When Was Running Invented?: An In-Depth Look at The History of Running

“When was running invented?”

Well, that largely depends on who you ask – and your definition of invented.

Ask the internet ‘when was running invented’ or ‘who invented running’, and it’ll probably tell you Thomas Running invented running in 1748 when he tried to walk twice at the same time. While amusing, I’d recommend not putting that in any college essays. 

Ask my uncle Gary, and he’ll say it was invented the first time a human being put one foot in front of the other, but faster. 

Chances are, you’re probably looking for a bit more serious of an answer, though.

First off, we should clarify – running was never invented, as in, it wasn’t started or created by a person. It’s a natural ability that humans and animals have!

Who invented running?

It’s something inherent within our abilities as human beings, like walking or jumping – so no-one invented running!

In that case, let’s break down how running became a part of our modern culture, piece by piece. 

When you think of running today, fitness measurements or sports might come to mind. But in different cultures and in different times, running took on many other roles. Let’s start at the beginning and work our way forward. 

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Running for Humans: A History

Humans evolved from simpler forms before becoming the homo sapiens we are today. Like so many other species, these ancestors had predators, making the ability to escape essential to survival. Evolving the ability to run gave our scale-less, hide-less bodies a much-needed advantage. Natural selection at work!

when was running invented
Zulus running with Africani dogs, looking much the same as running would have appeared centuries ago

Running also enabled the hunted to become the hunters. Groups would send out the most physically fit or skilled people to do the hunting. So running may have turned into a competition naturally, to determine the best survivors of the group. 

It’s thought that persistence hunting is one of the tactics that modern hominids used to successfully survive and thrive, leading to our species as we know it today. To persistence hunt, a group of hunters would chase after their prey for several hours, strategically taking it in turns to be the head runner and tiring out the animcal. In this way, running may be considered a formal part of our DNA.

persistence hunting when was running invented

Running as a Symbol

3100 B.C. 

The ancient Egyptians used running as a symbol as early as 3100 B.C. in an unusual festival called the Sed festival.

The Sed festival, also known as Heb Sed, was a massive occasion to celebrate the pharaoh’s continued rule. They usually started after 30 years of a pharaoh’s reign, and continued every 3 years until his death. 

This gigantic festival involved several stages. The pharaoh would make various offerings to the gods. He would then hold a glamorous “re-crowning” ceremony that symbolized the renewal of his rule. 

The running aspect, though, was the course designed for the pharaoh to run himself. A course was constructed to represent the lands of Egypt. The pharaoh would run four laps. For the first two laps he would be dressed in the royal regalia of Upper Egypt. For the last two, he would wear the clothing for Lower Egypt. 

when was running invented
Egyptian hieroglyph showing the Pharaoh seated on the crown (left) and running in the Heb festival (right)

The consequences for not finishing the race are no longer known, though many historians have guesses. Some think the race was purely ceremonial, indicating the “outrunning of old age.” 

Others believe it was more practical. Pharaohs that could not finish the race may have been found unfit to rule. In that case, they may have been immediately sacrificed to make room for a younger, more able-bodied successor. 

Running as a Competition

Maybe your question was more along the lines of, “When was running invented as a sport?

The Tailteann Games

While it’s impossible to pinpoint any one location as the true start, the earliest event on record took place in Ireland in 1829 B.C. The Irish people held a festival to commemorate the death of the Irish goddess and queen Tailtiu. It was there they held several competitions, including races. 

This festival was the birthplace of the Tailteann Games, funeral games to honor the dead. There was a wide spread of events featuring running, including:

  • High jump
  • Long jump
  • Spear throwing

Other events included:

  • Sword Fighting
  • Boxing
  • Archery
  • Chariot racing

In between these events, the Tailteann Games held mass marriages and announced the signing of new laws. 

The Olympics

ancient greek olympics when was running invented

The Tailteann Games were thought to have directly influenced the Olympic Games. 

The first Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C. in Greece. Named after the town where they were held, Olympia, the first Olympic Games were only running. No other competitions were added until 724 B.C. 

At this point, the race was a distance of 200 yards called a stadion race. The stadion was a building similar to the stadiums we have today, and is where the word as we know it actually came from.

The marathon as we know it was inspired by a legend from 490 B.C. (as we’ll get to) but wasn’t introduced as a sport until much later, when the Olympic games were re-introduced in 1896.

Related article – The History of the Marathon: Why Is a Marathon 26.2 Miles Long?

Running as a Profession

When Was Running Invented As a Job?

Fast forward to 490 B.C., and we catch up with a Greek messenger named Pheidippides

For first-time voyagers into Greek history, Pheidippides was an Athenian “day runner” for the Greek military. The official term for these day runners is hemerodrome, also translated as “courier.” Day runners carried messages or proclamations from land to land, often taking all day to do so.

