How World Champion Lelisa Desisa Trains
A week from the heart of Lelisa Desisa’s marathon training reveals the work that has taken him to the podium in Boston, New York and Doha.
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Lelisa Desisa won the World Athletics Championship marathon in 2019, the New York City marathon in 2018, and the Boston Marathon in 2015 and 2013. He’s been on the podium at Boston and New York eight times. In February, he was training for a return to Boston. Before the race was postponed, Desisa shared the daily details of his training from February 17–23, nine weeks out from Boston.
Now that Boston has been postponed, Desisa will be taking an active break. He will not cease training completely, but will train with a much lighter load—mostly moderate recovery runs. As a central member of legendary Coach Haji Adilo’s group in Ethiopia, he typically rarely trains alone; training together and pushing each other to new limits is a central component of Adilo’s training style.
Now, however, the training group is taking precautions, so athletes will be training individually until further notice. When they regroup, he will likely be putting in similar weeks as detailed here, in preparation for his next marathon.
Monday, February 17
Desisa has become a busy man. He is still performing at the highest level. But with a growing family, expanding business interests, and interested to still succeed at the highest level, recovery has to be reprioritized in new ways.
Monday morning, Desisa does an easy run of 14 kilometers in one hour. After that, some breakfast and a nap, he goes over to the building he is constructing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. It’s going to be nine floors and done in a few years for multi-purpose use, and he goes there pretty much every day to check on things
Then, he returns home to play with his two kids. Having a new baby around is tiring, so he only goes out for second afternoon runs when he feels up for it. Today he does an easy slow 10-kilometer run in one hour to get ready for tomorrow.
Daily total: 24 kilometers (15 miles)
Tuesday, February 18
Tuesday is the first of a trio of days where Desisa meets the group for training. This entails an early, breakfast-less morning. He rolls out of bed around 5 a.m. and his driver is ready to go by 5:05.
This morning’s training is a long run of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) on dirt roads in Akaki (6,900 feet). It’s beautiful scenery and the rolling dirt hills are nice for long runs. Coach Haji sets the pace at 3:55 per kilometer (6:20/mile), but by the workout’s close, Desisa’s group is going under 3:30 (5:40/mile). He looks strong throughout, but at the workout’s end he is lying, dusty, with his back on the ground doing some bicycle kicks to make sure his legs don’t get too stiff.
The ride home after training in a highly trafficked Addis Ababa can take up to 1 ½ hours. So after a shower and big breakfast, it is past noon. Desisa is a fan of classical music and opts for slow classical tunes when there is time. Then, time for a nap.
The afternoon is an easy 8-kilometer run in the forest near his neighborhood.
Daily total: 38 kilometers (23.6 miles)
Wednesday, February 19
Wednesday morning calls for an easy recovery day—12 kilometers in one hour, which is a standard off-day morning run. Desisa says his legs don’t feel good, but they aren’t supposed to for a run like this.
From the recovery, he goes to get a massage from physiotherapist Jeroen Deen, who he typically sees two times per week. His office is in the stadium, in the middle of Addis Ababa. After the massage, Desisa goes home to rest and see his family.
Afternoon is an easy run of 10 kilometers.
Daily total: 22 kilometers (13.7 miles)
Thursday, February 20
Speedwork: 16 x 2 minutes hard, progressively faster with longer rests.
In a rare turn of events, Coach Haji has called the group to the national stadium track (7,700 feet) on Thursday morning. Haji holds a track session once in a blue moon, but this time the program is 2 minutes at a hard effort, 16 times. For the first five 2-minute intervals, the runners take a rest of 1:30. For the next set of five, they take a 2-minute rest. The final interval has a 3-minute rest, the speed of the work interval getting faster as it progresses.
That afternoon is an easy and slow shuffle—10 kilometers in one hour.
Daily total: 25 kilometers (15.5 miles)
Friday, February 21
Another easy recovery run of 12 kilometers in one hour. Another massage physiotherapy session with Jeroen Deen.
It’s not often that this happens, but one of the agencies’ sponsors, Maurten, is in town for two days. They are giving lessons about how to properly use the sports drink. Desisa attends the meeting at Ararat Hotel, listens intently, and asks a few questions at the end of the presentation about fueling properly. He is, indeed, a student of the sport.
In the afternoon he sneaks in an easy 10 kilometer run.
Daily total: 22 kilometers (12.4 miles)
Saturday, February 22
The last training session of the week is in Sendafa (8,200 feet) on the east side of Addis Ababa. The group comes here for long asphalt runs usually every other week, and today’s 25-kilometer (15.5 mile) run is no different. The pace is set to be in the 3:30s/kilometer (~5:40/mile), but many training partners are in good shape and it turns out to be a near race. They finish the session in under 1:17:00 (sub 5:00/mile, approximately marathon pace).
Afternoon is an easy shake-out of 10 kilometers in the forest.
Daily total: 35 kilometers (21.7 miles)
Sunday, February 23
Every other week Desisa takes a complete day off. But this Sunday is one hour in the gym, doing activation and strength exercises.
Desisa has a massage gun at home to help with some recovery around the house, and once per month takes a trip to Sodere–a spa town 25 kilometers south of Addis Ababa with a hot springs resort. There, he enjoys the warm water and sauna as it relaxes his muscles.
Weekly total: 166 kilometers (103 Miles)
1 long progression run (18.6 miles)
1 speed workout (16 x 2 minutes)
1 high-altitude marathon-pace run (15.5 miles)