Dining With the Kenyans

I picked up Mary Ellen at the Zombie Runner store in Palo Alto on the day Don and Gillian were hosting their grand opening.

I arrived before Mary Ellen could leave and puttered around the store, looking at magazines in the comfortable lounging area and yakking with Don, who was brewing espressos at the coffee bar.

A salesperson for the Vespa running supplement company introduced himself. A fit-looking, heavily tanned, lean guy in his forties, he wore a silver Western States sub-24-hour finisher’s buckle.

He described how Chinese sports scientists had become curious about the ability of bees to fly long distances, fueled almost entirely on stored fat. They isolated the substance that accounts for the bees’ fat-burning ability, and gave it to the Chinese distance runners, with excellent results.

He said that the female winner of the 2008 Rio Del Lago 100-mile race used Vespa, and that it allowed her to limit her caloric intake for running 100 miles to just 1500 calories.

Well, I thought, that’s pretty darn amazing. I gratefully accepted a sample packet of Vespa. Alas, I haven’t tried it, as I’m allergic to honey, one of the main ingredients. But the conversation stimulated a chain of thought.

The other night, I dipped into a book that I’d bought but hadn’t actually studied, Run to Win: The Training Secrets of the Kenyan Runners. In a section on the results of a well-known study of  Kenyan world champions, conducted by Danish physiologist Bengt Saltin, it explained that among the Kenyans’ genetic advantages, their muscles have markedly elevated amounts of the enzyme HAD (3-hydroxyacyl CoA dehydrogenase), which gives them an exceptional ability to utilize fats while running.

The Vespa salesman said that guzzling carbs is an inefficient way to run long distances, because it (a) “shuts down fat metabolism, as the body then relies on carbs” and (b) can cause digestive problems and make a runner gain weight.

Yet the Run to Win chapter on the Kenyans’ diet explained that they consume huge amounts of carbs: 76.5% of their daily calories, compared to only 49% to 50% for American runners – a very large difference.

Clearly, the Kenyans know what they’re doing. So far, the Chinese marathoners aren’t running neck-and-neck with Paul Tergat or Catherine Ndereba. (By the way, I was unaware until I looked at the world marathon records list that Tergat is Kenyan’s only men’s marathon record holder, and that Ndereba and Tegla Loroupe are the only two female Kenyan marathon record setters.)

What practical lessons can we derive from these interesting facts?

Not much, really. What it amounts to, alas, is little more than an amorphous batch of trivia. Should we eat corn meal mush, as the Kenyans do? Drink wasp smoothies? At best, the answers are “maybe” and “maybe.” These anecdotal stories, at best, only suggest things we might try.

And, well, that is the everlasting problem with sports science, isn’t it? It delivers an ocean of minutiae that don’t really tell us how to train.

The best – most useful – sports science studies are those that examine whole systems. For example, the research that compared actual improvement in 5K and 10K race times between two groups of runners, one of which did speedwork in the form of short, hard intervals, while the other did tempo runs. (The interval group “won” hands down, scoring decidedly greater improvement in race times.)

Scientific studies often leave me pondering, “Yeah, but what other factors were involved?” What proportion of the Kenyans’ success is due to their diet? Their muscle hormones? Their more elastic muscles? Their strong thighs and thin calves? Surely they all play a role.

Mike Kosgei, a long-time coach of champion Kenyan runners, says that more subtle factors are also involved. Here are some of Kosgei’s observations, from Run to Win:

I think the main difference between the athletes from Europe and the USA and the ones from Kenya is that in the Western world people cannot survive without going to work. In Kenya, most of the athletes have a lot of time. They can train three times a day, maybe six hours altogether. And they are hungry in the real sense of the word….

When Europeans or Americans are running together, using stop watches and heart monitors, you can see for them it is a very serious matter, almost like work. Africans start running, mostly slow, and then they accelerate. For them, it is a kind of a game. You try to challenge the other. If you want to be successful, you have to enjoy your training. When yoy take it too seriously, it damages your thinking and puts you down. But if you go and say, okay, it is a game, man, let’s do it, it’s fun – then you will not use a lot of mental strength.

Kosgei goes on to observe that the Kenyans don’t beat themselves up mentally after a bad workout, or spend a lot of time worrying about it. “A Kenyan will forget about it immediately. If I was not strong today, I will be next time.”

Kosgei continues:

People in Europe and the USA have especially rushed too much into science when it comes to nutrition and training. Advertisements tell you, if you eat this, you’ll get energy, if you eat that, you’ll run faster. But the fact is that people can still break World Records with their natural food. And when it comes to the training, running in the forest is still better than running on a treadmill in the house. The air you breathe outside is better and the environment is a blessing for body and mind.

Amen, Mike.