A Scientific Look at the Diet of the World’s Fastest Runners
Guest blog by Jeff Gaudette (RunnersConnect)
Studying the diets of elite runners can not only be a fun comparison to your own nutritional intake, it can also be a great way to better appreciate and confirm many of the scientifically proven nutritional concepts experts believe help improve performance and health.
And, if we’re going to learn from elites, it makes sense to learn from the best – Kenyan runners.
If you’re not familiar, Kenyan runners of the Kalenjin tribe won approximately 40 percent of all major international middle and long-distance races from 1987 to 1997. Studying the dietary habits of Kenyan runners, who are clearly some of the fastest runners in the world, is a fascinating endeavor.
However, there have traditionally been two problems with studying the dietary habits of Kenyan athletes. First, Kenya is a third world country and thus gathering information from individual runners about their diet isn’t easy. Many elite (and not so elite) runners in the US gladly share their diets through blogs and social media. Unfortunately, you won’t find many Kenyans blogging about their training.
Second, even if when we can find a sample diet from an elite Kenyan runner, that doesn’t answer the question about the dietary principles of a nation as a whole. To really understand how the Kenyan diet works, we need a sampling of many different runners.
Luckily, some recent (at least in terms of scientific literature) studies have tackled this subject and provided some fascinating data about the Kenyan diet as a whole. Even better for the RunnersConect audience, I’ve had the privilege to briefly train and live with some Kenyan runners and have seen their diets in practice.
In this article, we’ll examine the scientific data on the diet of Kenyan runners, break down what it means, and then compare their nutritional intake to that recommended by nutrition experts.
Research on the diet of Kenyan runners
The bulk of our data comes from two studies, the first in 2002 and the second in 2004, which analyzed the diets of a group of Kenyan runners and compared their nutritional intake to traditional endurance athlete recommendations.
In the 2002 study, the researchers simply asked a large group of Kenyan runners to recall their diet for the past 24 hours. The second study in 2004 was a little more thorough and followed a group of ten runners and recorded their food intake for seven days. As such, the data we’ll focus on for this article will come primarily from this second study and we’ll use the 2002 study to compare and verify accuracy.
What time of day did the Kenyans eat and train
The Kenyan runners were given access to as much food as they wanted and allowed to eat whenever they felt hungry. Generally, the elite runners fell into the pattern of eating five times a day. Typically, their meals broke down as such:
8am – Breakfast
10am – Mid-morning snack
1pm – Lunch
4pm – Afternoon snack
7pm – Supper
For reference, the Kenyan’s trained two times a day. The morning session began at 6 am. This was their longer, more intense session. On non-workout days, they ran nine to fifteen miles starting easy and progressively getting faster as they warmed-up. Hard workout days were your typical VO2max or tempo run sessions.
In the afternoon, they ran an easy four to five miles. All the athletes were training for the Kenyan Cross Country Championship, which is 12km. Therefore, they were not marathon training.
Daily macronutrient intake of Kenyan runners
Not surprisingly, a majority of the calories in the Kenyan diet came from carbohydrates. In the ten runners studied, 76.5 percent of daily calories were consumed as carbohydrates.
Given their body statistics, this meant each runner was consuming about 10.4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight.
Moreover, given how they spread out their eating times and training sessions, each athlete was consuming about 600 grams of carbohydrate per day, with almost 120 grams of carbohydrate at every meal.
Protein intake amounted to 10.1 percent of calorie intake. That equals roughly 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
About 13.4 percent of daily calories came from fat
How does a Kenyan diet compare to recommendations for endurance athletes
Despite not knowing much about the science of sports nutrition, the diet of these Kenyan runners was surprisingly close to that recommended by sports nutritionist.
Most sports-nutrition experts recommend that runners who are training at high mileage consume about nine or ten grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per day. While an average of 10.4 grams is just a little over the recommended consumption, it’s clear the Kenyans were following scientific protocol without realizing it.
This number may seem like a lot (and it is for sedentary people), especially given the latest trends towards Paleo and less carbohydrate-rich diets. However, as athletes trying to compete at the highest level of their sport, replenishing glycogen stores and fueling their body for recovery is essential to the high-intensity training they were conducting.
In regards to protein, the Kenyans’ diet was once again closely in line with the recommendation of top sports-nutritionists, who suggest consuming 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Since these runners were training for a 12km distance, not a marathon, the 1.2 grams they were consuming is appropriate for their muscle recovery and rebuilding needs.
What types of foods did they eat
This particular study didn’t break down an exact daily diet, but the researchers did provide data for the amount of calories from many of the most commonly consumed foods. Plus, having trained with some Kenyans myself, I have a pretty good understanding of what these foods were. The data may surprise you.
- Sugar – plain sugar – accounted for 20 percent of daily calories. The Kenyans love their tea (in fact, tea consumption was greater than water consumption – 1.243 liters per day on average) and they love putting lots of milk and sugar in their tea. Having trained with some Kenyans myself, I can attest to just how much tea they drink and how much milk and sugar they use. It’s incredible.However, a large amount of this sugar also comes from fruits. Immediately after most runs, Kenyans consume some type of fruit, typically watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew. The simple sugar and water from the fruit speeds glycogen to their muscles post workout.
- Ugali supplied the greatest number of total calories, making up 23 percent of the daily diet. Ugali is simply a dish of maize flour (cornmeal) cooked with water. Kenyan runners eat this for dinner almost every night. Generally, it’s mixed with a chicken or beef stew and vegetables.When made correctly it actually taste better than it sounds. My college teammate Jordan and I once tried living off Ugali for an entire summer. Unfortunately, our cooking skills sucked and it tasted terrible. But, we were broke so we ate it anyway.
- While so far, the diet of a Kenyan runner looks rather unhealthy due to our “sugar is bad” culture, Kenyans do eat rather healthy. About 86 percent of daily calories came from vegetable sources, with 14 percent from animal foods. Moreover, they didn’t have access to junk food (at least in the training camp) that most Americans do.
If you’re looking to eat like a Kenyan runner
While the Kenyan runner diet runs contrary to general recommendations for non-runners and our societies shifting perspective on sugar and carbohydrates, the Kenyan diet is actually a good framework to follow if you’re running a lot of miles and training hard.
Their diet is in close step with that recommended by leading sports-nutritionist and it’s also made up of mostly natural, whole foods. With a 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.
If you’re just getting started or trying to lose weight, the diet is probably a little too high in carbohydrates and simple sugars for your needs. However, you can still take a page from the Kenyan runner and time your meals, eat whole foods, and fuel your muscles for recovery.
Here are some great videos that discuss or demonstrate some of the dietary habits of Kenyan runners.
Thanks once again to Jeff Gaudette and RunnersConnect for sharing this great material with us. Be sure to check out their blog, which pretty much has all of your technical running needs covered.