Let me get this out of the way right at the top. This post has absolutely nothing to do with racism, i.e. there is no evidence (VO2 max, red blood cell counts, etc) that genetics plays any part in why modern running events are dominated by East Africans.
With that said, here is what it takes:
- Starting as an infant, run often, e.g. 6 miles to and from school every day, and do it mostly barefoot.
- Put yourself in an extremely competitive racing environment. Running in Kenya is equivalent to the NFL+MBL+NBA+NHL combined. And winning a major city marathon means more money than the majority of your countrymen will earn in their lifetimes (by far).
- Work incredibly hard. Run between 125-150 miles per week. One sample workout would include 20 reps of 440 meters with less than 45 seconds jogging breaks.
- Be very skinny. Carrying extra weight of any kind (including unnecessary muscle) makes you slower, is harder on the joints and requires extra oxygen.
- Train and live at altitude, with rolling hills, and on dirt. When we think Africa we think hot and flat, but in fact a huge portion of elite runners come from the Rift Valley in Kenya which is actually cool most of the year, and is roughly 7500’ high.
Okay, so what does this mean for the rest of us?
- Kenyan children have an advantage in that they are building strength and neurological connections to their feet that we are missing. The Western industrial shoe-complex is seriously flawed. Most running shoes are really engineered for a style of running closer to “walking fast” than proper technique and is inefficient and likely to lead to injury. Buy some Vibram Fivefingers to build strength and look to “flats” with low heel-to-forefoot ratios and are less than 10oz.
- Fortunately, in New York City, in any given month there are 2-3 races offered by the NYRR club that will have a minimum of 4,500 runners including teams that field some serious runners.
- Run every day, sometimes twice. Run the 20×440 w/ 45 seconds rest and try not to throw up.
- Eat really well. Ethiopians are particularly fond of Teff, a hearty grain.
- American elite runners either live in places like Boulder CO, Mammoth Lakes CA or sleep in hypobaric chambers which simulate altitude. Most of us aren’t willing to take those kinds of steps, but we can rotate the surfaces we run on. Central Park has the bridal path, the reservoir loop, the great hill track and the northern hill trails which are all soft surfaces.
Helps to have stored in your memory bank the incredulous (and unbelievable by you) imprint of your mother beating you in a foot race when you were 7 years old. Hey, it’s a mother’s job to inspire.