The history of distance running -
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The history of distance running

Written by RUN:TRACK:RUN 10722
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The history of our sport is a fascinating collection of individual triumphs and worldwide trends. Running has existed for as long as human beings have had legs. It was first identified as a competitive activity in 776 BCE and has been found in historical records across the world.

To understand the sport we enjoy today, we have to learn about the progression of the sport over the years. This includes both the technical aspects of running as well as the social aspects, such as inclusivity of gender, ethnicity, and race in events and the running community.

In this post, we will look at the last 100 years of distance running. Using a decade-by-decade approach, we’ll highlight the superstars of each era, the significant milestones that happened, and the changing trends in training and equipment.


Running as a competitive sport was not new in the 1920s, but we’ll start our exploration with this era. A few iterations of the Olympics had taken place by the start of the decade, and the level of athleticism was strong.

Paavo Nurmi was the big name in the roaring twenties. This Finnish superstar won nine Olympic gold medals and three silvers over the course of three Olympic games (1920 in Antwerp, 1924 in Paris, and 1928 in Amsterdam). He broke 22 official world records and inspired a generation to take up the sport. He is credited with pioneering some of the training methods we still use today, for instance he always trained with a stopwatch in hand to calculate his pace. He believed in training at a steady pace in order to meet the goals he had set for each season.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, Nurmi led the Finnish team to become known as the “Flying Finns”, due to their significant wins. Nurmi won the 1,500m and 5,000m events. Another Finnish runner named Ville Ritola won the 10,000m as well as the 3,000m steeplechase, and Albin Stenroos won the marathon.


The 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles weren’t great for the Flying Finns from the 1920s. Sweden alleged that Nurmi had received payments for running that caused him to lose his amateur status. This led to a rift between Finland and Sweden in athletics.

The thirties saw Jesse Owens dominating short distances at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to the chagrin of Adolf Hitler and his beliefs that people of African descent were inferior.

The science of training started to shift towards interval training during this era. A well-known coach in Germany named Woldemar Gerschler invented a method using the runner’s heart rate data to determine interval splits. This approach changed training significantly. The benefits that were seen from intentionally maxing out a runner’s heart rate and then allowing it to recover became the baseline for performance improvement for decades to come.


Swedish runners emerged as the world elites in the 1940s. Gunder Hägg and Arne Anderson were rivals their entire careers, which pushed them both to greatness. Both runners broke the one-mile record multiple times, progressing it closer and closer to the sub-4 dream. Hägg’s record of 4:01.4 was the record that Roger Bannister broke when he ran the first sub-4 mile in recorded history later in 1954.

World War II marred the elite competition of running during the ’40s. The Olympics of both 1940 and 1944 were canceled due to the war. This meant that crucial prime running years for athletes like Hägg and Anderson, as well as many more, were lost on the world stage.


In the 1950s it was Emil Zátopek from Czechoslovakia that was making headlines. He won three gold medals in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The first two were in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. His third was his legendary marathon win, which he decided to run at the last minute. It was the first marathon he had ever run! He remains the only person to have won all three events in one Olympic series.

The biggest milestone in the ‘50s came in 1954 when Roger Bannister broke the sub-4-minute mile in Oxford, England. He only held the record for a few weeks, as it was broken by John Landy shortly thereafter. This became a watershed moment for runners, as hundreds of runners have now broken the sub-4 threshold. The world record for the mile was getting lower and lower but had hovered over the 4-minute mark for almost a decade.

Many point out that the reason the 4-minute mile hovered for so long was because of the war. The time had been repeatedly shortened, most recently by the Swedish duo of Hägg and Anderson, but then got stuck throughout the 1940s. Once the war ended and international competition became more stable, the regular progression of the record resumed.


The ‘60s was the decade that started the era of African domination, which continues to this day. Abebe Bikila was the first Sub-Saharan African man to win an Olympic medal when he won the marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He then became the first person to win back-to-back Olympic marathons when he repeated the win in 1964.

1967 saw the famous Boston Marathon finish by Kathrine Switzer. She was the first woman to finish the marathon with an official entry. Women were not allowed to participate in the event, or any marathon at that time. They were thought to be too weak and fragile to handle such a feat as running 26.2 miles. Anyone who has met a woman knows that this is ridiculous, and Switzer decided to change the world by refusing to leave the course. Race organizers tried to make her. They physically assaulted her throughout the course, trying to rip her race bib off of her. She persevered and finished the race.

