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Running through history


Lance Smith provides not a history of running but a brief overview of some of the crucial developments that lead to changes in training methods.

A man probably started running out of necessity, either to eat or to escape being eaten. Running was always part of warfare and communication (Pheidippides, a messenger bringing news of battle - Pharaohs and noblemen of ancient Egypt having runners precede them to proclaim the importance of their master). No one knows when running became a recreation, but races of 3200m (4 laps between two pillars 800m apart) took place in Egypt 3800 B.C. Running was a part of the ancient Olympics; for the first 13 Olympiads, a sprint race was the only event, although longer races and other events were added to the programme over the years. The first Olympics were held in 776 B.C. and continued for almost 1200 years. At first, the Olympics were religious festivals honouring various gods and the idea of physical perfection, but over time contestants lost their religious ideals and winning money became the prime motivation. Of course, running was important in many other cultures, and there are records of Native Americans having races lasting several days.

Betting on Runners

In England the nobles of the 17th century took great pride in the running ability of their footmen, arranging races and betting heavily on "their man". In the 16th century, cross country was an integral part of the public school system with "hare and hounds" and "paper chases". By the 19th century, professional running was popular, and betting was part of the attraction. Professional runners (and walkers) trained with steady runs plus time trials with long brisk walks a regular training activity. Many were training twice a day, so the practice of significant mileage was common well before Lydiard.

Early 20th Century

The early part of the 20-century belonged to Europe and America. English and American training volumes were invariably low - 40 to 60 kilometres a week with up to 40 minutes steady runs and various rep sessions. However, the Finns took the amount to a high level, often training twice a day. The Finns dominated distance running between the two world wars. Through these years, coaching was a rarity. Athletes trained themselves or, by the traditions of the day, the coach went unrecognised (Chariots of Fire - the hero was criticised because he employed a coach.)

But this was to change

Finn Paavo Nurmi and his coach Pikhala were possibly the first to apply scientific principles to training. They recognised the relationship between work and rest, and their system of dividing training into numerous spells of effort laid the foundation for interval training. Their method became known as terrace training, with each being built on the previous, like a terrace. Nurmi was untouchable, both in training and racing. He trained twice a day, and his sessions were so hard no one could train with him. Long (4 hours) walks were part of his routine. Finland, led by Nurmi, dominated distance running in the 1920s and at the 1924 Olympics, he won golds in the 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m cross country and 3k teams' race.

Swedish national coach Gosta Holmer studied Nurmi's training methods and adapted it to produce fartlek training in the early 1930s - Fartlek is literally "speed play" with bursts of varying lengths (50m up to 3000m) and intensities injected into a run over natural trains and forests with recoveries varying as well. Fartlek developed high-speed endurance and led to Swedes Haag, Strand and Anderson setting numerous world records.

Woldemar Gerschler of Germany took training methods further by devising interval training. Gerschler studied the Swedish and Finnish methods and concluded they lacked sufficient speed work. His system enabled higher intensities because of the periods of rest or easy running that allowed partial recovery. The key was the athlete's pulse rate. Pulse was raised to 180 in the effort with a recovery that allowed it to drop to 120 within 90 seconds. Gerschler's system also incorporated gym work, time trials and a weekly long run (1.30 to 3 hours). First to achieve fame under Gerschler was Rudolf Harbig, who ran 1.46.6 for the 800m in 1939, taking almost 2 seconds off the world record.

Another dominating force in this period was New Zealander Jack Lovelock. Lovelock applied scientific principles to his training (a doctor) and developed mental strategies to a new level. He would run a key race in his mind for months beforehand, rehearsing every possible eventuality.

He believed the body was a bank - the more work that was deposited over a lengthy period in the conditioning period, the more you could withdraw on race day. After finishing 7th in the 1500m at the 1932 Olympics, he concluded that he lacked the strength to run heats and finals on consecutive days. The lead up to 1936 mixed aerobic and anaerobic endurance and included 10k runs, long walks, tempo or anaerobic threshold runs of around 5km, swimming (cross-training) and very little racing. The result, of course, is history.

Science, intervals and workloads

Interval training became the dominant system from the late 1940s. Although self-trained, Emil Zatopek (Czechoslovakia) used interval-training principles and upped them - he would have a session of 60 x 400m for ten days in a row or run reps in heavy army boots. It is important to note that much of Zatopek's training, including 400m rep sessions, was aerobic and built a huge base. Over 16 years, he broke 18 world records and won 4 Olympic golds, all in record times. Zatopek's workloads inspired Gordon Pirie (U.K.) to train hard - harder than was thought sensible. The British athletic establishment was alarmed at Pirie's huge mileage, but it paid off. Under the guidance of Gerschler, Pirie set twenty UK and four world records and won Olympic silver (Melbourne, 1956). Pirie's training was devised after extensive physiological tests (treadmill, cycling machine, track workouts) conducted by Gerschler and a cardiologist at the University of Freiburg. Sports science is not a recent development. Franz Stampfl, an Austrian living in the U.K. applied interval training principles to his coaching, and it was his methods guided Roger Bannister to the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. Stampfl also advised Chris Chataway (world record 5000m) and Chris Brasher (Olympic steeplechase gold).

Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi took interval training a stage further by incorporating sets into sessions. Igloi's athletes trained extremely hard, often an hour in the morning and two in the afternoon. He had sessions such as 10 x 100m with 100m jogs as a warm-up then 4 x 4 x 400m in 64" with each fourth rep (last one in a set) in 60" with 200m jog between reps and 400m jog between sets followed by a 1200m jog then 14 x 200m with 100m jog recoveries then an 800m jog then 6 x 175m with alternately two at 100% and two at 90%, finishing with 15 x 100m shakedown with 100m jog recoveries. Igloi's athletes were the dominant force in the mid-1950s, breaking many world records. The 1956 Hungarian uprising saw Igloi move to the USA where his best-known charge was Jim Beaty, the first to run a sub-four-minute mile indoors.

Contrary to the perception that Lydiard introduced big mileages, distance runners of this period often exceeding 100 miles (160km) a week, including Pirie and Kuts (Russia). Igloi's session above covered 24km, with some sessions reaching 35kms, a great proportion of it at intensive effort, while marathoner Jim Peters and his coach Johnny Johnston were advocating full effort under distance time trials built on a base of long steady runs, a system Johnston was given by his coach (Bill Thomas) in the 1920s. When Peters took up marathons, the mileage went up with volume and intensity greater than accepted by coaches and athletes of the time.

Down Under on top and advent of periodisation

The next big influence came from Australia and New Zealand, courtesy of Percy Cerutty and Arthur Lydiard. At the end of the 1950s, every world record from 800m to 10,000m was held by interval trained athletes. This was to change. Lydiard used himself as an experiment to determine and perfect his system. He reasoned that the interval training should be replaced with a large aerobic base (160km a week - he called it marathon conditioning) followed by hill work, track training, and carefully planned speed sessions. His recommended phases are:

  1. Ten weeks (or more) marathon conditioning - aerobic only to start but fartlek introduced.
  2. Four to six weeks of resistance (hill sprints and springs).
  3. Four weeks (no more) anaerobic development (reps, fartlek).
  4. Peaking - speed, race practice, time trials.


The fallacy of long slow runs in the build-up was just that - a fallacy. Much of the aerobic running was close to the anaerobic threshold. He also believed in cross country as a conditioner and strength builder - and the tougher, the better. Consider: when the cross country was strong in New Zealand, track standards were high.

Kenya and Morocco now dominate the world cross country and produce the world's best distance track runners. Coincidence? I don't think so. Lydiard, along with Cerutty, was probably the first to periodise a year. Before them, training just changed from one form of interval training to another. Cerutty had a more complex approach than Lydiard but was built on the same principles of high volume mixed with long intervals, fast reps, sandhill running and weights. Herb Elliot was Cerutty's most famous athlete, while Snell, Halberg, Magee and Baillie established Lydiard's reputation.

Science and Drugs

Science had a massive influence on coaching in the mid to late 20th Century. Most advances came from Eastern Europe, where state funding spared no expense in gaining a propaganda advantage for communism over the west. Unfortunately, drugs were part of the science, although many advances in physiology and training methodology today came from the universities and laboratories of East Germany and the USSR. This includes much of what we know on the effects of altitude training, periodisation, lactate acid, VO2 max and plyometrics.

Back to the UK

Lydiard went to Finland to coach and developed a system that produced such greats as Lasse Viren and Pekka Vasala, but the 1970s and 80s belonged to New Zealand again, thanks to Walker, Quax and Dixon. Although not coached by Lydiard, their coaches followed his principles, and they trained the Lydiard way. However, the next dominant force was the U.K., led by Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, with Dave Moorecroft and Steve Cram playing important supporting roles. Coe used many of Cerruttty's principles, including hills (steep hills for 100m reps, gentler slopes for up to 800m), fartlek, weights, plyometrics and circuits. Ovett's training featured long runs off-road and pre-season sand dune running.

The African Revolution

In his commentary on the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a TV commentator described Peter Rono's 1500m win as "another upset from the Kenyans" after Paul Ereng took the 800m gold for Kenya. Little did he know - perhaps the real upset was Europeans finishing second and third (Elliott, UK, Herold, GDR). In 1988 North and East Africans won 6 of the 18 men's Olympic distance running medals on offer. In 1992 this became 10 of the 18, and in 2000 at Sydney North and East Africans won 17 of the 18 men's medals. (Europe picked up two medals, but one was won by a Kenyan representing Denmark. The African domination continued at Athens, with 12 medals going to North African born athletes. Medal count alone does not show the full extent of African strength - in the 5000m nine of the first ten runners were from the region; in the 10,000m, Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Kenyan medal winners had Africans taking three of the following four positions.

And North and East Africa has dominated the world cross country scene for 20 years or more. Why, and how?

