In this post, endurance athlete and coach Mark Callaghan shares his experiences training in Uganda, and how the runners there train for a marathon. Mark is involved with Run Kapchorwa, a running tourism project which supports and promotes community sport development.
East African athletes have dominated the endurance running scene since the 1990’s. Kenyan and Ethiopian runners in particular have frequently filled the podium at all of the major athletics championships. However, in the last few years, Ugandan endurance running has joined its neighbours in making global headlines.
So, what are the training secrets behind the success of these runners from the ‘Pearl of Africa’ who have cemented their place amongst the fastest athletes on the planet?
Uganda’s own ‘Land of Champions’
The vast majority of Ugandan elite endurance runners are based in the humble rural town of Kapchorwa in Eastern Uganda.
Sitting at an altitude of 1800 metres, Kapchorwa is perched on the slopes of Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano straddling the nearby border with Kenya.
Hundreds of runners live amongst the hills surrounding the town, training on the dirt roads that climb into the surrounding countryside and up to 2600 metres altitude.
The rise of Ugandan athletes from the region
Ugandan endurance running first captured the World’s attention with Stephen Kiprotich’s marathon triumph at the London Olympics of 2012.
Kiprotich then repeated his success over 26.2 miles at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, achieving a notable marathon double.
These landmark victories undoubtedly inspired the talented youth of the country and particularly the eastern region.
Eight years later, a new crop of supremely talented youngsters began to make people stand up and take notice.
Joshua Cheptegei became famous on the world stage at the World Cross Country Championship in 2017 but on this occasion, not for the reason he would want. In his home country, in front of adoring supporters in Kampala, a dominant front-running performance had given him a commanding lead during the final stages.
Suddenly, he became visibly overcome with fatigue and was passed by all his rivals, eventually staggering to a 30th place finish.
This very public failure only made Cheptegei stronger and more determined to succeed. He took silver over 10,000m in the 2017 World Championships in London behind Mo Farah, double gold over 5000m and 10000m at the 2018 Commonwealth games before exorcising his Cross Country demons, taking the gold medal in Aarhus in 2019.
This first major championship success was followed by World Championship gold later that year, over 10,000m in Doha. A sensational spree of world record performances across 5km and 10km on road and track during late 2019 and 2020 means Cheptegei can now be considered as one of the finest endurance athletes on the planet.
Taking World Cross Country silver behind Cheptegei at Aarhus 2019 was Jacob Kiplimo. Being part of this impressive Ugandan 1-2 at just 18 years old was a sign of big things to come.
In September 2020, Kiplimo beat much fancied Norwegian Jacob Ingebritsen and speedy Australian Stewart McSweyn to run a 7:26.64 3km in the Rome Diamond League meeting.
He followed this up with a stunning performance at the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, clinching a first global gold medal whilst still a teenager.
Marathon Training Programme for Ugandan Elite Runners
The weekly marathon training programme tends to stick to a similar structure with the same workouts falling on each day.
The majority of runners from the assorted camps and teams in Kapchorwa train together, although those belonging to professional, international teams and management may train separately in smaller groups.
After a comprehensive warm up, the athletes split into training groups based on event specialism and level. Each athlete’s session/weekly volume will depend on their specialism.
Morning sessions take place at first light (around 6.30-7am) and before breakfast is taken. The majority of runners tend to run both in the morning (key session) and evening (easy run), apart from on long run and rest days.
A few athletes opt not to join the easy evening outings but they are very much in the minority. Pretty much all of an athlete’s training is performed in groups and there is little or no solo running. There is a deep sense of community and togetherness within the running fraternity here. Any success from a runner within the athletic community is celebrated by all.
All sessions apart from the Saturday track will take place on the packed dirt roads. These surfaces are very changeable with the seasons.
They become bone dry and caked with dust during the height of the dry season and can be ankle deep in thick mud during peak wet season. Having someone in your training group with the know-how to recommend a route that avoids the worst underfoot conditions is vital!
Monday: Moderate Long Run
AM: This run is known as ‘School Monday’. An 18 – 22km moderate paced run for 60/70/80 mins.
These runs tend to be progressive by nature. What should be a tempo-style run can often end up as an unofficial race as young pretenders join the session, try to force a quicker pace and catch the eye of the coaches.
Not all the athletes manage to maintain their discipline in the face of this ‘challenge’ and face a struggle to recover for the harder sessions later in the week if they are taken in.
PM: 30 mins easy. Dependent on the athlete but these afternoon runs are super-easy, conversational runs.
Tuesday: Group Fartlek
AM: 40-60 mins group ‘East African style’ fartlek. Set efforts of work/rest across the allocated time for the session. e.g. 1 min hard effort with 1 min easy recovery, 2/1 or 3/1. The undulating terrain in the area and lack of flat makes for a brutal fartlek workout.
PM: 30-40 mins easy
Wednesday: Easy Day
AM: 17-19km easy run
PM: 30-40 mins easy run
Thursday: Long Run
AM: 25-35km long run. Due to the challenging terrain, longer runs away from the camps in town rarely include any flat stretches. Depending on the route selected, some of the runs include climbs on seriously steep gradients.
Friday: Easy Day
AM: 15-17km easy
PM: 30-40 mins easy
Saturday: Track Day
AM: The training groups have access to a undulating grass track at a local college. It’s definitely one of a kind, unofficially measured at around 405 metres, with a single, bumpy running lane hacked into the grass. The variable gradient (10% downhill, 25% flat and 60% on a gradual climb) means you need to have your wits about you.
Track workouts will depend on the week’s programme and upcoming races. These can be efforts over the same distance e.g. 25x400m, 16x800m, 12x1000m, 6x2000m or ‘pyramid’ style workouts that include variable increasing and decreasing middle distance efforts e.g. 400m, 600m, 800m, 1000m, 1200m.
PM: 30-40 mins easy
Sunday: Rest Day
Church and chores.
An athlete’s weekly running volume would be 110-160km depending on their event specialism. Middle distance athletes will be toward the lower end whereas the endurance group will be nearer the upper number. It’s worth pointing out that the challenging terrain and increased intensity here means that the weekly mileage may be lower than elsewhere.
The Ugandan Elite Runner Diet
The runner’s diet largely consists of typical local dishes made from produce farmed in the region. It is predominantly plant based aside from the much loved milk tea (with plentiful sugar) and occasional meat on special occasions.
A light breakfast is always taken after the morning training session with more substantial, carb heavy meals at lunchtime and in the evening before an early night – normally before 9pm. Meals are normally social affairs taken as a group with lots of running (and football) chat.
Roasted groundnuts (known as ‘g-nuts’ – part of the peanut family), chapati, sweet bananas, coffee/milk tea
Posho – a solid made porridge from maize flour and water (aka ‘Ugali‘ in Kenya) – the runner’s super fuel, matooke (steamed green plantain), ‘Irish‘ (boiled potatoes) fried off with tomatoes & onion, white-fleshed sweet potato, beans, local greens
Posho, matooke, ‘Irish’, sweet potato, beans, cabbage, cowpeas (blackeye pea – high protein legume), greens, occasionally local meat (beef/chicken/goat)