Systemic Athletic Dominance: What We Can Learn Part II

Yesterday I looked at the methodology behind the Bulgarian weight training regime that led them to dominance in all things weightlifting for a decade, and tried to uncover some of the possible reasons for their incredible success. The long and the short of it was that they focused almost solely on their competition lifts to become champions of their sport. The expression jack of all trades, master of none comes to mind as the Bulgarians chose to remove anything that was even remotely unnecessary as far as training is concerned to truly become masters of their craft. Their daily, multiple, short training sessions worked to both focus the lifter in each session, and in theory worked to keep testosterone levels high to encourage recovery and increase strength. Many programs today feature the Bulgarian method as a base for their training philosophy, and definitely with sound reasoning.

If there is another program that is even more successful, having dominated thoroughly for the past 30 years in an awesome display of athletic supremacy, then look no further than the long distance runners of Kenya. The accomplishments that this country has achieved is nothing short of unbelievable. Part of the reason for their running skill is simply due to their culture. For Kenyans, running is a mode of transportation that begins at a very early age. I don’t know about you, but I did a lot of running as a kid too, and I didn’t develop into a champion long distance runner. While their culture may explain a small part of the bigger picture, more investigation is needed.

The first, and to me the most obvious, point of interest is that Kenya is more than 2000 meters above sea level. Scientist refer to anything above 2000 meters as high altitude due to the fact that there is a pronounced difference in oxygen content. The human body with all of its amazing talents of course has a solution to this little problem. When the body realizes it isn’t receiving it’s customary supply of oxygen, it begins to produce more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the bloodstream. The increased ability to transport oxygen means the body will be maximizing available supplies.

The production of more red blood cells coincides with the production of hormones in the kidneys known as EPO, which triggers the release of even more red blood cells. This process can take 15 to 20 days for the body to completely acclimatize. High altitude training, or the use of the banned substance EPO, is a proven performance enhancer. The physiological effects from high altitude training continue for one to three months upon return to sea level conditions. Seeing as a Kenyan lives and trains in Kenya year round, any event they participate in will be within a window where they will be experiencing the oxygen maximizing effects of having done their training at high altitudes.

Now that we’ve all had enough science for one day, I’ll get on with some of the more methodology based reasoning for their dominance. Similar to the Bulgarians, the Kenyans employ an almost identical training system. The Kenyans run often, as many as three times a day with rest periods in between. Sound familiar? Multiple training sessions per day with rest in between followed by an early bedtime as well, makes being a Kenyan distance runner a 24 hour a day occupation, also just like the Bulgarians. There are many similarities between the two systems, and the next point is no exception.

Because of the culture of running in Kenya, there are numerous candidates to become the next superstar. The financial compensation and the glory that of course come with any athlete that is in the top percent of their respective sport is enough to have many a Kenyan dreaming of becoming the next great long distance running star. So there is no shortage of talent to choose from, and as such the high volume of training undertaken in preparation for competitions has its own way of separating the greatest from the rest. If you’re running long distances as often as three times per day, every day, chances are you need to be near superhuman just to withstand the rigors of so much physical strain. So again a grinder system weeds out the pretenders from the contenders, and only the great will remain to go on to huge success.

The Kenyans also take into consideration how important recuperation is to the long term success of the athlete. Just because a grinder system is used doesn’t mean that total disregard for the athlete is going to take place. One could argue that in any sport of any type there is a system similar in place. Essentially the strong survive and the weaker fall. When getting into the level of the elite, the difference between the strong and the weak can be fractional.

Aside from the multiple daily naps and early bedtimes of the runners, slow recovery runs are also utilized to speed the healing of the muscles used. Another environmental advantage that the Kenyan runner has is the soft surface that they run on being kinder to their joints and connective tissues than running on hard pavement would be. The Kenyans train on dirt trails which softens the impact as well as provide a continuously changing terrain, which would only serve to enhance the effects of this type of training. One last bit of information related to the care of their athletes is that as well as doing recovery runs, the Kenyans also do very long, slow warm ups. Just like the Bulgarians again, everything from warm ups to recovery is based on running. There are no ancillary exercises performed, whereas with most running programs there is at least a small weight lifting component.

There are a few other points of interest that can all be considered cultural. In the West where most reading this live, running is an individual event. A solitary activity. In Kenya it is rare to see anyone running alone. Everyone runs in groups and as such it is likely that due to the competitive human spirit that courses through us all, there would certainly be a push to try and run faster than those you are running with. Obviously this would serve to improve everyone, raising the base level of what is an acceptable running pace.

Food producers in Kenya would laugh at our attempts at the 100 mile diet, as all food grown or raised in Kenya is done on small scale farms. These Farms are more likely to be within 100 feet as opposed to 100 miles, so needless to say the diet of the athlete would be a healthy one based around fresh, whole foods. The cornmeal based staple called ugali is the foundation of their meat meals, and also serves as a great carbohydrate source. An important consideration for the long distance runner.

Despite the fact that these runners are engaging in what looks to me to be an unbelievable amount of physical hardship, there is a somewhat paradoxical idiom to which the Kenyan people live by. That being hakuna matata, meaning no worries. This is apparently the emphasis of the lifestyle by which the Kenyans live, and keeping stress to a minimum is of paramount importance. Perhaps there is something to enduring the type of training that they do with a somewhat worry free attitude. Maybe that attitude also translates into success.

As we have seen throughout this second example of systemic athletic dominance, apart from geographical, environmental and cultural differences, the methodology of both the Bulgarians and Kenyans is remarkably similar. Perhaps this is true of all successful programs, but I’m choosing to limit the scope of this analysis to two nations whose results speak for themselves. Next time I would like to get into the pieces of each program that we can use or adapt to our own training in an attempt to improve our own results. Until next time,

Happy Lifting!

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