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Iten, Home of Champions

Iten, more famously known as ‘Iten: The Home of Champions’ is a town in Kenya that overlooks the vast Rift Valley. Sitting at an elevation of 2400m (7900 ft) training up there is not for the faint hearted, literally.

The town gets its name from being the birthplace and home to a number of Olympic, World Champion and World Record holders – most famously David Rudisha, the men’s 800m world record holder and two-time Olympic and World Champion. However, there is an ever-growing list of middle-long distance athletes that now call Iten their home, including the New Zealand Robertson brothers.

The Training
Having spent two years on a track & field scholarship in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well as doing a stint in Font Romeu, this wasn’t the first time I had trained at altitude. But I can tell you now, it was by far the hardest.

The first week was largely spent steady running. Trying to keep the volume similar to back home but just allow the body to get used to the altitude (well somewhat anyway) before building in the more intense workouts. Strides were included early on though to keep the legs ticking over so I didn’t feel completely sluggish once the quicker work commenced in week two.

Moving into the second week I began to increase the intensity of the running, firstly a progressive run where I started just outside 6:00 per mile and worked my way down to 5:30s. Back home this would have been reasonably easy however the rolling hills in Iten made a perfect progression almost impossible with my first 3-4 miles being predominantly downhill, which I did not appreciate until we turned around…

As I started to increase the intensity, adding in intervals and tempo runs what I found most interesting was how much more of a pounding my lungs were taking compared to my legs. I felt I was really able to stress my aerobic and cardiovascular system without trashing my legs due to the simple fact I wasn’t moving as quickly as I would do at sea-level or even at the lower altitudes of Albuquerque where I’ve trained previously. This seemed like a huge positive – my legs weren’t feeling beat up from running massively quick paces but my heart rate was as high as it would be back home at the quicker paces.

Before going out to Kenya I had one thing I really wanted to tick off my running ‘bucket list’ and that was getting taking part in one of the famous Kenyan Fartlek’s. At the end of my second week the opportunity arose – ‘1-1-30’ on the ‘Boston loop’ was what I was told. On leaving the camp I had no idea where the loop started or how far away the loop was – I was told about 2 miles. 4 miles later we arrived at the start….despite not knowing where the starting point was it became apparent that everyone was heading to the same point, so I simply followed the masses. The session was simple; minute hard, minute easy x30 so 60 minutes total. I knew I had no chance of keeping with the top boys for anywhere near the hour, so I gave myself the target of trying to keep up to the halfway point before the inevitable blow up.

It was some experience. The start of every rep was just a scramble to find the most runnable bit of path for the next 60 seconds, of which there was not much due to the amount of rainfall there had been in the preceding days. I got to halfway, just about hanging onto the back of the pack and bodies started to drop which gave me confidence, so I ploughed on for another few reps until I was completely done. One final climb as we hit the tarmac was the end of me, managing 25 reps out of the 30 I was chuffed with the effort. Needless to say I was in bed most of the day after that.

As an experience I cannot recommend Iten enough. For me it was a great place to visit whilst in the base phase of my training, where there was no pressure to hit massively intense sessions and hit certain times or paces. Obviously the longer you can stay at altitude the better and two weeks may not have been enough purely from a running point of view largely due to the fact the first week is spent acclimatizing, however as somewhere to get some really good base fitness and experience the Kenyan way of running – which is a lot more simplistic that one would imagine – it is a superb spot!

The Physiotherapy
Since returning from my trip I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I came across the same kinds of injuries in Kenyan runners as I do British runners. Absolutely. If anything, a lot of the common running injuries I see in the UK, the tendon overuse injuries especially, are even more common out there simply due to the intensity of the training, the harshness of the terrain and the dog-eat-dog nature of competition out there.

The Thursday fartlek for example; the undulating, rough, uneven ground is a recipe for sacro iliac joint or lower back issues. On top of this with Iten becoming more and more developed the once pristine trail roads are now wide tarmacked routes and the transition from soft cinder and dirt tracks to much harder tartan tracks is equally a recipe for plantar fascia and Achilles issues if these tissues have not been conditioned appropriately.

I think there has been a real shift in recent years in Kenya I think with regards to how runners look after themselves. In years gone by a lot of the top guys would have still been working hard manual jobs, farming typically, naturally working their trunk and gluteal muscles which I think is one of the reasons their bodies become so resilient to the hard training they undergo. However, speaking to a number of the coaches out there they are definitely starting to see an increase in those injuries I mention, and I suspect this is partly down to the fact that rather than completing physically challenging jobs between training a lot of the top runners are now full time athletes. They train hard and rest even harder. However, few appeared to complement their running with any strength and conditioning training, something which is essential in increasing the bodies tolerance to the stresses we place it under during training.

I was seeing a lot of injuries out there that in this country I would expect to resolve in 2-3 months, but instead runners were 12+ months on from injuries still struggling to get back into things. The reason for this? In my opinion bodies lacking conditioning over a number of years that have now fallen foul to injury and are now struggling to return to the same level simply due to the fact their bodies are not robust enough to handle the intense training regime.

But change appears to be occurring. With the facilities offered at places like the High Altitude Training Centre a lot more of the runners are beginning to incorporate strength and conditioning exercises into their weekly regime.

Lessons Learnt
Easy days easy. Hard days hard.
Conditioning is key.
Consistency over intensity.

I can confirm the Kenyan shuffle really is a shuffle. Full kit, barely lifting the feet off the ground, simply getting some very easy miles in the legs whilst allowing the body to fully recover from the morning’s efforts. Ready to go again the next day.

Sunday rest days, typically. The typical structure would be Tuesday track workout, Thursday fartlek, Saturday long run, Sunday rest, with doubles and easy running built around this.

What I noticed with the training out there was that there was a lot more steady or easy running than what I’m probably used to in the UK and less frequent hard efforts. The important days were Tuesday and Thursday or for those marathon specialists the Saturday long runs on Moiben Road.

This is something I have applied to my training more recently. Rather than trying to hit one or two big mileage weeks and inevitably falling apart I’ve chosen to ensure I have two properly hard efforts per week with the other days either steady or easy depending on how I’m feeling, and not to forget the strength, conditioning, and mobility work to keep myself in one piece (well as much as possible). Unfortunately, even as a physio I’m not immune to injury…