The worst part of Switzer’s story was that instead of seeing the greatness of her achievement and opening the marathon to all qualifying women, the officials formalized the rule prohibiting women from running. Switzer lobbied for several more years until the rule was officially removed.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics saw some other great feats beyond Bikila. Peter Snell of New Zealand won gold in both the 800m and 1500m events. Bob Hayes, a future American football player, tied the world record to win gold in the 100m race. These Olympic games were also the last ones to use a cinder track for all of the foot races. There was a worldwide change to synthetic tracks ever since.


The seventies started showing some European superstars coming through. Lasse Virén carried forward the Finnish contribution to the sport that was started by Paavo Numri decades earlier. He won two gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and then repeated with two more in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and is one of the few runners to have won both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events.

Grete Waitz from Norway became the first woman to run a marathon in under two and a half hours in 1979. Her career went on to dominate several marathons in the next decade.

This was also the decade that marathons became accessible events to amateur runners. Most of the big marathons in the world had their first iterations sometime during the late seventies. New York City was in 1970. Berlin was in 1974, and Chicago started in 1977. Smaller marathons started popping up in cities all over the world and runners realized that their careers didn’t end once they aged out of the shorter and faster track races.


The 80s belonged to the British runners Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, and Steve Cram. All three dominated middle-distance events throughout the 1980’s and regularly traded records with each other.

Florence Griffith Joyner became known as the fastest woman in the world at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She broke the records for the 100-meter and 200-meter events, and those records still stand today.

The eighties saw longer distances for women becoming available at events. 1984 was the first Olympic Games to hold the women’s marathon event.

This was also the decade that heart rate monitors started being used, with the first personal heart rate monitoring device becoming available in 1983. This changed training significantly, in that heart rate calculations that were performed manually now became a lot more reliable. The math that is at the core of the training methods used today had been let out of the gate.

Huge advancements in the technology behind running shoes came about in the 1980s. Prior to this decade, running shoes were important but not the gigantic industry that we are accustomed to today. It was during the ‘80s that several famous brands invested a lot of research and development resources into creating better running shoes. Adidas, Reebok, Saucony, and many more brands created shoes with cushioning systems and gel insoles. The Nike Air Max came out in 1987 with its visible air bubble in the heel. The concept of support for different types of feet and arches led to an explosion of different technologies all for the betterment of runners across the world.

The ‘80s also had the first few doping allegations. The science behind performance-enhancing drugs was starting to emerge and the rules about what could or could not be used had only started to form.


The 90s saw the start of doping becoming a significant influence in running. Steroids, EPO, blood transfusions, and other forms of chemical enhancements started to proliferate. Drug testing became standard practice at all major events, and several scandals abounded when athletes either failed drug tests or refused to take them.

China became the home of leading female runners in the 1990s. They set world records everywhere. Wang Junxia was one of the most decorated winners, her record for the 3,000 meter still stands.

One of the most famous scandals was the group that became known as Ma’s Army, a group of Chinese women runners that won several medals and broke records at the 1993 World Championships. Their coach, Ma Junren, was known for his harsh methods. When the team won big, seeming to have come out of nowhere, doping allegations abounded. These were later confirmed when members of the team spoke up claiming that Ma forced them to take performance enhancers.

Wang Junxia was one of the runners on Ma Junren’s team. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, she won the 5,000m event and got a silver medal in the 10,000m event. Allegations of doping surrounded her due to her affiliation with Junren but were never proven.

The 1990s also saw the popularization of altitude training. Benefits from training at high altitude and then racing at sea level were proven and published, and soon many coaches were sending their athletes up into the mountains to train. This became widespread and today we have training centers dedicated to altitude training in several cities.

With the advancement of running shoe technology came running shoe regulation. World Athletics, previously known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) are the rule makers for running shoes. They regularly post requirements for the shoes athletes select. Their mission is to ensure fairness in the events, so a common rule is that the shoe an athlete chooses needs to be generally available to the public for purchase.

One big development in running came from an unexpected source during this decade. Oprah Winfrey finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994. Her accomplishment opened up the sport to everyone. Oprah’s finish showed that the marathon distance was not something limited to elites or lifelong runners. Anyone willing to put in the time and training could run a marathon. Shortly after, the amateur marathon industry sprang to life. Oprah’s time of 4:29:15 has become the goal of many amateur runners to beat.


The first decade of the new millennium brought attention to a new running sport: the ultramarathon. Defined as any race coming in more than 26.2 miles, ultramarathons can range in distance from 50km to hundreds of miles.

Pam Reed brought fame to ultra-running by winning the Badwater marathon twice in 2002 and 2003. She didn’t just win the women’s field – she was the overall winner both years. Similarly, Dean Karnazes won the men’s field in 2003 (following behind Reed), and was the overall winner in 2004. Badwater is 135 miles in one of the hottest climates in the world, Death Valley. Not many people finish this race, and it is considered the hardest race in the world.

