July 18 2022

What we can all learn from the focus and work ethic that makes these runners so successful

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“I ran 30 kilometers [18.6 miles] this morning,” Emmanuel Kipruto said in his Kenyan accent, as we sat down for some Kenyan chai tea at 10am at Iten Club, a quaint café and restaurant just outside the gate of the famous High Altitude Training Center in rural Iten, Kenya. One of the many Kenyan runners here literally running for his life, Kipruto has run 28:02 for 10K and 1:01:22 for half-marathon, both at altitude in Kenya, where race times are significantly slower than at oxygen-rich sea level.

As an American coach living and coaching in Kenya, I see hundreds of runners like Kipruto, all training to run fast enough to race in the US and Europe so they can have a chance to win prize money and escape poverty.

To get faster and chase their dreams, the Kenyan runners have specific training habits which, believe it or not, can benefit your fitness business and career, whether you are a personal trainer, gym owner or yoga instructor. Here are four of them.

1. Work in Groups

Like a pack of wolves traversing the wilderness together, Kenyan runners train in groups every day, which ensures competition to push the pace for the more seasoned runners, while providing careful training and motivation for the lower-level runners, who practice holding on to the group pace.

One way to work in a group is by partnering with a couple of other people to grow your business rather than doing it as a solo venture. Few fitness businesses became successful at the hands of only one person. To make your business successful, put together a team of like-minded people with different skills (e.g., subject matter expertise, marketing, sales, finance) who can work on different parts of your business and push each other daily to be successful.

If you are a business owner or a manager who oversees a large staff or an employee of a large company, try using work teams (an organizational structure called Holacracy), which distributes power throughout the organization, giving employees freedom to manage themselves. Like the Kenyan training groups, Holacracy works best if your employees are self-directed, value autonomy and commitment, and seek responsibility, and includes a strong leader who can oversee the work.

2. Control the Pace

A senior member of the Kenyan running group dictates the pace of the run. No one is allowed to pick up the pace on his or her own. Everything is controlled.

This is a difficult concept for many US runners to understand. When I was in college, there was a guy on the cross-country team who always had to be in front. He would push the pace all the time because he always had to finish each run ahead of everyone else. That’s immature, and shows ignorance of how to train properly. Most runners run much faster than they need to meet the purpose of the workout. I have seen this countless times over my coaching career.

Same is true in the fitness industry — fitness professionals work themselves to the bone, trying to train as many clients or teach as many classes in a day as possible, often neglecting their own exercise and health in the process.

Control the pace of your business and its growth by having a plan. It’s easy to get caught up in making fast money by getting as many clients, teaching as many classes, or opening as many studios as possible, but accelerated growth can be detrimental for a business, causing cash flow problems and significantly increasing the demands on employees, especially if you don’t have the business structure and operations in place to support that growth. Grow your business only as fast as your operations, management and systems will allow. Have specific, realistic financial goals for each month and each year and control the pace.

3. Run High Mileage

Most of the Kenyan marathon runners work a lot, running upwards of 115 miles per week, with the shorter distance runners running slightly less. Running 90 to 100 miles per week is nothing special in Kenya. The Kenyans race infrequently, instead focusing on developing their aerobic systems to their highest potential through high mileage, running 11 times per week. They work on their running in addition to in their running, developing a solid base from which to include faster running to prepare them to race.

While you don’t literally need to run 100 miles per week to have a successful fitness business, you do need to spend as much time working on your business as the Kenyans spend working on their running. Whoever tells you that you can sit on a beach and drink piña coladas while money passively pours into your business is lying. It takes a lot of work to be successful, and it takes a lot of work to create passive income

Like running high mileage, working a lot has value beyond a successful business. When you commit yourself to the work, you learn about yourself. You learn the effort it takes. You learn the grind. You learn what it means to do more, to be more. No matter at what level your business is — start-up, 5 figures, 7 figures or household name — devoting yourself to the work strips you of the unnecessary baggage you clutter your life with. The work forces you to shut up, stop complaining and stop making excuses for why you can’t do it. Like the Kenyan runners, you come out the other end of the work a stronger, more confident, more capable person. That alone is worth the commitment.

4. Run Fartleks

Every Thursday at 9 am in Iten, about 200 Kenyan runners (and a few visiting Caucasian runners, referred to as mzungu by the locals) collect at a trailhead at the side of the road for the famous Iten Fartlek: 5K to 10K, alternating either 1 minute fast/1 minute slow, 2 minutes fast/1 minute slow, or 3 minutes fast/1 minute slow on undulating dirt, rocky trails. The slow parts are run very slow, which enables them to run the fast parts fast.

A combination of two Swedish words that, when put together, translate to “speedplay,” fartlek running dates back to 1937, when it was developed by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér, who used it as part of Sweden’s military training. Many of the Kenyan runners in Iten don’t have transportation or the financial means to use the few available tracks for interval workouts, so they rely on fartleks for their hard workouts.

While it is often said that life is a marathon, life — and business — is really more like a fartlek, with short bursts of activity interspersed with periods of recovery and strategy. Run your business like a fartlek — work intensely on a single task for a short period of time, then back off to think, plan and strategize about how to grow your business. Then work intensely again on either the same task if it’s not yet completed or on the next task. When you try to work on multiple tasks at once, important things get sacrificed. As famous physiologist Per-Olaf Åstrand discovered in the 1960s by testing individuals on a stationary bicycle in his laboratory, you can accomplish more work at a higher intensity if the work is interspersed with intervals of rest.

The Kenyan runners have a singular focus and a work ethic that makes them successful. If you work in groups, control the pace, run high mileage, and run fartleks, your business will surely succeed, and perhaps you’ll even be able to keep up with a Kenyan!

Dr. Jason Karp is an American distance running coach living and coaching in Kenya. He is founder and CEO of the women’s-specialty run coaching company Kyniska Running. A competitive runner since sixth grade, Jason quickly learned how running molds us into better, more deeply conscious people, just as the miles and interval workouts mold us into faster, more enduring runners. This passion Jason found as a kid placed him on a yellow brick road that he still follows as a coach, exercise physiologist, bestselling author of 12 books and more than 400 articles, and speaker. He is the 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and two-time recipient of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Community Leadership award. His REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™ certification has been obtained by coaches and fitness professionals in 25 countries.