Type into Google “when was running invented,” and the search engine would tell you that Thomas Running was the genius behind running in 1784 when he tried to walk twice the same time.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Google jokes aside, the activity of running can be traced back as far as human history itself.
As I’ll argue in today’s article, running was a great milestone in human evolution and history, just like the expansion of brain size or the invention of fire.
With that said, let’s dive into the history of running and how logging the miles became a part of our modern culture and legacy, piece by piece.
Who Was Thomas Running?
Before I get into the ins and outs of the evolution of running, let’s first put the Thomas Running myth to rest once and for all.
Here’s the truth.
Thomas Running is no more than a social media creation and the subject of a hilarious meme.
Despite Google, the guy had nothing to do with running except in the infinite imagination of the interwebs.
This hilarious running meme goes like this:
I don’t know about you, but this meme is quite funny. It’s one of my favorite running memes.
The idea behind that trend was simple – inventions occur when someone tries to do something twice at the same time. A few years ago, this was a part of a trend in writing funny posts about inventing.
You can also find on the internet several similar fictitious characters, including Thomas Nice, Joshua Jogging, and John Lie.
Pretty hilarious, I know. Let’s go down that rabbit hole another day.
Now let’s get serious.
When Was Running Invented
I hate to state the obvious, but, as you can already tell, running was never “discovered”, as in, it wasn’t the brainchild or creation of a specific person. So the answer is when was running invented isn’t simple.
Running, in reality, is an innate ability that both humans and animals have developed, like walking, jumping, or eating. As long a creature has two legs, then they can run since the activity mainly involves moving the legs faster than walking.
Science claims that running can be traced to our early ancestors—who were undoubtedly primates who employed their legs to cover long distances on the ground. And running as a sport can be dated back to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians of the ancient world.
The History Of Running Explained
Before running was a thing you do whenever you wanted to lose some weight or post a bunch of workout pictures on Instagram, our ancestors ran for one reason, and only one reason—to survive.
And survive, we did.
In short, kill or get killed.
Nowadays, survival is the last thing you’ve on mind while jogging. (unless you’re chased by a big wild dog). But for the ancient man (and woman), being able to run long distances was key to survival.
Here’s the truth.
The ability to run long distances was key in the origin of the modern human body form. At the very least, such an ability made us human in the anatomical sense, according to evolutionary theory.
So how far does running go back in human history?
Running was “invented” as early as when primitive humans evolved from primates around seven million years ago and started to transition from tree climbing to bipedalism, which is a term that refers to species that walk on two legs.
For example, you and I are both bipeds.
Let’s break down the timeline of the evolution of running.
4.5 Millions Ago – The “Invention of Walking”
The earliest evidence of animals locomoting on two legs –just like the way we do today—can be traced as back as four million years ago.
Research had reported that Australopiehtics—an ape-like creature believed to be an ancestor to humans—fossils showed that our early ancestors at that time walked upright before developing stone tools.
3.5 Millions – The Evolution of Walking
In 1999, the country of Kenya made the headlines after a group of scientists discovered fossil evidence for the Kenyanthropus platyops, which is a small-brained, flat-faced bipedal that lived around 3.5 million years ago. This early human ancestor had footprints that showed walking patterns very comparable to those of humans today.
2.6 Million years – The Emergence of Running
Around 2.6 million years ago, our ancestors developed the ability to run long-distance, according to fossil evidence of some individual features of the modern human body.
According to scientists, this jump in human evolution has been spurred by persistence hunting, which is one of the strategies that early hominids used to successfully survive and thrive.
The practice of persistence hunting involved a group of hunters that would stalk and chase after a prey for prolonged periods, tactically changing turns until the animal is too beat to flee. This is a good reason to consider running a formal part of our DNA.
The Evolution of Running Specific Anatomical Features
Faster runners were often the best hunters.
Back then, if you could not hunt, your chances of survival were pretty slim (sorry, no checks from the government).
Research also singled out a wide range of physical traits that strongly suggest that our ancestors evolved as distance runners.
The adaptation helps them hunt down prey and compete more effectively with the faster predators in the open plains of Africa.
Some of these traits include:
- The decoupling of the shoulders allowed early humans’ bodies to rotate while the heads aims forward during running
- Skull features that help regulate overheating during running
- A taller body with a narrower pelvis, waist, and trunk.
- The development of bigger buttock muscles that allowed for stabilization and power during running.
- And so many other features that can find out about more here.
In other words, we were all made to run from the get-go. Some scientists even go as far as to claim that running is one of the most transformative events in human history.
When Was Running – The History Of The Sport
Once our early ancestors settled the land and started practicing agriculture and cultivating livestock, they ran for other reasons—survival wasn’t exactly one of them.
