Proof positive that ‘peer promotion’ can affect an athlete’s performance for the better

2011-12-31 00:00

KENYAN domination of distance running was a major feature of the 2011 season, and particularly in the marathon where they own the top 24 performances and 28 of the top 30 rankings, with only Brazil’s Marilson dos Santos and Ethiopian Bakana Daba destroying the streak.

Patrick Makau, Wilson Kiprotich, Emmanuel Mutai, Geoffrey Mutai and Levy Omari, the winners in Berlin, Frankfurt, London and New York, and runner-up in Frankfurt respectively, have the top five performances of 2011 ranging from the world record 2:03:38 to 2:05:16 and are clear contenders for the Kenyan team in London.

If the 2012 London Olympic marathon was an open event, the pundits would probably open a book as to where the first non-Kenyan would finish and it’s unlikely to be in the top ten.

Entry to the Olympic marathon is restricted to three runners per country, although the occasional wild card for a world champion or record holder can push that up.

Other countries can be thankful that the three-runner rule applies, as it may be the only opportunity for someone to slip through should something happen to a Kenyan on race day.

But how has Kenya got to the point of such domination of the marathon and other distance events?

Scientists have for years speculated about the magical ingredient that has produced so many excellent athletes from a very small area of Kenya near the Rift Valley.

Although genetic make up — such as bone density, calf muscle strength, the length of upper leg, altitude — and a host of other attributes no doubt contribute, it is highly unlikely that this fully accounts for this extent of domination.

Tens of the years sub-27-minute 10 000 metre performances belong to Kenyans, who also have most of the sub-one-hour 21 km races and top the 3 000 metre steeplechase. In 2011 they turned in a record 183 marathon performances under two hours and 10 minutes.

This makes it increasingly difficult to get invited to middle and long distance events and encourages runners to move up to the marathon at younger ages.

In my opinion it is what I would call “peer promotion” that is responsible for the Kenyan ascendency.

This is different from peer pressure, which can negatively affect performances.

All runners know that with sufficient need, desire and drive it is possible to achieve higher intensity.

With leading Kenyans gravitating towards the two or three training camp locations, the depth of talent is such that only seconds separate the abilities within training groups.

Groups are structured based on performance times and progression is only possible when the next performance level is achieved, so progression is like climbing a ladder with closely spaced and achievable rungs.

The more athletes and groups, the easier it becomes to climb, which increases the system’s sustainability year on year.

It’s an ideal situation as the groups evolve not to compete against each other, but to assist each other to the next level. Each progression is so small that every runner knows that it is perfectly possible to achieve the next level.

Professor Tim Noakes identified the “central governor” (CG) as the mechanism that largely determines our performance in a race.

The CG analyses all the levels of competition, past training, beliefs, and psychological and physiological conditions to determine our perception of finish time and pacing schedule.

Unless there is an unforeseen situation, when the gun goes the runner simply lives out the CG’s plan. Ironically, kilometre splits and other feedback in the race tend to reinforce the outcome.

The impact of intermediate feedback can be seen by the faster times runners often achieve when racing a time trial without a watch.

Confidence and self-belief play a massive role in race performance, and this probably underpins the Kenyan distance domination.

When you are only ever two strides adrift from your training partner, who then runs a 2:04 marathon or sets a new world record, there is every reason to believe you are equally capable.

The “thermostat” that governs your expectation and performance beliefs is reset.

Another Kenyan attribute is the desire to work together to ensure that the strongest runner on the day wins the race.

They know that by helping each other they improve their own individual performance.

By comparison South Africans, even in world championship teams, place greater importance to being the first South African than their time or the team outcome.

A simplification of the Kenyans’ winning environment would include:

• Good physiological and environmental foundation and above-average genes;

• The motivation and life-changing effects of being a top runner;

• Large, closely matched training groups providing realistic progression;

• A positive attitude fostering assistance, positive competitive pressure.

There is little that other countries could not offer, but it is unlikely that the Kenyan domination will fade. Depth of numbers and performance not only ensures there is someone ready to take the crown, but also that there is a constant influx of younger runners keen to edge their way up the training groups.

The Jamaican sprint school confirms the hypothesis exists. Vast numbers are involved in the highly competitive school relays that provide the base for similar training groups in sprint to 400-metre distances.

The Jamaican impact on these distances has flourished over the past eight years with Usain Bolt an inspirational leader.

This is not a new phenomenon, but it is the numbers that give the two examples longevity.

In the 1990s Santa Monica Track club achieved similar domination in the sprints and high hurdles with Carl Lewis at the fore.

It was a fact that if you won the Tuesday night start practice then you were the world’s fastest athlete out of the blocks.

In those days a world champion or Olympic medallist would fill all eight lanes.

The problem was that there was no influx of youngsters to provide sustainability.

South Africa who — based on the performances of Zet Sinqe, Willie Mtolo, Matthews Temane and the like — were expected to make an impact in distance events on their return to international competition, now need a rethink if their true potential is to be achieved:

• Focus on rewarding 5 000 metre, 10  000 metre and cross-country performances;

• Restrict the number of marathon performances, with bigger rewards and more prize money in a few events (club events for Comrades, Two Oceans qualification and social runners);

• Discourage and move away from rewarding young runners in Comrades and Two Oceans;

• Create training areas at altitude, particularly those close to sea level (such as the Drakensberg) where environmental benefits can be harnessed to their best effect;

• Initiate large national and provincial training groups;

• Promote a team ethos encouraging and rewarding team performance over prizes for the first South African, which encourages under-performance.

The lessons of Kenya, Santa Monica and Jamaica are obvious, and if South Africa start now the talent could make significant impact in Brazil Olympics 2016.

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