Kenyan Athletics: A Deep Dive Into How They Train - Part I: Mindset

Updated: Mar 9

Part I: Mindset of Focus and Excellence

Eliud Kipchoge mid workout in Kaptagat, Kenya

Most runners will admit that the mind is most important when it comes to distance running, but even more specifically in racing. However, it feels like we gloss over it and think that just training and “putting in the work” will help the mindset take care of itself and make racing better. This is true to a certain extent, but for many runners—especially in the age of social media—we tend to have a status-seeking, outcome-focused mentality rather than an exploratory mindset focused on the process. Most Kenyans embody this exploratory, process-focused mindset.

During my time in Kenya, it quickly became obvious to me that there is a culture of excellence, pride, and tradition in running. The sport is never introduced as a way to just stay healthy and active (like in the United States), but rather as a job opportunity that can provide you with the financial means to earn a living for your family. These athletes are always training for something greater than themselves, they gain strength from the family and community around them.

Because of this exploration mindset, Kenyan athletes are more than willing to go places in training that most others would not (or could not) go. It does not matter if it is a workout, a long run, or a lofty weekly mileage goal, you’ll probably never hear a Kenyan say “I can’t do that” they just get out there and give it a go. Because of their mentality and upbringing, if they fail they are sure to come back next time and try again anyway.

1000 meter repeat workout at altitude in Kapsabet, Kenya

This may have been the most impressive part of the Kenyan mentality, as none of the athletes I observed or spoke with tired running performance to their identity. When I asked the athletes directly about this I got a range of responses, but it feels like the common theme was that they are able to separate the work (running) from themselves (identity). They give the best they can on that day, and whether it was good or bad, they pretty much forget about it and move on to the next session.

The free spirit is something my western mind took a while to comprehend and embrace given the systems we learn here in the United States. We often feel the need to adhere to a strict training schedule and try to follow it to perfection. This sort of schedule is good for us, as it adds certainty and structure to our already busy lifestyles. Many of the athletes in Kenya do not have this strict mindset.

It quickly became obvious that no matter what session was prescribed for them on that day, if they felt good, then they would go for it—and vice versa. It did not matter if they had a workout scheduled for the next day or were coming off of a brutal session (and they are brutal) the day before. If a Kenyan feels good on a training run, then they will not hesitate to crank on the second half of a run.

Post 3000 meter time trial in Kapsabet, Kenya

On the other end of the spectrum, they never once worried about needing to run at a snail's pace, skip a workout, or take a day completely off. There was no panic that it would throw off the entire training schedule or mess with their body’s physiology—something common among American coaches and athletes. It was entirely acceptable to rest when needed.

Finally, the amount of single-minded focus Kenyans (or broadly East Africas) are able to put on training seems to have deep cultural roots that I would not be able to do justice in a single article, but in an age with social connectivity and life obligations steadily gaining steam many of the best athletes in the country are still able to train with few distractions that we may encounter in the western world. When they report to training camp, it’s an all-in focus on training—and all the workouts, rest, and recovery that this implies when thinking about Kenyan distance athletes.

However, this is the romantic side of the Kenyan mentality, as it appears to stem from the general state of Kenyan culture, environment, and economy that they are brought up. This is what we will cover in part II of this How They Train series, so stay tuned!

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