The History of Running: A Brief Introduction

Why does the history of running even matter?

Well, consider that, according to Statistica, close to a whopping sixty million people participated in some variation of the sport in 2017 – and that’s just in the U.S. alone.

Consider also that although most people start running to lose weight or for better health, 55% of those participants continue to run simply because they find it “fun.” And 62% of participants continue running because it helps to “relieve stress.

Given all benefits that science attributes to running regularly, can it be assumed that we, as a species, evolved to run?

Or is it rather that we simply adapted?

It’s a little murky, but we’re going to attempt to wade through the water.

When Was Running Invented?

As long as legs have existed… Not the answer you’ve been looking for? The answer to the question “When was running invented?” is a tough one to give. If you are asking about the very act of running, the answer is that the running was invented, in terms that we can comprehend and execute with our bodies, when the first known biped ran…to save its own life. Going forward to humans, or, to be more exact, Australopithecus (the early ancestor of humans), they first started running when they were being chased by predators…to save their own life. They most probably perfected the act of running when they started hunting. Finally, running as sport i.e. competitive running dates back as far as ancient times in Greece, Egypt, Asia, and the East African Rift in Africa. You probably remember the tale of Philippides and the origin of Marathon. Albeit somewhat of a legend and not an official record, Philippides was tasked to run from the Marathon battlefield to Athens to announce the Persians’ defeat. The name of the legendary battlefield served to evoke this glorious run when the very first marathons started to take place.

Taking into consideration the above, you can say that running was “invented” out of necessity.



A Brief History of Running as a Sport

Running was officially born as a sport in 776 B.C.E, in ancient Greece, in the town of Olympia. The first event in the first Olympics ever held was a race. In fact, from its inception to 724 B.C.E., the stadion race was the only competition hosted at the Olympics.

Before that running was mainly used as something of an expedient – a tool that people possessed that allowed them to find food and avoid dangers.

But it took many, many centuries to give running its modern forms.

Fast forward to 490 B.C.E.

Perhaps you already know the legend of Pheiddepedes and how he single-handedly started the marathon. And if you don’t, don’t worry – we succinctly wrap up his story in our article on ultramarathons:

“Here’s what happened: in 490 B.C.E, a Greek soldier named Pheiddipedes was commissioned to leave town in haste and make his way towards Athens. He was supposed to deliver news of victory over Persia. The town he departed was called Marathon, and Athens was approximately 25 miles away. Legend has it that he ran all the way there in one shot, delivered his message, and dropped dead right on the spot.”

And that was it. The marathon was born.

You might be thinking that this doesn’t really seem like a true story; that it has a very myth-y vibe to it.

But there actually might be some truth mixed in. The legend of Pheiddipedes was first mentioned in the works of Plutarch, a prominent Greek essayist and biographer. He wrote a historical account of the aforementioned Battle of Marathon. Of course, he was writing in the first century C.E.; so there’s plenty of room for doubt.


The advent of the modern Olympics. It was conceived by the Greeks in an attempt to invoke the glory of antiquity. As for the conception of the modern marathon, that was due to a man named Michel Breal, a French philologist, who was adamant about its inclusion in the Olympics. It was a male-only event at the time.

And the first winner of the first marathon was a Greek water-carrier named Spyridon Louis.  Two hours, fifty-eight minutes, and fifty seconds was the first record to beat.

That’s him below – the original champ.

Spyridon-Louis- First-Marathon


The Boston Marathon is born. To this day, the Boston Marathon is considered one of the most prestigious events in running. It was actually inspired by the success of the first modern Olympics held just a year before it.


This year marked the beginning of what’s known as “marathon mania.” The first five marathons held in New York were held on the following special days: Thanksgiving Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, New Year’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, and the day after Christmas.


Frank Shorter, an American, wins the Summer Olympics – and his victory spurred what’s known popularly as the “Running boom of the ’70s.” Approximately twenty-five million people took up running as a hobby or as a sport during that boom – including then-President Jimmy Carter.


The Olympics finally features the first official women’s marathon. Joan Benoit of the U.S. won that one in two hours, twenty-four minutes, and fifty-two seconds.

But she wasn’t the first female to participate or even win a marathon. Many women came before her: Stamata Revithi in 1896 (she ran unofficially at the first modern Olympics), Marie-Louise Ledru (credited as the first female winner of a marathon) in 1918, and Violet Piercy (the first woman to ever be officially timed) in 1926, to name just a few of the more prominent figures that comprise this list.


There are 715 marathons scheduled all around the U.S. in 2019. Clearly, the popularity of the sport hasn’t waned.

Why Do People Run?

But all of this begs the question: why do humans have a history of running at all? Sure, the practical benefits are obvious: when something threatens you, run; when you want something far away, run towards it. But what’s the appeal of just running to run? There must be an explanation.

Have humans evolved to be runners?

Or did they simply adapt?

Well, it’s not entirely clear. Some experts, very convincingly, claim that running long distances is unnatural to our species. They point to the damage that the human body endures when frequently running for too long. They also point out that we aren’t natural swimmers, but we can certainly adapt to a wet environment – but if we swim for too long we’d drown. It’s an apt analogy.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, there’s a school of thought that supports what’s known as the endurance running hypothesis. Put very, very simply, this is the idea that only those of our primate ancestors who could outrun predators and other threats had any chance of survival.

As you can see, both sides have their merits.

So What Does the History of Running Teach Us?

Were we born to run?

We’re inclined to agree with the latter: that our ability to run long distances has its roots in our evolution.

And why do we believe this?

Because humans are the best at it. That’s right: cheetahs might be the fastest animal in a short run – but no cheetah can go the distance with a marathon runner.

Humans can even make horses eat their dust.

And if that’s true, evolution must have played a part. That’s our logic anyway.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Statistica
  2. Business Insider
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