Running in Iten: The small town with big talent

Nestled in the highlands of Kenya, the small town of Iten may seem like any other normal African town. But there’s something very special about Iten. Coined ‘The Home of Champions’, Iten has become famous for producing some of the world’s top marathon runners.

BMI Healthcare’s Clinical Lead Physiologist, competitive runner and Sports Scientist, Colin Thomas, visits Iten each year to train with some of the world’s best coaches and athletes. When Colin first arrived in Iten, he discovered that one of the first things most Kenyan’s will ask is if you are a runner.

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Colin said: “Every time I was asked this, I questioned myself, what do they mean by a runner? Yes back home I am runner, but out here the town is full of Olympic athletes, world record holders and even Kenyan runners who are unheard of can run a marathon in sub 2:15. So my answer normally begins with, “Yes but I’m not as good as you guys. ” And then most Kenyans follow up with the response, “You can also be this good, all it takes is practice.”

But surely the secret to becoming a top runner is not that simple?

There's something about Iten

The last three marathon world records have been set by Kenyans. That is an extraordinary record for a country with half of the population size of the UK. But what is it about Iten, home to 4000 residents, that produces so many talented runners?

With an altitude of 2400 metres, Iten is the perfect climate for middle to long distance running. The ground is soft which helps runners to avoid injuries and run more consistently. Kenyan runners also maintain a healthy diet free of processed foods and full of carbs, fruit, vegetables, and they drink lots of water. However, Colin believes he’s figured out the secret to Kenyan running success.

Back home we call it training. Out here the Kenyans simply call it practice. 

Colin said: “Yes altitude training helps, the diet lends itself to running and the general lifestyle is tough. Many of these things do accumulate to provide a special and unique running environment, but being out here in Kenya the answer is obvious. Back home we call it training. Out here the Kenyans simply call it practice."

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Colin's first visit

Reminiscing about his first visit to the Kamariny stadium running track, Colin said, “It was a sight to behold. Groups of 5-30 or more Kenyans were storming round the track in a train like formation with the one at the front controlling the pace while the rest of the train try to hold on. Numerous reps of 400m, 800m, 1000m etc, whatever they were doing it was relentless and brutal, the session seemingly endless. This session is apparently done 1-3 times a week in between the normally twice daily hill runs, long run and recovery runs, clocking up well over 100 miles a week.”

Years ago, the principle of the local high school, Colm O’Connell, realized that many of his students had a talent for running. He decided to use the school holidays to organise running camps for his own students and for runners from across the country. Each time a student had international success, the school would plant a tree. Just a few years later, the school compound was full of trees. There is no other high school in the world that so many successful international athletes call home.

Whether it’s due to climate, diet, training regimes or dedication to practice, it’s safe to say that Iten is a very special place that shows no signs of slowing down.

Colin Thomas

What's next?

Colin has just flown back to Kenya for his yearly training session in Iten. However, this year will be slightly different. Colin is taking a heart monitor device with him that transforms heartbeat data into personalized insights on stress, exercise and sleep. The feedback from the device can help its wearers improve their performance, stay resilient, reach their goals and feel better by understanding actions that will have a positive impact on work, leisure and life. Stay tuned for an update from Colin and the results coming soon!

In the meantime, here are Colin's tips on 10 things Kenyan runners do:

  1. Train without a heart rate monitor. As legendary marathon coach Renato Canova put it, “A heart rate monitor puts a limit on a runner; Kenyans like to run free, without limits.”
  2. They eat a lot of Ugali which is a maize based food, high in carbohydrate and looks a bit like mashed potato. It doesn’t taste of much, but Kenyans believe it gives them power for the following days run.
  3. Stretch after running. Across Iten you’ll spot Kenyan runners standing on street corners stretching after their run.
  4. They make easy runs really easy. Ten minute miles are not uncommon on an easy run.
  5. And they make hard runs really hard.
  6. They take a complete rest day every week and always rehydrate with lots of water.
  7. They vary the running surface; across trails, in the forest, on the running track and occasionally on the road.
  8. Sometimes they will do a double training session in the morning. A 6.30am run can be followed by a 10am run. It gets a double session out of the way and trains the body to recover quickly.
  9. Early to bed, early to rise. Lights out at around 10pm allows for an early morning run at sunrise.
  10. They make sure they get their 5-a-day! Fresh green vegetables similar to spinach, which are high in iron, are consumed in large quantities on a daily basis.

To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337
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