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Byron Shire
February 25, 2021

Running with Kenyans

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Forty-nine years. That’s how long it has been since a Kenyan athlete failed to win the Olympic gold medal for the men’s 3000 metres steeplechase — well, at least when they were in the running (the country was a no-show at the 1976 and ’80 Olympic Games).

It’s the type of stat that leaves many scratching their heads. What is it that makes Kenyans so successful in middle and long-distance events? Is it genetics? The cool, thin air of the Kenyan highlands? Superior technique? Pot luck?

Topping the list of those eager for answers are sports scientists and health practitioners. For Philo Saunders, a senior physiotherapist with the AIS, the recent opportunity to travel to Iten, Kenya, to stay at the country’s high-altitude training centre and search for answers was too good to knock back.

Iten is a Mecca for the world’s long-distance runners. Each year many of the world’s premier athletes — including Great Britain’s dual Olympic gold medallist, Moh Farrah — go to the town in the Rift Valley Province as part of their training regime. Located 2400 metres above sea level and with a population of only 4000 (1000 of whom are elite runners!), athletes are free from distractions. Just train and recover — over and over again.

It’s a lifestyle that Philo — himself a high performance athlete, having placed seventh in the 1500 metres at the recent national championships  — fully embraced during his quest for answers. ‘I took part in a lot of the track sessions’, he says. ‘You meet people and learn more by participating. They appreciate that you’ve got commitment and ability — and they were happy to share their ideas.’

During his two weeks in Iten, Philo observed the perfect technique of the Kenyan athletes and was blown away by their packed training schedules (they run up to 200 kilometres a week on road, dirt and grass tracks) and ability to bounce back on a daily basis — and all without an official coach at the helm. ‘You just don’t see sore Kenyans. They’re so mechanically sound that there’s no bone injuries — at worst there are some soft-tissue injuries’, he said. ‘Most of the time there’s no official coach. The best athlete is the coach; they support each other. They understand that if someone wins it benefits them all.’

So did Philo discover the secret to their success? While people over the years have attempted to pinpoint one factor or ‘magic bullet’, the truth is that their outstanding record is more complex than that. ‘So many people have tried to put a label on the factor that makes them so great. But there’s a lot of pieces to the pie. I think that being based at high altitude would have a big effect, as would running being such a factor from a young age. Then throw in genetic factors, running technique and lack of injuries, and it becomes easy to see why they dominate.’

But perhaps most important is their mental edge. ‘I was so impressed by their quest to be the best. They believe they can be the best; they’re surrounded by the best every day and know they can do it too.’

From the AIS – http://www.ausport.gov.au

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