Monday, June 02, 2008

nutrition: kenyan marathon runners (part 1: ugali)

one of the areas i've been trying to improve is my nutrition, since i've become intensely aware of just how much it affects training and racing. for normal daily physical activity, there's a certain margin of error (or lack of discipline) that you can indulge in with your diet without too much noticeable deterioration in performance. for serious training (and by serious, i mean either competitive racing or any attempt at a longer-distance race like ironmans, half-ironmans, marathons, etc.), however, the margin of error becomes razor-thin, since you are placing such high demands on your body that any waivering in nutrition will result in very noticeable deterioration in performance--enough that it can make the difference between finishing or not finishing at all.

as a result, i've become alert for any information regarding nutrition for sports, particularly endurance sports. any time i come across any substantive news or research or announcement or article on nutrition supporting training and racing, i'll make the effort to check it out and add it to my personal library of wisdom.

one such piece of information was the research done on the nutrition of Kenyan marathon runners. i pretty much idolize these guys, and i'm always curious as to their training methods. which is why when i came across an article on their dietary habits, i just had to find out more. this is the piece (it's a little older, coming out in 2006, but i see it as something that's pretty much constant, and so not time-sensitive):
in case the link doesn't work, i've included the full text of the article at the end of this post.

the big thing that caught my attention--and apparently everybody else in the U.S.--was the description of the major source of carbohydrates for Kenyan marathon runners. according to the article, it's a corn-based product called ugali.

most people involved in endurance athletes are aware of the need for carbohydrates, and not just any carbohydrates, but low-glycemic carbohydrates.

high-glycemic carbohydrates cause a spike in blood sugar, triggering a rise in insulin, which induces the body's fat-storage systems. this is followed by a crash in blood sugar, which induces the body's appetite, which in turn pulls you into eating, and thereby encourages repeating the cycle all over again. the end result is excessive calories, causing excess fat--and, if maintained with more high-glycemic carbohydrates, inadequate anti-oxidants to fight the free radicals impeding your body's recovery and development. high-glycemic carbohydrates are generally considered more appropriate during or immediately after exercise, when your body is in greater need of immediate energy.

low-glycemic carbohydrates, in contrast, don't spike blood sugar levels, but instead tend to have much more moderate, long-term modulations, avoiding the insulin spikes and attendant fat-storage mode and rise in appetite. that, and they also tend to be found in foods with anti-oxidants, thereby aiding to fight free radicals and assist in recovery and development. it is because of this that low-glycemic carbohydrates are viewed as more appropriate for longer-term (i.e., outside of training or racing, or beyond the immediate period after them) post-training or post-racing recovery...which is pretty much most of the time (note that this is yet another reason why endurance sports is considered a lifestyle, and one that strangely enough aligns itself with most doctors' guidelines for a healthy one).

the question, though, is then finding sources of low-glycemic carbohydrates. particularly--given the caloric demands of endurance sports--sources that are 1) cheap, 2) plentiful, 3) easy to make, and 4) satisfying (i.e., filling). it's harder then you think; the wheat (courtesy of all the processing and additional ingredients) used in most bread and pasta is often high-glycemic, contrary to their advertising. it can be quite an effort to find bread, pasta, or anything that is genuinely low-glycemic.

which is why i was intrigued by ugali. judging from the kenyans' performance and training, and even just by looking at their physiques, it seems ugali is a low-glycemic carbohydrate source...and because it's based on corn, it's likely to fulfill the other conditions of being cheap, plentiful, easy to make, and satisfying.

i dug around to find more about ugali, and discovered that it's kind of like grits (yes, grits, as in the southern corn-based porridge so common to the southern U.S.). but ugali is thicker, with a consistency that allows it to be cut into slices, albeit not so much cake or bread-like but more spongy and chewy.

i found a video on how to make ugali from the Chasing KIMBIA Youtube channel (which, by the way, i highly recommend you watch if you want to learn how superior long-distance runners train). you can see ugali for yourself:

cooking ugali:

there's also:

i should point out i haven't actually tried making ugali for myself. i'm still trying to find the right kind of cornmeal--although, i've been recently told that it doesn't really matter, since the recipe is so basic that the ingredients will end up producing the same thing anyway. i'm keen to try, so i'm going to try and give it a shot as soon as i can.

i'll let you know how it goes...i'm pretty curious myself.

