Run like a Kenyan
Elite coaching special - The secrets of Kenya's success
How the Kenyans Train
There are many myths and rumours about the Kenyan distance runners and how they train. Moses Kiptanui and Paul Koech give their insights into the way things really are.
Moses Kiptanui broke many world records in an illustrious career. He has twice set new figures at 3000m steeplechase (including becoming the first man to break 8min with 7min 59.18sec), in 1995 he broke Haile Gebrselassie’s 5K record with 12min 56.30sec and at 3K flat set a world record 7min 28.96sec (he later recorded 7min 27.18sec). He also won three world titles at Steeplechase and an Olympic silver medal.
Paul Koech has a silver medal from the World Cross Championships and finished fourth at two others, he has run 12min 56.29sec for 5K, 26min 36.26sec for 10K, and was the first man under 45min for 10M (44min 45sec). He has run 2hr 7min 7sec for a marathon.
Humble beginnings and facilities in Kenya
Moses revealed he was not out running at an early age: "I started running late, not like many others in Kenya who start when they are 14 or 15. I started when I was 19. All my life and in school I didn't know much about running. I knew about Kip Keino like everyone else in Kenya does. When I finished school I used to play football."
It was after he had finished school that Moses joined the army and it was here that he started running: "When it came to my military duties I joined the athletics team. In the military you have to follow all the orders and it can be a little harsh. I started running.
"What was in my mind was that I would make money from running. I took athletics as my first job. There was no day when I would say, 'I am tired' and did not want to train. I always wanted to do something. By doing that it enabled me to run for many years not just for two or three years."
Facilities in Kenya
Moses explained the athlete support in Kenya is hardly extensive: "With Kip Keino everyone in Kenya, even young children, know about him, even if they had not seen him running. From the 1960s he has been a national hero. He left Kenya to race with a Kenyan flag and came back with a Kenyan flag. He opened an orphanage. In every community in Kenya everyone wants to be Kip Keino.
"There are junior championships in Kenya and a lot of training camps for them [juniors]. The only problem we face is the lack of training facilities and a lack of qualified coaches. People just tell them to run - not a proper training programme.
"In the first World Junior Championships Kenya got seven gold medals. We still believe in Kenya that we have more talent there if we have proper training facilities.
"A lot of shoe companies are going to Kenya to give kit, training facilities and training for coaches so that the coaches are trained to look after young athletes.
"Most of our athletes are from Eldoret and from the Masai tribe. Companies are going there because the talent is so close. In the training camps they are given proper ways of training, accommodation and training facilities. We still believe that we could have more athletes from that place but we need more coaches. Some big Kenyan athletes have played a big role in Kenya. When they have finished running they go home and start a training camp. Before the shoe companies were there people had their own training camps - I had one. I was helping youngsters. It is more difficult to do now as if you have not got the proper training facilities or shoes to give them people will go where they can get these facilities. We don't have enough facilities. We have two tartan tracks in the Nairobi area and apart from that we use mud tracks. We don't have good gyms. We carry rocks and stones and use our body weight. We hope as time goes on we will be pushing to have all these things - when we have money from shoe companies.
"We are lucky in Eldoret as we have hills so we do very well in the long distance events like the marathon. That has played a major role - in Kenya in the 70s and 80s we never had a very good marathon record. In the 90s to this time we are doing well.
The annual cycle
Moses explained the annual training cycle for a Kenyan athlete: "After a busy season a Kenyan will take one month, two months or maybe three months of rest. I used to take two months off in September and October and then start running. When I first started I would go out for 20min in the morning for one week, then 30min, then 40min and an hour. What we normally do is first know when we are racing and if you are going to be racing in December or January you need to start training early. Those not doing cross country or indoor need to train starting from November - starting easy, doing more mileage not track work. We do fartlek and when we have two months to go before the championships we start doing the speed work.
"We Kenyans believe that if you want to run well and for a long time you don't need to go to the track and do lots of workouts. You need to start doing hard work and long distance running before the season starts."
