The Kenyan Marathon Diet: Food for Thought

Iten, Kenya

On any given Tuesday morning one will find hundreds of talented and powerful athletes flying around the dirt tracks of this small running town. Why is this? Where is there such depth to Kenya’s marathon stars?

Among the many reasons, which I will delve into in subsequent articles, one of them is their diet. The Kenyan diet is head and shoulders ahead of the mainstream Western diet in many ways. In this article, we will discuss some of those ways.

There are many characteristics of the Kenyan diet that help produce world champions. Among them are, low fat, high (clean) carb, little to no meat, lots of vegetables, fruits as snacks, and their enviroment/accessibility to junk food.

High carb diets filled with clean, whole grains are extremely beneficial to endurance athlethes. There are two types of carbs, simple and complex. Simple carbs are glucose, or sugar, and come in fruits. They give you a quick release of energy and do not usually last for a substantial amount of time. Complex carbs are usually whole grains and give you a slower release of energy and do not spike your insulin levels as much.

Complex carbs are eaten heavily by Kenya’s marathon starts in the form of Ugali, rice, and sometimes even bread. Ugali is a corn-flour made type of dough-ey cake that tastes amazing when made right.

Rice is also enjoyed at many meals and goes great with lots of Kenyan delicacies. Complex carbs are the ideal source of energy for endurance athletes, and Kenyans eat a lot of them. Don’t be fooled however, they do consume fruits, and plenty of them. They also drink sugary, milky, tea every morning after training, usually refered to as Chai. (Chai means tea, so when you say “Chai Tea”, it means “Tea Tea”)

Kenyans are almost vegetarian. They may have fish 1–2 times per week and possibly beef or chicken 1–2 times a week if they can afford it but that’s it. For the working class in Kenya, they will only eat beef when a cow gets old or dies, they slice up the body and eat it.

A study showed that the Kalenjin Kenyan runner diet (Kalenjin is the tribe most of the successful athletes are from) is 90% vegan, and 96% vegetarian. That means that out of all the food they eat, only 4% of it is meat or fish! And even more surprising, only 10% of it is even an animal product! This may come as a surpirse to many who are used to eating “lean sources of protein” like chicken, fish and eggs. The secret to the Kenyan diet is the lack of meat and animal products. Their arteries are squeeky clean from not eating very much cholesterol and that allows them to have enhanced bloodflow, which in turn, delivers more blood to the muscles without having the heart have to work as hard.

Kenyans also eat plenty of fresh vegetables in all of their meals. Meals like sukuma wiki, which is collard greens, onions, and tomatoes, are delicious and popular.

Sukuma Wiki + Ugali (My photo)

Kenyans also frequently snack on fresh fruit from the market, rather than chips or candy. This is for 2 reasons. The first one is that Kenyans living in Iten (where 95% of the elite athletes live, or at least near by), do not have access to chips and soda, so they couldn’t even go out and buy that if they wanted to. They’d have to drive around 1hr to get to Eldoret, the nearest big city to get soda. Too much of a hassle, and probably too expensive as well. The second reason is that they were raised that way. When they were young if they were hungry and they complained to their mother, they would be handed a mango. Or a banana, or a couple apples. That’s just how life is around there.

Those are all of the characteristics of the Kenyan diet that make it one of the best in the world for an endurance athlete. I have never been to Kenya, but plan on going with my teammates in the next 1–2 years. I have spent countless hours researching the Kenyan diet trying to emulate their lifestyle as best I can. I even made a video on how to cook sukuma wiki and ugali if you’d like to check it out!

It’s rudimentary at best, but it gets the job done and shows you how to cook like “Eliud Kipchoge.”

I hope you enjoyed my article. Happy running!