How fast were runners a few centuries ago?

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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.

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2 responses to “How fast were runners a few centuries ago?

  1. I doubt many people had time or desire to get out and run every day and practice like we do today. I’m guessing that probably has something to do with a developed economy and white collar desk-type jobs. As you said, the farm work probably kept them toned and athletic, but not in much condition to run blazing times – though that 2 hour 21 mile jaunt is quite a feat. Interesting stuff to think about.

    • You are so right. I could have elaborated on this a little further, but it’s difficult to tell how much and how often runners trained in the 18th century. It makes sense though that they didn’t train as much as modern runners, especially not as much as elite professional runners.

      Some of my other readings seem to suggest that in the 18th century, some very fast elite runners were “semi-pro”, so may have trained regularly. There was often prize money for winners, and the better runners may have received financial support from their family(if they were affluent) or their communities. Or maybe they were in the military. So they may have had time to focus on their running if they were really good.

      It may have been similar to how some poor Kenyan runners train today in the Kenyan highlands, even though many are farmers or shepherds. Thanks for your comments!

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