Living Environment and Poverty
This one often feels undervalued within the conversation of Kenyan dominance in distance running. Sure, people talk about living in altitude, running to school, poverty, but seeing this stuff firsthand was different. Although I will continue to profess that there is no single reason for Kenyan dominance in running, the environment and poverty might be the closest thing to an “X-factor” that they have. It is weird calling poverty an advantage to these runners, but let’s unpack that a little bit more.
In a lot of ways, the economic structure in Kenya makes running an incredibly appealing line of work compared to many of the other manual labor jobs paying what seems like pennies each day. Don’t get it twisted though, Kenyans use this opportunity to train very hard, and look at running as they would any other viable occupation in Kenya. Wake up, work your ass off, sleep, repeat.
Lastly, many of these runners only need to have one lucky race to put food on the table for a very long time. In a lot of ways, distance running affords many Kenyans the best opportunity to get out of poverty. This is also accompanied by pressure to provide for immediate and extended family members, and for many of the Kenyan athletes I spoke with this is the primary motivation for training. Think of it this way, I’m betting most of us would probably run harder to save our loved ones than we would even to save yourselves, and this is how most Kenyans approach distance running.
This is not to discount the environmental factors that create an excellent environment for training, growing up and living at over 6500 ft. for your entire life will definitely afford you some extra fitness benefits, but we have opportunities like that in the United States as well, so what else can be contributed to such a strong foundation of fitness.
Iten does have some flatter dirt roads, but in Kapsabet every single road is hilly with some crazy firm dirt due to all of the rain that comes through the region. There are also lots of divots on the road that I think help strengthen ankles and balance muscles for most of these elite runners.
A Kenyan athlete’s sleep schedule is pretty well-formed as well. It ends up being pretty consistently around 9:30 pm-5:30 am (8 hours) and then most days they will also tack on a 1-2 hour nap in the afternoon to get a total of around 10 hours a day. They look at this as a time to rest and refresh, and the simple life most of these athletes live keeps overstimulation fairly low so they are able to relax.
The training culture in Kenya is tied to training partners, groups, and teams. Although we have a lot of teams and groups in the United States, there is still a “lone wolf” mentality tied to our training much of the time. In Kenya, you will seldom find an athlete out for a solo training run or workout.
While it seems backward to say, the quality of life conditions that we would view as poverty in the United States is actually a contributing factor to why so many Kenyan athletes find success in distance running. They are just tough people, and every second of every day can be tough on them. This constant exposure to hard living conditions has absolutely callused these athletes into incredible distance running.