Distance running: cross country training workouts

If you want to be as successful as Kenyan distance runners you need to train like them

 At that astonishing camp, which takes place near Embu, Kenya, during the first three weeks of March, male Kenyan runners chalk up about 140 miles of running per week, members of the senior women’s team accumulate 90-100 weekly miles, and Kenya’s fresh-faced junior females, most of whom are less than 17 years of age, average ‘just’ 10 miles per day. At the Embu encampment, Kenya’s hard-charging harriers zero in on the exact running velocity required to win a world championship (4:25-4:30 per mile for men and 4:55-5:00 per mile for women) on an almost daily basis, and the weekly training programme includes heart-stopping hill efforts, staggering interval workouts, breathtaking tempo sessions, and 19 total workouts, all carried out over rugged terrain at an elevation of 6500 feet.

The three-week torment is preceded by a five-month build-up which specifically prepares Kenya’s team members for survival in the Embu cauldron – and the subsequent conquering of top runners from around the globe at the World Championships. Although the severe Embu exertions couldn’t be completed without the five months of groundwork, the outside world has focused its attention primarily on Embu, and not on the more important build-up period. In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll describe the key features of the five-month Kenyan training programme, which consistently produces the best cross-country runners on the planet.

The Kenyan cross-country season starts at the very end of September or the beginning of October, and the first month of training is itself a stormy ordeal which many Kenyan runners find difficult to handle. After 1 working out very lightly in September, Kenyan harriers usually initiate a three-workout per day training programme in October which, according to Kenyan Custom, includes workouts at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., and about 4 p.m.

October ordeal

The October 10-a.m. workouts:

The 6-a.m. and 4-p.m. sessions are nothing extraordinary, with the morning exertion featuring 7-lOK of moderate running and the afternoon affair focusing on 30-45 minutes of easy running on forest trails or else 30-40 minutes of ‘Kenyan circuit training,’ which includes stretching, balancing exercises, drills (butt kicks, high-knee running, etc.), plyometrics (one- and two-footed vertical jumps and forward leaps), along with traditional exercises such as push-ups and a variety of different situps.

While the 6-a.m. and 4-p.m. workouts are fairly humdrum and constant from day to day, the 10-a.m. effort varies on a daily basis and is much more intense. A typical weekly menu of 10-a.m. sessions follows (the given running times and speeds apply to male cross-country runners only).

Monday – Long run: 18-20K at a moderate pace. However, toward the end of the month, the intensity of this effort increases, so that the 1 8-20K distance is covered in 56-62 minutes.

Tuesday – Hill work: 15 repetitions on a steep, 200 to 300-metre hill. During the first few weeks of October, the uphill pace is moderate, but climbing velocity begins to resemble race pace at the end of the month.

Wednesday – Fast running: This may be a fartlek workout covering 10K, in which two minutes of race-pace running are alternated with one minute of easy jogging, or else a hard, steady 12-K effort in about 35 minutes (the latter session is actually a Jack Daniels-style ‘tempo workout,’ conducted at roughly lactate-threshold pace, except that it exceeds Daniels’ recommendation to restrict the exertion to about 25 minutes or so).

Thursday – A moderate 15- to 18-K workout, at an ‘enjoyable’ pace (an intensity of around 80 per cent of maximal heart rate).

Friday – Hills (see Tuesday) or 45 minutes of easy running.

Saturday – A 10- or 12-K competition or – if no race is scheduled – some speed work (200s, 400s, 800s, 1000s, etc.)

As you can see, October is a tough month! Note, however, that the difficult 10-a.m.workouts are bunched together on Monday through Wednesday, leaving two days of easier training before the Saturday competition or intervals. Although intensity slackens on Thursday and Friday, the weekly volume of training is quite high. Including the single workout on Sunday, which is usually a one-hour effort at a fairly easy pace, the total distance for the week is about 180-200 kilometres ( 108-120 miles), a lofty load when you consider that September’s training usually amounts to next to nothing.

As a result, this October period is sometimes viewed as a ‘crash’ training cycle by those unfamiliar with Kenyan running, and indeed the highest injury period for Kenyan runners is in October. However, the training volume seems less gargantuan when you consider the Kenyan runners’ backgrounds: Bear in mind that the majority of Kenya’s cross country harriers lived about 5-IOK from their primary schools when they were young. For an average Kenyan school child, who makes two 7.5-kilometre round-trips to school each day (to .school in the morning and back home for lunch, with the same peregrinations in the afternoon), the total weekly running distance is at least 150K (not counting sprints to the forest for firewood, to the river for water, or to a distant shamba to visit friends). Considered in this light, October’s 200 weekly kilometres of running don’t seem so extraordinary.

