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Ethiopian Runners Train Differently. Or Do They?

Training in the African running powerhouse of Ethiopia may look completely different, but their practices reflect universal principles you can use.

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If you want to become the best runner you can be, you need to obey certain rules. For example, you need to run frequently, do some longer runs, gradually increase your training load from week to week, do some faster runs, and sprinkle in occasional recovery days and weeks. To say that there is only one right way to train, however, would be an overstatement. The unbreakable rules of training do no more than establish a broad framework within which each individual runner can make different choices based on preferences and other factors without sacrificing performance.

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Recent studies have demonstrated that there is indeed more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak, in endurance training. A 2016 study led by Øystein Sylta of the University of Agder and published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise investigated the effects of three different ways of scheduling high-intensity interval workouts on fitness and performance in cyclists. For 12 weeks, one group started with longer intervals and moved toward shorter, faster intervals, a second group did the opposite, and a third group mixed them all together. All three groups improved by equal amounts, leading the researchers to conclude, “This study suggests that organizing different interval sessions in a specific periodized mesocycle order or in a mixed distribution during a 12-wk training period has little or no effect on training adaptation when the overall training load is the same.”

Real-world evidence that there is more than one effective way to approach the sport of running comes from cross-cultural comparisons. Japan’s top runners, for example, do a lot of things differently than North America’s top runners. And then there’s Ethiopia, a nation that produces more winners than any other except Kenya, but hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention, in part because of a language barrier (English is much less widely spoken there) and in part because of a history of political volatility in that nation. But the secrets to Ethiopia’s running success became a little less secret with the recent publication of Scottish runner and anthropologist Michael Crawley’s book Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia.

A very good runner (1:06 half-marathon PB) in his own right, Crawley spent 15 months in Addis Ababa in 2015 and 2016 doing research for a doctoral thesis on Ethiopia’s elite running culture, during which time he learned to speak fluent Amharic, finished dead last in the Ethiopian National Cross Country Championships, and learned a lot about how Ethiopia’s top young runners approach the sport. These runners did a lot of things differently than Crawley was accustomed to, but I’ll highlight three distinctively Ethiopian running practices here.

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How Ethiopians Train Differently

The first is what I will describe as environment-driven periodization. Unlike runners in many other places, Crawley’s training partners considered where they ran before they considered how they ran. For those who competed mainly in road races, the training process was divided into three phases, each centered in a different environment. As Crawley described it in reference to one athlete, “First he spends ten days in the forest to get strong, then he runs on the coroconch [gravel] road, and finally he hones his speed on the asphalt. It is a process . . . of gradual adaptation. First you get used to the surface and then you get used to the speed.”

Another feature of Ethiopian run training that took some getting used to for Crawley was that their easy runs were seldom entirely easy. While the runs he did with the likes of 2:06 marathoner Tsedat Ayana often started at an almost comically pedestrian pace, they seldom ended there. “In Ethiopia,” Crawley writes, “an [easy] run is more likely to consist of an opening kilometre in eight minutes and a final kilometre well under four, followed by a series of strides culminating in a flat-out sprint and a series of increasingly ambitious plyometric exercises.”

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Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Ethiopian approach to running, for Crawley, was its flouting of conventional boundaries of space and time. On many occasions, he ran with athletes who ignored a perfectly good trail in favor of improvising a more difficult route through a forest or up a mountain. Nor did Crawley’s Ethiopian training partners stick to any particular daily routine, dragging him out of bed in the middle of the night to run on more than one occasion. “Running is essentially an option at all hours of the day and night,” he writes.

Variations on the Same Principles

As interesting as these idiosyncrasies of the Ethiopian running culture are (and there are others), I think it’s easy to make too much of them. To read Out of Thin Air and come away thinking that anything goes in run training, or that Ethiopia’s runners somehow succeed despite how they approach the sport, is to have gleaned the wrong lesson. Indeed, I learned just as much about what every runner must do in training to be successful as I did about how much latitude is afforded by the unbreakable rules of effective run training.

Let’s reconsider environment-driven periodization. As quirky as this practice may seem on the surface, in substance it is little different from how runners in other countries build fitness. Starting off with an initial phase of forest running that forces runners to keep the intensity low while building strength, then transitioning to gravel running, where it’s relatively easy to pile on the miles, and finally capping off the process with a sharpening phase on speed-conducive asphalt, makes perfect sense from a physiological perspective.

The same is true of the not-entirely-easy easy runs the Ethiopians do. The unbreakable rule here is the 80/20 principle, where 80% of total weekly run time is spent at low intensity and 20% is spent at moderate to high intensity. It is a well-established fact that elite endurance athletes (and not just runners but also cyclists, swimmers, and others) train this way, and Ethiopia’s elite runners are no exception. They just distribute intensities a little differently, allowing some of the 20% to bleed into the 80, as it were.

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Even the temporal and geographical fluidity of Ethiopian-style run training can be seen as validating rather than subverting universal principles. Crawley saw this playfulness as serving the purpose of “making training as interesting and inspiring as possible,” noting, “My time in Ethiopia confirmed to me that high performance and enjoyment of running are not mutually exclusive.” In fact, sports psychology research has demonstrated that enjoyment is vital to high performance, and elite coaches everywhere, knowing this, take pains to keep the training process interesting and inspiring for their athletes. If this required sometimes running in the middle of the night or off-trail through thick forest, you can be sure that elite runners in every country would do these things too, but in fact there are other ways.

To be sure, running is different in Ethiopia. I haven’t even mentioned their coaches’ insistence on synchronizing strides during group runs. But in focusing on such differences, it’s easy to lose sight of the important things that are the same there as elsewhere. If you’re already periodizing your training in a sensible way, adhering to an approximate 80/20 intensity balance, and doing what’s necessary to keep your running interesting and inspiring, keep doing these things. And if you’re not, then take your cue from the best runners in Ethiopia — or everywhere else — and start.

From PodiumRunner