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How the sport has challenged and revealed human potential.
At the end of 2015, the road-running industry was valued at $1.4 billion, with more than 1,100 marathons held annually in the U.S. More and more men and women are lacing up and pinning on race bibs—with good reason: Not only does running strengthen your bones and improve knee health, but just 30 minutes of picking up the pace can also drastically improve your mood, according to research published in “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.” But how did distance running, something that was once exclusively used as a mode of transportation, turn into the major athletic category that it is today?
The history of distance running
Dating all the way back to 776 B.C., the first event of the first-ever Olympics Games was a foot race. In 490 B.C., a Greek soldier named Pheidippides is said to have run from Marathon to Athens, Greece—roughly 25 miles—to deliver news of a military victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. (Not exactly having trained for the extensive feat, the story goes that he keeled over and died immediately afterward.)
Fast-forward to 1896, when organizers for the first-ever international Olympic Games paid tribute to Pheidippides by holding a “marathon” clocking in at 24.85 miles, spanning from Marathon Bridge to Olympic Stadium in Athens. Although only nine out of 25 brave entrants finished the race, it inspired the first-ever Boston Marathon the following year in 1897. It wasn’t until 1908, however, when the marathon was first established as 26.2 miles at the London Olympics. Thirteen years later, the International Amateur Athletic Federation officially declared the marathon to be a 26.2-mile distance.
The running boom of the 1970s
Shortly after Kathrine Switzer—the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon—made her mark, the running boom happened for the mass population. More and more races, from 5Ks to marathons, popped up across the globe. Both the Seattle and New York City marathons began in 1970, and in 1972, and the Boston and Vancouver marathons paved the way for inclusivity by allowing women to enter alongside men. In 1972, Team USA’s Frank Shorter won a gold medal in the Marathon at the Munich Olympic Games. Televised to millions of Americans, Shorter’s gold—the first for the U.S. since 1908—gave the people hope that that they, too, could become champion distance runners.
As more options emerged for non-elite runners, races that were highly exclusive began to feel more attainable. The average person who was willing to put in the work necessary to cross the finish line was now able to cross the finish line. Cash prizes became part of the equation. Sponsorships grew. Today, the largest road race in America—the AGJ Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta—has more than 54,000 runners. Second to that is the TCS New York City Marathon, with just shy of 52,000 runners.
A better training plan
“It’s long been understood that you can’t run hard every day and that gains in fitness happen when we rest and adapt to the challenges of our workouts,” says Gordon Bakoulis, coach for New York Road Runners and five-time qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Even in the 1800s, this held true. Distance racers would do just a few long runs, actually incorporating a slew of long walks (up to 60K!) into their weekly routine, believing that this kind of mileage would prep them safely for longer races. In fact, a bulk of their training incorporated a single half-mile speed run before breakfast and after dinner. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that interval training as we know it today made its way into runners’ schedules, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that phrases like “hill repeats” and “fartlek” (involving varying the speed throughout a run oftentimes alternating fast/slow or fast/medium) came into play.
Training programs for the everyday athlete
Training programs, similar to the ones we use today, surfaced much later in the 1970s. A majority of plans integrated amped-up mileage and two to three days of interval-based workouts. The biggest development? In more recent years, as more and more forms of physical fitness have gained traction, coaches have integrated different ideologies into standard training plans, understanding that not only do runners have to be strong runners, but they also have to be strong physically, period.
“Today, most runners these days include other activities in their fitness routine,” Bakoulis says. “They do some strength training to keep their core strong and flexible, and they do some non-impact activities like water exercise, elliptical or cycling to relieve the pounding of daily running and to target muscles that are not strengthened by running.”
Strength training for runners
Ask any runner back in the day how they prepped for competition, and their response was likely, “I run.” Today, the most successful runners do much more than simply run, and a large amount of that involves strength training. Not only does strength training help reduce the rate of injury, but it also improves overall running form. Run-specific exercises, many of which aim at strengthening the posterior chain—the muscles on the back side of the body that help propels you forward and stand taller—are critical. Think hamstrings, glutes and lower back; exercises in a runner’s routine should include options like deadlifts, squats and lunges.
Of course, a strong core is also the center to a strong runner. Aside from helping maintain a tall posture, it also improves running efficiency so that your legs, pelvis and hips work together cooperatively for boosted performance.
The evolution of running shoes
Today, runners have their pick of foot suit—ranging from minimalist options like Vibram FiveFingers to plush offerings like the Hoka One One Bondi 5. Established sneaker companies offer sneakers specific to runners’ individual gait type and shoes for those who need stability or have flat feet. It’s a totally different ball game than in the early 1920s, when the first running shoes were made by Adolf Dassler. His offering? Sneakers that were made especially for running certain distances, some of which had spikes. By 1936, big names in the sport like Jesse Owens were wearing them.
Come 1960, New Balance offered what would be the first mass-produced sneaker weighing in at less than 11 ounces, and then—in 1974—Nike got in on the game with its Waffle Trainer. The rest, well, it’s history. In 2015 alone, the U.S. athletic footwear industry generated $17.2 billion.
Fueling for success
Now regarded as one of, if not the, most important component of race day, the types of nutrition available to today’s racers are extensive.
“Good nutrition and hydration before, during and after running is more widely understood today than it was a generation ago, when runners routinely wouldn’t drink or eat during races (even marathons) and options were limited,” Bakoulis says.
Indeed, it was super rare for runners to consume fuel during an event before the mid-1980s. Even hydration was seen as weak in the early 20th century. Sports energy gels date back to 1986, when a product called Leppin Squeezy was created in Britain. Today, athletes consume everything from gels and “gus” to gummies and jelly beans. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that extensive studies were done on the effects of dehydration on athletic performance. In 1996, the American College of Sports Medicine came out with its official recommendation, suggesting that runners replace sweat losses by consuming roughly 150 to 300 milliliters of water every 15 minutes. The ideal? For exercise that exceeds one hour, consume a sports drink that consists of 4 to 8 percent carbohydrates and totes some sodium.
The sport has come far, and as we understand more and more about human performance, runners are better equipped to go the distance (even running ultras—100-mile races) even into their 80s!
Cardio Challenge: 24-Minute Treadmill Workout
If you’re looking for a fast-paced way to mix up your regular cardio training, add some variation with a pyramid workout on the treadmill. The workout gradually ramps up to its maximum intensity before winding back down, allowing your muscles to warm up and cool off to reduce the risk of injury. It’s perfect for gym days when you’re pressed for time, and while it’s relatively short, the pyramid workout takes advantage of the treadmill’s ramp incline functionality for maximum cardio impact.
– Press the quick-start button, which allows you to manually adjust the speed and incline as needed.
– Every one or two minutes, you’ll adjust the belt speed and/or ramp incline according to the chart below.
Gauge your level of exertion throughout your workout by using the heart-rate monitors in the handlebars and by using the talk test. (If you can carry on a conversation with no problem, speed up. If you’re breathing heavily and struggle to get more than a few words out, slow down.)
The four minutes of walking that follow the 10-minute running portion of the workout should bring your heart rate down from its maximum level. This is an important step because you want your heart rate to gradually return to its resting rate. If you abruptly stop intense exercise without this cool-down period, it can cause a drop in blood pressure that results in dizziness.
Once you’ve cooled down, end the 20-minute treadmill session with four to 10 minutes of cool-down stretching to promote muscle recovery, improve circulation and reduce any post-workout soreness.
Photo credit: dmitrimaruta, Adobe Stock