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Running the Ugandan Way - Part 1

Training with the next generation of athletic talent in Kapchorwa, Uganda

When Jacob Kiplimo beat the world's best in Gdynia to become World half marathon champion at just 19, athletics fans began to take a keen interest in this crop of Ugandan youngsters who live and train on a mountain.

During this series, I aim to offer an insight into an athlete talent development programme in Kapchorwa, Uganda. For background on the running scene in Uganda's 'Land of Champions' and the life of elite athletes there, I've written fairly comprehensively about that previously. See the training programme of the NN Running Group and Joshua Cheptegei and the training diary of an elite Ugandan runner.

As a curious coach and an ageing marathoner looking for a training group I had a chance of keeping pace with, I welcomed the opportunity to work with the 'Home of Talents' athlete development group. The opportunity for a 05.30 alarm call and 3km climb in the dark each morning was not quite as welcome.

The group meets shortly before dawn each morning outside a school in the community of Kapenguria, located a 5km climb from Kapchorwa Town at just above 2000m altitude. It's a mixed group of male & female runners, mostly aged between 15-18 years and trains under the tutorship of coach David Cherop.

My first observation when we discuss the weekly session structure is that it's identical to that of their senior counterparts. There is an obvious reduction in mileage (although not as big as you would imagine) as the young athletes bodies continue to develop and they learn their trade. The evening easy run, a staple of the elite programme, is not introduced until these runners are recruited into senior camps at around 18/19 years old.

Training Programme

Monday: Easy/Moderate Run

An 80 minute 'moderate' group run (more on the word 'moderate' later)

Tuesday: Speedwork - Track (Intervals)

The group has the use of a grass track situated at 2260m. This means a punchy 200 metres of vertical climb up the rock as a warm up. Once you reach the clearing, a narrow single track oval is hoed into the grass. The ~400m circuit has a distinct rise and a fall on either straight, with 5 metres of elevation per lap.

After some strides (and the removal of a galavanting cow from the track), the programme is 5x800m, 5x400 for males and 4x800m, 4x400m for females. I start with the male group but they're lapping at 70 seconds which I'm never going to stick with. I ease off, allow my shallow breathing to normalise and do my own thing before a group debrief and a 5km run back down for a much-needed breakfast.

Athletes from the development group during an interval session on the grass track at 2260m

Wednesday: Easy Run

The climb to the forest is a popular route here, a 5 mile loop that ascends high into dense woodland before a technical descent back to the meeting point (with 1142ft / 350m of elevation gain). Probably due to the terrain, the pace is kept very friendly. I'm enjoying this very much until my mind drifts, I stop concentrating on the trail and take a brief flight over a tree stump.

After the 45 minute run, I start introducing the group to some strength and conditioning exercises that we will build on in the coming months. Cue much laughter.

Ugandan runners wait before the start of a fartlek session in Kapchorwa, Uganda

Thursday: Long Run (Moderate)

There's that word again: 'moderate'. The word that strikes fear into the heart of visiting runners. The long run brief is 18km for males, 16km for females. We start together but as expected, the lads are pushing hard within the first mile. They quickly drop under 6:30 mile pace and disappear into the distance. I see no moderation here.

I decide to stick with the back group and we go along at a far more manageable 7:45 minute mile pace which I can just about stick to on this terrain.

As we move through the villages, several local women happily join us for short bursts. I've always loved that about running here, you can find yourself struggling on a long run and be joined by a lady wearing a floral dress and a nice shiny pair of white slip on shoes, effortlessly running beside you for ten minutes. There's some motivation for you.

The lads finish their 18km 'moderate' in 1hr 8 mins (6:05 min / mi) and we complete our 10 miles in 1hr 20 mins.

Friday: Easy Run

The group do their 50 mins easy run up the hill. With another intense session looming tomorrow, I decide to keep my powder dry, save my legs the extra climbing and go solo, picking one of the friendlier routes near my base.

Saturday: Speedwork - Fartlek

If you are interested in running in East Africa, you've probably seen one of the fartlek sessions on YouTube. They are brutal. My least favourite is the 3:1 and as luck would have it, that's exactly the session we're doing today. Three minutes of hard running with one minute recoveries. The coaches decide that 12 reps & 8 reps respectively will suffice for today's workout. I manage six before gladly calling it a day/week and retire to the sidelines to watch the group complete the remainder, coming in at sub 5 minute miling for their final reps.

I do some stretching instruction afterward. It's refreshing to see the athletes out of their comfort zone for once instead of me!

Sunday: Rest Day

Just like the majority of the elite camps, Sunday is a non running day.

a group of Ugandan runners and international visitor running during a fartlek speedwork session in Kapchorwa, Uganda

Week Training Stats

As mentioned in previous articles, the elite men run ~110-160km a week with a lot of climbing. For the male athletes on this development programme, the weekly volume was ~50 miles/ 80km (around 40 miles / 65km for the females) also with a significant amount of climbing - I made it 5090ft / 1551m of elevation gain in one week's training.

That workload is certainly enough for me to feel like I've done a heavy week. Also, that I should probably consider sticking to coaching rather than trying to keep pace with these speedy youngsters.

One last thing...

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