Running right: Tips from Kenya's top sprint coach

Athletes run in tea plantations at Kapsabet, Nandi County.

Photo credit: File | Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Regular running or jogging has many health benefits. It strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular fitness, burns plenty of calories and helps build strong bones as well as maintain a healthy weight.

Kenyans are increasingly running to keep fit. In Nairobi, for instance, General Waruinge, Dr. G.W. Griffin Road and Outer Ring Road are nowadays very busy with joggers in the mornings. Others would love to start running, but they don’t know how to do it right.

Well, you don’t have to worry.

“To start running is normal. It’s like how you started walking. It is a skill that you learn by doing it. And because every man walks, running is not difficult. You can do it,” says Kenya's sprint coach Stephen Mwaniki.

If you want to become a good runner, the Kenya Prisons sprints coach says you have to do more practice so that your body will work mechanically and utilise the energy you have efficiently.

“So, for you to become efficient, you have to do it more. Basically, for you to be able to run, you have to start slow, and build your capacity through doing more hours of running,” notes Mwaniki.

He advises starters to do 20 to 30 minutes of easy jog.

“After some time adaptability happens. The body takes around 21 days to overcome what it is undergoing,” says Mwaniki.

For example, he notes that doing 30 minutes will see your body come under pressure at first, but within 21 days it will get used to it and then you move to the next challenge which is maybe 45 minutes and then one hour as you build slowly. Those who are currently doing two hours, he observes, started at 20 to 30 minutes.

“For those who are beginners, so that you don’t lose interest, start by running three times a week. For example, if you do 20 minutes on Monday, skip Tuesday and then do between 20 and 30 minutes on Wednesday, skip Thursday, do 20 to 30 minutes on Friday and then take a big rest on Saturday and Sunday. Do that again the following week. If you get used to training three times a week, then increase it to four times a week, five times a week up to six times a week, but remember to build gradually,” he advises.

Mwaniki cautions against rushing your body to a lot of mileage within a short period.

“For example, if you want to get used to running within two weeks, you do 30 minutes with a gap of one day recovery, then after that, you add four times and then five times and six times. After that, you can try training on two consecutive days for 30 minutes each and then rest the third day, and then 30 minutes on two consecutive days again,” he says.

From there, you can start training on three consecutive days, rest one day and then train three successive days.

“Remember to add a challenge slowly. For example, if you were doing 30 minutes, move to 40 minutes, 45 minutes, but remember everything starts easy,” he warns.

Athletes training in Nandi County in 2022. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

For those finding it difficult to start running, Mwaniki says you can start very easily by jogging for five minutes and walking for five minutes and repeating the exercise for at least 30 minutes.

“For those who have never run, you start with walking. Do a brisk walk, not a normal walk. Walk for 30 minutes today rest tomorrow and do the same again. Then you start doing 40 minutes, 50 minutes, like that. When you get used to walking, now you can start running,” the 58-year-old advises.

How do you fall in love with running? Mwaniki says it is easy.

“There is no formula to love running, you just start. In anything you are doing, you just start. Follow your heart,” says Mwaniki who insists that it is important to get a coach who can slowly guide you so that you don’t overdo it because of excitement.

“If you overdo it, you are likely to get injured. Let’s say for somebody in an office, that person is sitting the whole day, so if they are introduced to running suddenly, they are likely to get injured because their muscles are not used to that exercise,” says Mwaniki.

If you work not far from your office and would love to start running, Mwaniki advises that you go to work with your running gear and then put it on in the evening as you walk home.

“You start teaching yourself that way before you move on to running, but again do it gradually."

And for those who have too much weight, Mwaniki says it is not always a good idea to start pounding the ground with that weight.

“Maybe you can go to the swimming pool so that you develop stronger muscles. You can also go to the gym and do some biking. There are a lot of things you can do, but again you need guidance,” he emphasises.

Are there techniques that one requires to run? The first thing, Mwaniki says, is to get the right training gear.

