Why Kenyans Run Fast

barefoot running book review
Why Kenyans Run Fast

Why Kenyans Run Fast

I read Running with the Kenyans book and found that I had to glean through the book to find the information about why the Kenyans run fast. Here is my book review. The author, Adharanand Finn, writes down his experiences while observing and training with the Kenyans for six months. His objective is to find out why the Kenyans run fast. He wanted to know their secret in how they win so many running races throughout the world and to learn how to run faster himself.

When most people think about the Kenyans running, they think about them running barefoot. However, the fact is that most of them do not train barefoot nor run marathons barefoot. In his book, Running with the Kenyans, Finn reveals why the Kenyans may run fast. The are many reasons Kenyans are fast runners. The three main possibilities I gleaned from reading the book are running barefoot as a child, winning prize money from running races, and living in high altitudes.

Running Barefoot as a Child

Kenyans grow up poor, so they spend their childhood running around barefoot most of the time because they can't afford shoes.  They run to school and doing chores, such as herding goats or digging in the fields. Their feet gets strong to where it doesn't hurt to run on rough ground. This helps when they become endurance athletes as adults. They end up running barefoot style even in conventional shoes because their feet retain that memory.

"But surely someone running a marathon barefoot on concrete roads would be risking injury?  'These kids we study in Kenya,' Dr. Pitsiladis retorts, "the soles of their feet are as strong as any shoes.  They can walk on glass and it doesn't hurt.' As well as landing more lightly, Dr. Pitsiladis says that running barefoot gives you stronger feet, which allows you to train harder with less chance of getting injured." (p. 94)

Children in Kenya run local races barefoot. They are mostly running for fun. Because Kenyan children are used to running around all the time barefoot, they don't think about wearing shoes for a race. However, once they become adults and train to compete in races, their coaches encourage them to wear shoes to protect their feet. Plus, many Kenyans are sponsored by shoe companies and receive free shoes for wearing during training and racing.

Winning Prize Money

Many Kenyans run races to win prize money. The money they win can pay their rent for several years, and they give to their community. Their goal while running is to be the fastest. The prize money from winning races incentivizes them to be the fastest runner.

"Despite Beatrice's initial lack of promise, her mother agreed to fund her running, giving her what little money she could to cover the cost of her rent (about six dollars a month), fuel, and food.  There aren't many countries in the world where you can tell your poverty-stricken family that you want to leave to become an athlete, spending most of your days resting and sleeping, and they will reply, Great, let us give you the tiny amount we have to help you.  But like their children, the parents in Kenya are aware of the bounty that running can bring." (p. 129-130)

Kenyans who are doing serious training live in camps. They live in accommodations away from their families, where they concentrate on eating, sleeping, and training runs. All of these things are very important while training. They need to be in a place with no distractions and have plenty of time to rest. Marathon training becomes their job. They get paid when they win races.

High Altitude

The Kenyans live in high altitudes. Kenyan children grow up running and playing in this environment. Their bodies become accustomed to it. Then, as adults, they don't have to travel anywhere else to train as other athletes do because they are already in a perfect place to train.

"Not only are they training from a young age, but they're doing it at high altitude.  There is a broad scientific consensus that training at high altitude helps endurance athletes to run faster by increasing their blood's ability to carry oxygen around the body.  Virtually every international distance runner will include spells of high-altitude training in their schedules.  But the Kenyans are born and raised at altitude, running around everywhere from a young age, which gives them a big advantage."  (p. 151)

Living in this environment is an advantage. Most runners in any part of the world know that running at a high altitude will improve their performance, so they ensure that some of their training takes place in a high-altitude area. Since the Kenyans live at high altitudes, they always run in that preferred environment.


Experts have speculated why Kenyans run fast, but no one can pinpoint the exact reason. However, running barefoot as a child, winning prize money, and living in high altitudes contribute to why many experts believe Kenyans run fast.