Running in Iten/How the elite Kenyans train
Spent two weeks in Iten Kenya recently and spoke to some very well known figures about training.
These included Moses Kiptanui, Brother Colm, Patrick Makau, Renato Canova and others.
Also ran twice a day as part of a group paced by a couple of elite Kenyan runners. Got first person visuals on how they run and carry out their runs and sessions.
I had planned to write a more structured report as OP but it wasn't starting so maybe would be best this way and fire any questions you might have.
I think we learned quite a lot there and much of it is applicable daily.7
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Thanks for the offer. We often hear about how the training is simple but super consistent, is that your take on things?
I'd love to hear that and your thoughts on the following;
Recovery\easy pace - how frequent and how slow is slow (is it really as simple as its as slow as the body wants\needs?)
Any sign\talk of fartlek training over there? The 1 min on\off sessions are legendary, any insights gained into the adaptations achieved ? I assume its threshold specific?
How much emphasis is placed on the strength of the group?2
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Will be great to get insights - thanks T.
(1) Kenyan Hills - I read that they dont do Kenyan Hills in the way that we do them?
(2) How long did it take you to acclimatize to the altitude?
(3) Is 'everyone' in the local training groups wearing Nikes (or do other brands exist out there?)
(4) Any insights gained from Brother Colm?
(5) How & Why did Canova take the pi$$ out of you - elaborate!!
(6) Food: give an average days worth of food for the locals runners.1
I will start with the last question because the answer affects the others. Strenght of the group is one of the advantages of Kenyan runners and runners in Iten. Every Kenyan is in a 'Sydney or the bush' situation. The motivation is that being successful will be life changing for the individual and their family. That can't be replicated in the mind of a relatively affluent westerner. It just can't. On top of that you have many many potentially world class runners competing for whatever spoils are available. The combination of the best, toughest, smartest runners will start to emerge. In one group at the track I saw there were 4 runners who had run < 60min for the half marathon. So it's the power of the group, many many, groups and many many world class groups. All that knowledge shared, evolving, the collective knowledge moving farther ahead of what can be achieved in sporadic small elite groups in other countries. That said, group running is massive, people should seek out and/or form groups of similar standard runners to them.
There is a famous fartlek in Iten on the red roads (not paved) every Thursday. While hundreds of runners run this at extraordinary paces the entire session is lead by one runner. The elites with teams (Nike, Asics etc.) are elsewhere. This makes sense in that they would have certain prescribed sessions to do. Maybe they tag along when regaining fitness, but generally they are not there. I saw this Fartlek and as a hill runner I was astounded by the speed they were hurtling down a rough road, a defacto trail. I think it may include runners trying to show form or catch the eye of an agent etc. Real elites are elsewhere.
Easy day for a marathoner is 20k in am and 10k pm. They run every step of every run relaxed. A major mistake of western running, amateur running atleast, is to force parts of runs including early stages of an easy run. These runs will start snails pace and feel very easy and increase in a natural relaxed manner. Pace won't be pushed. Sometimes they may run the last 4k of these runs at a steady clip, but not a step will be run in a manner that is not relaxed. That is the biggest lesson I think I took from my trip. The 10k pm is always very easy. Kenyans are religious so Sunday is generally a day of rest.
Any more Qs arising from those fire away.5
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Love that we have this thread to pick up tips, thanks for doing it!
just curiosity but do they run to watches or feel? Is there a coach prescribing their sessions or do they run that 20/10k routinely every day?
I was in Kericho in 2014 and got to visit very briefly a running academy but just got to speak with one runner. Still quite fascinating. He asked me how often I run and was astonished that I only trained 5/6 times per week!1
(1) Hills seem to be in 2 ways (that I saw). CP hill sprints. All out hill sprints, min 8s, talking full 2.5 mins recovery to replenish Creatine Phosphate supplies so that a maximum sprint can be repeated. A full set of drills occurs before these. (high knees, butt kicks, fast feet etc.) each drill followed by a jog, bound walk.
Second are longer hill sprints of 12s+. These have jog down recovery and are run slightly more relaxed than the previous, focusing on good technique. If session is just hill sprints then drills before. Otherwise they can be inserted for strenght endurance etc during other sessions.
