The Air Up There: A Look Into Ethiopia’s Distance Running Legacy

A large group of Ethiopian runners head out for a tempo run on the roads.

Simple Training

The training in Bekoji was very simple. If you’re looking for training secrets from a man who has probably coached more Olympic champions than anyone else, I’m afraid there aren’t any. The advice that I was given by Sentayu was to relax my arms and shoulders, as he said this is vital to allow the lungs to do their work. He demonstrated several deep breaths in and out. “Oxygen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, carbon dioxide!” — a simple mantra, but mine was more like “Oxygen! Oxygen! Oxygen!”

When I asked his opinion on the most important types of training for 10K runners, his response was succinct: “Short hills – for strength here (he grabbed his hamstring). Long runs, for endurance (more deep breaths to indicate aerobic training). And speed.” To emphasize his final point he banged his fist on the table, the cadence and volume increasing until he had the attention of all the other customers in the café where we had breakfast after that morning’s training.

Sentayu demonstrated an oscillating wave in the air with his hand to articulate the alternation of hard and easy training that he prescribes his athletes. The easy training, he says, is just as important as the hard running, and was supposed to be genuinely easy.

Interestingly, Sentayu was dismissive of the romantic idea that most Ethiopian champions laid the foundations of their success by running vast distances to and from school. He pointed out the close proximity of Bekele and Dibaba’s houses to the school in Bekoji. Their success was dependent upon the training he assigned to them, first as their P.E teacher and then as their coach. It took awhile for Sentayu to do the math and calculate how far his athletes would run at different ages. He said he would usually work out how many kilometers he wanted them to run in a given week and then divide that total by seven. Usually it was between 17 and 30 minutes per day – enough to provide aerobic stimulus without risking injury to the young runner. No secrets, and no brutally hard training regimen, either. Just patient, consistent training in a place with few distractions and ‘special’ air.


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