Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The 30 day challenge - Running with Kenyans. The interview Part 2

Yesterday I introduced part 1 of my interview with William Hill Sports Writer of the Year nominee, Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans.  Like a lot of runners, coaches and sports scientists, he was keen to find out what the repertoire of factors was that make the Kenyan runners the elite in the World. Is there a recipe for success that us other runners can follow?

Adharanand thought that overall Kenya has a more relaxed culture than the West, though their timekeeping for  running is taken seriously.  He felt Kenyan runners are more relaxed mentally and this transfers to their running style and gait. Which he feels help longevity in a race. By not focusing on pace and the watch and instead pacing through feel, Adharanand has tried to mimic this style in his own running. I know from my own experience training with a 2:45 runner in Manchester and Nick and Phoebe at Running with us, who try and instil in their runners this ability; the benefits experienced mentally are good. From a psychological point of view this ties with theories of working memory that suggest freeing up ‘space’ in your thoughts reduces anxiety and thus mental energy.

But! trying to implement this is easier said than done. As the body fatigues, us runners spend time having to motivate ourselves through the same mind to maintain race pace! Adharanand refers to a technique he started to use having observed Joan Benoit wearing a cap pulled over her eyes to maintain a steely focus into the middle distance. By ‘blinkering’ and switching off as much as possible, Finn feels this has (as well as running many more miles and interval training!) improved his race times. 

He also refers to using a dissociative technique of using a mantra for when he’s fatiguing in a race. Despite being a meditation practitioner, in races he finds applying the meditation difficult. 

Overall, what have we so far identified in that 'recipe' of successful Kenyan running?
  • Rest and relaxation
  • The impact of running form and forefoot striking
  • Intense focus (both in terms of attitude to training and in runs themselves)
  • The ability to cope well through focusing on running pace 
  • Training at altitude/Lots of miles run in packs
  • Resilience via motivation
He also looks at the element of culture that impacts runners from a young age that differentiates them from other competitors, including their neighbours in Ethiopia.

Beyond the benefits of ‘working’ full time on running at training camps and having lots of sleep, the culture Finn speaks of is the rural upbringing the top Kenyans have (note, no runners from Kenyan cities are in the highest echelon). The culture of running to and from school from age 6 to 16 lays down a strong base for distance running that Western counterparts have problems matching. This ties with Ericsson’s theory of 10,000 hours of practice for professional athletes brought to prominence in Malcolm Gladwell's book ‘Outliers

When I put him on the spot to list the reasons why he thinks his running is better thanks to the Kenyan experience (he went from doing his first marathon in Lewa whilst there in 3:20 to finishing the last New York Marathon in 2:55), Finn reckons it is down to learning to pace himself better – but that he has a long way to go on that front 'cos he still goes out too fast! Running form – he did try a lot of barefoot running in his time out in Iten and most importantly staying relaxed, yet simultaneously focused when running.

Finally I ask him what is next. The day job at the Guardian is keeping him busy, and his running times keep coming down but due to the success of this book, another is a possibility. I look forward to seeing what comes next! Hope the advice and psych evidence in these two posts have been of interest. As ever, any feedback or questions are welcomed. 

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