Kenyan’s vs. The Rest

We all wish to one day run like a Kenyan! The effortless way in which they can cover the ground and float along hilly or rough surfaces is second to none. So how do they do it and why is it so different to a native Japanese runner who will have a characteristic short stride and high cadence to match? Whilst there are many reasons for Kenyan’s dominance of distance running, including physical, mental, cultural, geographical and economical reasons, one specific aspect we’d like to highlight today is their running efficiency due to elastic energy contribution.

A fellow coach pointed this article my way and it made for some interesting reading. For those interested, the abstract is below:

Can measures of muscle–tendon interaction improve our understanding of the superiority of Kenyan endurance runners?

Kanae Sano · Caroline Nicol · Masanobu Akiyama · Yoko Kunimasa · Toshiaki Oda · Akira Ito · Elio Locatelli · Paavo V. Komi · Masaki Ishikawa

 Purpose: Leg muscle activation profiles and muscle-tendon interaction were studied with eleven internationally high-level Kenyan and eleven national level Japanese distance runners. Methods: Ultrasonography and kinematics were applied together with surface electromyography (EMG) recordings of leg muscles when subjects ran on treadmill at 9.0 (SLOW) and 13.9 km h (MEDIUM). Results: At each speed, both groups presented similar contact and flight times. The kinematic and ultrasound analyses revealed that, in contrast to the Japanese runners, the Kenyans demonstrated during contact smaller stretching and shortening amplitudes (p < 0.01) of the tendinous tissue of medial gastrocnemius (MG), but greater tendon contribution to the muscle-tendon unit shortening (p < 0.05). The MG fascicles of the Kenyans were shorter not only at the resting standing position, but also during the contact phase at both running speeds (p < 0.01). The EMG profiles of the Kenyans showed lower braking/preactivation ratio in both MG and tibialis anterior (p < 0.05) muscles. They were also characterized by negative relationships between the Achilles tendon moment arm and the MG fascicle shortening during contact (r = ?0.54, p < 0.01). In contrast, the Japanese presented the classical stretch-shortening cycle muscle activation profile of relatively high MG EMG activity during the braking phase. Conclusion: These findings provide new suggestions that the Kenyans have unique structural characteristics which can result in the reduction of muscle and tendinous stretch-shortening loading together with smaller muscle activation during contact at submaximal running speed.

In summary, we see that their stance and swing phases are actually quite similar through the gait cycle, but what happens during these phases at the musculo-skeletal level is different. Specifically, the Kenyan runners were able to more effectively utilize their tendons during the stretch-shortening cycle in stance phase, compared to the more muscular contribution of the Japanese runners. Maintaining a relatively high level of tendon contribution allows the Kenyan’s to minimize the muscular work (and associated damage/fatigue) during the impact phase of running. For anyone who has raced over distances where leg fatigue has let you down (think half and full marathon), this is a big advantage and can allow you to truly demonstrate your cardio-based fitness, without your muscular system holding you back.

So how can you increase your tendon contribution and run more like a Kenyan…?

In 2012 the Front Runner Team was lucky enough to survey the Kenyans in their home training environment in a small village called Iten. This town was a small one (~4000 locals) however, ~1000 of these were professional runners. The depth is something to be behold, especially when you ask someone how they go and they say “oh not very good, but I’m improving… I’m only 2h 8min for the marathon. My friend is 2h 4min so he is much stronger than I”. Heading down to the local dirt 400m track was also something to be behold, when a group of ~30 runners would complete 20 x 400m reps on 58-62s. Watching that many runners all with incredibly fluency and elasticity in the way they moved was beautiful to watch.

This trip to Kenya also highlighted the importance they place on running drills. All sessions were preceded by a plethora of running drills, all designed to make them flexible, elastic and fast. In addition, sole 1h circuit and drill sessions were employed during the week to target their tendinous capacity.

Practical Applications: Running Drills

Running drills are specific exercises that exaggerate the movement patterns seen in the running stride, working to increase the flexibility of the musculoskeletal system and the efficiency of the neuromuscular system for both impact absorption and power production during running. In addition to improving our tendinous contribution, running drills work to:

  1. Increase Dynamic Flexibility: Moving your lower limb joints (Hip/Knee/Ankle) through a full range of motion requires the muscles responsible for moving these joints to be stretched dynamically. When a dynamic stretch is continually applied to a muscle, the fibres will respond by increasing the length at which they can function. This leads to the muscle having a larger range of motion in which it can produce power to propel the runner forward.
  1. Increase Neuromuscular Efficiency: The rate at which our nervous system activates our muscles has a direct influence on how quickly our muscles can be activated during running. Running drills should be performed at a pace that exceeds how fast our muscles would move during our fastest paced run. This encourages the muscles to activate more efficiently when running to prevent excess fatigue and encourage a higher run cadence/stride rate (how many steps per minute we take when running).

For an example set of running drills, performed by our own Physiotherapist Marc See, please see HERE

Now, as with any new exercise, running drills do carry a load that must be adapted to. Any progression in this load that does not have sufficient recovery time between WILL lead to soreness and potentially injury. So speak with your running coach or Physio about how to best apply these to your running routine and reap the benefits safely.

For those interested in learning how to best apply running drills to your routine or learn more about how you can improve your running through an individually tailored session, contact the Front Runner Team HERE


Happy (fast) running.


Ben Green

B.Sc (Hons)

Level 3 Coach IAAF

Coaching Manager

Front Runner Sports