Eating practices of the best endurance athletes in the world
By Owen Anderson, Ph.D.For
May 16, 2006

It's strange, but true: The nutritional practices of the best endurance athletes in the world have not been carefully studied.

Those "best endurance athletes" are clearly the Kenyan runners. Attempting to verify this fact for you is probably unnecessary, but it can at least be noted that one study found that athletes from just one collection of Kenyans, the Kalenjin tribe, had won approximately 40 percent of all major international middle- and long-distance running competitions in the 10-year period from 1987 to 1997.1

In addition, approximately half of all of the male athletes in the world who have ever run the 10K in less than 27 minutes hail from Kenya. When they're allowed to enter freely, Kenyan athletes dominate road races around the world.

And yet, until now the eating habits of the top-level Kenyan runners haven't been examined in a scientific way, even though the Kenyans' nutritional practices must assuredly represent a key reason for their running success. The person who argues that "If only the Kenyans would eat differently, they could run much faster," would be on flimsy ground. The Kenyans are doing things right when they sit down at the dinner table, or they wouldn't dominate international competitions.

But what is it exactly that they're doing? Are they Zone dieters, followers of the Perricone Promise, adherents of the Atkins Diet, or do they focus on the South Beach eating plan? Do they eat lots of "discredited" carbs or large ladles of lipids? From what foods do they get their seemingly limitless energy for running?

Study specifics

To answer these questions, Yannis Pitsiladis of the International Centre for East African Running Science in Glasgow, Scotland, along with Mike Boit (the Olympic bronze-medal winner from the 1972 Games), Vincent Onywera, and Festus Kiplamai from the Exercise and Sports Science Department at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and the Department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya, recently monitored everything that went into the mouths of 10 elite Kenyan runners over a seven-day period at a training camp near Kaptagat, Kenya.2

This group of Kenyan athletes was truly top-level, including several Olympic medalists and also first-place finishers from the Paris and Athens World Championships.

All 10 runners belonged to the Kalenjin tribe, with five from the Nandi sub-tribe, three from the Keiyo grouping, one Tugen individual, and a Sabaot. Two of the athletes specialized in 1,500-meter running, while the other eight were training for eight- and 12-K cross-country competitions.

The average age of the Kenyans was 21, and mean height was 1.75 meters (~5' 9"), with remarkably little variation in stature (the shortest individual was 1.70 meters, the tallest 1.80 meters, which meant that the smallest and greatest heights were just three percent away from the mean).

As you might expect, the Kenyans were lean, with body weight averaging ~58.6 kilograms (129 pounds) and body fat ranging from about six to 10 percent.

Dietary intakes were measured each day for seven consecutive days in December, when the athletes were reaching peak condition for the Kenyan cross-country season. The Kenyans followed their normal diets and weighed and recorded everything that was consumed (both food and drink); food weighing was accomplished with digital scales. The elite Kenyans were given as much food as they wanted, and they ate five times a day, according to the following plan:

1. Breakfast at 8:00 a.m.
2. Mid-morning snack at 10:00 a.m.
3. Lunch at 1:00 p.m.
4. Afternoon snack at 4:00 p.m.

Supper at 7:00 p.m.Kenyan runners tend to eat a limited variety of foods, and that was certainly the case with these elite athletes. Most of their nutrients came from vegetable sources, and the "staple" edibles were bread, boiled rice, poached potatoes, boiled porridge, cabbage, kidney beans and ugali (a well-cooked, corn-meal paste that's molded into balls and dipped into other foods for flavoring).

Meat (primarily beef) was eaten just four times a week in fairly small amounts (about 100 grams -- 3.5 ounces a day). A fair amount of tea with milk and sugar was imbibed on a daily basis (more on this in a moment).

If you're thinking about heading to a nutritional-supplement store to purchase some performance-enhancing supplements (or you already purchase on a regular basis), bear in mind that the Kenyan runners were not taking supplements of any kind. There were no vitamins, no minerals, no special formulations or miracle compounds, nada. The gold-medal-winning Kenyans adhered to the odd philosophy that regular foods could fuel their efforts quite nicely.

