MORE FIRE – How to Run the Kenyan Way by Toby Tanser – Book Review

These are my thoughts on this inspiring book from my perspective as I train for a marathon next April, as well as with my Chi Running hat on.

I mentioned I was reading this book recently whilst on a training run with my club, Holmfirth Harriers. I was immediately asked what advice the book had for runners. Well it’s packed full…. but is there a Kenyan secret that we’re all waiting to hear? In this blog I will try and distill the essence of the advice given in the book. I’ll also discuss a few themes that are considered by some to be the reasons why Kenyans make such good runners. I’ll also consider the book from a Chi Runner’s perspective.

more fire

I have previously written about what makes Kenyan running so special, in my blog about ‘Running With The Kenyans.’  In that post I discuss In ‘More Fire – How to Run the Kenyan Way’ by Toby Tanser, the topic is explored very much from a coaching and training point of view. The book itself it really very inspiring, and moves through the history of Kenyan running before going to to explore many different stories and training approaches used by the greatest Kenyan runners. The book is also full of quotes, tips, and advice. Here is my summary of some of the advice:

1. Motivation – the reason to run

The terrible poverty comes across very strongly in the book. The potential money that can be earned from running in comparison with Kenyan daily wages is not just substantial, it is life changing both for the athlete and their whole family. This underlines a whole layer of motivation that is present for the Kenyan that is simply not there for westerners. The stories describing the poverty experienced by so many can only serve to prove the power of the deep psychological motivators that are present in the mind of the Kenyan Runner.

2. Working as a team

It comes a cross very strongly that the Kenyans work as a team when they run. This applies to their lifestyle as well, as they live together in training camps as well as close family groups. Even some athletes abroad in Europe will still prefer to share rooms with more than would be expected in a flat or apartment as they are more comfortable this way than sleeping in a room on their own. It’s just culturally normal to work as a team. I don’t think we really ‘get that’ in the UK.

3. Hard training
This bit is pretty scary. The training plans of a great many runners are detailed in the book. Many of them run 3 sessions a day, and rest for the remainder of their routine. This amount of running (and rest!) is beyond the reach of most western runners. What is amazing is that many runners do more in a day than many western marathon runners do in a week. Some of the hard sessions and weekly plans described are eyewateringly intimidating. It should be possibly though, as mentioned in the book, to scale down the intensity of some of the workouts and produce a workable plan for some runners. I suppose we could react by being intimidated by the idea of training this hard, or we could take something to learn from. See the last paragraph for how this theme in the book has inspired me.

When you think about the deep psychological traits and values that dwell in our subconscious and have a powerful and controlling effect on our lives, it is certain that the hard work ethic is ingrained deeply in the Kenyan mind. Have we forgotten how to work hard in the west? They also have incredible faith in their ability to achieve the seemingly impossible.

4. Self Belief
At one point, the book explains that the typical Kenyan runner truly believes they can win a marathon. Compare that to westerners. 99% of western runners are just ‘playing at it’ by comparison, running for leisure or for general fitness those who do race don’t expect to win. In comparison, Kenyans ultimately only run to train hard, and to win money by winning races. (There are some mentions, though, that those who only run to win money fade away – those who run to be the begs they can possibly be are the ones who truly endure.)

As the book says “Believe. If you believe you can do it, you can.”

A typical example of the power of belief is the story about Peter Kipchumba Roni winning Olympic 1500m Gold in Seoul. As he walked in to the Stadium he heard crowds cheering his name. It was after winning the race that he realised there were 3 people in the race called Peter.

A few quotes on the theme of belief:

“Believe you can do it.” – Christopher Kosgei

“Remember, even 13 year old girls are training 3 times per day.” – Brother Colm O’Connell

“Have patience; it battles years of hard training to get results.” – Daniel Komen

“When hill running, use your arms and hips to work in to a rhythm on the hill.” – Ibrahim Hussein

5. Diet

A great many Kenyan runners simply eat the traditional diet of the poorer Kenyan people – Ugali (cooked maize flour) with milk and vegetables. What makes this diet a good one? It’s based on simple unprocessed, natural and fresh (home grown) foods. The diet also high in carbohydrate compared with the typical western runner’s diet. More Fire makes the point that the diet doesn’t contain any magic ingredients, however it is a very natural and healthy diet that has enabled a great many runners to reach dizzying heights of performance. If you are interested in diet, I suggest you read other blogs I have written on this subject.

And from a Chi Running perspective…

One of the key concepts in Chi Running is body sensing. This means listening to and responding to your body. Sometimes you just need a bit of inspiration, and an example of why something is important and worth practicing. It’s great to read what this turns out like in practice for some of the best runners in the world.

Here are two quotes on this subject:

“Nixon Kiprotech talked about how, even when on an easy jog, he was analysing every inch of his body, looking for tension, searching for a more relaxed form.”

Wincatherine “Catherine” Nyambura Ndereba ‘Along the way, I am monitoring my form and running entirely to how I feel, not what other runners are doing. If I feel good in the final miles then I will start to push from about three miles out.

Gradual progress

Most of the training programs in the book include 3 or even 4 runs a day. Training is usually every day. This is an intimidating level of training for most runners who only go out for once or twice a week. Even the typical UK runner who is training for a marathon isn’t normally running more than once a day. So reading page after page of hard training programs made me feel a bit inadequate at times! I firmly believe in knowing how much running I can do without getting injured. That too, it seems is very much the Kenyan way. So how do you transition from a low mileage running program to something that will help you develop further. It’s a well known rule of thumb in running to not increase your training by more than 10% each week. Some runners in More Fire talk about just 5%. Chi Running talks about the rule of Gradual Progress, and how each step you take forward must make a firm foundation for the next. In my experience, you need to bear in mind the gradient you are running on as well the intensity of your running when you are drawing up your 10% rules each week. If you aren’t sure whether to make an upgrade or not, I’d say don’t! The Chi Running book as a great section on when and how to upgrade your running each week.

How have I changed in my training?

When they Kenyans run slow, they run slow. When they run fast, then run fast. I think too many training runs I have been done have been less effective because they have been all at a similar pace. That said, the hills around where I live always make for an interesting workout. What I have decided it that increasing the pace towards the end of a run, particularly for the last 25% of the run! will be something that I try. I tried this whilst reading the book, completing an 8 mile run, with the last 3 miles completed in under 19 mins. That’s quite fast for me and I am interested to see the effect of training more in this way. I will also be using fartlek sessions (2 mins on, 1 min off.) basically I am looking to see more periods of harder work going on during my normal training runs.




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