When Was Running Invented? A Fun Look At The History Of Running

Spoiler: No one "invented" it, but here's how it became a major part of cultures across the world

“When was running invented? “Who invented running?”

In some ways, these questions seem somewhat bizarre because if you think about the definition of “invented,” it conjures up the notion that someone created the idea behind doing something new or creating something that never existed before.

Running seems to be an innate human instinct—something we can do as a progression from crawling to walking as we go through the first couple of months and years of life.

Therefore, we might say that running was invented over the course of human evolution when early humans first evolved the ability for bipedalism for locomotion.

So, while it doesn’t seem possible to credit someone or a certain time period with inventing running, the history of running as a competitive sport or for physical fitness is a different story.

In this guide to the history of running, we will provide a timeline of the history of competitive running and the history of running for exercise so that you can tap into the roots of running for a bit of inspiration in your own modern running journey.

When Was Running Invented? A Fun Look At The History Of Running 1

Running As Part of Human History

Modern-day human species are known as homo sapiens, but there have been quite a number of early humans, or human ancestors, that got us to our current physical form today.

Early humans became able to stand and locomote upright on two feet, known as bipedalism.

According to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection or “survival of the fittest,“ developing the ability to run rather than walk, and especially run fast, helped early humans survive in a world where there were veritable predators.

Moreover, humans who could run fast were more successful hunters, so groups would send out the fastest runners or most naturally skilled runners to do the hunting and bring back the spoils for the group.

Early hominids were thought to use a technique called persistence hunting,1Persistence hunting. (2021, January 28). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistence_hunting which is essentially endurance running because it involves trying to wear out the prey by chasing the animal for several hours until the prey gets fatigued enough to be caught.

In this way, even in the primitive times and earliest days of running, those with a natural ability for running displayed competitiveness with running, even if it was not yet contested as a sport, and long-distance running became somewhat patterned into our DNA.

An ancient egyptian wall painting.

Running As A Symbol

As early as 3100 BCE, the Ancient Egyptians used running as a symbol in the Sed festival,2Heb-Sed | Egyptian feast. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Heb-Sed also known as Heb Sed.

The Sed Festival was a giant celebration to honor the pharaoh’s continued rule. 

A Heb Seb for an Egyptian pharaoh usually started 30 years after his reign began and repeated every 3 years until his death. 

Among several stages and events, there was a running event where the pharaoh himself ran a course constructed to represent the lands of Egypt. 

The pharaoh would run four laps of the course. During the first two laps, he would be dressed in the royal regalia of Upper Egypt. 

He would don the clothing representing Lower Egypt for the last two laps. 

Some historians believe that if the pharaoh could not finish the foot race, he was found unfit to rule and was replaced by a younger successor.

 Map of Greece.

When Was Running Invented As A Sport?

The Tailteann Games

There isn’t a definitive answer about when competitive running history began, but the earliest running competition on record appears to be along the lines of a modern track and field competition called the Tailteann Games, which took place in Ireland in 1829 B.C.

The Tailteann Games was part of an Irish festival that served as a funeral celebration of sorts to commemorate the death of the Irish goddess and queen Tailtiu.

Among various sporting events such as boxing, archery, sword fighting, and chariot racing, there were “athletics” such as high jump, long jump, and spear throwing.

It seems that there were also some running events, though they were likely sprinting or short distances or running combined with using implements such as swords or spears.

The First Olympics

While the Irish Tailteann Games may not have included many running races, this festival is thought to have directly inspired the genesis of the Ancient Olympic Games.

Although the modern Olympic Games were not reinstated until the late 19th century, the first Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece (the namesake for the Olympics).

The early Olympic Games included only foot races, which was a true beginning of competitive running races.

In fact, it wasn’t until 724 BCE that other sports and athletics were contested at the Olympics.

The early Olympic Games called the running race a stadion race, named after the building where the race took place, which was much like a modern stadium. 

The length of the stadion race was 200 yards because this was the length of the ancient Olympics building.

Long-distance running races were not contested in the ancient Olympic Games.

Olympic medals.

When Was the First Marathon?

The first competitive marathon wasn’t staged until just before the 1896 Olympics in Athens.

The 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, is considered the start of the modern era of the Olympics,3International Olympic committee. (2022). Watch Live Sports Events & Latest News | Olympics.com. Olympic Channel. https://olympics.com/en/ and the marathon was contested for the first time.

Still, it was only 40 kilometers, or roughly 25 miles (the length of Pheidippides’ run from Marathon and Athens, though he likely ran an ultramarathon!).

Michel Breal, one of the delegates on the first modern Olympics committee, was the man who championed the idea of having a long-distance race.