For example, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians employed messengers whose main job was running long distances and delivering news.
Sure, they did have horses back in the day, but human messengers could traverse through unfriendly terrains and steep inclines.
The same ancient civilizations also organized sports and events during which running was the main attraction. Professional runners back in the day were treated like rockstars.
Running As a Symbol
The sed festival is likely the most important ceremony of kingship in ancient Egypt. It’s, in fact, considered one of the earliest and longest-running and lasting rituals in Egyptian history, going back to more than 3,000 years B.C.
Evidence shows that the ritual has serviced through to the Roman conquest of Egypt around 2000 years ago.
So what was it all about?
Also known as the Heb Sed or Feast of the tail, the Sed festival consisted of ancient Egyptian rituals and ceremonies that celebrated the continued rule of a pharaoh. This massive occasion was introduced thirty years into the Pharaoh’s reign, and it was repeated every three months until his death.
The Sed festival consisted of several stages. It’s believed that the king would make different offerings to the gods. Then, he’d run four laps on the course was that designed to represent the lands of Egypt.
During the four laps run, the Pharaoh changes his clothes twice, wearing the royal regalia of upper Egypt for the first two laps, then changing into clothing for lower Egypt for the last two laps.
At the end of the jubilee, the king would hold a lavish coronation ceremony that symbolizes the renewal of his rule.
These ceremonies’ most reliable archeological evidence comes from relief cycles dating back to the Fifth Dynasty king Neuserra (around 2500 B.C.) in his sun temple at Abu Ghurab at East Karnak.
Another strong piece of evidence consists of relief cycles dating to king Osorkon II, the fifth king of the Twenty-second Dynasty of Ancient Egypt and the son of King Takelot I and Queen Kapes.
During the Ptolemaic Period (around 300 B.C.), the Sed festival was translated into Greek as the ‘thirty-year festival,” and famous kings like Ramesses II and Amenhotep III celebrated their first ceremony around the 30th year of their reign, and after that each third year.
But was it all fun and games?
That’s where most experts beg to differ.
Some historians consider the Sed festival to be primarily ceremonial and symbolized the Pharaoh’s old age. Others suggest that it was intended to symbolize the rule of the king reaching all parts of Egypt.
However, some historians believe that Jeb Sed had a much more practical purpose behind it—if the king falls short of completing the course, then it meant they were no longer fit to rule.
The consequences of such a “DNF” are no longer known though many historians suggested that the unfit king would be sacrificed to make way for a younger and fitter successor.
In other words, a pharaoh gassing out before finishing the four laps is tantamount to a death sentence. Talk about an incentive to finish a race!
Additional resource – How many miles is a 100-mile race?
Running As A Competition
So when was running was actually used as a sport?
Running, as a competition, grew out of religious rituals and festivals in different regions. Proof of competitive racing goes back to the Tailteann Games in Ireland, whereas the first recorded Olympic Games were born a few hundred years later in the town of Olympia, ancient Greece.
Let’s dive into the monumental times of the running history.
The Tailtean Games – The First Olympics?
Evidence shows that the earliest running-themed sports events were organized around 600 and 1100 B.C. during the Tailteann Games in Ireland. The Irish folks back then held these religious festivals to honor the death of the Irish goddess and queen Tailtin.
There were various events featuring running, such as:
- High jump
- Long jump
- Spear throwing.
Other events included
- Sword fighting
- Chariot racing
The Olympic Games
The first Olympic game took place in 776 BC in Greece. The ancient Olympics, organized every four years, were held during a religious festival honoring the Greek god Zeus.
Around the eighth century B.C, participants poured in from a dozen or more Greek cities, and a couple of centuries thereafter, from as many as 100 cities throughout the Greek empire.
Talk about a rise in popularity!
The first Olympic events were limited to foot races. The first event consisted of nothing but running, making it the first Olympic game.
At this point in history, the running event was a distance of around 200 yards (the exact distance varied among venues), known as the stadion race. Stadions were buildings designed in a similar way to the stadiums of today. It’s also the root word for the “stadium”.
In 720 BC, Dolichos, which was a long-distance running race, was added to the festival.
Other competitions were added around 724 B.C, such as boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing—among others.
Then roughly 393 AD, the rise of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I spelled the end of the Olympic games after he abolished the festivities as part of a plan to spread Christianity and squash paganism in the Roman Empire.
Hail Zeus, The Great God!
Here’s the plot twist, though.
The main events at the ancient Olympics were not the sports events, but a sacrifice—about 100 oxen were sacrificed and burned on the Altar of Zeus on the third day.
This is why the ancient Olympics were more than just a sport, but a religious festival too.
