Thursday, January 7, 2010

The diet of Kenyan distance runners

by Ulrich Fluhme for, Iten/Kenya, 06.01.09

Since Kenyan runners dominate the international distance running scene, Westerners have been searching vigorously for their secret to success.

“It’s the altitude!” some conclude. In fact, Kenya’s distance running hubs Eldoret and Iten are located between 2,100 and 2,400m. However, not only is altitude training still a highly debated topic among exercise physiologists but there are also many examples of Kenyan top runners who emerged from sea level towns and villages to international glory.

“They start running very long distances as kids just to get to school and back!”
While one’s legs are still the most common transportation means in Kenya, not every kid turned world class runner had to walk far to get to school.

“So, it has to be genetics, right?”
Long legs and skinny bodies for sure make perfect distance runners. Kenyan runners are what one might call “heart on legs”. Nonetheless, being skinny isn’t a natural thing for Kenyans either. Put them on an unhealthy diet without exercise and the result is equal to what you see in the Western world.

“So, it’s what they eat, right?”
Endurance athletes tend to be obsessive compulsive when it comes to their eating habits. Given that food is an athlete’s energy source, it indeed makes sense to be diligent about what to put into one’s body. Science - and maybe even more so pseudo-science - long has searched for the ultimate athletic recipe for success. One day a diet based on mainly carbohydrates is claimed to be superior, the next it has to be the right amount of fish oils and super proteins to be competitive. Meanwhile, the return of the caveman is the latest re-invention, where grains and milk are claimed to be evil because we still have our ancestors stomachs and are therefore incapable of processing the food properly. Grains and milk lead to disease and eventually even death, it is warned.
Most – usually self claimed - experts top their food suggestions off with various pills, electrolyte drinks and recovery shakes that would make an astronaut look shabby in comparison.

In “More Fire – How to Run the Kenyan Way” author Toby Tanser notes that “nearly all Kenyan runners come from a background where meat was a scarce luxury, maybe eaten once a month”. A big advantage of the Kenyan diet is though that it is purely fresh food. One runner said: “Westerners go to the fridge to get pasteurized milk, we go to the field.”
With meat being a luxury, Ugali (a porridge made from water and maize) and milk are key ingredients – if not sole ingredients – of most Kenyan’s diet.

Toby Tanser asked Danish exercise physiologist Dirk Lund Christensen, one of the leading authorities when it comes to Kenyan diet, about his opinion.

“Kenyans credit their intake of Ugali and milk as one of the reasons for their success in running. Ugali is a main contributor to their high carbohydrate intake, but the food in itself does not contain anything extraordinary aside from the carbs. It is simply what they are used to eating. And as far as the milk is concerned, it does provide the runners with some essential amino acids which their diet seems to otherwise lack in sufficient amounts, as their consumption of meat is rather low. However, the milk intake is not as dominant a part of their diet as they would make us, or even themselves, believe.”

So, it’s all just a corn based porridge called Ugali and milk, usually mixed with tea and a lot of sugar? But how much do they eat?

Resources permitting, the amounts eaten by Kenyan athletes are frequently substantial. Kenyans believe in hard training that takes care of weight control.
If one spends some time in the country with the athletes though, it is quickly obvious what Kenyans are “missing out on”: junk food. There are no sports bars, no electrolyte drinks, no protein powder “recovery shakes” or chocolate bars as are common with Western athletes. Whatever eaten is always fresh. There is no fridge to fall back on. There are no cookies in the storage room.

“Deficit!” you can hear Western sports nutritionists scream if faced with an endurance athlete training on a Kenyan diet, let alone someone who runs 200 and more kilometers per week at world class level. One would be sent home with a long list of supplements that have to be taken, otherwise performance is bound to suffer dramatically.
So, maybe the Kenyan top runners are supplementing?

Tanser shares the story of a Westerner who tried to sell supplements to Kenyan elite runners. They listened to his long winded speech – Kenyans love speeches - about all the benefits supplements provide for athletes. When he finally finished and asked if someone had a question, an old man in the back of the room stood up.

“So, you mean you want my boys to start eating these tablets so they can start running like the runners in your country?”