Monday, 15 October 2012

The 30 day challenge - Running with Kenyans. The interview Part 1.

For those who don't know Adharanand Finn, he is an assistant production editor for the Guardian. As a young man, he was a pretty good 10k and half marathon runner. By his own admission during his twenties, like a lot of us, he lost his fitness. Move forward to his 30s and he rediscovered his running mojo, to the point where he wanted to explore whether he could learn and improve his times and fitness by shipping his family to Iten in Kenya's Rift valley and train with some of the fastest endurance athletes on the planet. His first post on the Guardian blog, makes for interesting reading. And is about as scary as it sounds!

His book, Running with the Kenyans, covers his experience over the 6 months,  and tries to understand the magic blend of circumstance and ingredients that makes "the Kenyans" the dominant distance racers. 

I like the fact that the book outlines his own insecurities, doubts, races and training where he drops out of races from exhaustion or slowing down. Through the book there is a redemptive quality that shows Adharanand's journey and understanding of what he learns. I'm not giving anything away (or surprising any readers) by saying that his times and speed improved through the experience. 

Calling him early on Monday at his Devon base, I outline what the point of my blog is - to bring some of the theory and research from Sport Psychology and coaching to a wider audience, and ask him to explain what he learnt the most and had reflected on from the experience. Finn says that whilst he was in Kenya he found out about the physical training that athletes put themselves through. Since returning to the UK, Finn has reflected more about the psychological skills that the Kenyans use. Though by his own admission, the majority of them don't think about how Western runners would recognise. As with a lot of what Adharanand and I discussed, we had to make some sweeping generalisations about "the Kenyans" during our conversation for brevity's sake. But please take this with a warning that what we discussed isn't applicable to all Kenyan runners.

What Finn means by this is that a lot of the Kenyan runners (remember that in some cases at training camps there can be up to 300 runners on one track) don't have 1 to 1 training. David Rudicha (the World record 800 metre runner) does, but he is one of the exceptions. What Finn really was getting at is that in Europe and America, runners tend to be more time obsessed. From experience, as part of a few running clubs, I'm as bad as anyone and certainly see this in the groups that I run with.

Garmin at the ready, watching progress on your times and splits. It's part of the culture we live in. I asked whether Kenyan culture is more laid back and less obsessed with punctuality. Finn said that for social occasions and most of life this was certainly the case, though Kenyan runners work hard to be on time for training and if you're late for a run, everyone will have left. At the start line of the big training sessions everyone will wear a watch but once they've started, the watches aren't looked at for the rest of the intervals. Indeed, during long training runs, a nominated driver in a truck will get to the 5k split points and shout out the time from the previous marker and whether the runners need to speed up or slow down.

In Finn's opinion, it is the "feel" that Kenyan runners aim towards. They focus hard and "feel" their way to the running speed they need. And they spend their training sessions working at that groove. Even on Fartlek runs where watches dictate how long you run for, he said that often they won't count how many intervals are actually run.

Fundamentally, through the training techniques, altitude, motivation, background and approach, Finn felt that Kenyan runners were overall more mentally relaxed in their running than their Western counterparts. I posited that the elite level in Kenya often don't work in 'normal' 9 to 5 jobs and that they  sleep up to 18 or 20 hours (according to Peter McHugh, my coach and who is mentioned in the book), which must help compared to most runners in the West. But even allowing for this, Finn felt that from a young age, Kenyan runners have a more relaxed running style which he feels helps the physical function of the body. I've mentioned rest previously in my posts, but this seems to take the benefits even further.

Tomorrow I publish part 2 of my interview with Adharanand, where we discuss focus, coping and how he feels his running has benefitted and what he thinks are tips that can help from his experience that you may be interested in.

1 comment:

Simon Whyatt said...

I must say I now much prefer the more fluid approach of running (or doing any kind of training/exercise/activity) by feel.

Times gone by I used to feel the need to quantify everything - Measure time and distance for every run, weight and reps for every workout, etc.

After a while it became a chore, and the enjoyment of each run/workout began to hinge on whether it was an improvement on the last.

I think the best decision I ever made was to ditch the stop watch and the training log, and just run/lift/move by feel. If I'm out on the trail now and want to stop and appreciate the view, I will do - I'm not worried about it impacting on my time!

Running and training have become much more enjoyable, plus you can really concentrate on technique - You're not tempted to push though/get sloppy/over reach to gain those extra seconds/reps/weight.

Have I improved as much as I would had I been "more scientific" about things? Who knows, but I certainly enjoy it more. Had I kept measuring everything perhaps I'd have quite altogether or burnt out so I'm certainly faster and fitter than that scenario!