Emil Zatopek recalibrated human capabilities. He trained not just harder than anyone, but harder than anyone thought possible.


As a teenager, Emil got a job in a shoe factory. The shoe factory, naturally, hosted a race, and Emil’s boss told him to race. “I can’t, I’m too slow,” Emil protested, in vain. Despite not wanting to race, though, Emil still wanted to win, and he muscled his way to second place. He realized, then, that maybe what one believes isn’t always what’s true. Within a year, he had begun training regularly. He modeled his workouts after the great Paavo Nurmi, sprinting through the streets shouting “I an Nurmi! I am Nurmi!”

Paavo Nurmi trained with long walks each morning, short runs in the evening, followed by five or six sprints of one hundred meters. Zatopek did not believe that he could sprint like Nurmi could sprint, but he believed he could make himself sprint like Nurmi could sprint. He combined Nurmi’s long walks, short runs, and shorter sprints into his own variation of monstrously long interval sessions. 

Most people did not believe Emil’s method would work. According to him, they’d say “Emil, you are crazy, you are training like a sprinter!” But Emil believed in his method. “If I run one hundred meters twenty times, that is two kilometers and that is no longer a sprint,” he justified. In 1944, after four years of training in this way, he set the Czech record for two, three and five thousand meters. In 1946 he only placed fifth at European championships, but set another record in the five thousand meters. That year he was accepted into Officer Training in the Czech army and began to devote more time to training. 

In 1947 he ran 14:08 for five thousand meters, the fastest time in the world that year. By 1948 he regularly ran sixty repeats of four hundred meters a day with a set of two hundred meter repeats to warm up and cool down. That year, he earned an Olympic gold medal in the ten thousand, winning by over forty seconds. He won silver in the five thousand, missing gold by only a few seconds and making up sixty yards in the last lap. 

In 1949 he set his first world record— ten thousand meters in 29:28— then broke it again with 29:21. In 1950, he bettered his five thousand meter time to 14:06 and his ten thousand meter world record to 29:02. At European Championships that year, he won the five thousand meters by twenty seconds and the ten thousand meters by nearly a whole lap. 

By now, according to Emil, the people that doubted him were saying “Emil, you are a genius!” They weren’t the only ones saying that— athletes had started asking Emil for training tips, and he happily learned five new languages just to communicate with all of them. He never believed he was particularly fast, he just believed in his training and his work ethic. It tickled him that others would seek him specifically for advice.

In 1952, Emil conquered the Helsinki Olympics in a way never seen before or since. He won the ten thousand meters in an Olympic record. Then he won the five thousand in another Olympic record. Having nothing better to do, he ran the marathon— his first ever— and won that in an Olympic record. The next year, he lowered his ten thousand meter world record to 29:01. The year after that, in the year month that Roger Bannister broke Gundar Hagg’s record in the mile, Zatopek broke Hagg’s record in the five thousand meters. A month later, he became the first man to break 29 minutes for ten thousand meters. 

By the time he retired in 1957, Zatopek had accumulated four gold medals, one silver medal, and dozens of world records. His legend lives, however, because of his mythical workloads and   unbelievable generosity. He never hesitated to offer advice and never kept his workouts a secret, probably because nobody dared replicate them. He gifted his gold medal to the Australian Ron Clarke who equaled Emil’s bravery in races and record-setting but never won a gold medal of his own.

Emil taught the world through contrasts. He showed that speed could be achieved through strength, that kindness could pervade competition, that balance could be achieved in excess, and finally, like an Aerobic Buddha, that happiness could be achieved through suffering.