Have you ever wondered what the Kenyan runners eat? The Kenyan runners diet is fascinating, because they are the fastest distance runners in the world. You do not even have to be a runner to know that the Kenyans have dominated the sport of distance running for centuries. Therefore, our curiosity is certainly justified when we ask, “What do the Kenyan Runners eat?”
When I was younger it was my dream to spend a season training in Iten, Kenya. The small town of Iten in the Rift Valley of Kenya has produced more Olympic Gold medalist than anywhere else in the world. It is said that if you stay in the town, you will see a different Olympic champion almost every single day. What is so great about Iten, is that anyone who would like to study the success of the Kenyan athletes will only have to go live there to do so. That is how we are able to know exactly what the Kenyan runners diet looks like, without having to speculate.
Kenyan Runners Diet: Macronutrients
Macronutrients, also referred to as “macros”, are the nutrients we need in larger quantities that provide us with energy. These include fat, protein and carbohydrate. What is interesting about the Kenyan Runners diet, is that their macronutrient intake is closely related to what most sports nutritionists recommend for endurance athletes, just by chance! The Kenyans eat the way they do, because it is the diet that has always come naturally to them and not because someone told them to eat this way. So what do the Kenyan runners macros look like?
The Kenyan runners eat an extremely high carbohydrate diet, that is low in fat and protein. A “high carbohydrate diet” is a subjective term, so let’s look at some of the specifics. Studies have shown that roughly 75% of a Kenyan runners total daily calories come from carbohydrates. 15% come from fat and 10% from protein. If you would like to know the studies I have consulted when writing this article, here they are: The first study was done in 2002 and the second in 2004. The studies also showed that, given the body statistics of the Kenyan runners, each runner was consuming around 10.4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight every single day. That equated to at least 600 grams of carbohydrates in total per day, per athlete.
You may be thinking, “WOW, that is a lot of carbs!” It is actually a standard way of eating for endurance athletes. Most sports nutritionists recommend 9-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day. While the Kenyans are eating a little more than that, it is nothing of an abnormality. If I have to compare it to my own diet, I have found that I also eat around 10g of carbs per kg of bodyweight a day when I am training hard. I am definitely not as light as a Kenyan long distance runner, so for my 76kg self that equates to 760 grams of carbohydrates per day! My macronutrient intake also looks similar, but it is closer to 80/10/10 than that of the Kenyan runners.
The studies also showed that the Kenyan runners eat an average of 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, per day. That is a normal amount of protein for an endurance athlete and is again in line with what sports nutritionists recommend. I will just point out that, that is 1.3 grams of protein compared to 10.4 grams of carbohydrates. It tells me that we have drastically over emphasized the importance of protein in the western world and neglected that of carbohydrates.
What specific foods do the Kenyan runners eat?
You can not talk about the Kenyan runners diet, without talking about Ugali. Ugali is maize flour, mixed with boiling water and stirred until it is as thick as can be. It is a traditional dish in many parts of Africa. In South Africa, I am very familiar with Ugali. We call it “Mieliepap” or just “Pap” and we usually eat it as a side dish at a barbeque. On its own, Ugali is a dry dish and not appetizing. The Kenyans are said to eat it with vegetables or meat, but a friend of mine who visited Kenya recently told me that he often saw Kenyan people eating it without anything else. I can not imagine doing that. I always eat it with a tomato and onion relish, or at least with vegetables and salt. With that said, how you eat ugali is not important. The fact is that ugali is an extremely refined carbohydrate dish and is the staple food of the fastest runners in the world.
This will come as a shock to you, but around 20% of the total daily calories in the Kenyan runners diet, comes from plain white table sugar! We are always told that sugar will make you fat and slow, but this is obviously not the case if you look at the Kenyan runners. What we can learn from the Kenyans is that sugar is one of the cheapest and easiest, LEGAL performance boosters. You could train as hard as you can, sleep well and even take all the performance enhancing drugs in the world, but if you run out of muscle glycogen in a race you will lose your race. In cycling terms, we call this phenomenon, “BONKING”. If you run out of sugar, or carbs, in a cycling race you will ‘BONK’ and you will get dropped from the pack you are cycling in. Anyone who has ever experienced what it is like to run out of muscle glycogen during a race, or a training session, will tell you what a horrible sensation it is. Sugar is the easiest way to fuel your workouts and to top up your glycogen stores afterwards. You see, it is not just what you eat before and during a workout, but also what you eat afterwards that counts. The Kenyans definitely understand this and get it right.
Besides for ugali and table sugar, the Kenyan runners also eat a lot of fruit. You will not see much processed junk food, such as chocolate bars or Lays chips in the diet of Kenyan runners. Instead of eating junk food in between meals, the Kenyan runners choose to snack on fruit. From what I hear, watermelon is a favorite choice for runners in Kenya, especially after a long hot training session under the African sun.
The Kenyan runners diet is a plant based diet
The Kenyan runners naturally eat a plant based diet. Again, this is ironic because I doubt any of them have ever heard of the term ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ for that matter. Nevertheless, around 90% of all the food in a Kenyan runners diet comes from vegetable sources. The rest comes from animals, such as meat and fish. The Kenyan people, especially in the Rift Valley region, are known to only eat meat a few times a week and to eat it in small portions. Animal products are treated as a luxury in the Kenyan runners diet, unlike in the western world.
Should I eat like a Kenyan runner?
I have been eating a diet that is similar to that of the Kenyan runners for over 5 years now. I can say that it has had an extremely positive impact on my training. I have noticed that I have more energy during my workouts and that I recover faster afterwards. I have also found it easier to stay at a low body weight during the off season, while following a diet similar to that of the Kenyan runners. I believe this has a lot to do with the macronutrient makeup of the diet. As I have pointed out, the Kenyan runners diet is a high carbohydrate, low fat and low protein diet. If I ever want to gain weight I increase my fat intake and if I want to lose weight I decrease my fat intake, while returning to a diet similar to that of the Kenyans. This has worked like a charm.
I should also mention that if you do not want to eat ugali, you do not have to. There are plenty of other staple foods with a macronutrient makeup that is similar to that of ugali. A perfect example of this, is rice! I would argue that rice is an even better staple food than ugali, because it taste better and contains more vitamins and minerals. White rice has been my staple food for a long time now.
If you do plan on following the Kenyan runners diet or if you have been doing so for a while, let me know about your experience. I would be curious to hear what effect it has had on things, such as your training, recovery and weight loss.