Running in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, the history of running can be traced back to 776 BC. Running was important to members of ancient Greek society, and is consistently highlighted in documents referencing the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games hosted a large variety of running events, each with their own set of rules. The ancient Greeks developed difficult training programs with specialized trainers in preparation for the Games. The training and competitive attitude of Greek athletes gives insight into how scientifically advanced Greece was for the time period.

The people of Greece generally enjoyed sporting events, particularly foot racing, and wealthy admirers would often give large gifts to successful athletes.[citation needed] Though foot races were physically challenging, if successful, athletes could become very wealthy.[citation needed] The ancient Greeks developed running as a sport into a sophisticated field of science and philosophy.[citation needed]

In the ancient sources, training is often discussed. However, details about how the training of runners compared to the training of other types of athletes are not clearly addressed. In ancient Greece, athletes might not have been as specialized as they are today.[citation needed] It is likely that a single athlete would have trained for, and competed in, many different events resulting in less distinction being drawn between training for different events.[citation needed] Many philosophers had ideas about how athletes should train, which provides historians with numerous insights. For example, Plato argued that the whole body should be trained to increase strength and speed for running and wrestling (Stefanović et al. 113). The lengths and types of foot races are widely written. Also discussed in a variety of sources is the use of music in athletic training, and the diet of athletes.

Early Olympic Games

The Death of Ladas, The Greek Runner, Who Died When Receiving The Crown Of Victory In The Temple Of Olympia. George Murray, 1899.

The earliest Olympic Games involved well trained warriors competing in a variety of events. The warriors did not have any specialized training for the Olympics. Each poleis in ancient Greece had its own training program for soldiers, which was the only preparations they had. However, to train for war, the ancient Greeks would exercise the whole body, which is a principle that many later ancient Greek athletes lived by. The first Olympians believed that in order to have a harmonious body, the entire body must be trained, which would result in fierce warriors and strong athletes. Aristotle later said that the training of the whole body infuses it with courage (Stefanović et al. 113).

Types of foot races

There were many lengths and types of foot races in ancient Greece. The standard distance that these races were measured in was the stade (where one stadia is approximately 185 meters). The one-stade race was the most prestigious; the mythical founder of the Olympic Games could allegedly run it in one breath. Other running events included a two-stade race, and the Dolichos, which was a long-distance race that was 20 or 24 stades long, or about two and a half miles. For races longer than one stade, runners would have to turn 180 degrees around a post at each of the two ends of the stadium (Flaceliere 106).

In the Olympics, there was a race in armor, the Hoplitodromos, which reflected the games' origins as a means of training for warfare. The torch-relay race was added to entertain the crowds. This event was run the night before the ancient Olympic Games began (Olympic Sports - Foot Races). Today we honor this tradition with the Olympic torch. One event that was not ever in the ancient Olympic Games is the marathon. What is called a marathon today gets its name from the 280-mile (451 km) distance covered by the runner Pheidippides over the course of three to four days from Athens to Sparta and then back to Marathon in 490 BCE. He was sent to gain the help of the Spartans against the attack of the Persian army in Marathon.[1] In 1896, at the first modern Olympics, the very first modern-day marathon was run. To honor the history of Greek running, Greece chose a course that would mimic the route run by Pheidippides. The race course covered 24.85 miles (40.0 km). The route started at a bridge in the town of Marathon and ended in the Olympic stadium reference perseus project. Another event in the ancient Olympic Games was the pentathlon. The pentathlon was a combination of five events: discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling. This race reflected the ancient Greek belief that one's body should be strong as a whole and not just in one area. Aristotle describes a man's ultimate physical beauty as a body capable of enduring all challenges. This is why he viewed the athletes in the pentathlon as the most beautiful of them all.[citation needed]


As ancient Greece developed, sports also developed. Athletics in ancient Greece became a very scientific and philosophical field of study and practice. Many philosophers had their own ideas about how athletes should train. By the fourth century BCE, sports in ancient Greece became so competitive and advanced that specialized coaches developed for each particular sport. These coaches were known as gymnasts. Along with specialized coaches, a new system of training was developed—the tetras. This was a four-day cycle of varying training. The tetras had the following structure:

  • Day One - the day of preparations. It consisted of toning and short, high-intensity workouts.
  • Day Two - the day of intensity. It involved the athlete going through long, strenuous exercises.
  • Day Three - the day of resting. On this day athletes would do short mild workouts and primarily rest.
  • Day Four - the day of medium intensity. Athletes mainly practiced wrestling on this day, focusing more on tactics than strength.

This was the basic training structure practiced throughout ancient Greece. In order to create the optimal training structure for any given day, however, the trainers would consider many factors such as the place, the time, upcoming events, and the athlete's physical and mental condition. The training also differed depending on whether it was done indoors or outdoors. Based on these factors, the trainer would adjust the workout (Stefanović et al. 113).

