Kenya’s Elite Runners: a study on the diet of African Champions

What can we learn from the worldwide dominant endurance runner’s diet ?

Eating practices of the best endurance athletes in the world.

Those “best endurance athletes” are clearly the Kenyan runners. Attempting to verify this fact for you is probably unnecessary, but it can at least be noted that one study found that athletes from just one collection of Kenyans, the Kalenjin tribe, had won approximately 40 percent of all major international middle- and long-distance running competitions in the 10-year period from 1987 to 1997.

In addition, approximately half of all of the male athletes in the world who have ever run the 10K in less than 27 minutes hail from Kenya. When they’re allowed to enter freely, Kenyan athletes dominate road races around the world.

And yet, until now the eating habits of the top-level Kenyan runners haven’t been examined in a westernized scientific way, even though the Kenyans’ nutritional practices must assuredly represent a partial reason for their running success.

The person who argues that “If only the Kenyans would eat differently, they could run much faster,” would be on flimsy ground.

The following article asserts that The Kenyans are doing things right when they sit down at the dinner table, or they wouldn’t dominate international competitions.

We share it for you to absorb what’s useful.


Read on..


But what is it exactly that they’re doing? Are they Zone dieters, followers of the Perricone Promise, adherents of the Atkins Diet, or do they focus on the South Beach eating plan? Do they eat lots of “discredited” carbs or large ladles of lipids? From what foods do they get their seemingly limitless energy for running?

Study specifics:

To answer these questions, Yannis Pitsiladis of the International Centre for East African Running Science in Glasgow, Scotland, along with Mike Boit (the Olympic bronze-medal winner from the 1972 Games), Vincent Onywera, and Festus Kiplamai from the Exercise and Sports Science Department at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and the Department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya, recently monitored everything that went into the mouths of 10 elite Kenyan runners over a seven-day period at a training camp near Kaptagat, Kenya.

This group of Kenyan athletes was truly top-level, including several Olympic medalists and also first-place finishers from the Paris and Athens World Championships.

All 10 runners belonged to the Kalenjin tribe, with five from the Nandi sub-tribe, three from the Keiyo grouping, one Tugen individual, and a Sabaot. Two of the athletes specialized in 1,500-meter running, while the other eight were training for eight- and 12-K cross-country competitions.

The average age of the Kenyans was 21, and mean height was 1.75 meters (~5′ 9″), with remarkably little variation in stature (the shortest individual was 1.70 meters, the tallest 1.80 meters, which meant that the smallest and greatest heights were just three percent away from the mean).

As you might expect, the Kenyans were lean, with body weight averaging ~58.6 kilograms (129 pounds) and body fat ranging from about six to 10 percent.

Dietary intakes were measured each day for seven consecutive days in December, when the athletes were reaching peak condition for the Kenyan cross-country season. The Kenyans followed their normal diets and weighed and recorded everything that was consumed (both food and drink); food weighing was accomplished with digital scales. The elite Kenyans were given as much food as they wanted, and they ate five times a day, according to the following plan:

Breakfast at 8:00 a.m.
Mid-morning snack at 10:00 a.m.
Lunch at 1:00 p.m.
Afternoon snack at 4:00 p.m.
Supper at 7:00 p.m.

Kenyan runners tend to eat a limited variety of foods, and that was certainly the case with these elite athletes. Most of their nutrients came from vegetable sources, and the “staple” edibles were bread, boiled rice, poached potatoes, boiled porridge, cabbage, kidney beans and ugali (a well-cooked, corn-meal paste that’s molded into balls and dipped into other foods for flavoring).

Meat (primarily beef) was eaten just four times a week in fairly small amounts (about 100 grams — 3.5 ounces a day). A fair amount of tea with milk and sugar was imbibed on a daily basis (more on this in a moment).

If you’re thinking about heading to a nutritional-supplement store to purchase some performance-enhancing supplements (or you already purchase on a regular basis), bear in mind that the Kenyan runners were not taking supplements of any kind. There were no vitamins, no minerals, no special formulations or miracle compounds, nada. The gold-medal-winning Kenyans adhered to the odd philosophy that regular foods could fuel their efforts quite nicely.

Quality running

The Kenyan runners’ training during the seven-day study period was straightforward. The athletes trained mostly as a group, two times a day, with a 6 a.m. run followed by an afternoon run at around 5 p.m. The 6 a.m. run was six to nine miles at varying speeds, including a nice chunk of high-quality running at a pace as high as four minutes per mile.

The afternoon runs usually centered on four to five miles at an easy pace (note that this works out to a weekly total of about 75 miles). Once a week, the two 1,500-meter runners carried out high-speed interval training.

A very interesting observation was that each elite Kenyan spent just 1.2 hours per day running, with about 33 percent of this consisting of “quality running.” This means that the elite-Kenyans’ daily “intake” of quality running was about 23 minutes.
Daily nutrient intake

About 86 percent of daily calories came from vegetable sources, with 14 percent from animal foods. As you might expect, the Kenyan-runners’ diets were extremely rich in carbohydrate, with 76.5 percent of daily calories coming from carbs. The Kenyans ate about 10.4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass each day, or approximately 4.7 grams per pound of body weight.

An amazing facet of the Kenyans’ eating habits was the consistency of this carbohydrate intake: Every 24 hours, the Kenyans took in about 600 grams of carbohydrate, with very little variation from day to day. They were truly stocking their leg muscles with glycogen, giving their sinews the right fuel necessary for the high-intensity training they were conducting — and avoiding the fatigue which automatically follows on the heels of glycogen wipe-outs.

