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What do Joggers and Olympic Champions have in common?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Something that really grinds my gears in the world of running is the use of the word “jogger” when used in a condescend way, especially by those who consider themselves to be “runners”. It happens quite a lot. Often by individuals sitting safely in an ill-informed position behind their keyboard, exercising their social-media egos.

It’s something that’s awash with irony too, in my opinion.

Let me explain. It’s ironic because:

Firstly, the best endurance runners in the world do a shed load of jogging. No exceptions!

Secondly, many of those looking down their noses at ‘joggers’, would probably be much better runners if they did more jogging rather than spending their life chasing Strava segments.

Thirdly, and perhaps with the most irony of all, those so-called joggers may well be running harder than either of the above.

Did you notice that I used the word “harder” not “faster” in that third reason? I did that because, for me, whether it’s a “jog” or “run” is defined by the intensity that the individual is working at, not the speed they are moving.

In case you’re reaching for the dictionary or opening Google now, to check for yourself or prove me wrong, I’ll save you the time – because I’ve already been there. And, to be honest, it’s not that helpful to my case, as the words “speed” and “pace” feature within many of the definitions.

I don’t think my case is lost though. Because, if you look carefully, you’ll also see the words “gentle” and “leisurely” cropping up too. And, if you read on to the supporting explanations you’ll find that “The main intention is to increase physical fitness with less stress on the body than from faster running but more than walking”.

So, if that’s the case, it is all about intensity, right?

Well, if you think logically, it has to be. Doesn’t it? Because planet earth isn’t flat.

There are some damn big hills around and, if you go far enough up those hills, there isn’t as much oxygen to breath in. So, given a steep enough gradient on a rugged mountainside and add in a dose of altitude, even the best runners in the world won’t be moving ever so quickly in terms of minutes per mile. Not even Kilian Jornet. And you‘re unlikely to call him a jogger!

It’s also useful to delve back into the history of “jogging”, and why it became a thing for the original jogging club. Which was the “The Auckland Joggers Club”, formed right back in 1962.

In February of that year the founders led ‘a motley bunch of about 30 unfit men, some quite old and some unable to manage more than 100 metres that day’ on their first session.

This was the beginning of a venture prompted by one of those founders giving the other a hard time about his weight and lack of fitness. Its aim was to foster a community where people of all ages could exercise together to improve their health and physical fitness, in an environment stripped of any competitive element. Success was to complete your jog not beat your fellow joggers to the finish.

Later that year the renown American running coach, Bill Bowerman, was in town and was invited to jog along with the slowest group. As an expert in running, Bill was confident of keeping up. But was left somewhat embarrassed when 74-year-old Andy Steedman, who had no athletic history and - it turned out - had previously suffered three heart attacks, slowed down and politely offered to keep him company as he’d fallen behind most of the others.

The fact that this episode set off a chain of events which led to jogging becoming popularised across America, and other parts of the western world, is not the main thrust of my story though.

What’s more interesting is HOW that ‘motley bunch’ of very unfit individuals had gained so much fitness in a relatively short space of time. For this, kudos probably needs to be given to their Jog Leader, because he got them training like Olympic champions.

A crazy thing to do you may be thinking. A very high-risk strategy for a bunch of [previously] sedentary folks with all sort of health issues. It’s a wonder they weren’t dropping like flies with injuries and heart attacks.

Turns out this guy knew what he was doing though. Because, when he wasn’t out with the jogging club, he was working on his production line of actual Olympic champions. Something he’d been quietly doing for a while, without much attention from the outside world. That was until two years earlier, when two of the runners he’d been guiding stunned the world with their performances in Rome. Peter Snell took the Olympic gold in the 800 metres and, an hour later, Murray Hallberg was victorious in the 5000 metres.

In case you hadn’t realised, the guy I’m talking about is Arthur Lydiard. A man who was a legend in his own lifetime, and whose training principles are a legacy that remain at the heart of successful distance running to this day. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful elite runner who’s training isn’t in some way influenced by Lydiard.

The real beauty in Arthur’s approach though, isn’t that it produces Olympic champions. It’s that his principles work for everybody. Whether you’re a budding champion, a competitive club runner or someone that just enjoys a sociable, chatty, run with your mates, they’ll help you achieve your goals in a safe, healthy way.

So, although it’s taken a while, I can now get to my main point. In fact, there are two. Which are:

1. If you can’t jog, you’re simply a runner who can’t achieve their potential!’

2. If you can jog, your life will be better even if you don’t care about reaching your running potential.

You may now have a furrowed brow and be thinking, “but everyone can jog, can’t they”.

Well, in a word, NO! There’s a high proportion of the population that can’t jog, not if they tried right now. And some of those may even consider themselves to be pretty good runners.