“For example, you can’t run with office attire. When it is sunny, you have to get a t-shirt and a short or a tracksuit that will help you improve your flexibility, to be able to be mobile. Secondly, you need to know that after exercising, you have to do a lot of stretching as your muscles have already gotten warm. You can do some stretching exercises which also require guidance from people who know how to do it,” says Mwaniki.

Stretching, he notes, is very important in this business. “It gives you what we call the range of motion and also you become flexible.”

Some people like to run with earphones on. Is it a good idea? Mwaniki says you need to enjoy training as a runner, especially if you are a recreational runner.

“You can have music on your ears as long as there is safety around you. Some people wear headphones and want to run across a road which results in an accident. If you are in areas without traffic such as Karura Forest or Ngong Forest, you can put on headphones and enjoy music as you run. It’s okay to have music, but don’t overdo it by crossing the road while you have your headphones on. It is too risky,” he cautions.

Mwaniki says you need shoes with good cushioning, which are flexible and can flex in the middle.

“You should not run with leather shoes because they will injure you. You need shoes that are  well cushioned, like from sportswear manufacturers,” says Mwaniki.

But you don't have to acquire running shoes from the big sports houses.

“You can even go to an open-air market like Gikomba where running shoes go from as cheap as Sh1,000. Always have at least two pairs of shoes from different companies to have a different experience in terms of using them and also price. But, remember flexibility is very important in this business. If you are not flexible, you become immobile,” explains Mwaniki.

Mobility, he notes, is very important which is why he reiterates that a coach is crucial in this business because he will teach the basics of running.

Can one run in heavy tracksuits? Mwaniki agrees it is important to keep warm during early morning runs.

“I have seen some athletes in the morning not covered well and this can result in health problems because cold can enter into your body. Sometimes tracksuits are good because they cover your body. You can have a t-shirt inside the tracksuit. During the day when it is sunny, you can run in a t-shirt alone with a pair of very good shorts. But I recommend tracksuits in the morning because they covers your body, you don’t get cold easily,” says Mwaniki.

Athletics Kenya sprint coach Stephen Mwaniki at Athletics Kenya, Riadha House office entrance on February 14, 2024.

Photo credit: File | Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Not wearing warm running attire in the morning and cold days, can result in pneumonia.

“I see people trying to run in t-shirts, with fancy t-shirts, wanting to show off that they have very nice t-shirts from Nike and other companies, but you are risking your own life. Cover yourself in the morning with warm clothes and during the day, a t-shirt is okay,” he warns.

Mwaniki advises runners to remember hydration. It is very important. “If you don’t hydrate it is risky for you because you are losing water through sweating...You can also faint because your blood is lacking water, so it is important you hydrate. You can do your own hydration. You don’t have to use water from big companies, but you can prepare your own by mixing water, glucose and a small amount of salt. Salt helps you not to lose water at a high rate. Remember water is very important,” explains Mwaniki.

How often should one change running shoes?

If you are a regular trainer, Mwaniki says, don’t wait for the shoes to get torn so that you start looking for a new pair.

“If you buy second-hand shoes, then you cannot use them for more than three months. Since they have already been used, they cannot hold the weight of the body for a long time. For brand new shoes, you can use them for up to six months,” he notes.

Injuries are very common in running, so how does one ensure they don't get injured?

“By being flexible. Flexibility is important. You can avoid injuries by putting on the right shoes. Additionally, avoid running on a hard surface. I see people running on the tarmac thinking that it is the best surface. Tarmac is not the best place to do your running. Untarmacked places are the best. Your weight easily displaces the loose soil unlike running on a tarmacked road which ought to be for competition,” says Mwaniki.

He adds, “Avoid tarmac. Be flexible all the time. To avoid injuries also you can’t be building mileage like that of Eliud Kipchoge in one month. It cannot work. As earlier said, you can practice for three weeks and gradually build up.”

Whatever mileage you are adding, he says, should not be more than five percent. “There are people who start at zero and want to get to 100 kilometres very fast. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to reach Kipchoge’s mileage of 200kms per week, you have to work for more years. As I told you earlier, adaptability takes three weeks. You can’t run Kipchoge’s mileage in one month,” says Mwaniki.

