Kenyan Athletics: A Deep Dive into How They Train - Part III: Nutrition

Nutrition and Diet Staples

Elite athletes enjoying a Kenyan breakfast of chai tea and bread

When we consider the contributing factors to Kenyan dominance in distance running, nutrition is often well documented, but I noticed that while Kenyans are quite open about what they eat, they tend to leave out some details that others could be very interested in, which is what we are going to cover now.

We’ll start with Ugali because that is what everyone raves about within the Kenyan diet, but for those who do not know, Ugali is a corn maize ground down into a fine flour, then boiled in water until it becomes the texture of a solid porridge. It’s cheap, filling, and is even fortified with iron and vitamin D in many cases.

Traditional Kenyan dinner of ugali and greens

As a first-hand observer, they eat Ugali a lot, but rarely by itself, as it is often paired with sauteed vegetables like spinach, kale, onions, and tomatoes. If they are feeling extra rich that day then they may even splurge on some fresh meat like beef or goat. Meat, however, is a luxury that many cannot afford, so vegetables are often the “go-to” side dish.

The preferred drinks to go with Ugali always seemed to be milk, tea, or mursik, the latter being fermented milk with a thicker texture and a sour taste. They swear it's dense in nutrition though, and from what I’ve seen it must be.

Speaking of drink items, Kenyans drink a lot of tea, which to them is Chai leaves boiled in water, milk, and lots of sugar. This tea is prepared in the morning and used as a warm refreshment for the rest of the day.

Seasoned Kenyan athlete during 400 meter repeats

Breakfast usually consists of plain white bread and tea. After the morning run, they will stack three slices of plain white bread onto each other and eat it like a sandwich, this pairs well with the tea, which inevitably fills them up from the milk being absorbed by the bread.

Although less popular, Kenyans do still eat plenty of white rice with beans, which taste incredibly fresh and natural. These items are also fairly cheap and easy to come by, but Kenyans do often favor Ugali with meat or greens.

Although it may not be the secret to Kenyan success in distance running, it would feel like a sin to not mention Chapati as a staple in the Kenyan diet. Chapati is a sweetened round flatbread that pairs well with just about any other dish in the Kenyan diet. Rice, beans, ugali, tea, fruits, it does not matter, this tastes great and pairs well with most other foods.

Chapati - a sweet flat bread

Speaking of that, it's quite easy to find Kenyans snacking on fresh fruits like bananas and oranges throughout the day. These are delicious and nutritious treats that fuel them between training bouts. Bananas can often be seen as a breakfast item as well.

Finally, from all of this, you may have noticed how much Kenyans enjoy lots of sugar in many food items. It is true they seem to have a sweet truth (but what country doesn’t) and they are able to utilize it as instant fuel for training.

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