The Ethiopian running dynasty  //  What is the secret to its success?

30 Jun 2007 Posted by

About a month ago, we did a post questioning whether we were about to witness the end of the Ethiopian era of long distance running dominance. The jury is still out on that one, though a world record for Meseret Defar in Oslo in the 5000 m seems to suggest that even in Kenenisa Bekele is not going to continue his dominance, the women athletes will probably reign for a good few years yet.

The next question is why are the Ethiopian athletes so successful? Usually, when one asks about African runners dominating in middle and long distance running, we think of the Kenyans, because there seem to be infinite numbers of them and they win just about every major marathon in the world. On the track though, it’s a different story. Since 1993, Ethiopians have won all but one of the World and Olympic 10 000 m titles. The athletes in question are Haile Gebrselassie and the afore-mentioned Bekele, who now share 5 out of the last 6 world titles and all three of the Olympic titles (Trivial pursuit fact – the only man other than these two to have won a title in the last 12 years is Charles Kamathi of Kenya, who won in Edmonton in 2001).

Bekele and gebIn addition to this dominance on the track, they have also dominated the Cross Country scene, with Bekele winning 5 out of 5 long races and 5 out 5 short races at the World Cross Country championships between 2002 and 2006.

Yet they clearly don’t have the depth that the Kenyans do. I was speaking with a colleague at the Sports Science Institute here in Cape Town. He is Kenyan and is in South Africa to try to set up a relationship with the University of Kenyatta so that we can do some research on the Kenyan runners. He tells me that a typical track meeting in Kenya will have not one, but ten 10000 m races! Each one has 30 participants, and every single one runs under 30 minutes! Think about that – 300 runners all running under 30 minutes at EACH meeting! Astonishing depth. And he says to me that the Ethiopians have nothing like this level of depth, but that they use their talent more effectively.

So this post is not about the reasons for East African running success – that is a post for the future, when we will look at just what it is that makes these guys so good – is it training, is it genes, is it diet, is it lifestyle (it’s probably all of them, but we’ll cover that in the future). And one really important thing to realise is that the Kenyans who are most successful are a mere stone’s throw away from the Ethiopians who are successful. If you looked at a map of where the best runners come from in both countries, you could draw a circle around the border between them and you’d pretty much have the catchment area. So if the reasons for the dominance of both Kenya and Ethiopia are physical and physiological, then one would be able to treat them almost the same, because they are very similar in that regard. But for now, we concentrate on the Ethiopians and ask how it is that they have managed to dominant where it counts even though they have a smaller talent pool than the Kenyans. And I believe that there are two key reasons why they do:

  1. Administration and policy, which has created a more narrow focus and restraint than in Kenya
  2. Training differences

1. Administration and policy

To begin with, there is such a thing as “spoiled for choice”, and this is what has happened in Kenya. To use a mining analogy, in Kenya, there are so many athletes that it is like walking through a field and picking nuggets of gold off the surface. In Ethiopia, the gold is there, but it is more scarce and so has to be mined. And the process of ‘mining’ for this gold has resulted in a sporting system that is consistent, controlled and influenced by a select few. In contrast, Kenya is a cosmos of running talent and everyone and anyone seems to have jumped onboard and is, in many cases, exploiting the talent to the point where it is now being diluted by the number of people who are involved.

For example, I am sure that many of you know of the famous Kenyan training camps, where athletes will live, eat and sleep running for months at a time. In Kenya, these camps are privately run, by individuals, which means there is effectively a bidding war for the athletes to attend camps. Ethiopia does not have the same problem – the Ethiopian federation calls for its athletes to convene at a training camp, and it happens without too much fuss. Of course, having athletes like Gebrselassie and Bekele to set the example is a great help and you can be sure that where they go, others will follow. But the point is that in Ethiopia, the system is much more tightly run, with fewer coaches, fewer agents and fewer athletes. The result is that they can focus their energies on optimizing what exists. Kenya has the opposite problem – dilution of talent caused by too many outsiders and a relatively weak government control, who are unable to prevent the money-merchants like those of Qatar from coming in and buying out the best Kenyan athletic talent.

Now, the result is that Ethiopia has managed to take 20 athletes and produce 3 or 4 world class, world record setting runners. Kenya has perhaps 200 athletes with similar capabilities, but may be less efficient at getting those athletes through a working system to produce runners capable of challenging the best. Of course, they are still brilliant runners, and win just about every marathon and fill up the top 10 at most other races, but they don’t claim the position that matters – first.