He adds, “Let people pay coaches in order to be guided well. Coaching is a profession. The science of running requires being guided by a coach. However, it is good to have recreational runners because you can avoid visiting the doctor. Training helps you to get fit because those runs have a lot of benefits, including improving the efficiency of the heart.”

Mwaniki says the correct posture for running is not bending back or forward because of gravity, but just bending slightly forward your hands at 90 degrees.

“Don’t run while clenching your fist because you channel your energy to the fist if you do that,” observes Mwaniki.

He underscores the need to observe your diet. “Diet is very important. For example, take something light in the morning, at least three hours before your race, with a lot of water. Immediately after running, take something light such as fruits, and also water. You can have your ugali or matoke in two hours,” says Mwaniki.

Kenneth Mungara celebrates crossing the 42kilometres Marathon finishing line first during 2013 Nairobi Standard Chartered Marathon at Nyayo Stadium. 

Photo credit: File | Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Veteran long-distance runner Kenneth Mung’ara, 50, is still doing competitive races both on track and roads.

He holds the world record for the 10k road race of 29 minutes and 28 seconds he set in the male runners’ category who are between 45 years old and 49 years old during the World Masters Athletics Championships in Torun, Poland last year.

The professional runner advises that you must love the sport first. “It is the first step. You can do this just by yourself or fall in love with it by seeing others running,” observes Mung’ara, explaining that you will get a lot of motivation from the people you interact with while training.

Three-time Toronto Waterfront Marathon champion Mung’ara says that everybody has their own style of running. “You will find smart runners discussing how the race was after training just to have a feeling and compare notes. You can have your own technique of running or study those you train with and emulate them,” he says.

Mung’ara says he does not train with his headphones on listening to music. “Personally, I don’t like music when I’m training. I believe it is the same for most road runners. We train on the roads, so music can distract you. You are more likely to be knocked down by a moving vehicle when you have headphones on than without them,” explains Mung’ara.

He says the choice of running shoes is important for a runner. “But, wear shoes which are not tight because I believe they can cause discomfort. It should be easy to run when you have put them on. Actually, the choice of the shoe is yours. After all, it is not the shoe that runs, but you,” observes Mung’ara.

He agrees with Mwaniki that runners should have at least two pairs of shoes – one for training and another for racing.

Mung’ara is not for heavy tracksuits. “If you use heavy tracksuits, it will interfere with your running because it will weigh you down. It will give you unnecessary heat and so you can’t go far in terms of the distance you want to cover,” notes the native of Limuru who started full-time running in 2007.

Mung’ara says injuries are unavoidable for sportspeople. “So, it is important to take good care of yourself. Ensure you see a physiotherapist or ask a friend you are training with to massage you even by applying oil to minimise the risk of injuries and to reduce muscle soreness,” says the former barber who observes it is important to get a training programme for running.

If you want to run well and even venture into marathons, he says do it with people who make you sweat. “Those who make you feel like you don’t want to run tomorrow are helping you to become a good marathoner because they push you to work even harder,” he says, explaining that training with others makes you disciplined because there is no room for laxity lest you fail others or even they fail you.

If you love running, Mung’ara advises that you take good care of your body and love it. “Don’t strain or let something hit you because you will suffer an injury which could be the end of your running career. In addition, remember to eat well, a balanced meal. It is your body, so eat well. Avoid foods that can upset your stomach and those you don’t like eating,” says the decorated athlete.

Kenya's Philemon Ombogo Kiriago in 2023. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

Valsir Mountain Running World Cup champion Philemon Kiriago notes that one should have a strong mind to take up running. “You can start running by yourself or join a group and ensure you record your time every day and how many kilometres you need to do and have done,” says the 21-year-old, who adds that one must be focused in training to achieve the desired results. “Everything is possible. You just need to be focused and train with strong people who will make you strong,” observes Kiriago.

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