Part 3 of our Lessons from Kenya Series focuses on the importance of recovery for distance runners.
Specifically, we look at the most important and often overlooked recovery mechanism, sleep. Sleep is prioritised by Kenyan runners and this article explores why it should be prioritised by you too.
Recovery is Key
In a sport where toughness is such an important aspect of high performance, talking about rest may previously have been viewed as a sign of weakness. Thankfully those days are gone and bragging about being the guy who can burn the candle at both ends is no longer to be aspired to.
The only training worth doing is the training you can recover from.
The above statement is now commonplace in the sports science and coaching world and anyone not adhering to it is leaving potential gains on the table, and/or risking injury and burnout.
Recovery is big business these days. We could probably do an entire series on the various products you can spend money on in the hope of enhancing your recovery from training. From nutrition to massage guns to pharmacueticals there are endless companies out there who want to help you improve your recovery (or at least want your money in order to say they are). But, as you know, this is the Lessons from Kenya series and those products and services aren’t available in Kenya. Yet, recovery is a key aspect of Kenyan success.
It may not be an overestimation to say it is the key factor in the success of Kenyan runners. They are absolute experts in the art of recovery. So if the above mentioned recovery aids and tools aren’t available how do they do it?
Coach Hugo van den Broek summed it up perfectly on a recent episode of ‘Conversations about Running’ (our podcast) when he said:
‘Kenyan’s have the worlds best recovery tool…a mattress’
As an athlete, recovery is your best friend, and when it comes to recovery, sleep is leagues ahead of any other option.
That’s not to say the other options can’t help, but if you aren’t getting your sleep right then you need not concern yourself with anything else.
Sleep is a fascinating area to look into. Scientists have made huge steps forward in recent times, in both helping us to understand the importance of sleep, and also how to optimise and improve the quality of your sleep.
However, as is often the case in the elite sporting world, science lags behind the practice. Top athletes have known for decades how important sleep is for their performance, and the science comes along after the fact to explain why.
In Kenya, rest and recovery (in the form of sleeping) appear second nature to the athletes. Prioritising sleep has been the norm in Kenya for as long as they have been running fast. Certainly long before the ‘science of sleep’ emerged as an important scientific tool for athletes.
The Kenyan way:
A typical training day in Kenya starts early. Between 6 and 6:30 is the normal start of the first run. By the time a full training session and breakfast are done, it’s still only mid-morning and the athletes will be back in bed until lunchtime. This often means a 2-3 hour nap. After lunch, some will lay down again just to relax and others will do light household chores or socialise with friends before the second run around 4.
The second run is usually no more than a 40min easy jog. Dinner will be taken early, around 6, and most will then tune in to the national news on TV (often in a local cafe on a very small screen) at 7. Before 8 it’s back home to relax and get ready for bed.
If you’re still awake after 9 you’re up late!
How to improve:
I appreciate that for anyone reading this, that daily routine is simply not an option. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still learn from it and implement aspects which can help us, whatever level we are running at.
For starters, let’s just consider the most simple aspect – volume of sleep each night. Are you getting as much as you need? If not, is that something you can improve? Are you wasting time at some point in the day which is pushing your eventual bedtime backwards? Are you able to cut something else out entirely which is less important to you than sleep?
The research and links between injury rates and hours slept at night are alarming. If an extra hour of sleep could drastically improve your chances of staying healthy and enjoying the sport you love, isn’t that worth prioritising over an extra hour of Netflix?
Secondly, let’s consider sleep quality. Again, the science on this is fascinating and has huge implications for us as runners.
Not all sleep is created equally, you need to achieve more time spent in the restorative phases of deep sleep to attain the benefits. This is what I’m referring to as ‘quality of sleep’ and it is largely something under your control.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go through the detailed science, I recommend getting hold of Dr Matthew Walkers ‘Why We Sleep’ or listening to him as a podcast guest to get that direct from source.
But in a nutshell, there are lots of things you can do to optimise your own sleep (increasing the amount of time you spend in deep sleep, decreasing night time wake ups etc etc)
And again, many if not all of these are implemented by the Kenyan runners by habit and routine.
The scientists didn’t come to Iten and teach the runners about the negative effect of blue light (think anything artificial – phone, TV, tablet etc) on their natural circadian rhythms or the fact that caffeines long half life means that it still working to try and prevent tiredness many hours after consumption.
These are all things which are just part and parcel of the daily routine amongst Kenyan runners.
Let’s have a look at a few of the lifestyle factors which affect sleep and how they play out in Kenya.
First up, one of sleeps worst enemies – caffeine, which works to block the neurotransmitters in your brain which make you feel tired. Coffee is not widely drunk by Kenyan runners anyway, and the more popular Kenyan chai is higher in milk and sugar content than it is tea. So caffiene isn’t really an issue.
Routine and circadian rhythms: Maintaining a regular sleep routine with consistent sleep and wake times is crucial to overall well being and maximised sleep quality. We’ve already highlighted the typical daily routine of Kenyan runners above. Add to this the geographical location so close to the equator, where sunrise and fall varies only slightly throughout the year, so there is a natural start and finish to the day which isn’t disturbed by bright street lights, TV’s and bright household lights.
Life in rural Kenya still largely follows the natural world. It gets dark around 18:30-19:00 in the evening and most homes are sparcely lit. Whilst there some negative connotations to this as well (think school children unable to study after dark), for the runners it creates an ideal opportunity to maintain healthy circadian rhythms and enjoy excellent quality sleep.
How does this apply to you?
In the western world, with access to this great science and information, you would think that we would be maximising our sleep opportunities and taking every available option to increase our sleep quality. Unfortunately for many this isn’t the case.
As alluded to earlier, I do understand that real life will interfere with the idea of a routine crafted for perfection. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to move in the right direction.
My top 3 tips, inspired by Kenyan runners, backed by science.
1) Prioritise your nightly sleep:
Consider if there are things in your daily routine that are less important to you than an extra hour of sleep. If so, eliminate them and get to bed earlier.
2) Establish a routine:
Aim for consistent sleep times and establish a routine that prepares you for sleep. Turn the lights down, reducing the lighting in the evening. A simple dimmer switch or lamp will help with this. Turn all devices and TV’s off 1 hour before bedtime. Swap watching TV for reading or listening to calming music. These simple steps will help ensure that your body is actually ready to sleep, and you won’t lie there in bed unable to sleep.
3) Consider your Caffeine:
Aim for an overall reduction in caffeine consumption and no caffeine after 2 pm. Ideally, I’d probably go earlier than that. Try making coffee a morning-only drink and see how it impacts your night time rest.
The only training worth doing is the training you can recover from. Prioritise rest and recovery at all times; The best option for this is increased sleep. You can improve the quality of your sleep by taking simple practical steps to ‘down regulate’ your nervous system in advance of bedtime.
Thanks for reading and more to come next time in our Lessons from Kenya Series.
About the Author:
Gavin Smith is the Co-Founder of Kenya Experience and Running Trips. He is a distance runner and formerly a coach to some of Kenya’s most decorated athletes. He graduated from Loughborough University in 2007 and lived in Iten Kenya from 2010 – 2014 where he was Assistant Coach to Renato Canova one of the worlds most celebrated distance running coaches. He now lives in Loughborough with his wife Lauren, Son Jacob and Whippet Yego.
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