Monday, January 10, 2011

Life in the fast lane

As I mentioned before, I'm staying in a house that is beside Saint Patrick's High School. Aside from the world class junior runners that I'm living with, there are plenty of athletes at the top level of the sport living and training in the neighbourhood. Many of the athletes based in and around the high school use its grounds to stretch, warm down, and run intervals. So are in the luxurious position of being able to see some of Kenya's top international middle-distance runners going about their day.

Picture: Geoffrey Mutai (second left) biding his time before hammering the field in Saturday's National Cross Country series Race in Iten. Mutai was second in Rotterdam Marathon and in Berlin marathon in 2010. The pace was INSANE!

The camp attached to the high school is just one of a number of high-performance running camps in Iten. While this camp is geared towards middle-distance running, others are marathon focused. There are also a lot of individual athletes living and training here outside of a camp environment. There are plenty of people around town who are happy to chat about training.

One question that has been on my mind for some time is 'how do these top athletes in Kenya live?'. Because perhaps if we understand that, then we are a step closer to understanding how the East Africans have been so dominant on the global running scene over the last few decades.

I don't pretend to know much about it after being up here for less than a week, but you can't help but notice what's going on around you, because the runners are everywhere from the moment you leave your front gate! Keep in mind that my observations here are anecdotal and preliminary, as I haven't been here for long.

The first, and perhaps most import observation I made is that the approach applied by athletes here is not rocket science. To the contrary, it is quite simple. You won't see fancy compression socks and expensive GPS watches. The successful runners here simply train smart and hard. The cinder track says it all really...

Professional athletes obviously don't have to work other jobs, so they can be much more flexible about training throughout the day and week. The athletes flex their training according to how they feel on the day, and will skip (or pull out of) a session if they are struggling. For the same reason, athletes have plenty of time to stretch and look after their bodies.

Picture: My speedy house-mates, Janet and Nancy, battle it out in the junior women's race. Placing 2nd and 7th respectively.

It seems like there is by no means a 'one size fits all' approach to training. Programs are perhaps less rigid than we are used to, and are tailored for each athlete. For example, a program will depend on the goals of the athlete, how the athlete is feeling on a given day, and what works for the individual. But there is a general daily structure that seems to be common for many runners. The day seems to be based around either two or three runs..

The day starts early. At 6am runners emerge from their homes en mass and take to the trails for the first run of the day, which seems to normally be an easy jog. From my limited observations, the pace starts off very slow, and speeds up gradually throughout. It can be fairly strenuous in the last couple of miles. Then a long stretching session after the run, then breakfast and rest time.

The second run, if there is one, is normally mid/late morning. This is the hard session of the day, meaning hill repeats/intervals/tempo etc. But athletes might skip the late morning session and instead run the session early in the morning or in the afternoon either.

Then the streets are filled with runners again at about 4:30pm when the sun is low in the sky and the temperature is dropping to an agreeable level. It seems like the evening run is normally easy pace.

The time in between runs is spent mainly resting, sleeping, and eating. Kenyans are generally pretty laid back, so sitting around like this is quite conducive with their culture anyway. You won't see many runners out and about during the hot period of the day between 11am and 4pm. Best to stay indoors and off your feet, as it is energy sapping to be moving and out in the sun.

Meals a very simple and unprocessed. Very little meat or saturated fat. For breakfast we've been eating plain white bread (no spread) and maybe fruit, with tea. For lunch, ugali or rice with lettuce or spinach, and tea. Then the same thing for dinner. I've been buying pineapple and mangoes for the house as a treat, but otherwise I doubt it would feature on the menu. You would think that the lack of variety of food would leave people deficient in certain vitamins and nutrients, but it doesn't seem to affect their running performance.

I haven't seen treats like chocolate or ice cream in the village. When these treats are not waved in front of you all day, it's amazing how little you miss them (or even think about them). The food that people normally eat here is healthy because of it's simplicity, though probably not providing all your essential vitamins and nutrients. But it is not particularly tasty, so people are not tempted to eat too much. I've been eating just enough at each meal that I'm not hungry any more, and not more.

By 8pm the village is quiet (except for the sound of barking dogs all around), and so it's off to bed early (before 10pm).

The key tenet of the approach seems to be a structured repetitive lifestyle. When you live in a running centric world like Iten, it seems to be easier to block out distractions and temptations that 'hinder' the rest of us in happening places like Dublin. Aside from the obvious work duties that get in the way of our training, I'm mostly talking about good distractions like meeting friends for coffee or a pint, going to movies or out for dinner, weekend excursions. Missing out on these things is a sacrifice that I think is made by many athletes here, though I don't think they have any desire for these types of things anyway.

There is no reason to break from this structured day, and certainly no reason to leave the house after your evening session (believe me, I experimented with this the other night). There is no reason to drink alcohol in this town. The 'pubs' are not an attractive option, so you're better off just going to bed after dinner in anticipation of another early morning.

I'm also posting on an Irish web-site forum called if anyone is interested:


sandy said...

How are you going to manage without Weetbix

Ciarán Aylward said...

Great stuff Jase, keep the posts coming!

Knowlsie said...

So Guinness isn't your secret then mate?