Paul Koech’s beginnings and career
Paul explained how he got into the sport: "I started running when I was at school. I was playing football and someone hit the ball at my stomach and I thought, 'This is not the thing'. And in volleyball the guys who were taller could do better. I tried long jump or triple jump - I used to jump the river on the way to school and never went in the river but I was still not good. Then some people were running round so I thought I would follow them. I ran in the 800m and came second. I ran in the 1500m and won. And then I tried the longer race, I think it was a 5K, and won again. I thought this is for me. I forgot about football.
"My parents put a little bit of money towards my running so I needed to do something to justify it.
"I wanted to be a policeman but then in 1992 I joined the army. I joined as an officer not a soldier. There had never been an officer who ran - they just sat at a desk and worked. So I said I am interested in athletics. They said, 'Okay, you can go and administer a team'. I was able to get them nice things like meat and water [sic]. I trained with the team and after three months I was number one.
"In 1995 I ran my first main race in the African Games and then came to Europe in the summer. I started doing cross country. In 1996 in Stellenbosch I did the teamwork we usually do and came in fourth place. I have been running in all the world cross country championships since. In 1998 I came second to Paul Tergat. My worst position is 6th place, in the rest I have come fourth. I just like the even numbers I don't like the odd ones! On the track I run 10K and also 3K, I don't have enough speed for that but I am chasing people the whole way.”
The Kenyan culture
Paul explained that in Kenya the senior athlete controls the group. The athletes also do conditioning work after most runs. He continued: "We used to be the same as in Arab nations women were used only to take care of the house and look after children. Therefore we couldn't expect them to be athletes and represent the country. But now we have got more women coming through and are breaking the barriers we had.
The Kenyan myths
Moses and Paul spoke about some of what they saw as the ‘myths’ and ‘truths’ of Kenyan distance running.
Paul spoke about the myths surrounding Kenyan distance runners. He said: "All Kenyans are born at altitude? How many Kenyans are born at altitude? Most Kenyans don't know what altitude they were born at. They may be born at altitude but that is not the main thing.
"Another myth is that it is because Kenyans run to school? This is not true. Some Kenyan runners have school only a stones throw from their home.
"It is due to genetics? This may be part of it but not, I believe, the main factor.
"Another myth is body structure? I was in Ireland and most people there were tall and thin, they have the same structure. Most Kenyan runners are Masai and have good body structure but it is not the Konchellahs who hold the world records.
"Publicity? This is not true as most people want to be footballers. Athletics is not well publicised. Fewer people would recognise Moses Kiptanui than George Weah. Football is the number one sport in Kenya."
The Kenyan Facts
Paul said there were truths about why the Kenyans are different: "If you Train Hard You Win Easy. If you do something hard you get it in a better way. To make good tea you need milk, sugar and a tea bag. You have to sweat and work to get the milk, to get the sugar and get the tea. If you don't it tastes bad, if you do then it tastes good.
Diet is also important he said: "When you are in the UK and you want something you get it from the fridge. In Kenyan if I want to cook an onion I pick it from the farm. We don't use genetically modified food.”
A low income also gives a drive for success: "In Kenya the standard of living is terrible. Employment is the number one problem. If someone runs a race and wins $1000 that is 70000 Kenyan shillings. It would take a full year for an officer in the army to earn that much. To just wake up and make your legs move and win $1000 is a main factor!”
The word ‘harambee’ is well known to Kenyans. Paul explained: "Harambee means pulling together as a group. The first president said this in 1960 when Kenya gained its independence. One person can do nothing by himself. You need to depend on each other - you can't build a school on your own. Children born in Kenya are brought up with the village. He remains in a group not as an individual. You learn as a group and not an individual. The spirit is in athletics now. Harambee is a national spirit. There is nothing that is achievable other than doing it as a group.
“We have to train with up and coming runners so they can catch up and be up with you. We train as a group, we train together. That has enabled us to do very well in the world championships. And it means one coach can look after more than 100 athletes. It is very easy for them to train together as they understand each other fully. Here in the UK how many athletes can a coach train? One or two? In Kenya we have 60 athletes with one person. The training programmes in Kenya are not from a book. The coach wakes up and makes the programme for that day. If he needs to change the training he will do so.”
The keys to Kenyan success are likely to be debated long and hard. But the Kenyan athletes are open about what they do and what they think it is that makes the difference to their training. The question remains – how many Western athletes will take up the challenge.