Ethiopia has won more olympic marathons than any other country with 6. Haile Gebrselassie achieved 27 world records spanning a 24 year career and first competed at international level aged 17. Ethiopia hasn’t lost a women’s olympic 5000m in 3 olympic games and seems on track for a 4th in Rio. Just some of the reasons why in Richard Nerurkar’s opinion, Ethiopia is the greatest running nation in the sport’s history.
Last week I went to an event celebrating Ethiopia and it’s tradition of running and community. Richard hosted a great evening and presented in his own words the secrets of the nation’s success, from Bekoji ‘The Town of Runners’ to the hills surrounding Addis Ababa, followed by a discussion with Owen Barder and Liz Egan.
Richard’s 12 Secret’s of Running (why Ethiopia is so good)
D – Desire; in 2015, 15 of the 51 runners that finished a marathon quicker than 2h08 were Ethiopian
R – Role Models; all role models in Ethiopia are runners
E – Eating; highly nutritious foods (see below for more info!)
A – Altitude; major factor in conditioning of East African runners
M – Masses; 6am-8am every morning there will be many athletes out training
Group / Early Morning / Tune In / Routes / Elevation / Accelerate / Lifestyle
These are fairly self explanatory, but basically 80% of routes are off road, at elevation, people train early and in groups, train hard but then eat well and rest!
Richard expanded upon the benefits of training in Ethiopia and why top runners are finding themselves in Addis; including the likes of Mo Farah and other GB athletes who at the advice of Barry Fudge – Head of Sports Science at UK Athletics – go to benefit from the training conditions.
Development economist and running author Owen Barder then offered both an holistic view of Ethiopian culture and, on a more granular level, why people run and ultimately how sociological factors facilitate running and community.
Owen’s view of Ethiopian running is base around three ‘Cs’: Climate, Countryside and Company. To expand, Ethiopian conditions are optimal for training. The country offers varied running territory, it’s fertile, green, mountainous (40% of mountains in Africa are found in Ethiopia), there are forests, trails and tarmac. But mostly, Ethiopia is a running society; it’s safe, it’s people love running and training together, and this creates both camaraderie and success.
He talked of how Ethiopia has changed since his arrival in 1982; during which period, the country was under marxist dictatorship, in civil war and experiencing severe drought which would, later, lead to famine. The major difference and the reason Ethiopia is fairing better now, is seen in government. It has become effective, accountable to it’s people and encourages prosperity. Admittedly this reform has been slow in reaching more remote areas which remain impoverished, but there is societal change taking place which is already visible in cities, now home to a thriving middle class. And so Ethiopian people now run for one of two reasons – for health or to become a champion.
Liz Egan, writer of book ‘Notes from Higher Grounds,’ explored in depth the physiological benefits of training in Ethiopia. The bodies natural response to training at elevation – where there is less oxygen – is the natural release of the hormone EPO which in turn stimulates red blood cell production, allowing more oxygen to be carried. When returning to sea level, performance benefits are noticeable.
As a result, a vast majority of athletes now train at altitude as the effects can last for anywhere between 2 and 3 weeks, helping to optimise race performance. Because of this known training benefit, there is often a running culture which has emerged and can now be found around the world, in places like Boulder in Colorade, Iten in Kenya and, of course, in Ethiopia.
Additional notes on nutrition!
I completed my Ethiopian week with a trip to the Queen of Sheba restaurant in Kentish Town. Being vegan I opted for the vegetarian platter to fuel my Sunday long run. We were presented with a delicious array of pulses, salads, vegetables and of course the Ethiopian staple Injira – a sourdough risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture. Yum!
Run Fast Tours coordinate a tour of Addis Ababa and entry into the Great Ethiopian Run managed by Richard Nerurkar, Haile Gebreselassie and Peter Middlebrook in which 40,000 runners participate in a 10k race in the country’s capital.
Owen Barder is Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the LSE. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Website: http://www.owen.org/
Liz Egan is an Irish middle-distance runner with a passion for travelling, writing, and helping athletes maximise their potential. In March 2010, Elizabeth set about combining her passions with the purpose of writing an altitude training travel guide for distance runners. Her resultant book, ‘Notes from higher grounds: an altitude training guide for athletes‘ was published in December 2013. Website: http://www.altitudetrainingcamps.com/