Yannis Pitsiladis of the International Centre for East African Running Science at the University of Glasgow and colleagues studied the Y (male) chromosome of elite athletes and other non-athletes from the Arsi region in Ethiopia where many runners come from. The team concluded: “The athletes do show differences from the population as a whole. But they are not so overwhelming to say that this is the reason for their success.” In simple terms, there was no discovery of an “East African running gene”.

What about maximal oxygen capacity (VO2max)? Researchers discovered that although Kenyan runners do possess the ability to run at a very high percentage of VO2max, this has been mostly achieved through training5. Further credence is provided by the same researchers who discovered that adolescent male Kenyan and Caucasian runners run at a similar percentage of VO2max during competition. Thus it appears that it’s the training regime of the runners that is most responsible for increasing VO2max – not genetics. Other researchers have also arrived at similar conclusions6.


Muscles and fibre type

Muscles and in particular muscle fibre type are as important factors in endurance running as heart and lung capacity. Endurance performance relies predominantly on slow twitch muscle fibres (see figure 1). These fibres are highly fatigue-resistant. You might think therefore that East African runners would have a higher percentage of slow twitch fibres. However, studies on Kenyan runners have indicated that they do not have a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres when compared to – for example – their Scandinavian rivals7 8 9.

Muscle fibre types can to a degree be converted by regular and relevant training (although whether these changes are permanent is another debate). So, prolonged long, slow, distance training would likely change some fast twitch muscle fibres to take on more slow twitch characteristics. Indeed after such a period of training the qualities of muscle fibres known as ‘intermediate type IIa fast twitch’ have been identified as being as effective for endurance activity as their slow twitch counterparts. But again this response to endurance training is not exclusive to East African athletes.


FIGURE 1: SLOW AND FAST TWITCH MUSCLE FIBRES


DIET AND EAST AFRICAN RUNNING PERFORMANCES

What about the East African diet? Is this something that could also make them superior runners? A team of researchers looked at the macronutrient and fluid in-take of elite Ethiopian runners training at altitude before a major competition10. Ten runners took part in the study. They had their food and drink consumption monitored for a week and this was matched to the training they completed and their energy consumption in calories.

The runners maintained a constant weight over the period – around 54 kilos on average. The carbohydrate in their diets supplied on average 13,375 calories over the seven days (just under 2,000 calories a day) and constituted 64.3% of the total food and drink calories consumed (fat made up 23.3% and protein 12.4% – see figure 2). The runners mainly drank water, although interestingly – and contrary to what’s generally recommended – no fluids were consumed before or during training, and only limited amounts afterwards. Similar findings were made by researchers who studied adolescent Kenyan runners’ nutrition11.

In percentage terms, the diets in these studies were very high in carbohydrate (although the total calorie count was fairly modest). Notwithstanding the current fashion here in the West of low-carbohydrate feeding regimes such as the keto diet, the typical high-carbohydrate diet consumed by East African endurance athletes has long been advocated by sports scientists as being ideal, so it appears that we cannot attribute the success of the East African runners to their diets.


Figure 2: Breakdown of carbohydrate, fat and protein in the diet


Altitude matters Living and training at altitude is a key factor often cited for East African endurance dominance, and here there is more evidence. That’s because living at high altitude develops an oxygen transport system that is more effective at using less oxygen. At altitude, maximum oxygen carrying capacity (VO2max) decreases. One piece of research indicated that elite runners lost 9% of their VO2max at 4,300 metres compared to their sea level max12. Exercise physiologists McArdle, Katch & Katch indicate at 1,981 metres (ie much lower than in the previous study mentioned) the haemoglobin level carried by the blood drops by 10 percent13. This VO2max reduction, which increases with altitude, can significantly reduce performance. Over time however, the body can undergo physiological changes to overcome the effects of altitude – changes that translate into a performance advantage when the athlete returns to or visits sea level, where oxygen levels in the air are higher.

East African runners are used to intense training at altitude – as large parts of the region are well above sea level (see figure 3) and have a CV system that’s developed to cope, and one that excels at lower elevations – the kind where most international competitions are held. Of course, lowland runners can train at altitude, but McArdle notes that roughly two weeks are required to adapt to an altitude of 2,300 metres, and for every 610-metre increase above that, an additional week is needed up to 4,572 metres.

Interestingly, altitude training can result in a loss of muscle mass so a relatively higher protein consumption may partially off-set this, as could the regular inclusion of strength training. These are two important considerations for those of us looking to learn from the East Africans, especially when planning altitude camps, strength training and day-to-day diet while at altitude.


Figure 3: Topography of Ethiopia


The need to succeed

You can find many anecdotal reports that motivation is a further reason why Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the endurance running world. However, like most of the other reasons for East African running dominance, this can be refuted by examples of non-East African distance runners who have had success in the past. What may be more important however is the sheer number of Kenyans and Ethiopians who strive for running success.

Professor Noakes has written: “The obvious difference seems to be that whereas few non-Kenyans have been able to achieve equally demanding training programmes, a large majority of Kenyans are exposed to rigorous training each year and are able to cope with it. It is the depth of ability that really sets Kenyans apart.” The mass running mentality, plus the sheer numbers of youngsters aspiring to be top runners in East Africa may partly explain why these nations enjoy the success they do!

