The skyscrapers and crowds of Boston, Chicago, and London are a common scene for many western marathoners. But to a Kenyan athlete, the red roads and heat of Africa are the everyday norm. Despite a drastic change in landscape, the Kenyan elite are dominating mid and long distance competitions all over the world.
The Kenyan Legacy
An article produced by Active.com author, coach, and exercise scientist Owen Anderson described the phenomenon. “One study found that athletes from just one collection of Kenyans, the Kalenjin tribe, had won approximately 40 percent of all major international middle- and long-distance running competitions in the 10-year period from 1987 to 1997.
“In addition, approximately half of all of the male athletes in the world who have ever run the 10K in less than 27 minutes hail from Kenya.”
Professional running blogger Jonathan Bechtel with RunAddicts.net shared additional insight. “East african runners have a record of dominance in elite distance running. Since pushing themselves into the spotlight by steamrolling the competition in the 1968 Olympics, Kenyans and Ethiopians have enjoyed a peculiar success at international events. Since that time they’ve grabbed 10 of the 20 top times for middle and long distance cross-country races.”
While the vast majority of Kenyan runners originated from the small ethnic group Kalenjins, they make up just 10 percent of the Kenyan population—but they are winning in a big way, explained Bechtel.
So just what are these champions eating everyday? “Whenever a mysterious tribe or part of the earth is discovered, rumors quickly spread about a new superfood or diet with extraordinary health properties…. The Kalinjin diet, it turns out, is pretty plain,” Bechtel said.
Truly, “the Kenyans are doing things right when they sit down at the dinner table, or they wouldn’t dominate international competitions,” Anderson shared. With the goal to find some answers, a group of researchers recently took a weeklong glance at 10 elite Kenyan runners at a training camp near Kaptagat, Kenya.
“Dietary intakes were measured each day for seven consecutive days in December, when the athletes were reaching peak condition for the Kenyan cross-country season. The Kenyans followed their normal diets and weighed and recorded everything that was consumed (both food and drink). The elite Kenyans were given as much food as they wanted, and they ate five times a day,” reported Anderson.
Their results surprised researchers, athletes, and scientists alike. With 76.5 percent of daily calories coming from carbohydrates, these Kenyan runners were way over the average when compared with other countries’ elite runners.
The carb intake of U.S. distance runners measured at 49 percent, the Netherlands and South Africa at 50 percent, and Australia at 52 percent. Anderson described the Kenyan runners of doing a “better job of fueling themselves for their high-intensity training, compared with their ‘peers’ in other countries.”
Most of the nutrients (86 percent) found in the Kenyan diet came from vegetable sources with staples including bread, boiled rice, potatoes, porridge, cabbage, kidney beans and a corn-meal paste rolled into balls called ugali, Anderson shared.
“Meat (primarily beef) was eaten just four times a week in fairly small amounts (about 100 grams/3.5 ounces a day).” In addition to protein gleaned from their plant-based foods, this amounted to 10.1 percent of all calories and a total of 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (75 total grams daily), Anderson added.
And guess what else? The Kenyan runners did not take supplements of any kind. None. Zip. Nada. “The gold-medal-winning Kenyans adhered to the odd philosophy that regular foods could fuel their efforts quite nicely,” Anderson said.
“Ultimately, a close look at the Kalinjin diet reaffirms a lot of things committed distance runners already know. A high carbohydrate diet with a solid nutritional content has long been considered the dietary regimen of choice for endurance athletes, and the success of Kenyan runners only cements that fact,” Bechtel shared.
It’s All About Timing
So what else is it about this group that propels them to such astonishing wins? Anderson reported that the average age of the Kenyans studied was 21. The mean height was about 5’ 9” with little variation. And their body weight averaged 129 pounds with body fat ranging from six to 10 percent.
Aside from excellent genetics, there is one fundamental principle of sports nutrition that the Kenyans were exhibiting, which ultimately enhanced their abilities to train and perform at a champion level. They ate within one hour of finishing their workouts—always.
“This post-workout period when glycogen re-synthesis rates can be maximized, as long as adequate carbohydrate is provided in the diet (as was the case with the Kenyans). When carbohydrate ingestion is delayed after a training session, lower total intramuscular glycogen levels are often the result,” explained Anderson. “They were truly stocking their leg muscles with glycogen, giving their sinews the right fuel necessary for the high-intensity training they were conducting—and avoiding the fatigue which automatically follows on the heels of glycogen wipe-outs.”
Will It Last?
Another study published in the World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics found that distance runners from Kenya consumed an average of 2250 Kcal a day, “more than 1000 less than their average daily expenditure…. Further studies adjusted the figure upward, but did not overturn the fact that most Kenyans are in negative energy balance in periods of intense training. Almost all Kenyans experience a significant reduction in their BMI in periods leading up to a race,” Bechtel added.
Many consider BMI reduction before a race to grant runners a competitive edge, but it comes with a cost. “Muscle fatigue, prolonged workout recovery, and an accelerated deterioration of athletic performance are all associated with low caloric intake, and these effects are seen in Kenyan runners,” Bechtel explained. “While Kalinjin runners shine brighter than any others at their peak, they also burnout faster. Kenyans do not enjoy the same longevity as distance runners from the west, presumably for this reason.”
Despite a questionably low caloric intake during intense training resulting in lower BMI, no one can deny the Kenyans are doing something right. “With their high carbohydrate intake, adequate protein ingestion, and perfect timing of meals, the top Kenyan runners are eating optimally—doing the things at the dinner table which are necessary for them to perform at the world’s highest level,” Anderson concluded.
For additional reading, check out Secrets from the Savannah: What the Diets of Elite Kenyan Runners Teach Us About Optimal Nutrition
And Eating Practices of the Best Endurance Athletes in the World