In addition, some Kenyan runners lived even farther from their schools and therefore ran even greater distances. The incredible Simon Karori, who at the age of 35 continues to win top road races throughout the United States and probably trains harder than any other distance runner, had to run lS kilometres between home and school when he was young, often covering this distance as fast as possible to avoid punishment for lateness. The bottom line is that Kenya’s experienced runners find October to be difficult – but survivable and not unfamiliar.

November and December

In terms of total mileage, the months of November and December are considerably easier. For one thing, the number of cross- country competitions increases, so more time is spent traveling and less time is available for training. Also, the overall workout frequency is reduced to two sessions per day. That’ s the good news for Kenyan runners; the bad news is that average training pace intensifies.

In November and December, there’s one easy run each day, usually amounting to 7-lOK. The second workout follows a schedule similar to the one outlined below:

Monday – A long run of about 18K, or else no running at all because of the need to travel home from a competition.

Tuesday – The long run (if it was missed on Monday) or else a speed workout consisting of 400s or 800s.

Wednesday – 8K or 10K of fast-paced fartlek running or a hill workout.

Thursday – An easy run of 7-lOK.

Friday – No workout if there is travel to competition, otherwise a 30-minute jog

Saturday – 10-1 2K competition against another team, or else a hard 10- to 12-K run with teammates which often turns into a race.

Sunday – No second workout because of travel back to home base.

It looks easier than October, and it is, except that some of the more facile workouts actually end with some fairly fast running – an 800 in 2:05 or a mile in 4:30, for example (the progression from very slow to upscale running at the tail end of a basically moderate workout is a Kenyan trademark). The average volume in November and December is around 100 kilometres per week, instead of 200 kilometres, with about 25-30K (25-30%) of the total at 10-K race pace or faster. Of particular interest, however is the location of these workouts. A classic pattern for Kenyan runners who are in the armed forces is to complete their October and November workouts near Nairobi, especially in the steep Ngong hills, with training altitudes ranging from about 5500 to 6500 feet. The idea behind training among the Ngong promontories is to build raw leg-muscle power, so that the speedier sessions planned for later in the season can be carried out at a faster pace.In December, many of the runners move to Nyahururu, a community on the north side of Mount Kenya which rests at a lung-searing altitude of over 8000 feet. The idea is to boost red blood cell concentrations so that hard, fast training can be carried out in January and February, but the strategy is not without peril. ‘You have to be careful not to lose your foot speed when you train at such high altitudes,’ says Godfrey Kiprotich, an elite Kenyan runner who trained with John Ngugi during the years when the latter won five world cross-country championships. As the Kenyans are well aware, high altitude usually leads to lower average training paces, which can potentially reduce one’s competitive fitness in spite of the natural blood doping which takes place in rarefied air. The Kenyans attempt to combat altitude’s foot-slowing effects by carrying out short-interval workouts on Tuesdays and lightning-like fartlek sessions on Wednesdays.

Of special interest is the fact that many Kenyans, while at Nyahururu, try to complete their fast workouts at 6 a.m. rather than later in the day, as would be the usual custom. ‘The air is colder and heavier at dawn, so our respiratory muscles must work harder than usual, and the overall workout feels much more intense, helping us learn to tolerate high-intensity running,” notes Ondoro Osoro, one of Kenya’s perennially superlative cross country runners.

Linking the Nyahururu workouts with improvements in respiratory-system function is not a far-fetched idea, but the improvements in respiratory-muscle strength are probably more a function of the anaerobic nature of high-altitude work rather than the cold air. As Kenyan runners gambol about at Nyahururu, the low-oxygen air forces their leg muscles to spit out increased quantities of hydrogen ions – the products of anaerobic metabolism. As these hydrogens swirl through the blood, they stimulate the brain’ s respiratory centre to increase both the depth and rate of breathing, forcing respiratory muscles to work harder than usual. The consequent increase in respiratory-muscle power may pay dividends. Recent research carried out at Odense University in Denmark has linked improved ventilatory power with enhanced running economy, ie, a lower energy cost associated with running at a particular speed. Overall, then, the Nyahururu sojourn appears to thicken e blood, empower the respiratory muscles, and toughen the spirits of Kenyan runners.