Incidentally, sports-nutrition experts frequently recommend that athletes involved in strenuous training should consume about nine or more grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per day, so you can see that the Kenyans were truly eating according to current scientific wisdom.
Given such an ample carbohydrate intake and the reliance on vegetable foods, fat intake was bound to be modest, and it was: About 13.4 percent of daily calories came from fat (~46 grams), with 61 percent of these calories coming from milk (Kenyan runners ordinarily place full-cream milk in their tea).

Protein intake amounted to 10.1 percent of all calories and a total of 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (75 total grams daily). Once again, the Kenyans were fully in line with recommendations of top sports nutritionists, who call for protein intakes of ~1.2 grams per kilogram daily for endurance athletes. About two-thirds of the protein came from plant foods. Water intake was modest (about 1.113 liters per day), and the Kenyans actually tended to drink more tea than water on a daily basis (tea consumption was about 1.243 daily liters).

The foods

As you might expect, ugali furnished about 23 percent of the runners’ daily calories; after all, it’s the national dish of Kenya. There were some surprises in the dietary data, however. For example, just behind ugali in second place for calorie-provisioning was plain sugar, which provided about one out of every five calories (20 percent) consumed by the Kenyans over the course of the day.

That’s right, the vitamin-free, mineral-free, “bad,” “simple” carb from which Americans are fleeing was consumed in rather prodigious amounts, about 133.5 grams (534 calories) per day. Similar levels of sugar consumption are sometimes blamed for the rising tide of obesity in the U.S., particularly among young people, but in fact sugar intake provides some key advantages for athletes involved in intense training on a daily basis: After all, the stuff re-stocks muscle-glycogen stores very quickly and effectively.

As long as the rest of the diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and anti-oxidants (which is the case with the elite Kenyans), and as long as regular exercise is carried out and caloric intake doesn’t exceed caloric expenditure (also the case), sugar isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be argued (from the quick-glycogen-replacement standpoint), that sugar is a rather-desirable nutrient (before you send me any angry letters on this topic, please look up the frequencies of type 2 diabetes in Kenya and the U.S.).

In terms of providing calories, the “big-four provisioners” in the Kenyans’ diets were:

ugali, with 23 percent of total calories
sugar, with 20 percent of all calories
rice, at 14 percent
milk, hitting 13 percent
No other single food provided more than six percent of daily caloric sustenance (bread was at six percent, with potatoes and beans at five percent each).

Milk provided the lion’s share of protein, with 28 percent of daily protein grams (and calories), followed by beans, with a respectable 19-percent share, and rice and ugali were neck-and-neck for third and fourth, with 12 and 11 percent of daily protein, respectively. A smaller surprise? Since the Kenyans relied so heavily on full-cream milk as a source of energy and protein, their daily consumption of saturated fat checked in at about 28 grams — 252 calories out of the daily caloric quota of 3,000 or so.

Other findings

In addition to taking in slightly more than the recommended amounts of carbohydrate and protein for athletes, the Kenyans also used another fundamental principle of sports nutrition to enhance their abilities to train and perform well: They always ate within one hour after workouts. This post-workout period when glycogen re-synthesis rates can be maximized, as long as adequate carbohydrate is provided in the diet (as was the case with the Kenyans). When carbohydrate ingestion is delayed after a training session, lower total intramuscular glycogen levels are often the result. Those Kenyans are smart!

The Kenyan runners’ carbohydrate intakes are also higher than those reported in endurance athletes in other countries around the world. As Pitsiladis, Boit, Onywera and Kiplamai pointed out, the carb intake of elite distance runners in the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa have been measured at 49 (!), 50, 52 and 50 percent of total calories, respectively, a far cry from the Kenyan total of 76.5 percent.3,4,5,6 The Kenyans appear to be doing a better job of fueling themselves for their high-intensity training, compared with their “peers” in other countries.

This new investigation agrees well with the limited information published about Kenyan-athletes’ eating habits in the past. Two previous studies found carbohydrate intake in Kenyans to be about 71 and 75 percent of total calories, with fat and protein consumption similar to the levels observed in the new research. 7,8 This kind of validation and the careful techniques employed in the new study (one of the researchers, for example, stayed with the athletes around the clock while the dietary monitoring was being carried out) indicate that the data is accurate, truly representing elite-Kenyans’ eating patterns.

Overall, the Kenyan eating plan has strong similarities to the food-consumption habits of another group of outstanding distance runners — the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. The Tarahumaras are more-noted for their ultra-running capacities, rather than their 10-K performances, so one might expect their diets to be a bit more heavily biased in the direction of fat, but research reveals that about 75 to 80 percent of total daily energy comes from carbohydrate, 12 percent from fat and eight to 13 percent (sound familiar?) from protein. Like the Kenyans, the Tarahumara Indians eat copious quantities of corn meal, along with praiseworthy portions of beans.

With their high carbohydrate intake, adequate protein ingestion, and perfect timing of meals, the top Kenyan runners are eating optimally — doing the things at the dinner table which are necessary for them to perform at the world’s highest level. We can certainly learn from them and eat in ways which give our muscles the fuel they need to carry out the high-quality workouts which represent our true path to performance improvement.

Article By Andrew Cawood


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