There is a great deal of interest in the training habits of the world’s elite athletes. Of particular interest to all endurance athletes alike is that of Kenyan runners, since they have dominated the field of distance running for over a decade. Books have been written and running camps have been developed to mimic the Kenyan’s training habits. Surprisingly, the other important piece of the Kenyan training puzzle, nutrition, has only recently been analyzed and has yet to be incorporated into any structured training program. It is likely that they are eating differently than other athletes, since imitating their running habits have only allowed others to inch slightly closer to the Kenyan athletic level. This poses the question of whether we should be placing a greater emphasis on nutrition as a key element of a complete training program. Almost certainly the answer is yes, and is based on evidence, which has shown that most American and European distance runners are not even following the current nutritional recommendations by sports nutrition experts for endurance athletes, whereas the Kenyan diet simply and gracefully mirrors the expert’s suggestions. Perhaps we should turn to the Kenyans for some nutritional guidance.
What is the Kenyan diet?
A group of sport and nutrition experts led by Yannis Pitsiladis from the International Centre for East African Running Science based in Glasgow studied a group of ten elite Kenyan middle distance runners during their peak training season in 2004. Their diet was found to be very simple. The group of runners consumed five different meals spaced around two different running workouts. Interestingly, their food intake was primarily from vegetables, grains and starches (86%), such as bread, rice, potatoes, porridge, cabbage, kidney beans, and ugali (the national dish of Kenya composed of corn meal paste), and less so from meat (14%), which was mostly beef. Their fluid intake was sufficient at 2.3 liters per day; however, just over half of that fluid came from tea. The runners drank about 1.1 liters of water and 1.2 liters of tea per day.
Basic, but rich!
The Kenyan diet is so basic yet so sustainable. They rely on their agriculturally rich land to supply them with food for life and for sport. Further, unlike most westernized societies, the Kenyans are not presented with a superfluous amount of food choices and diet pressures everywhere they go. They rarely if ever consume candy, soda, or processed foods. They eat to survive and prosper rather than to indulge.
So you should go to the store and buy ugali?
Not exactly, it is more important to examine the nutrient composition of their food rather than attempt to mimic what they eat. This is for practicalities sake and because all food is broken down in the body to its basic elements, no matter what it started as.
The Kenyans ingested about 76.5% of their total daily calories from carbohydrate, such as ugali, vegetables, and other starches, which equated to 10.4 grams per kg of body weight per day or in total about 600 grams per day. Experts recommend endurance athletes consume about 7-12 grams of carbohydrate per kg body weight per day (for moderate to heavy training intensities). The Kenyans were right on the mark. About 13.4% of their total calories came from fat, with most of these fat calories from milk. Finally, about 10.1% of their total calories came from protein, such as beef and milk, which equated to 1.3 grams per kg of body weight per day or in total about 75 grams per day. Experts recommend endurance athletes consume about 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kg per day. Again, the Kenyans were right on.
That’s a lot of carbs. Should triathletes really eat that much carbs?
Carbohydrate is the primary source of fuel for muscle and brain activity. It also supplies the needed vitamins and minerals to the diet that a high fat or high protein diet lacks. Furthermore, it is valuable throughout the training cycle; before the event carbohydrates can maximize muscle glycogen stores, during the event they can prevent hypoglycemia and improve performance, and after the event they can optimize repletion of endogenous carbohydrate stores and improve ones mood state over training.
What about the Kenyan’s fat intake?
The Kenyan’s diet was very moderate in fat. The primary source of fat in their diet was from the full-fat milk that was added to their tea. They consumed no “junk food” and therefore excessive amounts of fat were not a concern. Certain types of fat can be very advantageous to the triathletes’ diet because they supply essential fats in a calorie dense package. However, because fat is so calorie dense, it is important to limit unnecessary junk foods to keep fat intake at a moderate level.
Shouldn’t you eat more protein to gain strength?
It is important for endurance athletes to obtain more protein than sedentary individuals, but since most people consume about twice as much protein as recommended, adequate protein intake for athletes is not a concern. Nevertheless, there are some supporters for high protein diets for athletes, but these fads are unlikely to be backed by scientific studies.
Kenyans are runners and I’m a triathlete. Would it work for me?
The Kenyans that were studied are middle distance runners who train about 10-14 miles, or about 1.2 hours per day over two training sessions. This duration of training may be significantly less than that of individuals training for longer endurance events and triathlons. However, the two big differences between these Kenyans and endurance triathletes are the requirement for a great number of calories by triathletes and the necessity and ability of triathletes to consume food during their workout.
There are several noteworthy aspects of the Kenyan diet that can be advantageous for triathletes.
* They always ate within one hour post-workout to promote muscle repair and replenish glycogen stores.
* Their macronutrient intake paralleled the recommendations by nutrition experts for endurance athletes.
* The Kenyans obtained all of their essential vitamins and minerals from nutrient dense food and relied on non-nutrient dense food, like sugar added to tea, to supply the remainder of their calories.
* The Kenyan diet was not entirely focused on meat, which is slow and difficult to digest. In fact, vegetarian (or semi-vegetarian) diets that are cautiously planned can provide enough energy and nutrients to support health and athletic performance.
Although the Kenyan diet focuses on the unique foods native to the country and has fueled some of the worlds best distance runners, we should not deem it necessary to eat exactly what they eat. What should be taken from this report is that they eat a balanced and nutritious diet that supplies them with all of the essential vitamins and minerals in a way that matches the current recommendations of carbohydrate, fat and protein intake for endurance athletes.
Bill Nadeau, MS, is a Sports Nutrition Associate with Trismarter.com