(2) I was told that 80% of adaption occurs after 3 days and that felt about right. First run was rough, hills very hard. Now all these easy runs are on hilly rough roads. Iten is on top of a hill as well as being in the 'highlands' (Rift Valley escarpment). So HR was getting an extra kick up. I did a session after a week on Moiben road (famous long run venue) and I was good. Kenyans can run within 10s a km of their lowland Lt (from memory) up high. Westerners will start about 40s slower but can get down to 15s. (another advantage for Kenyans there). Hills and efforts kill because recovery is so hard in the rare air. I did a session after 11 days on the track, 20 x 300m with 1 min recovery. The recovery was really really tough even then. It takes a full month to really start to get benefits. You will get plenty after the two weeks: I feel it now. Recovery is amazing for me since.
(3) There are professional Asics, Adidas groups etc. They are shod accordingly. The Asics supershoe is next after Nike from observation. I saw some wazungos (westerners) wearing the saucony pros on the track but that was all. Vaporflies and Nike trainers mainly.
(4) Had a good chat with him. We discussed mainly all things Ireland. The U23 lads were staying at Lornah Kiplagats and he was telling me he was going to meet them. I gave him the bad news that half or all had already left. I posited the question would Daire McIlheny be best to go straight to marathon. He opined that the talent was so vast in road running that it could be disheartening and he may be better to get established on the track although he agreed that the times there are so good that medium term a move up might be the may to go. Other than that we were chatting about general stuff. He knew Emmett D, from my county who was over many times etc.
The legend of Iten started when Brother Colm started scouting for talent for St Patricks school. That may be his genius, as scout more than coach. Iten then became a centre of running and the rest is history. Its down to him.
(5) I was advised that Canova liked Brother Colm so to mention I was Irish. Unfortunately I was wearing a mask as I shouted "I know Brother Colm" at him so I think He didnt understand and I scared him. After he recovered he told me he was writing a couple of books, one on 'Methodology" the other autobiographical (but every one in it). Jan who has better manner than me got him to come out for the photo. (he offerred to coach her). I then decided a new strategy and dropped that I was out on the Moiben Road the last Saturday. He replied instantly "You weren't the fastest, there, no?". "only cause I'm old, Renato" I replied through tears but he had moved on.
(6) Breakfast: Mendazzi ...oh mendazzi....doughnut tasting pita bread things. Heaven. Or crepe like things, or pancakes. Fruit, veggies.
Kenyan tea: Our tea, made by heating with milk and water and adding ginger. Delicious.
Lunch: More veggies, sweet potatoes, more fruit.
Evening: Rice, veggie curry, lentils etc etc. Others took photos of every meal, ill get a better reply for you.9
They run by feel which is hugely important (see relaxed running in previous post) but a good few seem to have watches now.
The watch/pace should be an afterthought not the guide for easy or recovery running. Watch can't knw how you're feeling.
So in Kenya there does not seem to be one runner or a group concensus monitoring pace. It's by feel for easy runs.1
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Great thread always interesting to get insights of different cultures in the sport
roes the group dynamic extend beyond training? Is it part of life and the group of runners/friends or do they simply show up for the group runs and then go about their own lives?1
While waiting more Qs we met this man for a fascinating hour in his office in Eldoret.
Kiptanui set world records at 3000, 3000 Steeple and even took the record for 5000 off Haile Gebreselaisse.
His historic run to break the 8 min barrier for the steeple is still iconic to this day.
Extremely articulate, charismatic and outspoken he was a perfect man for our group to listen to and question.
I'll give my recollection of that hour but here is the last 5 laps of the sub 8 Steeple:1
Great question and it comes down to accommodation and social life in Iten.
I haven't been inside the camps (Canova and the other coaches have camps sponsored by the likes of Nike etc.)
These are in the form of compounds so outside gate with rooms, sleeping facilities, kitchen and all that inside.
Within them I assume the camraderie continues.
Outside that it is not so easy as accommodation is very basic. Outside of running the pros don't do much beyond rest and eat.
For groups in this situation I would not see them meeting up daily outside of running. Socializing for them would be a chat right after a run. There is a good chance their neighbours might be runners so there would be a bit of socializing there.