Last but not least

One very important advantage that many East African runners seem to have is great running economy – ie the oxygen cost of running at a given running velocity. Research shows that running economy is more often than not superior in East African elite runners compared to other elite runners, which means they need to consume less oxygen to maintain a given pace. There is some indication that this is due to differences in body dimensions14 – in particular their lower legs – which seems to provide Kenyan and Ethiopian runnerswith an advantage15. This is because the energy cost of running is in part a function of leg mass. Lower mass means that the legs can swing through more quickly into each running stride, with less energy cost and equally importantly with greater speed and therefore faster ground contact velocity.

Key to a fast, powerful and economical ground contact is what’s known as joint stiffness (also referred to as leg stiffness). Much research exists on this topic in relation to east African runners. One study compared leg muscle activation and muscle-tendon interaction between 11 elite Kenyan runners and 11 elite Japanese runners16. Measured on a treadmill at two speeds – 9.0kmh (slow) and at 13.9kmh (medium), the researchers looked at movement patterns (kinematic) and electrical activity of the muscles (EMG activity).

At each speed, both groups presented similar contact and flight times. However, the Kenyans demonstrated faster stretchshortening cycles on ground contact compared to the Japanese runners. The stretch-shortening cycle refers to the transition between an eccentric and a concentric muscular action. On foot-strike, the muscles of the ankles, knees and hip ‘stretch’ – the eccentric action – before dynamically shortening to produce power – the concentric one. It’s a bit like pulling out a spring to its fullest extent and then letting it go. Immense amounts of energy will be released in the split second the spring recoils. The greater the stretch the greater the amount of energy released. The Kenyans, in this piece of research, were better able to get off the ground because they – or rather their muscles and tendon structures – were able to store more energy on ground contact and return more force (as measured by EMG). In another study, researchers employed a plyometric test, which utilised hopping drills17. They identified that Kenyan runners tended to have a superior stretch-shortening cycle – great for efficient endurance running!


FIGURE 4: EXAMPLES OF COMMONLY USED PLYOMETRICS EXERCISES TO IMPROVE JOINT STIFFNESS


Applying the knowledge What lessons can we learn from the East African in terms of practically improving our training? Well, some runners have gone the whole hog and travelled to train alongside Kenyan and Ethiopian runners in their homelands (see case study on Helen Croydon). At the elite level, many track and field governing bodies do indeed send their top runners off to train for extended periods of time – for example, to Iten, in Kenya at 2,400m altitude. However, perhaps the biggest take-home message in terms of training technique comes down to improving joint stiffness. It’s possible to do this by incorporating plyometric and weight training exercises regularly into your endurance training. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about this subject; however, readers are directed to Peak Performance issue 360, which looks at weight training for improving endurance and Peak Performance issue 357, which considers the effects of plyometric training. Figure 4 provides a few examples of the kind of exercises runners can incorporate into their training schedules.


Case study: Helen Croydon – training with the Ethiopians

Club runner Helen Croydon ventured to Ethiopia to train like an Ethiopian by participating in a 10-day training camp held at 2,500 metres altitude, just outside of Addis Ababa. As Helen explained: “If, like me, you’ve never run at altitude before, allow me to enlighten you: it’s like going for a run after a night of tequilas. I now know how it feels to start to running from scratch because every few minutes I was walking! For the first three days I beat myself up, trying to force myself into a decent pace, only to tail off into a panting heap. It wasn’t just running. Every activity was burdened by lethargy. Even walking up the gentle hill from our complex to the local fruit stalls, felt like I should be wearing my heart rate monitor.”

After a few days, Helen realised that she needed to stop fighting and accept that the week was going to be all about gentle base endurance training. She turned off her Garmin, ignored her pace, enjoyed the scenery and let the altitude work its magic. By the end of the training camp, Helen managed a two-hour continual run through beautiful forests and over rock faces. She then completed her trip by running in the Great Ethiopian 10KM run. The take-home message here is that altitude takes time to acclimatise to; you should definitely not expect to train at the same intensities initially as you would have done in your normal training environment!


See also:

 

References

  1. www.marathon-training-schedule.com/kenyan-training.html
  2. Lore of Running 4th edition, Human Kinetics, 2001
  3. https://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/ inside-kenyan-training
  4. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2012 Jun;7(2):92-102
  5. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2003 Sep;136(1):161-70
  6. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Nov; 112(11): 3797-806
  7. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2003 Sep;136(1):161-70
  8. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Nov; 112(11): 3797-806
  9. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 5, 222-230
  10. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011 May 19;8:7. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-8-7
  11. Br J Nutr. 2002 Dec;88(6):711-7
  12. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 May;31(5):723-8)
  13. Essentials of Exercise Physiology, McArdle, Katch & Katch, Williams & Wilkins 1994
  14. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Dec;25 Suppl 4:110-8
  15. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2008) 7, 499-504
  16. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Apr;115(4):849-59
  17. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 (15)Jun;113(6):1395-1403
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