Kenyans are an ethnic minority that make up about 0.06% of the world’s population. Yet, Kenyans dominate many running races. It seemed to all start in August 1966. The face of running changed at what was then called the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Before 1966 Kenyan had medalled once- a bronze in the 6-mile race. But in 1966 Kenya took home 3 gold medals, 1 silver and 1 bronze. This seems to be when the world started to take notice of Kenyans as world-class runners, and the world has kept close eyes on them ever since.

For year’s people have been trying to glean what makes Kenyans such good runners. Is it physiological? Is it cultural? Maybe it’s just self-belief. Sports Lab massage therapist and self-confessed running nerd, Luke McCallum, took a 3 month trip to find out. While over there, Luke worked his massage therapy magic on the runners, as well as getting to live and train like a Kenyan. This 3 part series looks at 3 different observations Luke made of the Kenyan runners. Let’s take a look at whether Kenyans really do train and live differently from the rest.

Living and Training at Altitude

Kenya is situated about 5000m above sea level. Meaning that many Kenyans live and train at altitude. For Kenyans training at altitude isn’t a choice, it’s just their circumstance. But for many athletes training at altitude is a very deliberate choice.

The most common reason athletes head to higher ground is for the physiological benefits while training at an altitude. Higher elevations means a reduced level of oxygen in the atmosphere. The body reacts to this lack of oxygen by increasing the number of red blood cells in your system. By training at a higher altitude, this can enhance an athlete’s performance if they are then competing at a lower altitude.

The height at which you will gain an advantage is 5000ft (1524m), and up to 8000ft (2438), to put that into perspective, imagine going for a training run at the top of Mt Taranaki!!

Upon returning from a stint training at altitude, the higher concentration of red blood cells in the body lasts for up to 2 weeks, thus giving the athlete a physiological advantage that they previously wouldn’t have had. This is why elite athletes would often do altitude camps in the months prior to a goal race and come down shortly beforehand.  This effect on the blood can enhance an elite athlete from 1-2%, while it may sound like a small improvement, for an athlete chasing the 1%ers – it sure makes a big difference.

The other main reason athletes decide to go on an altitude training camp is to have a set period of time dedicated to just training and preparing for a race. Even for the elite athlete, there are temptations and distractions when being in familiar surroundings, so many decide to head away on a camp to get focused for the event they have coming up.

Can You Train at Altitude in New Zealand?

While we don’t have many locations for altitude training in New Zealand we still have some options: The primary place where athletes head to train is down at Snow Farm in Wanaka which sits just above 5000ft (1600m) at there are facilities that allow you to train like an elite athlete. Check it out here:
Alternatively, if you can’t get away from Auckland – make sure you check out the Altitude Training Centre in Point England. This facility allows you to get used to what it will feel like if you trained at altitude, without having to leave the comforts of home!

Is it Really Worth It?

While often options can prove gimmicky, they do have some merit. Altitude training offers gains in the 1-2% margins. For elite athletes chasing those fine improvements altitude training can be a beneficial option. However, there are plenty of other elements to someone’s training programme that can make larger differences first. Options such as physiological testing, coaching, nutrition, recovery, strength and conditioning, and sports psychology just to name a few!

Keep an eye out for part two of ‘How to Run Like a Kenyan’ next week.  

auckland massage therapist

About the author: Luke McCallum is a Sports Lab massage therapist and events manager. Originating from the ‘Naki’, a passion for running and the outdoors is in his blood. Luke puts an emphasis on preventative health care and believes in the importance of a multi-faceted approach to treatment.