Looking back at runners of the past can incite a lot of giggles—it’s insane what we used to believe about this sport. Take, for example, this quote from 1855:
“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.”
These days, four-minute miles are still an impressive feat, though two-minute halfs are run by high schoolers every week, and are not blindness-inducing (thank goodness).
Despite what we once believed as absolute fact, there’s a lot we’ve gotten wrong about running over the years. Looking back at old books and magazine articles on running can provide us with a lot of laughs, but also reminds us that we’ve come a long way in understanding this sport. And we still have a long way to go—looking back at the running advice that hasn’t aged well serves as an important caution against hubris—if we’ve gotten so many “facts” wrong in the past before, it’s entirely possible today’s advice will become obsolete as running evolves.
Who Is A Runner?
“[We are] fed up to the ears with women as track and field competitors. A woman’s charms shrink to something less than zero. Keep them where they are competent, as swimmers and divers; girls are as beautiful and adroit as they are ineffective and unpleasing on the track. —Sportsman Magazine, 1936
“He is white, white-collar and well off. He earns about $30,000 a year and probably has a graduate degree. He eats meat, does not smoke and his resting pulse is 52 1/2 beats per minute. He is the average runner. He could be anyone. He could be Jimmy Carter.” —The Washington Post, 1979
Jimmy Carter was, indeed a runner, infamously collapsing during a 10K in Maryland. That part is true. But when we look at the average runner today, things have changed in a big way. Running is no longer a sport for elite white men. Running is truly an all-comers sport, with all genders, races, and socioeconomic status represented at races today. Though women were once discouraged from running, today they outnumber men at races. Events also feature everything from young kids to 94 year-old half marathoners, and even those with physical disabilities are able to race in wheelchair and handcycle divisions. It’s a good time for everyone to be a runner—not just the Jimmy Carter types.
What’s the Best Running Attire?
“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.” —Walker’s Manly Exercises, 1855
“The first Oregon runner for whom [Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman] made a pair of spikes was Phil Knight in 1958. ‘They were a white, rubber-coated fabric, the kind you’d use for a tablecloth you could sponge off,”…During this period Bowerman was coming out with a new experimental shoe every week. His best shoes used kangaroo skin – light, stretchy, but resilient enough to hold its shape.” —From Kenny Moore’s Bowerman and the Men of Oregon
“I noticed when I wore a regular-style cloth shirt on my long runs that I sweatily finished with the shirt sticking to my chest, wet with perspiration…The best material [for a running shirt] was the goal net in a child’s toy hockey set.” —Ray Hughes, Runner’s World, 1973
Let’s all take a moment to be grateful for moisture-wicking technical tees that do not chafe. Also, sports bras, which didn’t come into existence until the 1970s. And while we’re at it, let’s give thanks to the Endurance Gods for running specialty shops, each of which are filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of high-tech shoes not made from kangaroo skin. Running gear is constantly evolving, with each innovation propelling everyday runners into real-life superheroes.
What should runners eat?
“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 everything inducing flatulency must be carefully avoided.” —Walker’s Manly Exercises, 1855
“The purpose of carbohydrate loading is to supersaturate with glycogen the muscles to be used in competition. The competition should be longer than 30 to 60 min. to fully utilize the glycogen stores. An exhausting exercise is first performed to deplete the glycogen stores, and a high-fat, high-protein diet is followed for three days to keep the glycogen stores low. After depletion of the muscles, a high-carbohydrate diet is followed for two to three days to restore and supersaturate the muscles with glycogen.” —Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1979
Though we can totally get behind the 1855 idea that flatulency-inducing must be carefully avoided (it’s not cool to crop-dust your fellow runners), most nutritional advice of yore has been largely debunked. Take the notion of carbo-loading, for example, which was running gospel for years—today, we know it’s not necessary to gorge on huge plates of pasta pre-race. But even now, runners find it hard to come to a collective agreement on nutritional philosophy. We’re constantly chasing the next superfood and diet fad, touting it as the key to the next PR. In general, however, you can’t go wrong with cutting back on processed foods and stocking your fridge with plenty fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
What does a runner look like?
‘Scarcely any form of athletics has so many followers who differ so absolutely in physique from the popularly accepted idea of an “athlete,” as do the so-called “pedestrian” sports, which include running and hurdling. The frailest and palest youths have sometimes proved themselves the most powerful racers; and it is no uncommon sight on the track to see a thin, weak-looking boy run a big, muscular fellow “off his feet.” —The Book of Athletics, 1895
“Good runners are startlingly thin…A runner in good condition weighs not more than two pounds per inch of height. A man is not more than 5 or 10 percent fat; a women [sic], not more than 15 or 25 percent…Ted Corbit, the former Olympic marathoner…says, ‘When people tell you how good you look, you can be sure you’re not fit. If you don’t look gaunt, you’re out of shape.’” —The Complete Book of Running, 1977
Runners come in all shapes and sizes! Though weight loss can be a side effect of running, it’s not guaranteed. Besides, not all weight loss is good weight loss. Though the notion of the super-skinny runner still persists, today’s running community is working to change that; pushing the idea that “good runners are startlingly thin” contributes to the pervasiveness of eating disorders and unrealistic body expectations within the sport.
Is running good for you?
“Jogging has too much bang-bang, and that is particularly damaging to the hip.” – Dr. Donald Lannin, Sports Illustrated, 1976
“Jogging squashes your spine like an accordion. – Dr. Joseph Benninson, 1977
“Among the casualties of jogging are the ‘dropped’ stomach, the loose spleen, the floating kidney and the falling arches.” – Dr. J.E. Schmidt, “Jogging Can Kill You,” Playboy, 1976
Though we’d like to say running doesn’t get a bad rep anymore, we also know plenty of runners have heard the well-intentioned warning of “Running will wreck your knees!” This notion, by the way, has been proven false, as have more extreme warnings like spine-squashing, loose spleens, floating kidneys, and “jogging can kill you.” What’s more, advances in kinesiology have allowed today’s runners to better understand why injuries happen, leading to a full arsenal of injury prevention and treatment methodologies.
Should runners strength train?
“I don’t believe that we need to do any strength exercises to run a marathon. If you have any doubts, look at the “toothpick” limbs of the winners of any major marathon. It’s obvious they don’t spend time in the gym.” —Jeff Galloway, Marathon: You Can Do It! 2010
Though Galloway’s advice is fairly recent, it echoes a sentiment long believed: The only training runners need to do is run. But that’s not necessarily the case—today’s top runners do, in fact, spend time in a gym, as do many of their age-group counterparts. In addition to preventing injuries, strength training can foster a more effective running stride, boost VO2max, and improve muscle recruitment.