Scott Jurek saw success across several ultras, including winning Badwater in 2005 and 2006. One of his most notable achievements was winning the Western States 100 miler six consecutive times from 1999-2005. Jurek’s reputation became more well-known after the publication of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. The book is considered essential reading for all runners, as it tells the story of McDougall, Jurek, and a few others making a trip to Mexico to run with the Tarahumara tribe.

A technology fad during this decade was barefoot running. A movement started with the theory that human feet were meant to run naturally. Shoes were created that were often not much more than thick socks in order to give the feel of running with your feet in their natural form. Thankfully this fad has faded away due to all the injuries reported from running without proper shoes. Barefoot or minimalist running was a key component of Born to Run as well, so the book contributed greatly to the popularization of the theory.

Back on regular roads at the standard marathon distance, Paula Radcliff dominated marathons around the world. Over the course of the decade, she won London three times, New York three times, and Chicago once. At the London marathon in 2003, Radcliff broke the world record with an amazing time of 2:15:25. In 2007 it was removed from the record books due to a rule change that stated that world records could not be set in mixed gender races. The record made a comeback in 2011 when two separate records were introduced for women: "Mixed gender" and "Women only". She held the mixed gender record until 2019.

Smartphone technology dawned during the 2000s and continued to expand into the following decade. Several apps started popping up that allowed runners to record their runs, analyze the data that they would collect from their watches or phones, and share their runs with their social media networks. Strava came around at the end of the decade in 2009 and with it an entire community of running data enthusiasts was born.

The decade saw some astonishing doping scandals. Marion Jones won big at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, taking home three gold and two bronze medals. She was later stripped of her medals after admitting to drug use. Rashid Ramzi, a middle-distance runner from Bahrain, won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 1500-meter event. He was later stripped of the medal when his drug tests showed evidence of performance-enhancing substances.


Usain Bolt was already known as a powerful sprinter going into the 2010s, as he was already the world record holder in the 100m event. However, it was at the 2012 London Olympics where he broke his own record, won gold, and became known internationally as Lightning Bolt, the best sprinter of all time.

Almaz Ayana won and set the world record for the 10,000m event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with a time of 29:17.45. This broke the previous record held by Wang Junxia of China, mentioned above as part of the 1990 highlights.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics also saw a doping scandal in Russia, in which the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recommended that the entire Russian team be banned from the games. The International Olympic Committee ignored the recommendation and instead chose to test athletes individually. 278 athletes were cleared, but 111 failed the test.

Also in this decade, we saw the marathon craze heat up. In 2018 almost 1.3 million people finished an official marathon. This was an increase of almost 50% from 2008. Marathon running became a sport for everyone, not just professional athletes. With this boom, running gear, technology, and shoes all continued to ramp up their quality and usefulness.

Apps that were previously niche products became more widespread. Strava was regularly referred to as Facebook for runners. The apps allowed for the creation of a running community. While running clubs have always been popular, the apps allowed clubs to expand beyond geographical limits.

A big social development in the decade was the recognition of transgender and intersex athletes. The IOC recognized transgender athletes back in the early 2000s but the regulations for meeting their definition of transgender were stringent. Athletes had to prove they had undergone gender reassignment surgery as well as legal recognition of their gender. In 2015 these rules changed because both can be extremely difficult to achieve, especially in countries that don’t recognize transgender rights. The new rules only require that transgender athletes declare their gender to the IOC and do not change it for at least four years. They also have to test their testosterone level, if the athlete has transitioned from male to female.

Intersex athletes, or athletes with differences in sex development (DSD) have also made advances in recognition by the IOC and other international bodies.

There has yet to be a transgender athlete at an Olympic Games competing in the gender with which they identify. These new regulations will continue to change as society adjusts.

2020 and beyond

The goal of this decade is to break the two-hour marathon feat. We’ve already seen one runner do so, Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya accomplished a mind-blowing time of 1:59:40. Because his effort included some technological advancements and a large support team, it didn’t count as a record. But now that we know it is possible, it will only be a matter of time until we push ourselves to make it a reality.

Technology continues to advance, and with it comes improvements in performance. We’ve seen the rise of carbon plates in footwear have an impact on breaking records. The future will continue to bring us new advancements.

The 2020 Olympics were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are supposed to take place in late summer 2021 in Tokyo. The world is waiting to see if the games will proceed. After the horrors of the pandemic, the world needs a global event like the Olympics to bring us together and remind us of the commonality we all share as humans, competing against each other and running together.

Images by Regan Buker (licence), Doha Stadium Plus Qatar (licence), Yann Caradec (licence) and Marco Verch (licence),

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