Train Hard, Win Easy

Toby Tanser, Tafnews Press, Mountain View, CA: 2001

Toby Tanser lived and trained in Kenya for four months in 1995, then returned in 1999. His book is part-travelogue, part biography, part training summary, focusing on the amazing Kenyan long distance runners. A short, episodic book, Tanser covers attitude, circumstances, training, diet, coaching, and competition. He also addresses the lessons from the Kenyan approach that normal runners can apply.

The first thing Tanser makes clear, through quotes from many, many athletes, is that there is no secret to Kenyan training. There are a few sound principles, a few that don’t seem as sound, but the core of the training is lots of extremely hard work.

I thought I knew what this meant, but looking at the book my eyes were opened. Here is a favorite workout of Paul Tergat’s:

  • 1x 3000 in 8:00 (Aaron’s meet record at Vicki’s is 8:42) (2 min rest)
  • 2 x 2000 near 5:20 (4:16 mile, one more lap at same pace) (2 min rest)
  • 4 x 1000 at 2:35 to 2:30 (2:00 800 + another 200m) (90 sec. rest)
  • 25 x 400 at 60/61, moving down to 57, 60 sec rest between

That’s one workout, not four. Typically done on a dirt track at 6000′ elevation, in order to add to the challenge. It’s difficult for me to imagine such a workout. It’s also the case that this was not a workout around which the week revolved. Lots of long very fast tempo runs, more track intervals, and long (13M+ hill-climb, run hard) were all part of a normal week.

Besides huge volumes of very hard work, there are some things everyone can take from the Kenyans. First, often repeated, is running on soft surfaces. Almost all of the Kenyans’ runing is done on soft dirt roads. Asphalt is avoided as much as possible (concrete is alomst unknown as a pavement surface in the Kenyan highlands.) Second, rest should be rest. When the Kenyan runners rest, they do it with the same focus they put into their training. Diet is simple, high in carbohydrates, mostly organic (since fertilizers are beyond economic reach); and low-glycemic-index. Coaching is very demanding, but the coaches live in the same conditions as the athletes and know them intimately. And there seems to be a universal attitude that with enough work triumph is not only possible but nearly inevitable.

Four more specific training items:

  • Take rest days when your body says it’s time – no matter what the schedule says, if you need a day off, take it.
  • Run only six days a week. Most of the Kenyans Tanser writes about take Sunday off entirely.
  • Make tempo and hill running the twin pillars of your approach. Tempo runs are done at target race speed. Hill running is Hope Ranch-style rolling hills, not Jesusita (“The hills shouldn’t be too steep.”)
  • Stroll your slow days if you feel like it. Or go out walking after a race or hard run. Use walking as a way to “soften” the muscles.

There is an internal contradiction in Tanser’s writings that he doesn’t seem to notice. In the first half of the book, team training is emphasized strongly. The picture he paints is of large groups (of men) living and training together every day. On any given day, someone will push, and in Tanser’s view, everyone in the group will benefit from the harder work. In the second half of the book, Tanser provides biographies for leading runners. Almost universal amongst the runners who have had extended careers (Paul Tergat, Moses Kiptanui, Peter Koech) is that they do not train in groups, except for their hard runs. Tanser doesn’t make anything of this distinction, just as he seems to ignore Kenyans’ often too-brief career paths. Daniel Komen, for example, had roughly two utterly brilliant years, setting five world records and winning the World Championship 5000, all by the age of 22. And then, like so many Kenyans, he was beset by injuries and has not developed a long-term career to match his early performances. It’s hard not to think that the unrelenting extremes of the Kenyan group approach can produce great champions but (strange as it sounds) by burning out or burning up the runners, not develop the full potential of those who always train with the group.

Two issues come up when talking about the Kenyans (and Ethiopians): drugs and genetics. As for drugs, John Manners writes a forceful preface about Kenyan drug use. His conclusion: there isn’t any. This is highly credible. A few well-known American runners (including Alberto Salazar and Frank Shorter) have made what can only be described as stupid comments about the Kenyans and drugs.Similarly, some American acadmics have made accusations, based on the following evidence: “gee, they sure run fast.” (Seriously, that’s the level of evidence used.) To me one of the thrills of watching the East African runners is the solid knowledge that they’re clean, that what I’m seeing is the best humans can achieve.

Genetics is more complex. Tanser rejects genetics as an underlying factor, but there are a few pieces of evidence that make the question worth exploring:

  • There is more genetic variation in Africa than all the other continents combined. This isn’t surprising – that’s where we started, so it isn’t surprising if Africans have had more time to evolve. (No matter what the color of your skin, you’re of African descent.)
  • The “Kenyans” aren’t really the Kenyans generally – three-quarters of them are members of the Kalenjin tribe, by numbers only about 10% of Kenya’s population. Three other tribes (out of Kenya’s 40) provide the other 25%. Kind of as though Americans were the world’s greatest distance runners, but it was only Lutherans from Minnesota.
  • At the other end of the speed spectrum, the statistical evidence that being of West African descent is an advantage to sprinters is pretty strong – 100 out of the top 100 performances in the 100 meters belong to blacks of at least some West African descent.

This is all circumstantial evidence, of course. It’s interesting, and it suggests genetics may have a role to play, but it should not in the tiniest amount detract from the real core of Kenyan excellence in distance running. They are not better because of easy genetic luck. Distance running gives success only to those who work exceedingly hard for it. The Kenyans have worked themselves into the forefront. I have nothing but awed admiration for their capacity, their determination, and their beauty.

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