Can You Predict Athletic Success?


Can You Predict Athletic Success?

Lifting weights and long, slow distance are quite dissimilar, but there’s a profoundly important lesson that lifters can learn from a very special breed of distance runners – the tribe of super Kenyans.

Running a marathon in under two hours and ten minutes is quite good and also quite rare as only 17 Americans have ever done it. However, in Kenya the sub 2:10 minute marathon isn’t rare at all. In fact, 32 Kenyans from the Rift Valley region ran a sub 2:10 marathon in just 1 month in 2011.  The Rift Valley in Kenya is a small region of land in which there lives a tribe of people known as the Kalenjin, and they happen to be some of the best long distance runners in the world.

So, one must ask themselves, how and why this is, right?  Why are these people better than everybody else?  As fitness writer TC Luoma asks, “Is it a chemical from the tree that they use to make the spoons with which they eat their porridge? Is it living at altitude? Maybe it’s their body type.”

The Kalinjen people have evolved over thousands of years in a hot, dry climate, and they have very long and thin legs with lots of surface area for the heat to dissipate. Additionally, their calves are very long and lean, which creates an optimum pendulum-like effect when they run.  These various theories have been thoroughly investigated by a number of researchers, but the greatest clue likely comes from a series of races in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Kip Keino, a member of the Kalinjen tribe representing Kenya, was entered in three running events in the 1968 Olympics: the 1500 meter, the 5000 meter, and the 10,000 meter. That meant he had to run, including the qualifiers, six grueling races in eight days, and quite honestly, nobody does that, Olympics or not.  And to make this challenge even more daunting, Keino had a painful gall bladder infection, which typically makes running almost impossible because it sends a knee-buckling wave of pain through your body every time you take a deep breath.

Keino collapsed during the first race and was restricted to his bed, told by his doctors to rest because running another race could quite literally kill him. Keino figured that if he was to die, he’d rather do it while doing what he loved most. So he disregarded his doctor’s orders (NOTE:  I am not advocating this!) and proceeded to run the next two races, despite every searing nerve ending and reluctant slow-twitch muscle fiber in his body telling him to stop.

And his result was a gold medal and a new Olympic record. Keino’s performance heralded an age of Kenyan distance-running dominance that persists to this day. Sports journalists agree that the Kalinjen tribe represents the greatest concentration of athletic talent in history.

So, then what is the key to Kalingjen running success? Extreme Mental Toughness. To be fair, we are not talking about any simple level of mental toughness.  This is an extreme form of mental toughness that has been genetically bred into the Kalinjen over hundreds of years.

Let’s examine how this comes to be.  Visitors who have traveled to the Rift Valley, have reported a surprising number of 12 to 15-year-old boys with ugly scars and burn marks. Our Western world impulse would be to automatically suspect parental abuse, but these wounds are actually self-inflicted. The boys “practice” pain in order to prepare themselves for the seminal event of their lives. 

As TC Luoma writes, “At about the age of 15, young Kalinjen males are subjected to a manhood ritual that’s about one thing and one thing only – enduring pain. Most of these rituals begin by forcing the boy to crawl naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles. He’s then beaten with sticks on the bony, sensitive part of the ankle. The knuckles are then squeezed together with vice-like pressure and the formic acid from the stinging nettles is wiped onto the genitals.  In some versions of the ceremony, mud is then caked onto the face and allowed to dry. Then comes the ultimate agony, circumcision.  The circumcision isn’t done with anesthesia and surgical instruments – rather, it’s done with a sharp stick.”

Next comes the time to examine the dried mud on their faces.  They are considered cowards if a crack appears in the mud, from an errant flinch or grimace.  If this happens, they are essentially stigmatized from the community and are not given any economic opportunities, meaning the young man will have no land or cattle, which makes it very difficult to attract a wife and have a family.  This is harsh but it is part of their culture for many years.  It teaches the Kalinjen to withstand pressure and pain and makes the pain of running marathons nothing more than a bit of discomfort.

Clearly, we have not been raised to embrace this level of pain in the U.S.  Instead, we are actually raised more on the idea of pain avoidance, both emotionally and physically.  However, the ability to endure pain and persevere is a huge predictor of success in life and probably likely the most important predictor of success in athletics, regardless of the type of athlete you are.   There is no doubt that other variables are important, such as having a good training program, solid technique, proper nutrition, and adequate recovery.  Yet, it all pales in comparison to the ability to persevere, to work through discomfort and even pain.

Want to predict someone’s chances of progressing in athletics? Watch to see if they exerting every last bit of effort to move the bar or if they’re covered in a sheen of sweat on the coldest day of the year.  Those are the athletes who will look different in six months, a year, two, and beyond.  You don’t need to practice Kalinjen culture to learn how to endure and persevere.  Teach yourself that pain during training or a race is temporary, and is a small price to pay for success.

Learn that the degree of pain experienced during training pales in comparison to the degree of satisfaction earned from a workout well done, a body well formed through perseverance.

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