5 Lessons from the running legend Emil Zatopek

I’ve just finished reading Today We Die a Little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zatopek Olympic Legend by Richard Askwith, a great book that retells the fantastic life of arguably one of the greatest runners of all time.

For those unfamiliar with Zatopek, he was a Czechoslovakian long distance runner from the late 40s and 50s who broke numerous world records over 5000 and 10000m with his revolutionary approach to training. Zatopek won 4 Olympic Golds, most famously completing the 5000/10000 and Marathon triple at the 1952 Helsinki Games: a feat no runner has ever matched.

So what can we take away from the life and training of Emil Zatopek? Here are 5 lessons:

Lesson 1: Do some speed work

“Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast.”

Zatopek was an early adopter to the idea of interval training: running at a higher intensity for a short amount of time followed by short periods of rest and repeating this numerous times. As it did for Emil, this training can lead to great improvements in speed, strength and economy. It’s quite simple: the only way you can get faster is to run faster. Zatopek was well known for running 30,40 or even 50 x 400m in a single session, and sometimes repeating the same session the next day!

As for us mere mortals here’s a couple of interval sessions to try:

  • 15 x 1min at faster than 5k pace, followed by 60 secs of active recovery (light jogging)
  • 10 x 90secs at around your 5k pace, followed by 45-60secs of recovery
  • 7 x 3 mins at just below you 10km pace, followed by 60-70 secs of recovery

Depending on your fitness level you can adjust the number of repetitions you perform. Make sure to warm up before and cool down after any intense running.

Lesson 2: Try some bounding

Zatopek was an army officer during his running career and would often by see bounding in his army boots, in deep snow, through the woods.

Bounding helps to build power in the legs as well as develop the nerve patterns to get your feet up and off the ground, leading to increased efficiency and speed. The aim is ‘spring’ from one to another, covering as much distance as you can from step to step. Try to focus on fully extending the leg you are pushing off from and driving the other knee forward as you bound through the air.

If you are new to bounding then try 2 sets of 6-8 ‘bounding steps’ on grass or a soft surface. The increased load on your legs in this exercise means you shouldn’t at first try to do these more than once a week and always make sure you’ve warmed up properly beforehand. If you have done some plyometric exercises before then you can extend your bounds to 30-40m and progress towards practicing twice a week.

Lesson 3: You can train anywhere with anything

There are countless stories in this book of Zatopek taking every opportunity to train whenever he could. There were plenty of times I chuckled at the idea of him training at home on the spot with various pieces of equipment as well as the concept of attempting to run up and down the aisle of a plane during mid flight! Lesson to learn here is that you neither need much space or any equipment to work on your fitness or strength. You can be inventive as you can with the surroundings you have!

Lesson 4: Have the determination to push yourself

Zatopek was famous for his ability to push himself hard, both with the sheer magnitude of his interval sessions and the way he would continually try to break down the boundaries of speed on the track. The result was numerous world records and his name down in running legend. Even if you’re feeling tired running or near the end of the race, have the confidence to push that little bit harder; you’ll never know what will happen.

Lesson 5: Be part of the running community

Despite the intensity of Zatopek’s training he always had time to laugh, joke and smile. On the start line to races (and even during) he would be know chat to his fellow competitors, encouraging them, often in their own language (Emil liked to learn some of the lingo wherever he went). Important point to take home here is to try to run with other people, have a chat with people in the running community. It’s a great way to take your mind off your own thoughts as well as encouraging others and being part of something special.















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