I was fortunate to recently have had the opportunity to spend some time in Ethiopia among some of the best runners in the world. Ethiopia is thought to be one of the oldest locations of human existence known to scientists and also a country that many of us associate with their running prowess. After living with some of these athletes and their coaches and being able to work with some of them one on one, I have put together a few of my thoughts on what makes these athletes so successful, and what things we can learn about treating and preventing injuries.
First of all a huge thanks to Joseph Kibur for putting together such a fantastic environment for elites and recreational runners to stay. I would certainly encourage anyone who is looking for a safe, easy way to live among some of the worlds best runners and to run through the hills of Ethiopia to consider a stay at YaYa Village. Joseph moved to Canada at a young age and was a very successful runner through the 1980s and 90s (former Canadian Cross-country champion). He moved back to Ethiopia in 2008 and opened up YaYa Village with Haile Gebrselassie in 2011.
So, what makes the East Africans (and in this case Ethiopians) so dominant in distance running? I had the privilege of sitting down with Haile Gebrselassie (who many consider to be the best runner of all time) one of the mornings at YaYa and he mentioned that at one time Ethiopia was very hesitant to let foreign runners come train in their country over concerns that these runners would learn the Ethiopian secrets. Haile laughs at this now and stated that there are no secrets. As much as there are certainly some genetic advantages, much of their running success comes from living and training at altitude, and pure hard work. Running is a way of life and a potential way out of the poverty in many countries in Africa. In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling novel ‘Outliers’, he talks about the success of Kenyan runners and, as one writer summarizes, that “ideal environments + a tremendous amount of hard work and focus on a specific thing = success beyond what most people achieve”. In Ethiopia, world-champion runners are idolized as super stars and their photos can be seen on huge bill boards and advertisements. Certainly lots of incentive to run! That being said, I’d like to talk a bit more in depth about what I think helps lay the groundwork for all this hard work and success.
Running is a sport that we as humans are born to do regardless of where we’re born. We have all of the tools to be able to develop an efficient running style which is a phenomenal coordination of soft tissue and bone. When everything works together, the soft tissue strength and flexibility allows forces to be distributed properly and for stored energy to be fully utilized in order to propel us forward. Even though the majority of us are born with all of these tools to become an efficient runner, our lifestyle often does not nurture them. We sit for much of the day, run on concrete, and wear footwear that is often less than ideal for our feet. To the contrary, many Ethiopian runners come from backgrounds that don’t include a lot of sitting. Many of their early days are spent moving (ie working in the fields, playing outdoors). Many of these runners spend much more of their time barefoot. I also found it interesting to see how much of their running is done on very varied terrain (running through tight twisting trails and up and down hills – very fun!). This means that many of these runners are naturally developing the proper strength and flexibility (ie infrastructure) to be able to start to log the kind of running miles necessary to compete at such a high level. Basically just being a human being the way we’re designed to function!
Of the injured runners that I saw, many of their issues were the same as we see here and often due to getting away from fundamentals. I had a chance to sit down with one of Ethiopias top marathon runners (2:04 – wow!) and go through some injury treatment with him. He recently did a big marathon overseas, took a bit of time off and then started to have an issue with his achilles tendon. It seemed to be a relatively easy problem to fix and he’d done many things right, but because of his super high work ethic, he continued to push back too fast which continued to re-aggravate the injury. The amazing work ethic in pushing these athletes to succeed can be a real detriment when trying to return from injury. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you reading this article as well! There is also such an abundance of running talent in Ethiopia (estimated to be up to 50 men under 2:10 for the marathon and an equal amount of fast women), that when a top runner gets hurt there is often someone to fill their spot. I’m sure this also leads to pushing back into high intensity training too quickly.
To me, footwear selection is also a huge factor in treating and preventing injuries for runners in this part of the world . Once these runners achieve a certain amount of success, sponsors will often send them shoes that are overly cushioned and wedged up in the heel. Because they already have a good foundation of strong feet and an efficient running gait, they don’t need to be wearing these types of shoes. Certainly is a bit ironic on the footwear front that many African runners aspire to have what Western runners have (overly cushioned, flashy shoes), and many Western runners aspire to have what African runners have. Unfortunately, the end result means that both sides often aren’t wearing the appropriate footwear! The same principles apply to footwear selection in Ethiopia as it does here. They just have less work to put in before being able to wear these low to the ground shoes. For many of us, we have years of weak feet, muscle imbalances and flexibilty issues to overcome before we’re able to make a switch to a more minimalist shoe. Basically, most Western runners don’t yet have the infrastructure to support what our bodies are meant to do. It is cetainly something that we can aspire to, it just takes a little more prep work which is not going to be for everyone.
So as much as many of us will never have the time , determination, or environment to achieve the running success of the Ethiopian runners, we can certainly strive to try and get our bodies back to a more stable, efficient place. There is no substitute for hard work and it’s difficult to train consistantly when we’re constantly injured. By working at achieving a better infrastructure for our body, we not only can help to improve our performance but more importantly enable ourselves to continue to enjoy the activity that we love for much longer term without injury!