Quality running

The Kenyan runners' training during the seven-day study period was straightforward. The athletes trained mostly as a group, two times a day, with a 6 a.m. run followed by an afternoon run at around 5 p.m. The 6 a.m. run was six to nine miles at varying speeds, including a nice chunk of high-quality running at a pace as high as four minutes per mile.

The afternoon runs usually centered on four to five miles at an easy pace (note that this works out to a weekly total of about 75 miles). Once a week, the two 1,500-meter runners carried out high-speed interval training. A very interesting observation was that each elite Kenyan spent just 1.2 hours per day running, with about 33 percent of this consisting of "quality running." This means that the elite-Kenyans' daily "intake" of quality running was about 23 minutes.

Daily nutrient intake

About 86 percent of daily calories came from vegetable sources, with 14 percent from animal foods. As you might expect, the Kenyan-runners' diets were extremely rich in carbohydrate, with 76.5 percent of daily calories coming from carbs. The Kenyans ate about 10.4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass each day, or approximately 4.7 grams per pound of body weight.

An amazing facet of the Kenyans' eating habits was the consistency of this carbohydrate intake: Every 24 hours, the Kenyans took in about 600 grams of carbohydrate, with very little variation from day to day. They were truly stocking their leg muscles with glycogen, giving their sinews the right fuel necessary for the high-intensity training they were conducting -- and avoiding the fatigue which automatically follows on the heels of glycogen wipe-outs.Incidentally, sports-nutrition experts frequently recommend that athletes involved in strenuous training should consume about nine or more grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per day, so you can see that the Kenyans were truly eating according to current scientific wisdom.

Given such an ample carbohydrate intake and the reliance on vegetable foods, fat intake was bound to be modest, and it was: About 13.4 percent of daily calories came from fat (~46 grams), with 61 percent of these calories coming from milk (Kenyan runners ordinarily place full-cream milk in their tea).

Protein intake amounted to 10.1 percent of all calories and a total of 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (75 total grams daily). Once again, the Kenyans were fully in line with recommendations of top sports nutritionists, who call for protein intakes of ~1.2 grams per kilogram daily for endurance athletes. About two-thirds of the protein came from plant foods. Water intake was modest (about 1.113 liters per day), and the Kenyans actually tended to drink more tea than water on a daily basis (tea consumption was about 1.243 daily liters).

The foods

As you might expect, ugali furnished about 23 percent of the runners' daily calories; after all, it's the national dish of Kenya. There were some surprises in the dietary data, however. For example, just behind ugali in second place for calorie-provisioning was plain sugar, which provided about one out of every five calories (20 percent) consumed by the Kenyans over the course of the day.

That's right, the vitamin-free, mineral-free, "bad," "simple" carb from which Americans are fleeing was consumed in rather prodigious amounts, about 133.5 grams (534 calories) per day. Similar levels of sugar consumption are sometimes blamed for the rising tide of obesity in the U.S., particularly among young people, but in fact sugar intake provides some key advantages for athletes involved in intense training on a daily basis: After all, the stuff re-stocks muscle-glycogen stores very quickly and effectively.

As long as the rest of the diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and anti-oxidants (which is the case with the elite Kenyans), and as long as regular exercise is carried out and caloric intake doesn't exceed caloric expenditure (also the case), sugar isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be argued (from the quick-glycogen-replacement standpoint), that sugar is a rather-desirable nutrient (before you send me any angry letters on this topic, please look up the frequencies of type 2 diabetes in Kenya and the U.S.).

In terms of providing calories, the "big-four provisioners" in the Kenyans' diets were:

1. ugali, with 23 percent of total calories
2. sugar, with 20 percent of all calories
3. rice, at 14 percent
4. milk, hitting 13 percent

No other single food provided more than six percent of daily caloric sustenance (bread was at six percent, with potatoes and beans at five percent each).