As a history buff, Bréal had read about the legend of Pheidippides and wrote in a letter to Coubertin in 1894: 

“If you go to Athens, you could try and see if a long-distance run from Marathon to Pnyx could be organized. That would emphasize the character of Antiquity… I, personally, claim the honour of sponsoring the marathon trophy.”

Pheidippides on a stamp.

The Greek government was in favor of the Olympic Games as well as the marathon race as a means of bolstering national pride.

Although the first organized marathon is usually cited to be the actual running at the event at the 1896 Olympic Games, a month before the race, a small Greek Championship event was held.

In this foot race, 11 competitors ran from Marathon to Athens, completing what was then the marathon distance. Therefore, this was the first marathon ever.

Two weeks later, an official marathon trial race was on the course, with 38 competitors toeing the line.

The winner ran 3:11:27. The marathon distance remained at roughly 25 miles for the next few Olympic Games.

The marathon distance was changed to 26.2 miles for the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

As the story goes, the race course needed to be extended because Queen Alexandra requested that the marathon race event would start on the lawn of Windsor Castle to allow the royal children to watch the start of the race from the window in the nursery.

The race course was slated to finish in front of the Royal Box at the Olympic Stadium, and the distance between these two points along the route clocked in at exactly 26 miles and 385 yards, which is how the marathon became 26.2 miles (the 0.2 is the 385 yards).

Interestingly, rather than resorting to the original 40 kilometers or 25 miles, the increased marathon distance ended up sticking for the next several Olympic Games.

Furthermore, in 1921, the length of a marathon became formally standardized at 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) rather than 40 kilometers or 25 miles.

A corner in Boston.

History of the Marathon Outside Of the Olympics

The Boston Marathon is the longest-running annual marathon in the world and was the first marathon race outside of the Olympics.

The Boston Marathon had its inaugural running in 1897.

However, it wasn’t until 75 years later, in 1972, that women were first allowed to enter the Boston Marathon officially.

Even further behind, the first Olympic marathon for women wasn’t held for yet another 12 years, in 1984, though in a couple of weeks leading up to the first Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896, two women, Melpomene and Stamathis Rovithi, are reported to have run the course from Marathon to Athens.

Running As A Profession

When was running invented as a job?

Most runners likely assume that professional running is a relatively new job, but professional running dates all the way back to Ancient Greece, where there were heralds or couriers called aerodromes who delivered messages between cities by running on foot.

The most noteworthy Greek hemerodrome was Pheidippides, the famed Athenian Greek messenger who reportedly ran the first “marathon“ in 490 B.C. when he ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the triumphant news that the Greek soldiers had successfully fended off the Persians (Spartan army).

The story of Pheidippides and the origins of the first marathon are fascinating; you can read more about it here.

A group of people running.

Running For Exercise

When was running invented as a type of exercise?

Even though millions of people now run for exercise around the world, running for fitness or jogging as a hobby didn’t really become “fashionable“ or common until the 1960s (second half of the 20th century).

Before the “running boom,“ running daily or following a training plan was primarily reserved for competitive runners, track & field athletes, and boxers trying to improve their conditioning.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t the quiet few long-distance runners who were putting in the miles early in the morning, in the evening after work, or jogging in a local park, but running was not a common exercise for the everyday adult.

In the late 1960s, newspaper articles started popping up about runners and running, but the genesis of the running boom or spurring the popularity of running in the United States is primarily credited to Bill Bowerman.

People running fast.

Bill Bowerman is the legendary cross-country coach at the University of Oregon who authored a best-selling book called “Jogging” after an impactful trip to New Zealand, where he discovered various cross-country training programs and long-distance running coaching styles.

He took what he observed back to America and published the book that ultimately spawned the modern-day commonality of recreational runners and joggers running for fitness and for the various physical and mental health benefits of running.

Running coach Bill Bowerman co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 (later known as Nike), developed the prototype Nike running shoes in his waffle iron, and coached the late running phenom Steve Prefontaine.

Running for exercise or jogging as a hobby started gaining momentum in the early 1970s.

It continued to gain traction as research studies were published touting the many mental and physical health benefits of running, particularly in improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality.

Running became a way to stay healthy as much as it became a passion for previous non-runners or non-athletes.

Since then, running has continued to become one of the most popular sports among American adults and youth and has grown in its global presence. In fact, there is even Global Running Day every June to celebrate the sport of running.

Oh, and in terms of Googling: “When was running invented?”, you’ll probably come across the answer that Thomas Running invented running in 1784 when he tried to walk twice simultaneously, a popular meme trend that makes no sense!

If you want to get started on your running journey today, take a look at our Couch to 5k guide!


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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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