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What we can learn from the diet of Kenyan elite runners

FEB 15, 2023

Minute 1: Kenya has some of the best runners in the world, and this is how they do it

In a world of genetically-tuned workout plans, biofeedback devices, and advanced exercise machines, we’re living through something of a scientific revolution for runners. Technology can make our lives convenient, but it’s important to remember that simple, straightforward approaches to training are still a viable way to go. There’s no better proof of that than the elite runners Kenya develops year after year. If you want to bring it back to basics in your training, read about these “5 Lessons From the Running Capital of the World.” Rather than overcomplicating their workouts with specific splits, rest intervals and distances, many Kenyan athletes rely on simple Fartlek runs. In their version of the Swedish workout, they alternate two minutes of hard running with two minutes of easy running for about 50 minutes. Athletes in the running hotbed of Iten, Kenya, also rely on a simple workout they call “Boston,” which features hard running on rolling hills, like what you may find in the hills of Newton. For more ideas on how you can tap into the expertise of the runners in Iten, check out: “9 'Secrets'​ of Kenyan runners,” including a reliance on rural landscape with clean air and dirt trails rather than asphalt. A critical component of Kenyan domination is also their diet. As you might guess based on their training principles, simplicity is the rule according to this story: “Diet of Kenyan Runners: A Scientific Look at the Diet of the World’s Fastest Runners.” Carbohydrates make up about 77% of their daily caloric intake, mostly in the form of Ugali, a simple dish of maize flour (cornmeal) cooked with water, and perhaps mixed with veggies, chicken or beef. Elite Kenyan runners typically eat about five times per day wrapped around two training sessions.

Minute 2: Walk your way to better physical and mental health

As legendary runner Forrest Gump might say, physical and mental health go together like peas and carrots. He was actually applying that folksy comparison to his relationship with Jenny, but new research confirms that there is a strong relationship between physical workouts and mental happiness. One way to strengthen that tie is the simplest workout we know: “Hear Me Out: Walking Is a Way To Get To Know Ourselves Better.” Megan Thornson is content with walking at an easy pace. It may not bring as much of a physical benefit as running, but taking your time on a stroll offers a level of self reflection you may not otherwise achieve. In fact, a 2021 study found that walking could be similarly effective to therapy for attaining calmness or personal growth. Exercise isn’t the only physical aspect of our lives that can improve mental health. Food plays a role as well, as you can see in this new piece from the Washington Post: “The link between our food, gut microbiome and depression.” Theories about this correlation go all the way back to the 1800s, when John Abernethy contended that “gastric derangement” was the cause of all mental disorders. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s some truth in it nonetheless. Researchers have identified about 16 types of bacteria that seem to be relevant predictors of depression. By eating a healthy and diverse diet with probiotic foods in the mix, you can help cultivate your microbiome to contain the bacteria associated with a positive mood.

Minute 3: Can fasting improve your cells’ ability to repair?

As we edit this edition of SMM from the Running USA conference in snowy Denver, it’s hard to believe that spring is right around the corner. For those who believe in spring cleaning along with spring blossoms, you may want to consider tidying up more than just your desk and home. This new piece describes how you can clean yourself up at the cellular level: “What Is Autophagy? Explaining The Bodily Processes Behind Fasting.” Autophagy is a process by which cells break down their own components and recycle them for energy. It’s essential for preventing the buildup of damaged cells and cellular debris, which can lead to neurodegenerative diseases, cancers, liver problems, and decreased longevity. Autophagy will occur all by itself, but some researchers believe that intermittent fasting can jumpstart the process. That story reminds us that, sadly, calorie restriction has been associated with longevity, as you can see in “First Controlled Human Trial Shows Cutting Calories Improves Health, Longevity.” (Do we really want to live an extra 10 years without beer and Ben & Jerry’s?) Modest calorie restriction over the course of 2 years has been shown to reprogram the way mitochondria generate energy. It could also improve our cell’s inflammatory response, according to one study. If you’re curious about giving fasting a try, be sure to proceed carefully, and be wary of extreme measures like a juice cleanse: “It’s Time to Leave Juice Cleanses Behind — Here’s Why.”

Minute 4: Feet hurt after running? This could be why

Having battled plantar fasciitis more than once, it’s a painful experience we wouldn’t wish on our biggest running rival. It is the most common cause of heel pain in runners, but it’s not the only cause according to: “Heel Pain in Runners - More than Just Plantar Fasciitis!” Sharp heel pain could indicate something more serious like calcaneal fracture or entrapment neuropathies. For a solution to the most common causes of your foot pain, check out: “How To Fix Runners Heel – All You Need To Know.” Inflammation of the connective tissue around the ball of the foot is typically caused by repetitive stress and overuse, especially for those who heel strike or run in worn-out shoes. By slowly ramping up your training and using shoes with plenty of cushioning, you can lower your risk of developing runner's heel. If the damage is already done, the main thing you need is rest. Some have found that gentle stretching, massage, and icing can help too. If it turns out that your heel pain is due to plantar fasciitis, this piece offers some good advice: “What Causes Plantar Fasciitis to Flare Up?” Those with a heavier body weight, arthritis, or atypical foot shape are prone to experiencing plantar fasciitis, and it’s also most often caused by overtraining. #FeetsOfStrength

Minute 5: Quick Intervals

  • The increasing popularity of supershoes have shaken up the running world significantly. Advanced carbon fiber plates and foam that retains energy with each step have contributed to significant drops in world records and average race times over the last few years. That’s made hitting targets like the 4-minute mile a bit easier for some athletes, and critics argue it’s become less relevant of a milestone. (We agree – the Six Minute Mile is a much more relevant achievement.) Others say it’s actually growing in prominence as more competitors feel it’s within their grasp. Details are in this new story: “The Four-Minute Mile Is Still Worth Celebrating.”

  • We’ve made tremendous progress in the fight against Covid, and that’s thanks in part to the research done every day by the scientific and medical community. The more we understand, the better equipped we’ll be to take on the lingering challenges Covid presents, and one of the most significant worries we have are the symptoms of “Long COVID: 3 years on, here's what we know so far.”

  • As we pointed out in a recent issue, football players and marathoners have more in common than you might expect, given how far certain positions run on the gridiron. As further evidence you should check out Hines Ward’s journey from Super Bowl MVP to Ironman finisher: “Recalled: That Time a Super Bowl MVP Became a Triathlete.”

Minute 6: Daily Inspiration

As mentioned in Minute 3 above, we just attended the annual Running USA conference which brings together some of the best event management professionals in the running world. Along with sessions about how to properly measure a race course and how to lure Gen Z folks to your race (Hint: that’s hard!) conference organizers treated us to one of the most inspiring speakers we’ve heard in years. Chris Nikic made history in 2020 when he became the first athlete with Down Syndrome to complete a full-length Ironman. He shared info on his training regime in which he progressed from only being able to do one pushup, one sit up and one squat at a time, to more than 500 combined reps per day. He did that by getting just 1% better every day. The crowd of about 400 attendees was getting a little misty-eyed when he described his Ironman accomplishment, but tears were really flowing freely when he explained that his endurance sports sponsorships and book publishing have allowed him to earn a living, buy a house and gift his girlfriend a promise ring. We dare you to watch this brief ESPN feature without reaching for the Kleenex and getting inspired to improve your own performance by 1% per day.


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