Part is tradition, lifestyle, genetics, the opportunity to make big money, and a big part is excellent coaching and high work ethic. There is no getting away from the fact that Kenyans train hard. Indeed, many live at altitude. They have an ideal body shape of a light frame, good musculature, great power to weight ratio, plus a history of aerobic conditioning thanks to formative years spent running over natural terrain rather than driving everywhere. But it's not the complete picture. Kenyans train hard, but hard training has yet to produce a world-class Kenyan sprinter. Wilson Kipketer (world record in 800m) lived next door to his school and walked there. An important factor could be attitude. East and North Africans expect to win in the same way that the All Blacks expect to win. And then there is the standard of local competition that immediately raises the bar - a Kenyan has to beat the best in the world to make a Kenyan team. When local competitions are the standard of world championships or higher (Olympics can have only three Kenyans in a team, in the Kenyan trials or a club race, there is no limit), standards must improve.

While many Kenyan coaches have been through the American college system or learnt their coaching skills at an American university, Kenya is not blessed with sports science labs and the proliferation of all-weather tracks. But nor was New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s. Well coached athletes and prepared to work hard is the common factor. It resulted in both countries being the best in the world. That does not mean science is ignored. Wodemeskel Kostre, known as the father of Ethiopian athletics and coach of many of Ethiopia's greatest runners including Tulu, Gebrselassie and Bekle, and the all-conquering cross-country team, graduated from the Budapest Institute of Sports Science and Pedagogy then later returned to Budapest for his PhD. Kostre's interest in athletics stemmed from Abebe Bikila's Olympic marathon gold at Rome. Bikila not only inspired Kostre, but he also inspired a whole country - Ethiopia is still passionate about athletics.

The Moroccan approach is also science-based. Morocco operates one of the most scientifically advanced training systems in the world and includes talent spotting and selection, testing (including scientifically analysed running styles) and huge financial support. The Moroccans realised that they lacked the depth of talent of Kenya, so invested heavily in their system. In the 1970's they decided they could not match developed countries in the technical events, so they decided to focus on middle and distance events. According to Australian coach and author Tony Benson, the Ethiopians favour a Lydiard based system with more long runs. In contrast, the Kenyans base their training on Cerutty principles with more threshold work. Kenyans appear to do a higher percentage of training at their anaerobic threshold.

Many factors are inherent in the rise of African running, and many more have not been discussed here. But beware of stereotypes and generalisations. For every Kenyan athlete who ran 10 miles to and from school every day, one walked next door (or boarded at the school itself). For every Ethiopian who runs to fame across rough savannah trails, one is coached by a sports scientist at elaborate facilities. But the one common factor among all is desire and commitment. The Moroccans may find the physically perfect runner in their talent identification programme, but it means nothing without the athlete's commitment.

Equal Rights for Woman

All the above is male slanted, and most training advances have been male-only for the simple reason women were not permitted to run distances until comparatively recently. While women's events were introduced at the 1928 Olympics, the longest race was 800m. However, many of the finishers collapsed, and there was such an outcry that the women's 800m was taken off the Olympic programme and not reinstated until 1960. (How come no one comments when men collapse exhausted at the end of a race). And it wasn't until 1972 that women could run 1500m at the Olympics and 1988 before they could run a 5000m (it was 3000m until then). The IAAF did not recognise records in the 1500m until 1967, in the 3000m until 1972 and the 5000m and 10,000m until 1981. Prejudice was not confined to chauvinistic Europeans - in New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote, NZAA Chairman Harold Austed said they should never send a woman to the Games (Olympics) if a good man were available. And NZAAA member Harry Amos declared he would resign rather than countenance athletics for women. (He never did - he managed the first New Zealand Olympic team to contain a female athlete.)

One of the most significant blows for women's rights came from Katherine Switzer, who entered the 1967 Boston Marathon, an all-male affair, as K. Switzer. A crash tackle by a race organiser in an attempt to get her out of the race drew attention to the inequality, and in 1972 women were permitted to enter officially. It was another 12 years, however, before a women's marathon was included on the Olympic programme. The significant advances in women's distance performances in recent times are as dodgy as the chauvinism of previous years. East European middle distance and later Chinese performances over all distances have to be treated with suspicion. Evidence of systematic drug regimes among East European athletics is now well documented. Now the question is whether women's performances will equal or overtake men's performance. Expert opinion says no, although it is believed women's performances will one day be superior to men's in ultra-events.

The Future Where to from here?

Advances in track technology will improve performances, and science will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in coaching methodology. But the greatest advances will come from economics - rising living standards (and better nutrition, more leisure time, better facilities) leads to higher numbers of participants. More people competing in athletics will statistically mean more elite athletes. An example given by Bruce Tulloh in Peak Performance is Nigeria, a country of 90 million. Not long ago, perhaps 10% of the population could take part in sport. Now it's over 60%. This means an extra 50 million people with the potential to partake in sport. Apply the same hypothesis to China, and you have the potential of an extra billion people involved in sport. Statistics say some will be distance runners, and a small percentage of those will be great distance runners. A small percentage of a billion makes a lot of great runners!

Page Reference

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  • SMITH, L. (2007) Running through history [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and participates in harriers, track events and jumps. He lives in Invercargill, New Zealand. This article has been produced here with his kind permission.