Podcast, Running

Training methods of Ethiopian runners with Michael Crawley | EP#275

 March 1, 2021

By  Mikael Eriksson


Michael Crawley is a 2h20min marathon runner who has competed internationally for Scotland and Great Britain, and he is assistant professor in social anthropology at Durham University. Michael spent 15 months in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, running with a group of professional runners and observing their training and their lives. The result of this experience is Michael's first book, "Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia".

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • "A day in the life" of Ethiopian runners
  • What a typical training week looks like
  • Key workouts for the Ethiopians
  • The importance of the environment and terrain (altitude, "magic air", special surfaces, forests,...)
  • The group effect - the importance of training together in an individual sport
  • Mindset and psychology of the Ethiopians
  • What can Western, non-professional runners and triathletes learn and implement from professional runners in Ethiopia?

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05:10 -

  • My name is Michael Crawley and I am an associated professor at Darby University in anthropology.

    Through basically my whole life I have been very interested in running and what role running play in people’s life.

    A few years ago I decided I wanted to write a book about the running culture of Ethiopia, which made me go go there and collect facts and inspiration for the book.

    My main focus of the book was on how the runners of Ethiopia cope with the pressure of having to perform as athletes in order to make a living for themselves and their families.

    The book is a popular book and not a thesis or a textbook in anthropology.
  • Also, I am myself an avid runner and my personal best over the marathon distance is 2h20mins.

The life of the Ethiopian runners

09:45 -

  • The runners, which I followed where based in Addis Abeba (the Capital of Ethiopia) and they were training two run sessions a day for every day of the week except for Sundays, which usually was their day off.

    Normally, they had three really hard sessions every week, and during these days they went up at 4:30 in the morning to take a bus someplace outside of the city where the running was considered to be good.

    Other days they went out at around 5:30 in the morning.

    During the afternoon, they made sure to rest, relax and get a little bit of sleep in as they prepared for the second run of the day, which normally started at around 4pm.
  • All athletes that I followed were full-time athletes and got supported financially from a club, the army or state to run.
  • On average they run around 2h per day six days a week, in terms of milage, it’s kind of hard to quantify since many of the runs were conducted in really rough terrain and a fairly long run duration wise wouldn’t necessary yield too many kilometers.

Bread and butter of the Ethiopian training program

14:30 -

  • On Mondays, it was usually a progressive long run (1h40mins to 2h) at a very special and quite difficult surface including plenty of hills, typically it started off at 4:00 min/km and ended at around 3:20 pace.
  • On Wednesdays it was a speed session conducted at a grass track and during this session it was no holding back from the coach, typically they racked up around 36mins of hard running during this session and it could in the form of 1, 2, 3, 4 mins hard with 1min jog recovery in btw, repeated 6 times.
  • On Fridays, we typically did a 25k run on the road (only session per week conducted on paved surface) with 4km hard (target marathon pace, i.e. around 3:00 min/km for many of the athletes) and 1km easy (which could be at 3:30).

    For the athletes, the hard sessions could be really hard but the sessions in between were mostly conducted at a really comfortable pace even though it was always performed on trails/rough surface, the coaches were very precautious in regards to the risk of over training the athletes and were often emphasizing the importance of learning to run slow.
  • The Ethiopians also experiment a lot with training at different altitudes, Addis Abeba is in itself located quite high at 2400m but they are frequently going even higher for certain sessions.

    For instance, they have one track at 3100m where they sometimes do really hard intervals (1km reps at 2:30), this goes against all textbook knowledge about altitude training but nevertheless it seems to be working for them!

The group effect

29:00 -

  • In Ethiopia plenty of emphasize is placed on the group, which is believed to give the athletes more energy than what they could get from simply training by themselves.

    The training group is an essential part of the training philosophy and is very highly respected among the athletes.

    However, despite that they all lived according to the belief that the group would be supportive and help the athletes develop, these runners are also competitors and fight for the same price money and slots in the national team, and some arguments did occur on this matter but overall they were surprisingly few.

Mindset of the runners

34:20 -

  • The Ethiopian runners didn’t really believe in talent or genetic boundaries, they viewed their process towards becoming a world class runner as an adaptation that spans over several years.

    I think that this non-belief in any genetic boundaries is very helpful for the athletes in regards to not putting any mental barriers before themselves.
  • In terms of attitudes towards a bad race or a bad session, they often didn’t make a too big deal out of it, they didn’t have the need to prove to themselves that they could perform every single day and in case they would have a bad race, they often viewed it as something that was meant to be and therefore didn’t put too much pressure on themselves.
  • Compared to western running, one of the largest differences is that the Ethiopians do so much more running on trails and also that they don’t mind the pace (actually do not wear GPS watches) during the easy runs.

Reasons to Ethiopians running success

43:45 -

  • I think that besides the fact that there are so many runners being able to do the sport professionally that it inevitably must generate a few really great athletes, the altitude at where they train, the many great environments for running as well as the extreme level of competitiveness all contribute to the great success that Ethiopia has had as a running nation.
  • The Ethiopians themselves would say that the reasons for why they are so successful is that they ”work properly”, which means that they are not just pushing hard every day but rather have a consequent and wise approach towards their training.

Key take home messages from my learnings from Ethiopian running culture

51:15 -

  • Try and make running as interesting as possible, be as adventurous as possible in your running!
  • View running slow as a skill, try and separate the hard running from the easy running as much as possible.
  • Run a lot on the trails and in the forrest!

Rapid fire questions

52:10 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports? Letsrun.com! But my favorite book about running is Running With The Buffalos.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? I go running everyday independent on weather and other circumstances, I also consider running to be something that is very important, which has helped a lot as well.
  • Who is somebody you look up to or has inspired you? My coach, who has been a great source of inspiration all the way from my youth.


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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