Milk provided the lion's share of protein, with 28 percent of daily protein grams (and calories), followed by beans, with a respectable 19-percent share, and rice and ugali were neck-and-neck for third and fourth, with 12 and 11 percent of daily protein, respectively. A smaller surprise? Since the Kenyans relied so heavily on full-cream milk as a source of energy and protein, their daily consumption of saturated fat checked in at about 28 grams -- 252 calories out of the daily caloric quota of 3,000 or so.

Other findings

In addition to taking in slightly more than the recommended amounts of carbohydrate and protein for athletes, the Kenyans also used another fundamental principle of sports nutrition to enhance their abilities to train and perform well: They always ate within one hour after workouts. This post-workout period when glycogen re-synthesis rates can be maximized, as long as adequate carbohydrate is provided in the diet (as was the case with the Kenyans). When carbohydrate ingestion is delayed after a training session, lower total intramuscular glycogen levels are often the result. Those Kenyans are smart!

The Kenyan runners' carbohydrate intakes are also higher than those reported in endurance athletes in other countries around the world. As Pitsiladis, Boit, Onywera and Kiplamai pointed out, the carb intake of elite distance runners in the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa have been measured at 49 (!), 50, 52 and 50 percent of total calories, respectively, a far cry from the Kenyan total of 76.5 percent.3,4,5,6 The Kenyans appear to be doing a better job of fueling themselves for their high-intensity training, compared with their "peers" in other countries.

This new investigation agrees well with the limited information published about Kenyan-athletes' eating habits in the past. Two previous studies found carbohydrate intake in Kenyans to be about 71 and 75 percent of total calories, with fat and protein consumption similar to the levels observed in the new research. 7,8 This kind of validation and the careful techniques employed in the new study (one of the researchers, for example, stayed with the athletes around the clock while the dietary monitoring was being carried out) indicate that the data is accurate, truly representing elite-Kenyans' eating patterns.

Overall, the Kenyan eating plan has strong similarities to the food-consumption habits of another group of outstanding distance runners -- the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. The Tarahumaras are more-noted for their ultra-running capacities, rather than their 10-K performances, so one might expect their diets to be a bit more heavily biased in the direction of fat, but research reveals that about 75 to 80 percent of total daily energy comes from carbohydrate, 12 percent from fat and eight to 13 percent (sound familiar?) from protein. Like the Kenyans, the Tarahumara Indians eat copious quantities of corn meal, along with praiseworthy portions of beans.9

With their high carbohydrate intake, adequate protein ingestion, and perfect timing of meals, the top Kenyan runners are eating optimally -- doing the things at the dinner table which are necessary for them to perform at the world's highest level. We can certainly learn from them and eat in ways which give our muscles the fuel they need to carry out the high-quality workouts which represent our true path to performance improvement.

"Kenya's Running Tribe," The Sports Historian, Vol. 17 (2), pp. 14-27, 1997
"Food and Macronutrient Intake of Elite Kenyan Distance Runners," International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, Vol. 14, pp. 709-719, 2004
"Macronutrient Intake of US Athletes Compared with the General Population and Recommendations Made for Athletes," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 49, pp. 1070-1076, 1989
"Nationwide Survey on Nutritional Habits in Elite Athletes. Part I: Energy, Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake," International Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 10 (1 Supplement), pp. S3-S10, 1989
"Dietary Intakes and Food Use of Groups of Elite Australian Male Athletes," International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Vol. 1 (4), pp. 378-394, 1991
"Dietary Practices of South African Ultradistance Runners," International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Vol. 7, pp. 80-103, 1977
"Food and Macronutrient Intake of Male Adolescent Kalenjin Runners in Kenya," British Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 88 (6), pp. 711-717, 2002
"Nutrition and Body Build: A Kenyan Review," World Rev Nutr Diet, Vol. 72, pp. 218-226, 1993
"The Food and Nutrient Intakes of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 32 (4), pp. 9-5-915, 1979


sabrina said...

I'm really excited that you are going to embark on making ugali! I just spent three months in Tanzania where ugali was a meal that my family often made and soon was the meal that I would request. We are actually making our way to an East African restaurant tonight to eat some ugali! Ugali is a pretty bland taste and without something to eat it with, you might be forcing yourself to take it down. My family would usually cook a tomato and potato soup or a beef cooked in tomatoes and we would dip the ugali into it. I know you are eating this for nutrition so I would suggest making something to eat it with. Also, ugali is usually eaten with the hands but can be eaten with utensils. I'm excited to see how it comes out!!!

