Michael Crawley’s Out of Thin Air investigates Ethiopian running culture and unearths some lessons for runners everywhere.
Ethiopian men hold six of the top fastest marathon times ever. The female 5,000m and 10,000m records are also held by natives of the East African nation. In Ethiopia, running is not a pastime but a central pillar of life – but what can we learn from the way they train?
Michael Crawley, a 2:20 marathon runner and assistant professor in social anthropology at Durham University, spent 15 months in Ethiopia training alongside some of the country’s best runners and distilled his findings into the excellent.
Some of the factors that make Ethiopian distance runners so successful are, of course, hard to replicate in the UK – for instance, conducting most of your training at more than 2,5000m above sea-level. But many of Crawley’s discoveries are applicable to runners from all backgrounds and of all abilities.
1. Mix it up
Ethiopian runners are aware of running’s potential to become mundane and boring, so they regularly mix things up. Lots of midweek runs are spent zigzagging through forests, creating new routes. ‘Part of the motivation for always seeking a new way through the forest,’ writes Crawley, ‘and for always running with others who might come up with unexpected and interesting routes is to stave off this boredom…There is room for welcome surprise in this type of running.’ If you find yourself forever making the same loop of a park or running down the same roads, perhaps it’s time to add in some Ethiopian-inspired inventiveness to your runs.
2. Avoid doing all your runs on concrete
Ethiopian runners are wary of what they call ‘asphalt’, limiting themselves to one run a week on the surface. The rest of their runs are conducted either in the forest, on coroconch (gravelly trail) or the track. Many believe that too much running on asphalt – or concrete – bludgeons the speed out of the legs. While there may be little by way of hard evidence to support that theory, there’s certainly lots to be said for mixing up the surfaces and running a higher percentage of your runs on non-concrete surfaces.
3. Harness the power of the group
‘Running alone – like eating alone or even just sitting alone – is seen as deeply antisocial and borderline suspicious in Ethiopia,’ writes Crawley. All the top athletes train in large groups, with each taking it in turn to pace various sections of a long run. Athletes talk about ‘following the footsteps’ of the person in front and have a belief that energy is not something created purely by one person, but something you can tap into as a group. While a person’s desire to run alone should, of course, be respected and some athletes, such as Emil Zatopek, seemed to thrive on training alone, the science says that running with others encourages you to run harder and faster. At the very least, consider doing your tougher runs – such as interval sessions or hill reps – with company.
4. Don’t be a slave to your watch
Whoever said that ‘unless it goes on Strava, it doesn’t exist’ forgot to tell lots of the top runners in Ethiopia. While smartwatches are not a rarity among its runners, they are used much more selectively. ‘They draw upon them [watches] creatively and selectively, using them to slow down as often as they use them to speed up, and more often than not simply leaving them at home when they run in the forests,’ writes Crawley. Consider your own relationship with your wrist-based running coach. Is it detracting from the enjoyment of running? Pressuring you to speed up on what should be an easy run? Why is it important for you to record your data on casual, easy runs, anyway?
5. Add some strides at the end of your runs
It’s often noted that if an Ethiopian runner and a Kenyan runner are neck-and-neck with 100m to go, the Ethiopian runner will usually outsprint their rival. Haile Gebrselassie famously did this against Paul Tergat in the 10,000m at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It was a similar tale when Shura Kitata outsprinted Vincent Kipchumba at the 2020 London Marathon. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is Ethiopian runners’ emphasis on running 150m all-out sprints at the end of lots of their easy runs. If that sounds a little intense, opt for finishing your easy midweek runs with a few ‘strides’ – 20-second bursts at 80-90 per cent effort, concentrating on keeping good form.
6. Become a ‘dangerous’ runner
In Ethiopia, being described as a ‘dangerous’ runner (or adegenya) is a big compliment. This isn’t about taking unnecessary risks; rather it’s about making sacrifices that others won’t. At one point in the book, Crawley finds himself being woken at 3am by a couple of his Ethiopian running companions to do a series of hill repeats. He’s incredulous at first – why would you choose to repeatedly run up a hill in the dead of night? – but as time passes its benefit begins to dawn on him. ‘The night running that we do, more even than the particular places or environment we run in, brings home to me the importance of creating a particular feeling, or sense of importance and adventure, in your running.’
7. Stop doing ‘laps’ when you’re not running laps
The Amharic word for laps is zur. While doing zur is a good thing on the track, one should avoid too much zur when not training. In this sense, zur means any activity that compromises your ability to rest between training sessions. The most successful athletes that Crawley encounters are those who know how to recover as hard as they race. For the majority of us, a little zur is unavoidable but it’s still worth looking at your overall commitments and training to see where more rest and recovery could be built in.
8. Make the most of your environment
Ethiopia’s runners are very proud of the environments in which they train. High places are described as having ‘special air’ and it’s not uncommon for runners to travel great distances to run up and down the same hill on which Tirunesh Dibaba or Kenenisa Bekele trained. While the country undoubtedly has some great natural assets for endurance runners – such as the ability to train at high altitude – perhaps the secret to Ethiopia’s success is making the very most of what they have available. As Zane Robertson, an elite New Zealand runner who’s been based in Ethiopia for a decade, puts it: ‘The key to their success is playing the hand they were dealt like it was the card they wanted.’ Consider what’s on your front door and what it offers you as a runner. If it’s hills and trails, become a master of uphill and downhill running. If its flat roads and paths, concentrate on improving your flat speed. The opportunity for improvement and enjoyment is everywhere – the Ethiopians, it seems, are just better at noticing it.