Kenyan Training Principles
Written by Marius Bakken, March 2000
My background for writing this is 2 months of training with the Kenyans before the 2000 meter season, my talks with Bob Kennedy and his experience with Kenyan runners, and my contact with Frank Evertsen who has been involved with the coaching of athletes such as Sammy Kipketer (12.58 5000 m.), John Kibowen (7.29 3000 m), Vivian Cheriouyt (2000’ world jr. cross country champion), Abrahim Cherono (8.11 steeple), Emmanuel Kimboi (1.44.8A) etc.etc. I also train with a group of Kenyan athletes who stay in Norway during the summer. The information on Maroccon training that I will also make some references to, comes from personal talks with Khalid Skah (Olympic Champ 10000 m.’92) who lives in Norway, my friend Abderrahim Goumri (13.20) who trains with them, as well as lecture notes from their coach Kada.
In recent races it looks like the Maroccons and even the Algerians are about to take over the “long distance throne” from the Kenyans. It is true that these nations are bringing up world class athletes and in many cases extreme winner types like El’Guerrouj. But it is still Kenya that dominates. A quick glance at the world all time bests proves this. About 20 of the 40 best on the all time list in the 3000 m/5000/10000 meter as well as the steeple are from Kenya…and most from the small area around Eldoret (Nandi/Iten etc)
If you want to study how the Kenyans train, you will have to divide this into two categories. One that goes “before they get into the European agents system” and one after. From the Kenyans training camps in Europe and Australia you will hear stories about incredible times on track sessions, and almost no Lactic Treshold (LT) sessions at all. It is therefore important to divide Kenyan training into two : the basetraining done in the small camps in Kenya from a very young age and the track training done in some of the larger camps for older athletes who are already good.
It is in the basetraining phase LT training plays an extremely important part. My experience from training with the Kenyas, even the very young ones, is that they go right under their LT on almost all the sessions. They start out slow, on maybe an hour run. Then they go faster and faster as the go along, until they have reached the zone right below their LT. This is where they will continue for the rest of the run. Usually they go by minutes and not by miles/km, and this kind of training is done either in the session around 10 o’clock or the evening session. Only the very early session is nice and slow. This session they call “opening the lungs” because they think the fresh air help them run fast in the other sessions that day….around three times a week they run intervals, or fartlek. This could consist of, like the Patrick Sang group (independent with eg. Ismael Kirui) doing 50 minutes of 3 minute running and 1 minute easy. This is done right over the LT, but not “dying hard” like many Europeans like to do them. It is all controlled. Total mileage is somewhere between 180 km-280 km, depending on the athlete. 21 sessions, or maybe one day with easy running is normal.
When these athletes with the LT basetraining in the bottom starts to run well enough, European agents might recruit them. Then the training changes into being more of the running we are used to from European tracks. They can still do their regular 180 –280 km, but now the training is more interval based. Dr. Rosa who coaches Paul Tergat claims that in their group they do intervals every single day, including two-three track sessions a week. The five remaining sessions is then probably around their LT. In the Kim McDonald group, from the information Bob Kennedy and the Kenyan Francis Rop, much of the training consists of three hard track sessions a week. For long distance runners, for example one hill session of 10×300 m, one track session of 1600-1200-800-400-200 (Komen did that one in something like 3.52/2.51/1.51/52/24 at his best in Australia according to Bob) and then another track session of 400s, for example 4x5x400 m. The rest of the running is easy long runs, with only occational LT work – approx. mileage 180 km pr week. BUT these athletes have a broad base of LT running from a very young age. In a way, this track work is only a way of getting out that base of LT running. That might also be one of the reasons why some of the Kenyans “burn out” and disappear from the European running scene – because they simply lose some of their natural LT base.
Frank Evertsen, a physiologist in the Norwegian Olympic Team, has studied and coached Kenyans since the beginning of the 90s and is also working on a doctorate on training at the right intensity . He confirms that 1) LT training is the single most effective training if you want to run fast in the long distances 2) LT training is the base of the Kenyan athletes, topped with track sessions (where they run hard, BUT they still don’t drop dead tired on the track, because they have such a great base). For example, an athlete like Sammy Kipketer (world road best in the 5000 m. of 13.00/12.54 track) did years of LT work in Evertsens training group in Eldoret, before an European agent signed him. Then after a year of track work, he was running sub 13 minutes at a very young age. If you had studied his training only for that one year, that would not have given you a clear picture of his training. The Kenyan secret comes from years of training at the right intensity – and a few years with harder track work. Most Europeans and Americans tend to start in the other end. At very low (and slow !) mileage they do these hard track sessions that simply kill the little endurance they have from the beginning of. The result is 15 minute 5000 m. runners training 14 sessions a week. My dramatic improvement from running 3.48 in the 1500 m/8.13 in the 3000 m. to 7.47 in the 3000/13.22 in the 5000 m. over under a year came from this LT training. I copied the Kenyan way of training, using lactic acid meters to monitor it closely in the beginning (see seperate article on “practical guide to training the Kenyan way”), and the results started to come after only 4 months of this LT training. Before that, I was still working very hard, but just focusing on the wrong things, such as killing track-workouts and no real LT endurance base. Now I balance both LT work and track sessions (that are comfortably hard). Just like the Kenyans and the Moroccons.