The Marathon Legend
Legend has it that a Greek soldier named Pheidippides had to run from the Battlefields of Marathon to Athens—about 25 miles—to deliver the news of victory against the invading Persian forces in the decisive battle of Marathon.
That’s not the whole story.
Pheidippides (who might not have trained for such an endurance feat) collapsed on the floor after delivering the news and died on the scene.
The Invention of Jogging – Running For Recreational Means
According to the record, the first time the word “jogging” was used was in the 16th century.
Yet, the sport wasn’t as accessible as it is today.
Back then, Jogging was reserved for the upper classes and the nobility, mainly by swordsmen as a training technique to develop endurance and stamina.
As time (and centuries) go by, Jogging and running become much more popular in training programs with the rise of professional sports.
But this still doesn’t explain the sudden boom in running popularity over the last few decades, especially in the US.
Additional Resource – Here’s your guide to advanced running metrics
The Guy(s) Behind The Trend
According to my research, the recent rise in running popularity is credited to Arthur Lydiard, an Olympic track coach of New Zealand, who founded the Auckland Jogger Club.
Bill Bowerman, a University of Oregon track coach, went jogging with Lydiard in New Zealand, experienced the activity firsthand, and was impressed.
Soon after that, Bill brought back his new hobby to the US, where he published a book called “Jogging” (1967) that became the cultural sensation that kicked off the whole running craze.
Shortly after, Jogging was recommended by most medical and health authorities, praising its benefits, especially on the heart and for general physical conditioning.
Soon after, in 1968, The U.S. National Jogging Associate was founded to promote the pastime of logging the miles.
Another event that contributed to the fame of running in the US was the victory of American Frank Shorter in the Olympic Marathon in 1972, spurring up the running boom of the ’70s.
Surveys reveal that more than 25 million people took up running in the US during that era, including Ex American president Jimmy Carter and famous Hollywood stars like Clint Eastwood.
Additional Resource – 20 Fun Facts about running
The Role of Capitalism
Nike had also played a part in the success of running as a recreational sport.
The company, as you can tell, had a big stake in making the sport more popular.
So it started promoting running (a good thing if you ask me) and began increasing its shoe and gear sales.
When Was Running Invented – Historic Moments & Events
Here’s a simplified timeline of some of the most monumental moments in running history.
490 B.C. – Most historians believe that the legendary Pheidippides ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of victory over the Persian—a feat of barefoot running that claimed his life.
1896 – The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens, Greece, and included 100-meter and 400-meter sprint and marathon events.
1896 – 18 men participated in the first Olympic Marathon event in Athen, with the winner crossing the finish line at 2:58:50
1897 – The inception of the Boston Marathon by John Graham, inspired by the first Olympic game that took place the year before. The original route covered a distance of 24.5 miles—or 39.42 kilometers.
1908 – The summer Olympics were organized in London and featured one of the most iconic marathon events, giving birth to the official marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Learn more about that historical moments here.
1909 – The birth of what’s known as the marathon mania with various races taking place in New York during special days such as Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas.
1947 – According to Google, Thomas Running is credited for the sport while trying to walk twice at the same time or something like that.
1960 – The legendary Ethiopian Abebe Bikila not only sets a world marathon record and takes the gold, but he does so barefoot. The event took place during the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
1972 – After winning the gold at the Berlin 1972 Olympics, the victor, the American marathoner Frank Shorter, inspired millions of people to take up running in what’s often referred to as the “Running Boom of the 1970s”.
1981 – The London Marathon enters the scene, making it Europe’s largest event.
1982 – The NCAA adds women’s track and field events.
1984 – The birth of the first official women’s Marathon at the Los Angels Olympics in California, the U.S. That’s when Joan Benoit became the first woman to cross the finish line of the Olympics Game marathon, finishing in 2:24:52.
1986 – The birth of David Dack LOL.
1987 – The three-time Olympic gold medalist, Jack Joyner, became the first female runner to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The caption of the photo read ‘Super Woman”.
1988 – The Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the Seol Olympics.
2005- The minimalist running movement became trendy after Vibram released its Five-fingers shoes.
2016 – Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes completes 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 successive days, setting himself as a legend in the running world.
2007 – Over 38,607 runners joined the New York City Marathon, making it the largest-ever Marathon.
2009 – Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” tops the New York Times best settler list, making minimalist running the new trend in town.
Additional Resource – Here’s your guide to cross country running
Who Invented Running – The Conclusion
Hopefully, knowing more about “when running was invented” as well as the evolution and history of running will inspire you to log in more miles and make the most out of the sport.
So are we really born to run?
The science is not lying.
Our ability to run long distances is a major reason why we are still here today.
The ability has deep roots in human evolution—and there’s no doubt about that.