Addy Ruiter is a world renowned running coach from the Netherlands. He works with some of the best endurance runners on the planet, including Joshua Cheptegei, the 2019 World 10,000m gold medalist, Commonwealth 5,000 & 10,000 champion and 15km World record holder. Addy’s lifelong passion for travel has taken him to 93 countries and the current chapter of his life is leading an endurance running programme for the NN Running team in Kapchorwa, Uganda.
Addy Ruiter: Coaching Journey to Uganda
Sixteen years ago, whilst he was competing in triathlon, Addy started training his then girlfriend, a top level Dutch triathlete. A long time student of coaching, when the chance arose to work with young athletes at his local running club, he seized the opportunity. The highlight of this work was the development of a talented 15 year old, Roy Hoornweg, who became national junior champion at cross country, steeplechase and duathlon as well as Dutch 10,000m champion in 2015 (he also boasts a 5km PB of 13.31). Off the back of this success, Addy then moved into working with senior athletes.
A chance meeting with Jurrie van der Velden of Global Sports Communication (who was managing a couple of Addy’s Dutch runners) brought forth an interesting opportunity. Jurrie also represented rising Ugandan athlete, Joshua Cheptegei and Joshua was looking to return to train in his native Uganda after a difficult 2015 training in Kaptagat, Kenya. Addy had seen Joshua win the 10,000m at the world juniors in Oregon in 2014 and recognised his serious potential. The issue was that there was no established ‘high performance’ camp for elite runners in Uganda. Addy was asked if he would be up for the challenge of establishing an elite running programme in Kapchorwa, a small town in eastern Uganda sitting at 2000m altitude on the side of Mount Elgon. A location with an abundance of talent but seriously limited facilities and coaching experience. At the end of 2015, Addy accepted the challenge.
Establishing the NN Running Elite Programme in Kapchorwa
When talking about his style of coaching, it’s clear from the outset that a close relationship with his runners is of vital importance to Addy. He speaks with great pride when he talks about building that personal connection, admitting that seeing both athletic and personal development is what motivates him: “I’m interested not only in the athlete, but in the person”. When you see Addy in conversations with his athletes, the huge respect on both sides is clear. This is further evidenced one Saturday afternoon when a group of athletes who had travelled seven hours from Kampala (for a national federation anti-doping workshop) made the effort to pay a personal visit to Addy at his lodging. You could see the close bonds that have been formed and how this makes Addy happy. “There are more important things than medals” he mentions to me after they had left for the long journey back. He is genuinely touched by their gesture.
Whilst admitting coaching and travel are his passions, Addy still maintains a career outside of athletics. He reasons: “I could make a living from being a coach but it’s nice to have ‘non running’ people around”. Aligning with this belief, the project here in Kapchorwa is only part-time and when he is not based in Uganda, he coaches remotely from the Netherlands alongside his day job with IKEA.
In terms of how the programme, now in its third year, is working, Addy is clear that it’s a long term process. There are fifteen athletes in the Kapchorwa group, with Joshua Cheptegei currently some way ahead of the others in terms of ability and achievement. Despite this, Addy is also very clear that it’s strictly an elite athlete programme: “You have to be a very good runner to be part of this group” (that's me out then).
As the programme is implemented, there is a need for patience as some of the concepts in the schedules Addy has introduced are completely new to the runners here. As with any change, there is some reluctance to adopt these methods at first (core stability work for example). Fortunately, Addy admits he’s a “very patient guy” and this is evident by the fact that he doesn’t appear to be phased by any of the challenges that he has faced to date. An example of this is the lack of running track in the region. The construction of the National High Altitude Training Centre up at almost 2600m in Teryet has been seriously delayed and is now in its third year (more on this in the next blog). The only ‘facility’ (and I use this term loosely) is at the town’s Boma Ground. The sole ‘flat’ space in town, it is an area of patchy grass and dirt sitting on a rocky ridge where a single lane 400m oval has been hacked. As well as being packed with up to a hundred keen local athletes each morning, it also serves as the town’s meeting space, football pitch and driving lesson venue.
Faced with this lack of a suitable facility, a group of stakeholders from the organisation (including Cheptegei) recently invested in the construction of a 400m dirt track on private land in order to have a training location of appropriate quality for elite athlete development. The track was built in rapid time and as of the beginning of March 2019, is now being utilised by the group.
Catching up with Addy at the guesthouse after the usual early morning start (photo: Daan Oxener)
NN Running Kapchorwa - Training Programme
The first thing Addy points out is that his athletes in Kapchorwa are running less mileage compared to camps elsewhere because the area/terrain is notoriously difficult: “The mileage is not very high here, a long run here for two hours, you are only running 26km vs 34km elsewhere at the same intensity - the overall mileage is less because of the surroundings”.
Also, talking to the previous point of not wanting to introduce complexity, Addy says: “Training is not very special”, meaning things are kept simple. “The athletes are not following my schedule, my schedule is following the athletes - [we implement] small changes & slowly”. He adds: “In Europe or America, athletes are more open to trying something new. In Africa, you need to build trust [before you can make changes to training methods]”. Finally, he points out that once the athletes embrace new ideas to compliment their obvious ability, they have been proven to reach whole new levels of performance. Evidence of this is Cheptegei breaking the 15km world record last year.