So the moral of the story is that sometimes you are better off when you have pressure to produce from a smaller crop, because it focuses the efforts. Combined with the magnetic personality of Haile Gebrselassie and a government who control the sport tightly, it equals 12 world Cross Country titles, and 8 10000 m track titles in 12 years!

2. Training differences

At this point, we leave the admin and get onto something a little more relevant to everyone out there. It is based largely on rumour and what I have read, because unfortunately, I’m yet to verify it with actual observation and fact – hopefully someday!

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele (L) runs ahead of Kenyan Benjamin Limo (R) during the men's short course race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at the Swiss national equestrian center in Avenches, Switzerland, 29 March 2003. Bekele won the race, Limo finished third. AFP PHOTO EPA/KEYSTONE / MARTIAL TREZZINI But if you think back of the great distance runners who have come from Ethiopia, there is one characteristic that sticks out – the finishing kick. In 1980, the Olympic 5000 and 10 000 m champion was an Ethiopian named Miruts Yifter, who was dubbed “Yifter the Shifter” because of a ferocious finishing sprint. Move ahead to Haile Gebrselassie, who was renowned for finishing speed over the final lap. I recall that Gebrselassie once ran the final 200 m of the 1995 World Championships in 25.2 seconds, at the end of a race that was run in 27:10! And Bekele is the same – 52 second final lap finishing speed. Among the women, Deratu Tulu, Gete Wami, Meseret Defar and Turinesh Dibaba all possess the same type of speed. And it’s something the Kenyans have never really had an answer to. So the question is whether this speed is the result of some genetic advantage or whether it’s a function of their training. And my feeling is that it is likely a training effect.

From a coaching point of view, training for speed and the finishing kick is quite a well known fact. You can design training sessions to specifically improve your ability to speed up at the end of the race, and I have read reports and accounts about how the Ethiopians do this regularly. For example, no Ethiopian training session is finished without doing some sprint drills. They will do 50 m strides, beginning at a fast pace and finishing at a sprint. They also do an incredibly high amount of hill work, doing steep hills (less than 100m) FAST.

The key to doing hill work, incidentally, is that you must choose either a short, very steep hill, or a very long, but gradual hill. A lot of runners will do long hill sessions (more than one minute of running), but the hill is so steep that it becomes almost ‘static’, and then the whole explosive effect of the hill is lost and they lose their normal running form. So what is most important is that the stride rate is kept high – if your stride rate falls below about 85 to 90 strides per minute, then the hill is too steep. So as soon as you do a long hill session (one minute of running, as I said), you have to make sure the hill is only gradual, so that you can keep light and bouncy. HOWEVER, as soon as you do a short hill, you have to make it very steep, but make sure you can keep your form all the way up. By form, we’re talking running on the toes, pulling short and fast with the arms and keeping the trunk vertical and the hips forward. And this is what the Ethiopians do. And so when you watch an Ethiopian launch a finishing kick over the final 400 m of a track race, and marvel at how they seem to bounce off their toes so easily, that’s sprinting and hill training doing it for them.

Finally, the Ethiopians also do a great deal of what is called Plyometric training. This is bounding, skipping, bouncing and technique training that improves running performance by teaching the body how to be elastic during the period from when the foot hits the ground until it leaves it. And there is a lot of evidence now that suggests that the African runners might have a more efficient mechanical running stride than a white runner. This is something I’ll cover in a future post, I promise, but very briefly, most of the muscle activity during running happens while your foot is still in the air, about 100 milliseconds before it hits the ground. So your muscles are firing hugely at this point, and the reason they are is that your body is preparing itself for when it hits the ground. Once you hit the ground, these ‘active’ muscles catch the energy, like a sprint, and then harness it so that when you push off again, you do so with more force than if you just pushed off without this ‘elastic’ component. And so what happens with fatigue is that the muscles don’t fire as much before you land (this is called preactivation, by the way), and your efficiency goes down. What the Ethiopians are doing is harnessing this by training it specifically, and I’m not sure that they Kenyans have done this quite right yet.

So that’s a very basic oveview of what it is that has made Ethiopia, and not Kenya, the most successful running nation over the last 10 years, despite a smaller talent pool. Further articles and posts will look at just what it is that makes East Africans in general so dominant, so join us then and we’ll investigate this further.

Bye for now

%d bloggers like this: