The best books on running history

Who am I?

I get it, to most people running isn’t fun, but its simplicity can be deceptive. To some, running (especially when done in nature) can be a spiritual act. To others, it (along with its cousin jogging) should’ve been included in the Geneva Conventions. Me? I’ve been running since the third grade and watching running for even longer. Growing up, the Olympics were required viewing and an interest in running naturally flowed from it. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy the great many books out there about runners and their impact on sports, culture, and world events. 


I wrote...

Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers

By Nicholas Smith,

Book cover of Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers

What is my book about?

When the athletic shoe graduated from the beaches and croquet courts of the wealthy elite to streetwear ubiquity, its journey through the heart of American life was just getting started. In this rollicking narrative, Nicholas K. Smith carries us through the long twentieth century as sneakers became the totem of subcultures from California skateboarders to New York rappers, the cause of gang violence and riots, the heart of a global economic controversy, the lynchpin in a quest to turn big sports into big business, and the muse of high fashion.

Studded with larger-than-life mavericks and unexpected visionaries—from genius rubber inventor, Charles Goodyear, to road-warrior huckster Chuck Taylor, to the feuding brothers who founded Adidas and Puma, to the track coach who changed the sport by pouring rubber in his wife’s waffle iron—Kicks introduces us to the sneaker’s surprisingly influential, enduring, and evolving legacy.

The books I picked & why

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Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time

By Richard Askwith,

Book cover of Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time

Why this book?

There has never been (nor will there likely be) a runner like Emil Zatopek. His crowning achievement, a gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and the marathon in a single Olympics, has never been equaled, before or since. Yet the “greatest runner of all time” was more than just medals. Besides his Rocky Balboa-esque training regimen, Zapotek stood up to Soviet tanks during the Prague Spring. For this action, the runner was punished for years with a string of humiliating and strenuous jobs, before finally having his image rehabilitated in 1989. Known for his pithy quotes, the title of the book comes from a line he is said to have expressed to his fellow competitors before a race. 

Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time

By Richard Askwith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Today We Die a Little! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"We are different, in essence, from other men. If you want to enjoy something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon." --Emil Zatopek For a decade after the Second World War, Emil Zatopek--"the Czech locomotive"--redefined the sport of distance running, pushing back the frontiers of what was considered possible. He won five Olympic medals, set eighteen world records, and went undefeated in the 10,000-metre race for six years. His dominance has never been equaled. In the darkest days of the Cold War, he stood for a spirit of generous friendship that transcended nationality and politics.…


Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon

By John Brant,

Book cover of Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon

Why this book?

Few races match the majesty of the Boston Marathon, often called the “People’s Olympics” for giving everyone who can qualify the chance to compete alongside the sport’s best. Few runnings of the Boston Marathon can compare to the 1982 race, which concluded with a down-to-the-wire finish that separated the first and second finishers by only two seconds. The book profiles both of those runners, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, their build-up to the race, the back-and-forth of race day, and how the careers of each of those runners fell apart after the race. Dual in the Sun is one of the rare books that makes a two-hour race feel like an edge-of-your-seat sprint.

Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon

By John Brant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Duel in the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 1982 Boston Marathon was great theater: Two American runners, Alberto Salazar, a celebrated champion, and Dick Beardsley, a gutsy underdog, going at each other for just under 2 hours and 9 minutes. Neither man broke. The race merely came to a thrilling, shattering end, exacting such an enormous toll that neither man ever ran as well again. Beardsley, the most innocent of men, descended into felony drug addiction, and Salazar, the toughest of men, fell prey to depression. Exquisitely written and rich with human drama, John Brant's Duel in the Sun brilliantly captures the mythic character of the most…


Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

By Jeremy Schaap,

Book cover of Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

Why this book?

In one of the indelible images from the 20th Olympic Games is the grainy footage of American sprinter Jesse Owens racing down a dirt-running track to victory during the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler sought to exploit as a propaganda opportunity. Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals during those Games, a stark defiance to the Nazi’s racist ideology. Triumph tells the story of those Olympics, along with Owens humble origins as a talented black athlete in Jim Crow America, his unlikely friendship with a German long jumper, and his inglorious return to the U.S. that prohibited him from profiting from his success on the track because of draconian amateur rules of the time. 

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

By Jeremy Schaap,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Triumph as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The remarkable behind-the-scenes story of one of the most iconic clashes in sports and world history.

In 1936, against a backdrop of swastikas flying and storm troopers goose-stepping, an African-American athlete won a staggering four Olympic gold medals. Jesse Owens, the son of sharecroppers, had single-handedly crushed Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy. The story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 games is that of a high-profile athlete giving a performance that transcends sports. But it is also the intimate and complex tale of the courage of one remarkable man.

This is the incredible true story of one of the moment…


Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports

By Kathrine Switzer,

Book cover of Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports

Why this book?

For much of the 20th century, women were banned from taking part in some of running’s biggest races, because of misogynistic beliefs about supposed female fragility. A few women were brave enough to challenge this sexist idea by competing in the same arena as men. By 1967, some women had managed to sneak in to run the Boston Marathon, then all-male, but Kathrine Switzer was the first to officially receive a race number by registering with only her initials. Yet her run wasn’t without drama, as Switzer explains firsthand in her book. A race official noticed Switzer running and attempted to force her off the course. Press photographers captured the whole confrontation. When the resulting photos ran in newspapers, it pushed forward the movement for women’s equality in sport.

Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports

By Kathrine Switzer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marathon Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Katherine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 where she was attacked by one of the event's directors who wanted to eject her from the all-male race. She fought off the director and finished the race. From the childhood events that inspired her to winning the New York City Marathon in 1974, this liberally illustrated book details the struggles and achievements of a pioneering women in sports.


The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

By Neal Bascomb,

Book cover of The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

Why this book?

The four-minute mile was the sound barrier of running. No one thought it could ever be broken… until an English medical student proved otherwise. Though Roger Bannister’s dash in 1954 was the one to make the history books, The Perfect Mile explores the little-known story behind the effort to break that mark, not only by Bannister, but two equally talented runners, one American, one Australian. The book expertly interweaves the stories of those three runners and their quest for a record few thought they could beat. You might know the outcome, but the backstory is just as fascinating. 

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

By Neal Bascomb,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Perfect Mile as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Perfect Mile is the stirring account of their quest for sporting martyrdom, charting their journey through triumph and failure, along the way capturing the moment when Bannister broke the record in a monumental run at the Iffley Road cinder track in May 1954. It was a feat that became one of the most celebrated in the history of British sport. Far from bringing an end to the rivalry, this watershed moment turned out to be merely the prelude to a final climactic battle three months later -- the ultimate head-to-head between Bannister and Landy in what was dubbed 'the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in running, runners, and marathons?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about running, runners, and marathons.

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Marathons Explore 19 books about marathons

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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