Rio de Janeiro: Come Sunday, on the final day of the 2016 Summer Games, Rio de Janeiro’s most revered samba site—the Sambodromo—will be buzzing. Not for the samba or the Carnival though. The world’s leading long-distance runners will fill up the venue for the marathon, and on that day three Indian men—Nitendra Singh Rawat, Gopi T. and Kheta Ram—will be among the starters.

Though all the runners lining up in Rio are among the best in the world, if anyone hopes to win a medal their first task would be keeping up with the Kenyans.

What makes them so fast?

Eight weeks ahead of Olympics, South Africa-born, Mumbai-based sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee spent two weeks in Iten, Kenya, among some of the fastest men and women in the world.

During his time there, Vallabhjee investigated the training methods of the Kenyan runners and other Olympians through interviews, tests, observation as well as running with the Kenyans. He realized that the higher VO2 Max capacities that the Kenyan runners have is not only due to their training but also because of the way they eat, live, and sleep since a very young age.

Vallabhjee feels there has been too much hype around an athlete’s VO2 Max score. “In fact, if two athletes have the same VO2 Max score, you can rest assured the athlete who is more economical at sub-max levels will perform better. Hence, this proves that a runner’s fractional utilisation of VO2 Max is more important than his score, and this is a by-product of training which I witnessed in Kenya. A large contributing factor to a Kenyan’s VO2 Max score and his lower oxygen utilization at lactate threshold has to do with the altitude at which they live and train. In Iten it’s close to 2,400 metres above sea level which is an optimum altitude to train at. If you go much higher, you stand to sacrifice speed and will be training much below race pace because of the physiological demands of training at altitude," says Vallabhjee, founder of the HEAL Institute, a sports medicine and therapy clinic, in Mumbai.

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Explaining the Kenyans’ dominance in distance running, Vallabhjee says training plays a huge role. “It’s the amount of training they do at sub-maximal levels that accounts for their superior running economy close to their lactate threshold. The rolling hills, altitude and extremely high weekly mileage all play a role in their dominance," observes Vallabhjee.

Running economy is the efficiency with which one is able to run i.e. the amount of energy consumed to cover a specific distance. Running is indirectly responsible for a better VO2 Max score because it allows a runner to train smarter, harder and longer. The factors that contribute to running economy are: shoes (minimal are best), height, stride length, somatotype, body fat (hip to waist ratio), leg morphology, kinematics, pelvis size and feet size amongst others.

“The Kenyan runners probably average between 200-220km a week, most of which is done close to lactate threshold, this is the secret. I can only assume this weekly mileage from what I experienced during my trips to Iten because none of the runners monitor mileage or intensity on a week-to-week basis. If you speak to a runner, they will tell you to just run—that’s the only way they know," he adds.

Training in Iten is special and it actually helps runners improve their performances. “There is a culture of running that breeds in the town, so much so that locals see everyone as runners. Everyone runs in groups and they push each other. It’s the mantra to the Kenyan success—good people make people great. In fact, almost everyone you meet is running a time minutes away from the world record. To get invited into a training camp is one of the biggest honours for a Kenyan runner," says Vallabhjee.

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It is the home of running and that’s why it attracts several runners from around the world including India. Though none of the five Indian Olympic marathoners in Rio haven’t trained in Iten, the younger runners working with coach Hugo van den Broek under the Elite Distance Running Program (EDRP) are training there. The EDRP programme is jointly funded and run by Sports Authority of India, Procam International, India’s top race organizer (Mumbai Marathon and Delhi Half Marathon) and Global Sports Communication, a sports management company.

Some of the findings of Vallabhjee’s research that Indian runners can benefit from are:

1. There is no substitute to running. If you want to get better, apply the Law of Specificity—train for the event you doing. Run, run, run…

2. Run most of your mileage close to your lactate threshold—it’s very tough but your running economy at your threshold point will improve significantly.

3. Train with people better than you. You need to be in an environment that is constantly testing your limit and raising the bar.

4. In Iten, there are only three rules: run, eat and sleep. Nothing else matters.

5. Interval and fartlek (a system of training for distance runners in which the terrain and pace are continually varied) sessions are very important to improve speed. Most runners simply do too much mileage way below race pace. There are good miles and bad miles in training.

Putting things in perspective for the Indian medal hopes in the 42.195 km road race at 2016, Vallabhjee points out that the prolific runner Geoffrey Kipsang’s 2:07:37 run puts him at number 497 in the fastest 500 marathon timings and the world record is 2:02:57. “In 1990, the top marathon runner clocked a time of 2:08:16. The current Indian national record is 2:12 by Shivnath Singh set in 1978. I don’t think people realise how big the gap really is. While the world is thinking about breaking the 2-hour marathon barrier, we are looking at breaching the 2:10-mark by an Indian athlete," he says.

Box 1:

Diet and Socio-economic impact on VO2 Max:

Athletes who favour an alkaline-type diet show a greater peak value for maximal-exercise during maximal-intensity exercise testing.

Cordyceps has been shown to increase cellular oxygen absorption by up to 40%, thus improving functioning of the heart.

Omega 3 fatty acids increase stroke volume and cardiac output.

Several socio-economic factors such as age, gender, nationality/ethnicity, income, time, educational level, profession and social status come together to create the most optimum training ecosystem which then drives performance and improves all physiological parameters, including VO2 Max.

The socio-economical factors that influence runners in Kenya include geographic location (2,400m above sea level), income (very low earning potential which contributes to drive and hunger to perform), age (physically active from early childhood), infrastructure (no infrastructure or access to high performance facilities and training in groups), education level (basic schooling). These basic factors all play a vital part in driving performance of a Kenyan runner.

Box 2:

Looking beyond VO2 Max

VO2 MAX gives us an indication of the potential cardiac output. VO2 Max used to be the marker for performance but that has changed. Currently, as sports scientists we determine performance through lactate thresholds and fractional utilisation of VO2 Max.