We had lunch in one of the guys houses (Josea). It was small: one room he had kind of nicely partitioned with curtains although kitchen was in a small ante room. He had a shower with warm water which he said he didn't have before. (To be fair, he was getting support fropm the coach which allowed this). He lives next door to Bernard Koech a 2:07 guy who is Julian Wanders training partner
He would see Bernard regularly between runs. He wouldnt run with Bernard, but his own training partner Paul is in a different part of Iten. He'd see Paul twice a day for runs, have some craic there and chat with Bernard otherwise. That's all the insight I have. But it's very different to here. There wouldn't be a common area for people to meet. Not for athletes to meet anyway. Money would be conserved. I gave the two lads a new pack of cards each for a bit of a change between runs, but it may be solitaire unfortunately.5
Kipatunui said he started out as a promising runner and was taken into a team called 'Kenyan Youth Services' who take on the promising youngsters. Other major teams like the Police and Military will cherry peak the potential from the Youth team. This is life changing if you're picked because Police/Military are careers. This way Kiptanui ended up in the military team. He stated that their coaches were not experienced at elite level athletics. Kiptanui realized his own potential and he said that he started to devise his own schedules. He siad he read magazines such as Athletics Weekly to get ideas for sessions. It should be noted that shortly after he began a successful relationship with agent/manager Kim McDonald (Ovett, O'Sullivan, Ngeny). McDonald was an excellent coach also and undoubtably Kiptanui got some coaching from McDonald. McDonald also introduced Kiptanui to Gerard Hartmann and Kiptanui spent time in Limerick and Cork.
Kiptanui was a 3 time world champion and talking to him it wa sclar that you were in the presence of someone a little special.
I asked him if his goal was to be the best and if he calculated the requirements to become the best from his starting points and worked out the details of how he could get there. He replied that he did and that his focus brought these requirements to light and he actione d them based on the goal (this is a lesson for everyone in the importance of a strong focus to help guide and provide drive and consistency and quality to our efforts, and indeed to unearth what those efforts should be). Based on all the relaxed running I was seeing and seeing the value of, I asked if this was something that came naturally to him. He said some of it did, but that it was something he was more than mindful of: he worked at it all the time. He was regarded as a great racer as well as champion famously falling in a high level race to get up and pass the field to win.
He got a lasered question or two about EPO in sport in his era and an incident was mentioned (by our coach) where his training partner used the excuse of dodgy toothpaste to explain a positive doping test. He was not drawn into defending his own record but was highly critical of Athletics Kenya's role in the EPO prevalence. Many blame agents, and sometimes husbands of remake elite's looking to cash in. Kiptanui pointed the blame at Kenyan athletics in the official capacity which is interesting.
I'll think of more but my impression was of a highly impressive champion, kind, articulate and generous.9
Just to add that within the camps ie Adidas they are very very tight. Very close knit groups. You could for example stay a night there (eg Adidas) for 7 quid but you may not be able to break into a group and it would be a potentially cold atmosphere (suspicious of outsiders).
Brother Colm himself is employed with Adidas and would be the main man/agent etc for Adidas in Iten.
I should have mentioned before the murder of Agnes Tirop was hanging like a cloud over Iten and Eldoret. We watched the Kenyan National XC in Eldoret and a massive International XC was being organised on that course in her honour.
Agnes was apparently slain by her husband who had been living apart with another women but became jealous when he believed she was seeing someone. Domestic violence is a huge problem in Kenya and some malign influence of husbands on some of the elite women should be noted.
When we were there we were getting lifts around the place with the compound owner (super woman!) and her son. Before that for previous groups it had been Agnes and the husband.
Next update will be the XC champs.8
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Very interesting read, thanks for sharing. Most questions have been asked...
Was there much or any focus on strength & conditioning training?1
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Canova sounds like a proper charmer. 🙄
Given the vast material and cultural differences between here and there, whIch of these practices, habits, techniques etc are likely to be most successful for mid-pack Irish runners like most of us?Post edited by Murph_D on1
A few more comments:
As alluded to earlier the fartlek etc. are not part of the training programme for the elite runners in camps. Easy runs/recovery would be generally by feel particularly in earlier stages of a cycle. There may be exceptions in those stages where someone's mechanics are just too poor at slow paces, and they may be given a lower limit for recovery runs. Sessions etc are tightly prescribed by coaches and easy/steady paces would be more precise as training gets more specific and less general.
I mentioned Canova and Brother Colm a bit but we met another elite coach and had a discussion with him over a good 90 minutes. I'll summarize that in another post. The point is that many of these European coaches are quite old now and manage more than coach I guess. Most of the coaches are now Kenyan albeit trained by Europeans0
Just to clarify here because it's important. After 72 hrs at altitude we were told that 80% of the adaption at cellular leval had occurred. The adaption slows out then to weeks. My own subjective experience was a marked improvement at around that mark.
Very little. There are so many hills there that most strenght work is taken care of by the terrain. I believe Kipchoge's group has a physio guy who does S+C but that's just for injury prevention not to build strenght as a tool to aid performance.
Canova was only joking and it was funny. For me the eye opener was how relaxed they run. Every step (bar 100% hill sprints) is relaxed.