To explain, I need to come back to my contention that jogging is defined by intensity not speed.

When that motley bunch first gathered in Auckland, they weren’t yet joggers; they had to train to become joggers. Because, to start with, they’d get breathless very quickly when they broke from a walk into a running motion. They couldn’t keep running for long at an ‘easy’ or ‘gentle’ intensity. That jogging gear wasn’t available to them yet.

Arthur knew that if they ran for more than a short amount of time at once in the early stages it would hinder their progress, and they’d soon risk injury or worse. He also knew that the best way to overcome this, and enable them to develop, wasn’t to make them run faster. It was to turn them into accomplished joggers first. Which is was no different to what he’d done with his Olympic champions.

Because he knew that, once they were accomplished joggers, they’d be capable of running well at pretty much whatever distance they chose, be it ½ mile, a marathon or anything in between.

However, it wasn’t all about the ruthless pursuit of victories against others for Arthur. He also knew that those who didn’t choose to compete, would still benefit immensely from becoming accomplished joggers. They’d lose their excess weight, they’d have better metabolisms and they’d have much more energy to enable them to enjoy their day to day lives. So, the risk of them heading to an early grave diminished.

The latter point was the main takeaway that Bill Bowerman took back to the USA to convince his countrymen. His enthusiasm influenced by the fact that he himself had lost 3 inches from his waist within a few short weeks of training the Lydiard way.

Anyway, history lesson over, how does all this help anybody?

To explain, let’s first look at how to define an ‘accomplished jogger’.

Well, in my opinion, if you’re someone whose very easy running pace is just that – a ‘very easy running pace’ - then you’re an accomplished jogger, with the foundation laid to be a great runner if you choose to.

The statement ‘very easy running pace’ is a simple one, but – while we’re here - worth unpicking the words of, to ensure we’re all on the same page.

Very easy’ = it’s easier than easy. Which makes it possible for you to continue running for an hour or more, without it becoming less easy. Think of an effort level which allows you to comfortably hold a conversation. Well, a bit easier than that.

Running’ = it’s running. It could, and probably should, be referred to as jogging because it’s “easy” or “gentle”, but it certainly isn’t walking.

Pace’ = whatever it is for you. But if it isn’t very easy and/or it isn’t running, then it isn’t a very easy running pace.

In a nutshell, for those that know a little about heart rate zones. If you can run (aka jog) continuously for fair amount of time, and remain in zone 1, you’re a pretty decent jogger.

Or, if you know diddly about heart rate zones, you’re a runner that is capable of running and remaining completely ‘aerobic’ (with oxygen) for a prolonged period of time while doing so. Getting breathless or experiencing the ‘burn’ from excess lactate, being a choice not a necessity to keep running.

If you’re drifting up towards zone 3 as soon as you break from a walk into a run, and your ability to maintain a comfortable conversation with your training partner goes down-hill on the slightest up-hill, then you’ve not really graduated as a jogger yet.

You see, what we’re measuring here isn’t how fast you can run when going as fast as you can. We’re measuring how hard your body has to work to enable you to run at all. Because if you can’t run at pace that feels “easy” or “gentle”, then you don’t have a pace that you can call jogging.

Does this really matter? Perhaps you’re happy that running feels quite hard. Perhaps you relish the idea of no pain, no gain. Perhaps you graduated from couch to 5k a while ago, and have gone on to smash out a few 10k’s, or even a half marathon. Perhaps you now talk about joggers as a cohort that you used to be a member of back in the day.

Well, no, it doesn’t really matter. Not if you’re happy the way things are. The way you train and the way you race is your personal choice at the end of the day.

But what if there was a secret door into a new world? A world where running didn’t need to feel hard. Where you could jog along chatting at speeds quicker than your previous eye balls out race pace. Where tackling a fell race or a marathon no longer felt daunting. Where you didn’t have to reach for an energy gel 30 mins into every run. Where your waist measurement was a few inches less. Might you be tempted to find that door?

If you would, there’s great news. It’s not a secret door at all. It’s right here in front of you and it’s wide open, waiting for you to step through it. Just like Arthur’s door was for the class of ’62. Because, as you’ve read, he was more than willing to share his methods with the world.

After years of experimenting with his running, Arthur had realised that if running felt hard, the way to overcome that and make it feel ‘easy’ was to do more. But that this didn’t mean you should do more right this minute. That would be crazy, because your body may not be ready for it. Especially if you’re over 70 with a history of heart attacks.

No, what he’d realised was that you needed to do more next week than this week, more next month than this month, and more next year than this year. And to enable that to happen, you had to nurture your fitness, and slowly build the foundations of your personal pyramid of fitness. A foundation – or base - that would ultimately enable you run further and faster if you wanted to – for many years to come.

