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Run Like a Kenyan

Scott Douglas made a runner's pilgrimage to Africa. Here is what he learned.

In the summer of 2004 Scott Douglas lived out a dream most every fitness buff dreams of undertaking. Douglas took a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the global hotbed of his favorite fitness pastime. Douglas, a running buff and a senior editor for Running Times, spent a month in the small town of Iten, Kenya. There, by merely blending in with the fabric of the Kenyan running culture, he attempted to learn from the “couple of hundred” runners training in Rift Valley five hours north of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi,. Simply, he just wanted to run with them. In his new book, The Little Red Book of Running, Douglas touches on the running knowledge he gleaned from his trip, as well as tips he has cultivated from a lifetime worth of running experience. For any runner, the book serves up 250 tips separated into four sections. But below, Douglas provides four Iten-learned running tips – most not mentioned in the book – you can take with you to the trail. Straight from the heart of it all:

Run organically, and always start slow
With his seventh tip in his book, Douglas brings up an entire section entitled “Take a Lesson from Kenyans”. The main thing Douglas learned each time he ran in Kenya was to let his body, rather than a watch, dictate his pace. And that pace always started out super-slow. He calls it a “glorified stumble”, and he says if you too go slowly from stumble to sprint, you will train better. “At the end of the run my time was almost identical to the day before,” Douglas says. “It was very eye opening because doing the five-mile route in that way is probably a much greater training stimulus and is sort of more natural than, ‘OK, I’m going to go out and in three minutes I need to be at such and such a level.’”

Give your run a facelift each time out
When in Iten, Douglas says he never seemed to have the same run. Even if it was the same five or six-mile loop, as much as 17 minutes would be added or shed from a run’s time by the runners he joined – runners he described as some of the ten best in the world. “I’ve been around a lot of very, very good Americans who do have different types of training days in their week,” Douglas says. “One day may be a hard track and the next day may be ‘just running easy’, but even that difference was so much less than the effort levels on a given run that I observed in Kenya, with world class runners.” When returning to the States from the experience, Douglas says the monotony and repetition of one jog after another has to go. To start, maybe begin by incorporating one long run per week, eventually evolving your usual trail route into something more versatile.

Prep and recover from your run like a sprinter
Douglas compared the Kenyan runners prep in Iten to that of a 1970s high school football practice. Calisthenics were prevalent. Isolated stretching was replaced by butt-kicks and high knees. Lots. The preparation and cool down from distance runs looked more like something Usain Bolt would do prior to a 100-meter dash than marathon prep. In turn, athleticism and mobility increases, Douglas says, which will allow your leg muscles to be tested more. “It was kind of weird, it was like ‘Am I watching a 1970s high school football practice,’” Douglas says. “But then there would also be form-drills like high-knees and skipping and running, so that they are flicking their butt with their heels.”

Be a minimalist
There are, of course, also many muscles – small muscles – in your foot, and they may be the most important muscles when running. When in Kenya, Douglas said he observed Kenyans holding others in high regard if and when they possessed racing flats. Inherently, Kenyans have stronger feet thanks to walking many places, most of the time barefoot, Douglas says. He feels if American runners switched to minimalist shoes for running and walked around casually barefoot whenever possible when not running, their arches would strengthen and running times would improve. “They just develop so that by the time they start training seriously, they have the strong feet, ankles, calves, that people – who now personally pursue minimalist running in the United States – are trying to achieve,” Douglas says. “We can look at that and try to emulate that, and that would be trying to move to a lower profile shoe and walking around your house barefoot.”

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