January: almost ready for important competitions

January is a critical month for the Kenyans, because the beginning of February marks the usual date for the Armed Forces Cross-Country Championships – incredibly hard-fought competitions which can, for male runners, actually be more difficult than the national championships (Kenya’s best male runners tend to end up in the armed forces, so if you come 10th at the Armed-Forces competition, you still might be considerably better than the first-place runner from the Post-Office trials. By contrast, in recent years Kenya’s best female cross country runners have come from the Post Office). Early February is also the time for the district and then provincial championships, which ‘feed’ top-finishing runners into the national championships held on the last Saturday in February. Since Kenyan runners want to be in top racing condition by the end of January, the overall emphasis in January is speedwork.

A typical January training schedule follows:

Monday – A 30-minute easy run, plus a one-hour long run.

Tuesday – A 30-minute easy run, plus an interval workout, with intervals run at race pace or faster. A typical interval workout would be 12 x 400, 6 x 800, or 5 c 1000.

Wednesday – A 30-minute easy run, plus a 45-minute easy run.

Thursday – A 30-minute easy run, plus 8K of steady running in about 24 minutes, or else 8K of fast fartlek work.

Friday – A 30-minute easy run, plus a circuit-training session.

Saturday – A 30-minute easy run, plus a hard interval workout (see Tuesday). Sunday – One hour of easy running.

Altogether, the schedule adds up to a similar volume as in November and December – just 100 kilometres per week, well below the volume chalked up by many European and American runners. When you take into account the fact that many of the ‘easy’ workouts are basically very moderate but end with an 800 or mile at close to race pace, the total amount of running at thresh old pace or faster again settles in at about 25 per cent of the total. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the actual speeds utilized during the fast training are higher than they were earlier in the season. For example, a runner who carries out 400s in 65 seconds each in November may sizzle through the same intervals in about 61-62 seconds in January. Overall, the training load is becoming more intense.

What happens in February

In February, the volume drops for a final time, descending to just 60-80 kilometres per week, but intervals and fartlek workouts are carried out at even faster speeds. A typical week includes one interval session, two fartlek efforts, and a long run of 15K or so, with the amount of above-threshold-pace running rising to more than 25 per cent of the total. On the last Saturday of February, the Kenyan National Championships are held, and national team members are selected according to their performances at the nationals.

Clearly, the Kenyan programme contains a mixture of traditional and unique features. The huge base in October and the gradual reduction in volume and upswing in speed during the months of November-February are akin to other training programmes used by endurance athletes around the world. However, the well-timed ascents to Nyahururu to thicken blood, reinforce respiratory muscles, and bolster mental toughness, and the unusually low training volumes and fierce intensities of training are uniquely Kenyan. The low mileage and fast running carried out in February before the national championships resemble the highly successful ‘Carolina Cruising’ tapering regime developed at East Carolina University in the United States (described in the May issue of PEAK PERFORMANCE) and the modest February volume permits most of those runners who are selected for the Kenyan team to survive the Embu maelstrom and then move on to demolish runners from other parts of the globe at the world championships.

So, the next time that Mr. Sigei, Mr. Tergat, Ms. Chepngeno, or Ms. Barsosio crosses the finish line in first place at the World Cross- Country Championships, remember that it’ s no accident that they’re running faster than anyone else. The five-month Kenyan cross-country season pushes them to peak levels of physical capacity, and the highly specific training carried out at Embu – in which male and female team members run for at least a little while at world-championship pace almost every day – adds an extra edge of fitness which makes the Kenyans unbeatable. When they descend from 6500 feet to take part in the world championships, which are usually held at sea level, the Kenyans feel as though they are sitting in Serta recliners as they roll along at the exact velocity they had practised in Embu’s thin air.

Ibrahim Kinuthia and Owen Anderson

Ibrahim Kinuthia is a three-time member of the Kenyan national cross-country team who finished second at the Kenyan national cross-country championships and sixth at the World Championships in 1990. Born on May 22,1963, Kinuthia’s running career commenced at the age of six, when he ran from five to 10 miles each day with his sister and two brothers. His current PBs include a 3:40 for 1500 metres and 13:09 for the SK.

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