Stay relaxed, progress into runs and indeed sessiosn relaxed. If it means a few seconds slower earlier on so be it. No wasted motion, no wasted effort. The rewards for running economically in races and in the second half of races are obvious. The method: start to run the entirety of every run in a relaxed manner. Run every stride relaxed, run every rep relaxed, run every tempo relaxed.
The second for now might be the group running. Seek out a group for some runs. Bigger the better. Makes everything easier.
For us midpackers: Don't fret, enjoy it. Have the fun when it's going. We were a group (albeit with one elite female runner, rest mid packers) learning about Kenyan ways, but Kenyans are chilled and fun. We enjoyed our running, and their/our own company. We don't have these huge motivations of the world class runners. But having fun/loving running is a huge motivator also. Don't be afraid to adapt the scenery/circumstances to bias towards the enjoyment of the whole thing. In fact I'd actively pursue this end.Post edited by demfad on8
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Super stuff - thanks for that
So easy is easy, relaxed, natural, not forced pace etc - back to the fartlek, does the structure change week by week ? Is it actually structured at all?
Those elites that are joining in while regaining fitness, they just tag along and do whatever the group is doing in the knowledge that it'll help them back to a level where they can rejoin their elite groups?
Did you get any exposure to the elite group training?1
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Just want to say I'm really enjoying the thread and thank you for sharing your experiences. I have recently finished reading Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn so it's nice to get a new update from someone who's just recently been there.2
I'll start with the Elite Group training. Did I get exposure? Yes, in that I watched the elite training sessions at Kipchoge Keino track in Eldoret and a session at Tambach track Iten. They were snapshots and I spoke to a few people including an elite coach or two to get context.
Within each camp there are many groups. In the Asics camp Canova personally coaches Julian Wanders in marathon training (Swiss guy, good marathon potential, 59 low for HM, 27 low for 10,000) . There are several runners in the Wanders group, but they are doing Wanders' session. Some might be up and coming guys happy to run in that group and hoping they will be brought on or catch someone's eye. Some might be veterans happy to chip in for a few of the reps. The coaches are OK with this as the star is getting the group support. Adidas might have many groups for different distances and for different stars.
The coach tailors the workout for the main runner. A few of the other good ones (good = prob sub 2:07 marathon) might have schedules slightly individualized but in general it will be similar enough that the training is done with the main man or woman. Schedules are meticulously laid out and vary in real time depending on how the athlete is reacting to training. Actual training will be different to planned and the plans evolve. Away from the very specific stuff which is most variable track might happen Tuesday Long Saturday with perhaps something high end aerobic on Thursday. Canova himself schedules for two weeks not one.
With the Fartlek which happens every Thursday, it seems that the work time amounts to 30-40 mins. There is a shorter or longer version. We watched it from where the shorter version ended and the longer continued. They ran down a very uneven rocky road and back up. Hair raising stuff. One runner calls the session for the day. It will be the standard Fartleks: Minutes; 2-1; 3-2-1; etc.
The elite coaches would have no use for this with their athletes unless by coincidence it aligned exactly with that days training session.
For an unfit athlete coming back it could be useful to throw him into that to get a general solid session in a group session where he might not be able for the really elite stuff. Many of the guys running the Fartlek can run 2:10. This is not elite in Iten where most of the top Kenyan marathoners in the world are living and training.
It genuinely was the trip of a lifetime for me as a runner. The country itself might be a trip back a century or two to poorer times in Ireland with most households subsisting with veg or animals even in towns and cities. (I saw Iten. Eldoret)7
Going to post later about a talk given to us about elite training from a previous winner of Seville who now coaches with the main German agency.
In the meantime had a few more thoughts on the above.
I mentioned running every step relaxed and running in groups.
--They also run their main run first thing in the morning. Nearly always.
--HILLS!!! Nearly every run is very hilly off-tarmac terrain. So the best in the world spend very little time on tarmac. To picture these roads the VERY BEST would be same quality as a forest fire road we have here. All of the roads have ruts either side from the motorbikes. Some have worn down to where there are many protruding stones, rocks. Lesser roads have less motorbike ruts but these are basically roacky trails or grass, and hilly, always hilly, steep things. They are accustomed to this, this is easy running. In truth, we had almost 'flattenned' those hills before we left. The famous Iten Fartlek is run on such terrain.
Lesson? Based on this (if hills are available) start to make runs hillier a with a view to making most/all hilly save those you need to run fast on a flat surface. A runner who does 50 miles on hilly ground is stronger than a runner who runs 50 miles on flat ground.4