Three top coaches of African runners share their athletes’ training secrets
by Jonathan Beverly
Anyone who follows distance running knows that today’s marathon world is dominated by African athletes. Yet though these athletes come from Kenya or Ethiopia, the majority are trained by European coaches and often live part of the year in Europe. Running Times asked three of the most prominent of these coaches to share their marathon training philosophies and their thoughts on African distance runners.
Volker Wagner’s most famous protégés are Tegla Loroupe and Joyce Chepchumba. Loroupe ran the world’s fastest marathon for women, 2:20:43, in Berlin last year, breaking her own world mark. Chepchumba’s 2:23:22 at London in 1999 is the third-best ever in a women-only race. Wagner also coaches men such as Simon Lopuyet, who boasts a 2:08 PR. Wagner lives in Detmold, Germany, where his runners are based most of the year and train in rolling farmland and forest reminiscent of Iowa.
Gabriele Rosa’s roster of athletes looks like a Who’s Who of Kenyan stars: Olympic gold medalist and two-time Boston marathon champ Moses Tanui, 1999 Boston and New York City winner Joseph Chebet, world half marathon record-holder Paul Tergat and 1999 Rotterdam champion Japhet Kosgei are just a few. Based in Brescia, Italy, Rosa trains nearly 90 Kenyan athletes and conducts the Fila-sponsored Kenya Discovery program.
Jos Hermens is best known for coaching multiple world record-holder Haile Gebrselassie. German Silva, Anuta Catuna and Liz McColgan are other standouts among the 140 athletes represented by Hermens’ Netherlands-based agency, Global Sports Communication. A former world record holder himself, Hermens does not directly coach any of these runners. He shared his opinions based on his experience as an athlete, agent and race director.
Rosa: Mileage depends on the goal the athlete sets himself. However, it will have to be increased gradually so as to run an average of between 150 to 160 and 180 to 200 kilometers [93 to 99 and 110 to 124 miles] per week. In the two months leading up to a marathon, the work load is increased in quantity and above all quality, peaking at 180 to 200 kilometers per week, and remains stable up until about 10 days before the competition. This period is dedicated to refining—building up rhythm—and to “unloading” by easing off and decreasing the mileage during the final week.
Wagner: Because my athletes are still young, I mix things, speedwork and endurance, so we don’t do very high mileage. It is better to stay healthy and have no injuries, no muscle problems, even to take one, two or three days rest if necessary. For Tegla and Joyce, we start with 140 kilometers [87 miles] per week and move up over 10 weeks to a maximum of 200 to 210 kilometers [124 to 130 miles]. We hold this maximum for two weeks, then come down during the final three weeks before the marathon. On days with speedwork we run once, and twice a day if there is no speedwork.
Hermens: It is not just a matter of mileage, as so much has to do with quality. But I think you need about 180 to 200 kilometers per week [112 to 124 miles]. It all depends on your speed.
Wagner: Thirty-five kilometers [22 miles] is usually the longest run. We go by time, two hours 15 minutes for the longest runs, and the distance goes up and down depending on conditioning. Tegla ran 38 kilometers in 2:15 before Rotterdam in ’99. We start easy, at a 4:20 pace [7 minutes per mile] for a 5K warm-up, then increase to 3:40 [5:55 pace] for Tegla, whose marathon pace is 3:20 [5:22 per mile]. We push the last hour, then even more the last 20 minutes.
Hermens: Usually 35K maximum is fine. I think it is best to run easy for two hours, then the last one-half hour fast. You cannot usually run the whole two-and-one-half hours fast.
Rosa: On average, a long training session of 30 to 38 kilometers [19 to 24 miles] has to be carried out once every five to six days, running at a pace which is programmed to increase every half-kilometer until a speed of 3:00 to 3:10 per kilometer [4:50 to 5:05 per mile] is reached. (Note: This is equivalent to Rosa’s male athletes’ marathon pace.)
Rosa: Of course, working on speed has its importance when programming training for the marathon. Work such as the following should be incorporated weekly:
- alternating fast spurts and slow running (usually following training)
- running repeats over a distance that ranges from one to five kilometers (about 12 x 400 meters or the equivalent) at a rhythm that is slower than the usual race speed
- an average of once a week, training to build up stamina and strength must be carried out (e.g., running uphill 20 to 25 kilometers [12 to 15½ miles]), or group time trials in our camps at race speed over 10 to 12 kilometers [6 to 7½ miles]).
