A Few Reflections on Running With the Kenyans

I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut, lately. I just couldn’t seem to stay focused for more than a few pages at a time. That is, until I picked up a copy of Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn.

Running with the Kenyans is written by Adharanand Finn, a journalist who also happens to be a runner. Or rather, he was a runner when he was younger and kept running a little bit through adulthood.

The book tells the story of Finn living in Kenya, training there, and seeking to learn the secret of what makes Kenyan runners so dominant. He comes away from the experience much faster than he started. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, he is unable to identify a simple formula for greatness just by watching and training with other runners in Kenya.

It’s an enjoyable story for any running enthusiast, and there are more than a few nuggets of wisdom to glean. Let me share my first impressions of the book, followed by a few of my big take aways.

My First Impression of Running with the Kenyans

Above all else, the book was a joy to read.

At 250 pages, it’s neither terribly long nor incredibly short. But it was a quick read. I picked it up one weekend, and I was done with it by the end of the next.

Despite the fact that there is clearly a purpose to the story – figuring out the “secret” to Kenyan running dominance – the book seems to follow Finn’s exploits a bit haphazardly. The narrative jumps around a bit, and this was a bit jarring at first. But I quickly got used to it.

His description of races and training runs is great, and this is one of the things that makes the book so compelling. It reminds me of the way that Matt Fitzgerald narrated races in How Bad Do You Want It. This is important in a book about running since, at the end of the day, every story about running really boils down to, “I ran x distance in y time.”

In terms of his conclusions and his descriptions of Kenyan society, there were very clear parallels to Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley. To be fair, Finn’s book was written a decade before Crawley’s, and I’m sure Crawley was inspired by Running with the Kenyans. But at the end of the day, the lessons learned by the white guy who goes to train with the east Africans are pretty similar – whether he happens to be in Kenya or Ethiopia.

Given the fact that Crawley is an anthropologist, I would give him the edge in terms of analyzing the culture and trying to distill his experience into a series of lessons. But I think Finn’s background as a journalist gives him the edge in story telling. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed both of the books.

What Runners Can Learn From Running with the Kenyans

While this book isn’t intended to be a training guide, it does contain some useful nuggets of wisdom. Here are a few takeaways that helped me think about my own running.

First, Get Your Aerobic House in Order

One of the general conclusions of the book is that Kenyan runners have an active childhood – and this prepares them to be endurance athletes in adulthood.

When Finn is speaking with the coach Renato Canova, Canova makes this claim pretty clearly: “To build your aerobic house, to have enough of an endurance base to run long distances, takes about ten years. By the time a Kenyan is sixteen, he has built his house.”

The same could probably be said about most American runners as well – although there are probably many more American children who don’t have active childhoods and are thus unprepared to be athletes in adulthood.

Looking back over my own story, I spent much of my childhood playing sports. I tried just about everything, but I spent the longest amount of time – probably eight or so years – playing soccer. If I had stuck with track in high school, instead of quitting after a season, I probably would have been able to build a decent amount of success off this foundation. Instead, I let it slowly crumble.

But I think that aerobic base sticks with you despite years of reduced activity. When I finally committed to running again, it didn’t take too long to get in halfway decent shape. I didn’t need to struggle through weeks of “Couch to 5k” to be able to run a few miles – I was able to do so pretty much right off the bat.

And I think this is an important distinction people have to make for themselves before they start running. If you’ve never been active before at all, you need to spend more time slowly building that base. A walk-run protocol might be great for you. And you should ease in to things for a while before you try any kind of more rigorous training.

But the more history you have with running, the quicker you can pick it back up. Getting back into running is very different from starting from scratch.

Focus on the Trails – Not the Roads

This lesson seemed very reminiscent of Out of Thin Air. Both Kenyans and Ethiopians spend a lot of their time running on trails – or at least dirt and gravel roads. They rarely actually run on pavement, even if their races are going to be on pavement.

There’s one scene in particular in Running with the Kenyans where this comes through. Finn and his team are planning a long run. He suggests they simply drive straight out from town and run along the road back in. But his teammates are adamantly opposed to running on the paved road. Instead, they waste a significant amount of time driving around looking for a bumpy dirt road to use.

Since reading Out of Thin Air, I’ve taken to doing a lot more of my running on trails. Reading Running with the Kenyans has just reminded me of that.

I’m lucky to live within a quarter mile of a great trail network, and most days that’s where my runs start. If I’m running a workout, I’ll stick with a paved course or a track. But for my easy runs, I either start with a few miles on the trails or spend my entire run out there.

It’s Not All About the Training Plan

If you spend time with many runners, you inevitably end up talking about training plans. How many miles to run, what workouts to do, how to space them out and periodize them. Books and books have been written on the subject – like Running Formula and Advanced Marathoning.

But one thing that is striking about Finn’s story is that there seems to be an absence of elaborate training plans among the runners that he meets. Sure, the better runners who have coaches follow some sort of structure. But at the end of the day, it’s a lot of running with a little variety sprinkled in.

None of the runners Finn talks with seem concerned about exactly how many miles they are running or exactly what paces they’re going to hit. When they do run a fartlek workout, there is no obsession over pace. It’s just fast and slow. During the long runs, too, it just progresses from slow to fast without any planning beforehand about exactly what pace or time to hit. Although I’m sure these runners know what these paces should feel like, there’s no attempt to mark things with precision.

At the end of the day, I’m going to stick with my Jack Daniels training plans. But this is a good reminder not to quibble too much over the details. It probably doesn’t matter exactly how many reps you do this week or exactly what pace you do for that run. What’s more important is that you put in the work, consistently run day in and day out, and work in some intensity here and there.

And so whether you pick a Daniels plan, a Pfitz plan, a Hanson’s plan, or something else, it probably doesn’t matter all that much. It’s easy to fall into that trap of trying to maximize small gains and lose sight of the big picture.

Don’t Worry About Nutrient Timing

A good example of that obsession over micromanaging things is the focus some people have on timing when and what you eat for recovery.

You’ve probably read advice that tells you to make sure you eat right after a run, and to make sure you have such and such mix of protein and carb. Otherwise, you’ll jeopardize your recovery.

Well, the athletes in Running with the Kenyans never seemed to get that message. It’s a similar observation that Crowley made in Out of Thin Air.

Sometimes, they’ll go for a long run and not eat for several hours. Eventually, they’ll pack in the carbs and replenish things. But there’s no mad scramble to fill ‘er up right away.

So the next time you’re worrying about whether you can fit in some carbs 15 minutes after your workout… stop worrying. Eat when you can, especially if you’re hungry. But otherwise, don’t worry about the timing. Just make sure you eat what you need to throughout the day.

What Did You Think of Running with the Kenyans?

I’m curious – what did you think of Running with the Kenyans? Leave a comment below with your own takeaways or first impressions.

I found it to be a very enjoyable book. And I walked away with some additional insight into how to think about my own running. To me, that’s time well spent.

You can pick up a copy of the book on Amazon, where it’s also available on Audible. If you like listening to audiobooks while you run, this would be a great one to choose.

And if you’re looking for something else to read, have a look at this list of great books about running.

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