Pheidippides was tasked with an important part of history when the Persians invaded. The Persians had taken the coastal plains of Marathon, and the Greeks were badly outnumbered. Miraculously, the Greeks managed to drive them back.

He was sent from the battlefield back to Athens to announce their victory.

Pheidippides ran over 25 miles to deliver this news. Some historians claim it was much longer, as it’s likely he went to Sparta first to gather reinforcements. Some even estimate it was closer to 150 miles in total with the Spartan stop included.

(Sparta said “no” to providing reinforcements, by the way.)

The story goes that he arrived in Athens about two days later. Upon arrival, he dropped his clothes to shed the extra weight, proclaimed, “We have won!” and then dropped dead on the spot from exhaustion. 

how long is a marathon pheidippides
A depiction of Phidippides, Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

To honor Pheidippides and his journey from Marathon, the races as we know them now came to be known as marathons. These wouldn’t make it into the Olympic Games until they were revived in modern times. 

A lesser-known race – held in Greece since 1983 – is the Spartathlon. This one also follows the story of Pheidippides but includes the Spartan detour for a whopping 153 miles or 246 kilometers. The very first winner of the Spartathlon, Yiannis Kouros, still holds the record for the fastest time at just 20 hours and 25 minutes.

Modern Marathons

Today, marathons are held everywhere, from the Great Wall of China to the North Pole. Just in America, there are over 1,100 marathons each year. 

Why is a marathon 26.2 miles long?

Well, it wasn’t always that way. In 1896, the first modern Olympics were held. The original footraces were the marathons inspired by Pheidippides, spanning the 25 miles of his journey. It ran from the original site in Marathon to the Olympic Stadium in Athens. The Boston Marathon followed soon after in 1897.

For the next few years, the length of the marathon stayed at 40 kilometers, or just under 25 miles. 

But in 1908, the Olympics changed venue to London, where the course changed. This time, runners would start from Windsor Castle and end at the Royal Box at White City Stadium. This meant that the marathon’s length had to be adjusted to 26.2 miles, and remains there to this day. 

So, if you’re mid-training and cursing the distance you have left, you have Queen Alexandra to thank for that. 

Running for Exercise

when was running invented

When was running invented as a type of exercise?

It may seem odd to us, as runners are now everywhere, but running as a hobby wasn’t always common. 

Running for the everyday person didn’t gain popularity until the 1960s. Before then, it was mostly for athletes and boxers to build their strength and endurance. 

Newspapers in the late 60s started writing articles about this new, strange activity. In these pieces, runners noted that they preferred to run in the morning. They said that afternoons or evenings tended to look suspicious to police.

In fact, police stopped Senator Strom Thurmond in 1968 in Greenville, South Carolina. The reason? He was jogging. 

So how did it become popular?

A legendary running coach for the University of Oregon named Bill Bowerman is said to get a lot of credit for this. He published a best-selling book called Jogging after a life-changing trip to New Zealand. There, he observed their cross-country running programs. The runners’ skills impressed him, and so a spark ignited.

BIll Bowerman when was running invented

From there, running began building momentum in the 70s with the rise of celebrity runners such as Steve Prefontaine. These celebrities helped boost it into mainstream appeal.

Doctors began seeking studies on the health benefits of taking up running. For example, a study of over 55,000 adults found that even 5-10 minutes of daily running at speeds under 6 mph made a difference. 

These small amounts resulted in significantly lower risks of death from all causes. The risk of cardiovascular disease plummeted by 45%. 

Running Today

when was running invented!

We hope we’ve answered the question “When Was Running Invented?“!

As you can see, running was never really invented – it’s actually been an integral part of our lives for the entire history of our species, and at different times has been a sport, a job, and now – most popularly – a form of recreation.

For the less distance-inclined, running is still one of the most popular forms of exercise. There’s even a day for it: Global Running Day, meant to celebrate the sport of running, held every June. 

An epic journey doesn’t have to result in dropping to your death at your destination. If you’re planning on taking up running yourself, thankfully you don’t have to make do with the basic equipment of ancient Greece. Gear up with equipment that gives you protection and cushion as you build your own strength.

If you find yourself ready to imitate Pheidippides and complete a marathon yourself, make sure you have the right training plan to guide you. Good luck!

Mia Kercher

Mia Kercher

Mia Kercher is a hiker, cyclist, and runner. After finishing her first marathon in 2013, she continued the sport but found a new passion in trail running. She now explores the glorious mountains in Portland, Oregon where she works as co-founder of Evoke.

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