An example week of training looks something like this:
AM: moderate long run 60/70/80 mins (these are normally progressive by nature)
Addy mentions something here that I have noticed whilst training in East Africa. When the top runners are out for their slower runs, other runners in the group try to keep pace with the fastest guy (normally Joshua) rather than concentrating on their own training pace. Also, other local runners even search out the group in the morning to race them and attempt to turn what should be a conservative training run into a competition(!). The group are briefed to maintain discipline and stick to their plan. Addy has had to ride to the front to advise the group to leave the local guys to do their own thing on more than one occasion.
PM: 30 mins Easy
AM: Track - speedwork. This now takes place on the private dirt track.
PM: 30 mins Easy
AM: Easy - 60 mins of very slow running, sometimes this is just faster than a brisk walk. JC can come in at an average of 10-10.30 minute miling on these easy runs. Makes you think about your own easy run pace!
PM: 30 mins Easy
AM: Tempo - the team will travel 40 mins down to the plateau for this session where there is a flat 5.5km trail in relatively good repair that runs through farmland
PM: 30 mins Easy
AM: Easy - 60 mins
PM: Easy - 30 mins
Fartlek on the (aptly named) ‘Fartlek Rd’. This road is chosen because it’s not too hilly. The session will depend on the content of the Tuesday track session e.g. longer efforts if the track was short intervals. Addy mentions that the fartlek recoveries here are much slower than in other countries but the efforts are much bigger
In the past, this would have been a rest day but in the current cycle (Championships prep), there is a 90-120 min (easy) long run. There is a rest day every fourth Sunday. It’s unclear whether the group go out on a Saturday night booze up
TOTAL: 12* session per week
* Middle distance athletes based in Kampala will do a 6am pre-breakfast workout in addition (20 mins EZ) before returning to bed and then back out for a 10am track workout and their afternoon session
The group on an early morning fartlek session down on the plateau (river ice bath optional)
Strength & Conditioning
Core sessions take place twice a week after easy runs. Addy: “Core stability work was a new introduction to the athletes since beginning the programme two years ago. This won’t increase their speed but will reduce injuries caused by power differentials”.
Strength training is somewhat limited as there is currently no gym in the area but Addy points out that the local topography (e.g. masses of hills) is great ‘natural’ resistance training. There are plans afoot for a small gym in the near future.
Diet & Nutrition
The athletes on the programme will follow a balanced diet as their income allows (more on this below). Specialist sports nutrition e.g. drinks and protein shakes are available but only to those at the ‘top end’ of the programme due to budget limitations.
The pre-workout diet is markedly different between Africa and Europe. All sessions here are executed in a fasted state. It’s the way it’s always been, whether through necessity because of not being able to afford food, or through personal choice, breakfast is not taken before the morning session. Some of the athletes who do not have personal funds for transportation to training venues will often run 7km to the venue, perform a full track session then run 7km uphill afterward - all on an empty stomach. Addy mentions: “Performance [when in fasted state] is not a problem here”. When asked whether there is the opportunity to effect some changes in these behaviours, Addy’s response is: “It’s difficult to alter these behaviours [with the limited availability of face to face coaching] to see if there is a positive impact and the affordability of food and lack of funding means it is not necessarily possible”.
I mention some issues I have experienced when coaching amateur runners in Uganda around missing sessions and punctuality. When asked if he has seen any such problems in his group, Addy’s response is unequivocal: “They are following the programme 100%. Discipline is very high in these guys. They live together so there is social control, the ones that are up on time get the others moving”. He admits that it took the group some time to embrace the core stability work but that they understand the benefits now.
And are there stand out leaders within the group? “Joshua is the leader, he is known as the ‘Chairman of Kapchorwa’”.
There is a very limited use of compression garments. Some athletes use them during workouts and a couple use as them as recovery aids or on plane journeys. As with a lot of items or approaches that claim to offer a gain or an advantage in sport, there is conflicting evidence so it’s left to personal choice. There is a river near the plateau trail with “very cold” water which the team will take dips in after tempo sessions for some ice therapy. Stretching takes place after all sessions and there is a long group stretching session on a Wednesday.
Addy is forthright on this: “The top level is all about discovering talent. We need to find more Joshuas”. He talks about the recent increase in interest in athletics in East Africa from outside and those looking to work with athletes here. “10 yrs ago Jurrie was the only manager from outside Uganda. At a recent [athletics] meeting in Tororo there were 8/9 mzungu managers. It’s becoming more difficult to attract new talent.”
And where are the potential champions in this current group? “For the next three years, as well as Joshua, we have maybe 4/5 athletes in the group who can run for World or Olympic honours”. These include Peruth Chemutai (3000m steeplechase) and Sarah Chelangat (Youth Olympics Gold at 3000m).
As for what's next for Addy? He says that he his focused on working toward Tokyo 2020, possibly with an extended stay in Uganda beforehand. After that he can judge the success of the programme and decide what happens next.
What really came across in our conversations is Addy's passion for running and for developing potential. It’s obvious that he is utterly athlete-centred and his passion is in the connection with and development of his athletes. He rarely talks up his work, approach and achievements. His last words as he shows me a recent video of his team on a tough session in a beautiful, green hilly glade were: "spending time working with these boys, this is what makes me happy".
Huge thanks to Addy for giving up time in his schedule to sit down and listen to my endless questions!