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Out There: Running Advice From 159 Years Ago

Walker’s Manly Exercises, published in 1855, provides amusing tips on running.

Walker’s Manly Exercises, published in 1855, provides amusing tips on running.

“We need a running renaissance.”

One of my friends, a bearded ultrarunner, likes to wax poetic on the “old ways” of running. He’s the hipster type, the kind of guy who wears his trucker hat just a little too tight and uses words like “parsimonious” while drinking dollar bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He eschews all technology during his trail runs and is adamant our sport would be better off if we all ran like we did 150 years ago – unplugged and untethered. Prizes for winners only. Grit mandatory. Milquetoasts unwelcome.

“They were real men back then,” he says, taking a long swig of his beer. “We’ve gotten soft these days.” My tight smile masked my tongue tightly between my teeth, resisting the urge to point out we’re both wearing skinny jeans.

I’m not entirely sold on the idea of a renaissance. Sure, I’m all in favor of a watch-free run now and then, but I also happen to think we live in one of the best times for runners. We’ve got a vibrant, welcoming, diverse community with a wealth of options for gear, nutrition, and training styles.

Did our ancestors really have it all that great? Have we really gotten that soft? Should we be aspiring to be like these so-called “real men”?

In small part because my curiosity was piqued, and in large part because I love to call out hipsters on their B.S., I decided to find out. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to pull up an appropriate book on running from 1855. (I bet they would’ve loved smartphones back then.) The best part? It was for “real men.”

The aptly-named Walker’s Manly Exercises features chapters on athletic feats such as “one-armed swimming” and “the deep leap backwards from a rest on the hands.” Running, of course, is included, because it is the manliest of manly exercises (though the chicks have been known to swoon over a good one-armed swim, too).

Actually, if you are to do it Walker’s way, not running – leaping. The chapter on running begins by breaking down the minutiae of the motion:

“A series of leaps from each foot alternately must be performed…the centre of gravity remains uncertain in passing from one leg to another, which forms a series of leaps…”

But to become a serial leaper, one must first get the proper gear.

“A very light covering from the head, as a straw hat, is best; the shirt-collar should be open, the breast being either exposed or thinly covered; the waistband of the trousers should not be tight, as the boots or shoes should have no iron about them…a belt or cincture is of utility; The weakest savage, who could not follow others in the course without panting, would find, by placing his hand over his abdomen, and supporting the liver and other organs which descend into that cavity, that he was aided in running, and breathed more easily.”

The corresponding illustration shows a slim man running – ahem, leaping – while donning in a loose shirt tucked into a pair of high-waisted pants which taper at the ankles. Forget split shorts – Manly men wear Mom Jeans.

Lest the reader become overly ambitious about his skills, the authors remind men to “trot at the rate of about seven feet per second,” or approximately 13 minutes per mile. Faster runners exist, sure, but the human body has limitations:

“The mile was perhaps never run in four minutes, but it has been done in four minutes and a half. Half a mile was recently run in two minutes, but it was down a fall as precipitous as a mountain’s side, and the performer was blind in the last twenty yards.”

Even back then, people were trying to put asterisks next to running records set on downhill courses. So how do you become one of those esteemed five-minute milers? It’s simple physiology:

“The best runners are those who have the best wind, and keep the breast dilated for the longest time.”

Ah, but the dilated breast is the only place in which wind should reside. A breeze originating from one’s Mom Jeans is frowned upon, so athletes should eat a proper, wind-proof diet:

“Animal diet, it will be observed, is, according to this system, alone prescribed, and beef and mutton are preferred…the legs of fowls are also esteemed. Biscuit and stale bread are the only preparations of vegetable matter which are permitted to be given; and every thing inducing flatulency must be carefully avoided.”

The nutrients from muttonchops and day-old sourdough will safeguard your organs as they slosh around in your belly:

“In running, the mass of our organs is agitated by violent and constant shocks, which succeed with rapidity…If, at the first trial, you run too fast or too long a time, it may produce spitting of the blood…”

Should one experience these adverse effects from running, the cure is more running, because even in 1855, runners were too stubborn to take a rest day:

“The pedestrian must take a four-mile sweat, which is produced by running four miles at the top of his speed. Immediately on returning, a hot liquor is prescribed, in order to promote the perspiration; and of this he must drink one English pint.”

I find it fascinating that today’s athletes have evolved from the advice given 159 years ago, that we’ve gone from “no iron on your shoes” to full stores devoted to running footwear; that a 4:30 mile has whittled away to 3:43; that our insides don’t slosh around violently during running as originally thought; that women run now, too (and have been known to beat the manly men from time to time).

Renaissance? No, thanks. I’m good in this time period.

I wonder how the authors of Walker’s Manly Exercises would react to seeing today’s runners. I like to think they’d raise an English pint of hot liquor. I’d tip a pint right back at them.

To promote the perspiration, of course.


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she is a featured contributor to Triathlete and Women’s Running magazines. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with four animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, a pinscher and a freakishly tall triathlete named Neil. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke