Eat Like a Kenyan, Run Like a Kenyan

The top Kenyans are exceptional runners, and their diet only helps. Photo:

Kenya’s runners are the best in the world. Experts have proposed many reasons for the East African nation’s dominance of the sport of distance running. These include the high-altitude environments in which many Kenyans are born and raised, widespread early exposure to running as a means of transportation, and the long-legged, ectomorphic body type that is common among Kenyans.

And then there’s diet. Few experts argue that the traditional Kenyan diet, which is maintained by most of the country’s top runners, is the number-one reason they run so well, but it clearly isn’t hurting them, either. Recently I visited Kenya under the auspices of a wonderful program called Run Like a Kenyan…in Kenya to conduct research for my forthcoming book, The Endurance Diet. I spent two weeks meeting with top Kenyan runners, including 2:03 marathoner Wilson Kipsang, and with Kenyan nutrition experts such as Vincent Onywera of Kenyatta University.

Additionally, I ate only traditional Kenyan foods during my time there to see what effects they would have on my body and my running. It was not a formal scientific experiment, but the results were eye-opening. Midway through my visit I ran the Lewa Safaricom Marathon, one of the toughest in the world. I felt great and finished 17th overall, third in the masters division, and first among non-Kenyans. Afterward my body recovered more quickly than it had from any of my 20 prior marathons. Upon returning home, I weighed myself and discovered I had lost 2.5 pounds, despite having exercised a lot less overall in Kenya than I do at home.

All in all, my personal experience and my research convinced me that several features of the Kenyan diet are key contributors to the success of that nation’s runners and should be emulated by runners everywhere who want to perform their best. Here are my top five ways to eat and run like a Kenyan.

Eat fresh, local, unprocessed foods.

Kenyans eat very few processed foods. The most highly processed food available in the kitchen of my host family in Nairobi was a jar of peanut butter. A typical Kenyan meal consists of ugali (a type of cornmeal porridge), sukuma wiki (collared greens), ndengu (stewed mung beans), and chapati (a tortilla-like bread made with wheat flour), all homemade. The most memorable meal I ate in Kenya consisted of six items, all of which had been grown or raised on the property owned by the people who prepared the meal for me.

Runners in the U.S. and elsewhere would do well to stock their kitchens as Kenyans do, with a full crisper and relatively bare cupboards.

Eat a starch with every meal.

Virtually all Kenyan meals are centered on a starchy whole food. Among the most popular breakfast foods is uji, a porridge made from fermented millet and often flavored with lemon juice. At Lornah Kiplagat’s High-Altitude Training Centre in Iten, where I spent a couple of nights, ugali, rice, potatoes, and pasta were in constant rotation at lunch and dinner. This is typical of the Kenyan diet.

Because it is starch-based, the Kenyan diet is very high in carbohydrate. A 2004 study by Onywera found that elite Kenyan runners get 76 percent of their daily calories from carbs. Although we have been taught to fear carbs here in America, it would behoove us to overcome this fear and learn the difference between cornmeal and corn syrup if we want to run more like the Kenyans. A diet centered on starchy whole foods provides a winning combination of high-octane fuel and satiety and thereby promotes high performance and a lean body composition.

Eat meat infrequently.

The typical Kenyan runner eats meat or fish three or four times per week. While in other countries a tedious argument rages between Paleo dieters, who believe people should eat more meat than anything else, and plant-based dieters, who believe that every bite of animal flesh takes a day off one’s life, Kenyans may have found the sweet spot between these extremes. Recent science, including a massive 2013 study involving more than 400,000 men and women, lends support to the idea that eating a small amount of meat is healthier than eating either none or a lot. The practice certainly agreed with me.

Eat snacks and dessert…of fruit.

Kenyans rarely eat desserts or sweets. I did see rural Kenyan schoolchildren munching on raw sugarcane, but that’s closer to eating an apple than it is to drinking a can of soda. Indeed, when Kenyans do crave something sweet they are more likely to reach for a papaya or a banana than a candy bar or cookie. Most of the unscheduled feedings (i.e. snacks and desserts) that Kenyan runners partake of consist of fresh fruit.

Sugar hysteria has gotten so far out of control in the United States and elsewhere that fruit has been lumped together with other sweet-tasting things and labeled “unhealthy.” In fact, fruit is one of the healthiest food types in nature. Research has consistently shown that higher fruit intakes are associated with favorable health outcomes. For example, in a scientific review published in 2009, Danish researchers looked at past research on the relationship between fruit intake and body weight. Of 16 studies analyzed, 11 showed that elevated fruit intake either prevented weight gain or induced weight loss.

Do some runs on an empty stomach.

Elite Kenyan runners run two to three times per day. Their first run is usually done first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Although the reasons for this practice are practical rather than scientific, recent science indicates that doing a portion of one’s training in a low-glycogen state (i.e. a state of semi-depleted muscle carbohydrate stores, as occurs after an overnight fast) enhances some of the fitness-boosting adaptations that occur in response to workouts. If you run “only” once a day, you won’t want to do all of your workouts in a low-glycogen state, but training once or twice a week in such a condition is one more thing you can do to run like a Kenyan.

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