Bob Almighty said...

Send me a recipe.

jonathan starlight said...

hmmmmmmm...beef in tomatoes w ugali? i take it Kenyan cuisine has the same slate of spices as Ethiopian (i.e., lots of cumin, curry, pepper, etc.)? that would be good--i like spices.

thing is, i'm still looking for an ugali recipe...and also the right kind of cornmeal. i'm tempted to just see if i can find an East African restaurant that serves ugali (which should be possible in a place like LA). we'll figure it out.

Anonymous said...

Dear All, there is no so called recipe for the UGALI dish, we, in Romania have the same thing called MAMALIGA which was the base of each rural meals from centuries. Just put any corn flower in boiling water with some salt and this is it. try not to use powder flower but instead use some of the rough type for better results. any way you have to stir it until it is thicken. If not successfully try a Romanian restaurant and ask for Mahmahleegah :)

Coach Mark said...

How did it work for you? Notice any benefit?

jonathan starlight said...

not any more than any other cornmeal dish. to be honest, it seems comparable to dishes like corn polenta or corn grits, with the major difference being the proportion of water to cornmeal and the attendant food tied to it. ugali tends to be thicker (sort of a spongy cornbread). as much as it tasted good (it can be pretty much combined with anything), i didn't see it offering any more nutrients than any other cornmeal-based dish. the composition of the cornmeal may make a difference, but in that case you can specify your cornmeal at any organic/specialty food store.

Unknown said...

The tribe doesn’t matter on this article. The only pattern that emerges is that from Ethiopia through Kenya to Mozambique is that all great endurance runners hail from Great Rift Valley.

BMI is 19 Kg/M^2 so 19 * 10.4 =197.6 grams of Carbohydrates , that is about 1000 Calories of Ugali. The best flour or Corn Meal from my experience Old Fashioned Stone Ground White Manufactured by Indian Head that means you’re eating about 2.48 cup (300grams)of the corn meal. All please note Ugali has it natural salt from the corn you don’t need to add salt as I have seen on the some comments.

Morning run is like 45 minutes that counts to about 1386 calories. Evening run is like 25 miutes that counts to about 770 calories. In total that adds up to total calories burned of 2156 Calories.

Following the videos and I did the calculations for the dinner alone it amounts to 1398 calories.

If you're in the East Coast US maybe I can help with making the teaching on how to make the Ugali.

Unknown said...

Lukoba you hit the nail on the head Indian Head is the best I'm in S. Jersey and surprisingly both white and yellow (that I never used to like) works pretty well and yes, you do not need the salt

David said...

Thank you for this post on the diet of Kenyan runners, which I believe dispels many modern dietary myths. The following surprising facts are true about the diet:

1) The diet is high in refined sugar (20% of calories).

2) The diet is high in refined carbohydrates. The runners eat lots of corn flour, bread, and potatoes, all of which are extremely high on the glycemic index. The GI does not appear to matter on this low fat, high carbohydrate diet.

3) The diet is high in caffeine from tea.

4) The diet seems to be fairly low in fiber.

5) The diet is low in protein.

6) The diet is low in fat, but the fat that is consumed is mainly saturated.

7) The diet is fairly low in vitamins and minerals, since at least half the diet comes from sugar and refined carbs.

Anonymous said...

I use durum semolina for my ugali, the same flour used to make pasta.Taste really good. I have tried so many flours but this durum semolina I buy at the bulk barn store is best so far and very easy to make. Beef is the best thing for ugali for me and i add in a little madras paste to add flavour. Don't forget garlic and ginger in your beef, makes a big difference. All i do is cut my beef into small pieces and put in the pot and on the stove, then I add in grated fresh ginger and garlic, onion, tomatoes,madras paste(indian) and whatever vegs i desire (mushrooms, papers, carrots, coli flower. Add in your vegs when the beef is cooked. I only use water to make sauce, no oil used. Ask Italians about semolina they know it