Words: Adharanand Finn
A few years ago I went to live in Kenya for six months to research and write my book Running with the Kenyans. My key mission was to find out how and why the men and women from that part of the world can run so crazy fast. It turned out there was a whole host of reasons, from the tough rural upbringing, where everyone runs to school barefoot, to the high altitude, and the opportunity running provides to escape from poverty.
For most of us, these are lessons we can’t replicate in our own running lives - we can’t go back in time and decide to grow up on a poor farm in the mountains, for example. But one thing we can take from the Kenyans is their spirit of co-operation. Kenyans almost always run together with friends, and this helps in many ways, from the motivation to get out the door, to the drive to get better, and it adds to the enjoyment of running. In an effort to be successful, most Kenya runners choose to live near other athletes, while many move permanently into dedicated training camps.
A training camp is a focussed environment where suddenly running and training goes from being a peripheral activity, something you need to fit in around the rest of your life, to the main focus of the day. In a training camp, food becomes “fuel”. Rest becomes “recovery”. Surrounded by like-minded people, you can chat, learn new things, and get inspired. When the alarm goes for the morning run, it’s much easier to get out of bed when you can hear your training partners clambering around in the next room looking for their tights.
Of course, most of us don’t have the option to live in a training camp like the Kenyans, but even a week or a weekend in such a focussed environment can provide a huge boost to your fitness and motivation. Sometimes running can feel like a lonely pursuit, with friends and family often treating you like you have an unhealthy condition or affliction. So it can be a relief to realise you’re actually part of a tribe, that there are other people out there who obsess over their Strava segments, or over which trail shoes work best in the mud, or who just enjoy the life-affirming thrill of being out running at the quiet of dawn while everyone else is still asleep.
Top elite athletes from the rest of the world also use focussed periods in training camps to boost their running fitness, but in recent years more and more options have sprung up for amateur runners to get together. I organise two camps each year - one in Kenya and one in Dartmoor in Devon - and after each one I keep in touch with those who have come along, and I see the improvements and renewed enthusiasm for running continue long after they’ve returned home, not only in PBs but in the enjoyment of running.
To find a running camp near you to get you started, here are five of the best - including my two offerings:
The Way of the Runner, Dartmoor, UK
As the author of two books on running (Running with the Kenyans and The Way of the Runner), I set out to pass on all I have learned in over five years of research. I’ve teamed up with top Dartmoor guide Ceri Rees and movement and core fitness expert Joe Kelly to provide an immersive learning experience that covers natural movement, night running and injury prevention, alongside great food (including the famous Kenyan ugali!) and luxury accommodation, all in the midsts of one of Britain’s most beautiful national parks.
Run Namaste Eat, Morocco
This camp by top British ultra runner Tom Payn and his wife, Rachel, takes you to the Atlas mountains in Morocco. As the name implies, this camp has three elements. The first is the running, along beautiful mountain trails and through Berber villages; the second is daily yoga for runners; and the third is the food, which is mostly all vegan. Tom and Rachel also organise running and yoga camps in Kenya.
Running with Us, Forest of Dean, UK
The experienced coaching team at Running with Us regularly look after athletes of every level from elites to beginners. At their weekend training camps in the beautiful Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, they will help you with training plans, race strategy, strength and conditioning, and they’ll even talk you through buying running gear.
2:09 Events, The Algarve, Portugal
For 30 years, 2:09 Events have been taking runners of all levels away from the cold and wet of the UK for a spot of warm weather training in the Mediterranean. These week-long camps combine lots of running with expert coaching, core fitness sessions, pilates and some good social fun such as quiz nights. These camps are big, often with over 100 runners coming together.
The Kenya Experience, Iten, Kenya
Each year I return to the scene of my first book, Iten, the Mecca of world distance running, where each morning our runs criss-cross with Olympic champions and world record holders. This town - known throughout Kenya as the Home of Champions - is simply unique, with around 2,000 serious runners living and training there. The inspiration quota is seriously high, but no one needs to feel intimidated as the Kenyans are super welcoming to anyone who tries to run, no matter how slowly. Add in the altitude, the beautiful rolling landscapes and the wonderful training centre accommodation, and this really is two weeks of ultimate running heaven.