He knew that building those foundations was a process with a best friend called patience, and an enemy called competition. Because individuals progress at a different rates, competition is at best pointless and at worst counterproductive at this stage. Competition should wait until race day eventually comes around, for those that choose that path.

Arthur’s approach with his joggers was to train them, not strain them. This meant having each individual train at their own “gentle” pace until it was starting to feel….well… no longer gentle. They’d then take a walking break until they’d recovered enough to run a bit more at a “gentle” pace. The next time they met they’d find they could run for a bit longer before needing a walking break and, within a few weeks, walking breaks weren’t necessary at all. They were running and chatting the whole time. And they could chat because the pace was gentle.

This all sounds remarkably similar to the Couch to 5k programmes that are here, there and everywhere nowadays doesn’t it? And that’s because of the chain of events that Bill Bowerman’s trip to New Zealand set into motion.

There’s an issue though. An issue that sits amidst my motivations to write these words. An issue that frustrates me almost as much as the misuse of the word “jogger”. And here it is. Somewhere along the way the fundamentals of Arthur’s approach have been lost.

Sorry, no, that’s not quite right. They’ve not been completely lost because there are people out there still staying true to them and being remarkably successful. Eluid Kipchoge is probably not a bad example.

What I really mean is, they’ve lost their appeal due to the dawning of the internet age. The online world has caused grievous bodily harm to the concept of patience and turned everything into a competition. (A fourth irony being that I’m writing this on the day Strava announced you’d got to pay to use ‘segments’!)

In the context of wannabe joggers, the Couch to 5k programme – for so many – is something that they believe guarantees results in X weeks; a concept that is at odds with the fact that we know everyone progresses at a different rate. And, all too often, it’s rife with pressure to keep up with your contemporaries, who’s run data is constantly popping up in your social media feed.

And what happens because of this lack of patience and constant pressure to compete?

Well, the main point is lost along the way. The main point being that you’ve got to go GENTLE!

So, instead of building their aerobic system into a solid foundation for a fitness pyramid, the participants are building a thin and very unstable tower. Because what they’re actually doing is cutting to the chase, and are running like Arthur’s Champions in the final stages of their Olympic preparation every time they run. But without the years of patiently building up that went before.

If you’ve completed a Couch to 5k programme by the way, congratulations! It is a great thing to do to get you started.

And an especially big congratulations if, by the end of the programme, you could get to the end of 5k looking relaxed and chatting with others. Because that’s how Arthur intended you to graduate as a jogger.

If you still stumble across the finish line, sweating profusely, gasping for breath and unable to talk to anyone for the next five minutes, what happened next is the probably the most important thing.

I don’t mean right that minute. Because hopefully you went for a celebratedly drink or piece of cake (don’t make that a habit though). I mean what was your next running goal?

If it was to consolidate, make that 5k feel gentle and be able to run the whole way having a chat; then that’s music to my ears. Because it’s the best bet if you want to become an accomplished jogger.

If it was to go and sign up for a 10k, don’t be surprised if your classmate that decided to consolidate is leaving you in their wake at the following year’s 10k.

And here endeth my message. Except to explain the physical benefits that being a jogger gives you, because I haven’t really done that have I.

So here we go. Being a jogger simply means that the level of effort you need to put in to maintain a run is low enough.

It’s low enough that your body remains well clear of the need to generate excess – sugar hungry, acid producing - lactate for extra energy. So you’ll be recovered and ready to run again much sooner.

It’s low enough that you don’t need to take on extra fuel enable you to keep you running, until at least a couple of hours has passed.

It’s low enough that you're not sweating so much you're having to guzzle large quantities of fluids to stay hydrated every quarter of an hour.

If you don’t have a jogging pace (i.e. a sustainable running pace that feels gentle), when you run you’re starting to build up a problem for your body with one or more of the above. And sooner or later it will be come just that – a problem for your body.

You might get away with a gel scoffing, energy drink swigging strategy for an hour or two. But once you’ve got a jogging pace, then you’ve basically got a pace that you can literally go at all day. This is a bonus prize to go with your solid foundation to that fitness pyramid. A foundation that you can now use as a springboard into running much faster if you choose.

So, my message can be summed up in four simple bullets.

· Becoming a jogger is something you can and should take pride in.

· The quickest way to become an accomplished jogger is to do it patiently at your own pace.

· You’ll never be the best runner you can be unless you’re a jogger.

· Even if you don’t care about being a great runner, being a jogger will still enhance your life.

And I’ll leave you with one final thought to ponder. Why don’t cyclists have an equivalent word for ‘jogger’?

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