The dominance of Kenyan runners has always fascinated me. This fascination began after travelling to Iten, Kenya several years ago. Since then, I have continued to be amazed by their performance on the world running stage and I was not disappointed at the Scotiabank Waterfront Toronto Marathon. A Kenyan runner, Philemon Rono, set a new record for the fastest marathon run on Canadian soil.
While in Kenya, and also while observing their pre marathon food choices, I’ve been extremely curious. What can we learn from the diets of some of the world’s fastest runners? You may be rather surprised at the huge piles of rice on their plates or the amount of sugar they put in their tea. The secret to their running success could be partially attributed to an extremely high carbohydrate diet.
Carbohydrates are one of the best performance enhancers. Carbohydrates stockpile our glycogen stores, which provide us with fuel for optimal performance and defend us against injury. In my day-to-day practice, most people that I see do not eat enough carbohydrates. Instead, most people believe that they should be avoiding carbohydrates. However, research consistently shows that a high carbohydrate diet is the most beneficial diet for athletic performance.
Studies looking at the intake of Kenyan runners find that they typically eat around 9.8-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight each day. To put this in comparison, when I]m putting together a carbohydrate loading plan for an athlete, I usually try to aim for about 10-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. Anybody who has tried to follow one of my carbohydrate loading plans knows how ridiculous this amount of carbohydrates can be. Studies on athletes from industrial countries find that their diet is more in the range of 6.1 grams per kilogram of body weight each day. This is far from the 10 grams per kilogram of body weight seen in Kenyan runners.
While the Kenyan runners diet is high in carbohydrate, it is extremely low in fat. Studies show about 13% of calories coming from fat. This is lower than what I would typically recommend. I usually aim for about 20-30% of calories coming from fat, depending on the athlete. However, this recommendation is in contrast to what I most commonly see people eat. Many people over-eat fat. I think that this is because we are taught to be scared of carbohydrates, and are instead replacing them with high fat foods.
The staple foods of the Kenyan runner’s diet tend to be vegetable origin foods such as bread, boiled potatoes, porridge and milk. They also eat a lot of ugali, which is a mixture of maize flour and water that is high in carbohydrates. Some people believe that ugali is the secret to Kenyan’s runners success.
I think that we could all learn a lesson from these Kenyan runners. Obviously, what they’re doing is working. If you’re an athlete, and want to perform at your best, carbohydrates are key!