Trainers and philosophers

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, believed that athletes who walked after exercising would have a stronger and more rested body. Because of his beliefs, ancient Greek athletes ended each workout with a low-intensity cool down. Aristotle observed that athletes who have a rest day should not rest completely but do a mild, low-intensity workout instead. These practices are still in use today because of how well-founded the early principles had been (Stefanović et al. 112).

The ancient Greeks also valued rest after exercising. After a workout, athletes used their aryballos, a special bottle of oil, and a strigil, which is a curved stick. They would rub the oil on their skin and then scrape it off using the strigil. In this way, they would clean themselves (The Olympic Games 5). After exercising, they also often had a bath and a massage. Massages would consist of gentle movements and stretching of their arms and legs (Stefanović et al. 112).

Trainers and philosophers had many ideas about specific ways of training. One practice that developed had athletes exercise with 3-pound (1.4 kg) weights in each hand. This practice helped improve arm strength, which is beneficial for running, throwing the javelin, swimming, and martial arts. Lucian, an ancient Greek philosopher, postulated another principle. He believed athletes should always train in "exuberated conditions." His idea was that training should take place outdoors in the sun every day of the year. He thought that the body should be beautiful, tanned, and lean to perform its best. During workouts, he believed athletes should work as hard as possible. When training in the gymnasium, his idea was that one should not run or exercise on the stone floor but on sand instead to add difficulty. An exercise he invented involved a long jump where athletes would run and jump high into the air wearing weighted suspenders. Another exercise he developed was for athletes to jump over hurdles with lead weights in their hands (Stefanović et al. 114).

Age categories

The ancient Greeks divided athletes into three age categories, similar to what is done today. Each age category would have its separate set of coaches. The training programs for each age level varied, growing increasingly strenuous the older the athletes were. Certain coaches were selected to scout for young boys who looked particularly strong and fit. These boys would be selected to start training with the young men as soon as they were old enough (Stefanović et al.113).


Along with developing training programs and stretching exercises, the ancient Greeks also introduced special diets to athletes. Most people in ancient Greece only ate meat during religious festivals. Only the rich could have afforded it on a regular basis, but meat was still just a minor part of their diet. Fruits, vegetables, and grains grew very well in Greece and were the primary part of everyone's diet up until fifth century BCE. At that time, trainers recognized that meat was key in building muscle. At this same point in history, sports were becoming increasingly popular and athletes were given large gifts by rich admirers. Because of these gifts, athletes were able to afford much meat. Today, scientific advancements allow trainers to prescribe specific diets to athletes, but, even in ancient times without modern scientific knowledge, the Greeks were able to recognize food's beneficial effects on an athlete's diet (Briers 12-13).


Ancient Greeks believed that training and music should be experienced together because they both pleased man's spirit. Music was used both in training and in competition. Each gymnasium had at least one aulos player. The aulos player's job was to produce rhythmical music in order to help the athletes, particularly when warming up. The athletes were supposed to focus primarily on accurately performing the exercises according to their trainer's advice; however, music was a key part of their warm up (Stefanović et al.112).


Although many people in ancient Greece liked sports, not all philosophers thought that intense training was good. Aristotle believed that fitness should be a part of children's education, but that over-training was bad. In ancient Greece, there were 4 main parts to education: reading, writing, gymnastic exercises, and music. Aristotle thought that an appropriate amount of exercise was a key part of education; however, he recognized how much some athletes over-trained. Aristotle referred to the excessive training that many competitive athletes did as “evil” (Stefanović et al. 113).

Effects of ancient Olympics on the modern world

The ancient Greeks pioneered athletics thousands of years ago, with trial and error as their only method for gaining knowledge. With pure reason, men like Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Plato developed such advanced ideas that the modern world has been able to make only some significant advancements. These ancient Greek philosophers postulated many ideas on how to train that are now the basis of many modern athletic events. Trainers also made many advancements such as their discovery that meat was beneficial for building muscle. Not only did the ancient Greeks develop the theory of how to train, but they founded the prestigious Olympic Games. The ancient Olympic Games were ended in 393 CE by Theodosius I while trying to make Christianity the state religion (Craig 87). Today the Olympic Games have been restored with over 12,000 athletes who compete at the Summer and Winter Olympics in 31 different sports and nearly 400 events (Craig 102).


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  2. Audrey Briers; Ashmolean Museum. Sporting success in ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum; 1994 [cited September 22, 2011]. ISBN 978-1-85444-055-6.
  3. Steve Craig. Sports and games of the ancients. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; 2002 [cited September 22, 2011]. ISBN 978-0-313-31600-5.
  4. Robert Flacelière. Daily life in Greece at the time of Pericles. New York: Macmillan; 1965 [cited September 22, 2011].
  5. Stefanović, Đ., T. Ioannidis, and M. Kariofu. "Syncretism of coaching science in ancient Greece and modern times." Serbian journal of sports sciences 2.1–4 (2008): 111–121 [cited September 22, 2011]. ISSN 1820-6301."