Wagner: We have three key speed workouts during marathon training:
- 1,000-meter repeats. We do 10 of them to start, then increase to 15 to 20 later in the training. The pace increases from marathon pace down to 10K pace during the workout. We take very short recoveries between them: 30 to 45 seconds, sometimes only 25 seconds.
- 10 x 2,000 meters. Starting easy—6:40 per repeat—and working down to 6:10. (Note: This is marathon pace to 10K pace for Wagner’s female runners.) Recovery is only 30 to 40 seconds for these athletes because their pulses go down quickly. Short recoveries let you know that when you have difficulties in a race that if you rest with a slower kilometer you can recover.
- 4 x 6K loop, for a total of 24 kilometers [15 miles]. We run this on a course in the forest with a 2K hill at the end. We push the hill every lap and work to improve time in total and on the hill.
Hermens: I don’t design specific programs for athletes, so I don’t want to say too much. Please forward whatever Dr. Rosa says directly to me!
Rosa: The Kenyan runners are naturally self-motivated because being a successful athlete and coming out means to change lifestyle, to help family, to build a future. Many famous athletes are examples to the young generations. The Kenyan runners are strongly self-motivated and for that reason they are used to sacrificing themselves to improve and achieve good performances.
Hermens: It has to do with living circumstances. The Africans are motivated, coming from poor areas. Europeans and Americans have a good life—why train your butt off to do well in the marathon? Americans and Europeans can do better [financially] in other sports. I don’t see a lot of millionaire marathoners.
Besides economics, the Africans live at altitude, and their societies have developed as runners over thousands of years. Most of the runners in Kenya come from one tribe—their running is determined by thousands of years of evolution. They were not trained for the marathon before, which is why they weren’t good [until recently]. There are cultural and social reasons as well. We [Westerners] haven’t had much incentive for exercise for the last 30 years.
Wagner: The African’s way of living is completely different. It is a struggle to survive. From a young age they have jobs—carry their sister or brother, carry water, bring maize home… . Their schools are 10 kilometers or 10 miles away and they have no transportation, so they run. They have poor conditions and need to work for food just to survive. Nothing is easy. Their way of living is key to improving their capacity. They also have mental strength, the strength to come through something. Where Tegla is from, there are maybe 10 girls who have a better capacity, but it is not just the body, it is the brain. You need a strong idea: “I will make it.” She has determination that she will train and be her best. Even, for example, when the Kenyan Amateur Athletic Association did not select her for the world championships several times, she still trained.
Wagner: The main point is that in preparation you should not try to get the most out of your body; you should be well rested for the marathon. Many people are overtrained at the race. You must come down the last two weeks.
Also, you must run what you aim for. My rule is that two times the half marathon plus five minutes is your best marathon pace. Something we must all learn is to run relaxed. It can even be slow up to 30 kilometers. The mistake we make when we are at a high level is that things are easy. I tell my athletes a car has only one tank. You can go 400 kilometers on the tank, but at a higher level maybe only 360 kilometers. If you run out of petrol… . It is the last 40 kilometers that matter. In the marathon maybe it is the last four kilometers.
Hermens: I believe that runners should move from the 10,000 meters on the track to the marathon. You need the speed of the track to do well in the marathon. When you change to the marathon, you should shift to longer runs, road runs, more volume and less quality—you don’t have to do all the sprints you do at shorter distances.
Rosa: Running a marathon, if one is in good shape, is a physical exercise but enjoyable as well. To finish a marathon is the dream of many runners because it is one of the more classic of competitions and it will stay in their minds for many years, an event to tell to friends and family. Of course it is more exiting to run and try to focus on those aims addressed to improve our own performances. This allows us to choose different ways of training [e.g., long and slow training, short and fast training, uphill, short-distance repetitions, etc.]
“Jogging” is one thing and “running” is another. Jogging is a healthy exercise and it can be relaxing after a hard work day, but running implies other aims, different involvement and sacrifice as well. What I’ve learned from the Kenyan runners, and can suggest to a beginner, is to learn to sacrifice your life for running and not to be afraid of hard work.