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.9
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.
Owen Anderson, Ph.D., is a coach and exercise scientist who edits Running Research News and is the author of three books on running: Great Workouts for Popular Races, Lactate Lift-Off, and Aurora. For more information about Owen's unique training techniques, visit http://www.lansingmarathon.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- "Kenya's Running Tribe," The Sports Historian, Vol. 17 (2), pp. 14-27, 1997
- "Food and Macronutrient Intake of Elite Kenyan Distance Runners," International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, Vol. 14, pp. 709-719, 2004
- "Macronutrient Intake of US Athletes Compared with the General Population and Recommendations Made for Athletes," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 49, pp. 1070-1076, 1989
- "Nationwide Survey on Nutritional Habits in Elite Athletes. Part I: Energy, Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake," International Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 10 (1 Supplement), pp. S3-S10, 1989
- "Dietary Intakes and Food Use of Groups of Elite Australian Male Athletes," International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Vol. 1 (4), pp. 378-394, 1991
- "Dietary Practices of South African Ultradistance Runners," International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Vol. 7, pp. 80-103, 1977
- "Food and Macronutrient Intake of Male Adolescent Kalenjin Runners in Kenya," British Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 88 (6), pp. 711-717, 2002
- "Nutrition and Body Build: A Kenyan Review," World Rev Nutr Diet, Vol. 72, pp. 218-226, 1993
- "The Food and Nutrient Intakes of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 32 (4), pp. 9-5-915, 1979