Tag Archives: history of running

How fast were runners a few centuries ago?


It’s an understatement to say that I am obsessed with running. As a I runner, I want to know everything there is to know about running. Being a history buff also makes me curious about the history of running. I’m curious to know how fast runners were centuries ago, and how they trained. It’s fascinating thinking about what they knew, and what they didn’t know, when there was so little science to help guide them.

Centuries ago, runners may have vaguely understood carb-loading, even if they didn’t exactly know what a “carbohydrate” was. It is possible that they knew about interval training and the benefits of hill running. Those runners who ran very long distances must have known about “hitting the wall”, even if they couldn’t explain exactly why it happened, and didn’t have a word or phrase for it. Undoubtedly, runners back then experienced “runner’s high”, though, again, they probably didn’t have a phrase for describing it, nor did they understand why it happened. They obviously didn’t know anything about VO2 Max, lactate thresholds, or fast twitch or slow twitch muscle fibers, beyond maybe a very crude understanding of things associated with them, at best.

Sadly, little survives concerning training methods or running records at various distances before the late 19th century. What little we do have though is revealing. For instance, according to British running performances in the eighteenth century, in 1740, a runner set a record for running 21 miles in 2 hours! That is remarkable! That is a lot faster than me. This is probably one of the fastest speeds recorded for this distance during this time period, which is why it has survived. Most runners back then must have been a lot slower than this.

Besides science being primitive back then, most people in Europe were generally sicklier, and smaller compared to people in the developed world today. Most people lived in poverty. Life expectancy was much shorter, and it was common for people to have suffered from various contagious diseases we now vaccinate for. In 18th century Europe, most people bathed only a few times a year, and hardly anyone brushed their teeth(though they may have picked their teeth or washed their mouths). Very few people had running water, and almost no one had toilets. Indoor air was often extremely polluted due to the use of coal or wood for cooking and heating.

Droughts or a bad growing season often lead to widespread famine, and it wasn’t uncommon for many people to go hungry even during better times. During harsh winters, fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to come by(refrigeration didn’t exist), which could lead to nutritional deficiencies. Even when food was plentiful, it was often contaminated with dangerous pathogens that sometimes killed people. The same was often true of water. Practically all medicine was quackery in that era. One positive back then was that most people were very “athletic”, since the farm work or heavy labor nearly everyone did every day was very physically demanding. Obviously, obesity was almost non-existent, except among the very rich.

The more you think about it, the more amazing it seems that anyone could actually live in conditions like this, never mind how anyone could be healthy enough to run long distances while living in such difficult, unsanitary conditions. In spite of everything, some people ran, and some ran very fast. Try thinking about 18th century runners and all they had to go through next time you run. The demanding work most runners were doing when not running meant they were doing an awful lot of “cross-training”. Sure there were runners in B.C times, but records are even more sketchy from that period.

Still, if I had a time-machine, I would love to go back in time to watch some races, or even participate in some, if they would let me. I wonder what they would think about my joggling! If I could go back in time and talk with these 18th century runners, I’m sure I would learn a lot from them.

Alas, I don’t have a time-machine(yet), but these Age of Enlightenment runners can still inspire us, as well as future generations of runners and other athletes.

The Flying Finns

Hannes Kolehmainen, Olympic gold medalist distance runner and vegetarian

Hannes Kolehmainen, Olympic gold medalist distance runner and vegetarian

Believe it or not, there was a time when east Africans did not dominate distance running. Nowadays, people often ask, “why are those east Africans so freaking fast?”, whenever they predictably win a marathon or other distance race. It wasn’t always like this. This may shock some, but people used to ask “why are those Finns so freaking fast?”.

In the first half of the 20th century, world records in distance running were regularly set or broken by Finnish runners, who were labeled “The Flying Finns” by the press. Yes, Finns, I kid you not. Finnish athletes like Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Taisto Maiki, and Lasse Viren, were all part of this somewhat forgotten phenomenon. The first Flying Finn, Olympic Gold medalist Hannes Kolehmainen was also a devoted vegetarian.

So how is it that the Finns came to dominate distance running? There are no easy answers. Finland is less than ideal for running long distances with its long, cold, dark winters. Or maybe this is part of the reason why. Running through snow requires a lot of stamina, not to mention running in the cold compared to running at a more mild temperature. Whenever Finnish runners would leave Finland to compete in the Olympics in more pleasant climates, it was easy beating athletes who trained in warmer temperatures. But that’s just my theory.

Of course, the east Africans who now dominate distance running don’t have to deal with snow or ice in their homelands, unless they climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but they do have to deal with heat. And if they come from the highlands, lower oxygen levels. The lungs and blood vessels of people who live at high altitudes show signs of having adapted to lower oxygen levels – the lungs usually grow larger and more capillaries tend to form. At lower altitudes, their powerful lungs would give them an advantage in athletics compared to people whose lungs are adapted to lower altitudes(it is possible that evolution plays a role in this too, assuming their ancestors lived in the hill country for thousands of years). As Slate confirms, many of the fastest Kenyan runners were born and raised in the hilly areas of Kenya.

Most of Finland isn’t that hilly(and the hilly areas are very sparsely populated), but the northern 1/3 of the country is within the arctic circle. Maybe the cold air causes similar adaptations as altitude? It is difficult to say. Cold dry air makes breathing a lot more difficult, and can cause inflammation or possibly damage in a lot of people. However, many people can get used to it. Are nordic type people better adapted to it?

Cultural reasons for Finnish domination of distance running don’t make much sense. Their Swedish neighbors have a similar enough culture(and their population has long been much larger than Finland’s), even if the Finns don’t speak an Indo-European language. Yet the Swedes weren’t as dominant as the Finns.

Why did the Flying Finn phenomenon come to an end? It’s difficult to say, but it’s not so much that the Finns got slower, it’s that everyone else, especially the east Africans, got a lot faster.

This makes me wonder if the current east African supremacy in distance running is permanent or maybe some other group will eventually take over. I’m also hoping the approaching winter will turn me into a Flying Finn kind of runner. Don’t forget that just like the first Flying Finn, I’m a vegetarian.