21 Feb Vintage Running – Emil Zatopek

Emil Zatopek was born on 19th September 1922 in Slovakia and would go on to beZat one the most famous and successful distance runners of all-time. His phenomenal medal haul included 4 Gold and 1 Silver in the Olympics, 3 Gold and 1 Bronze in the European Championships. He also set a total 19 world records in his career! Zatopek was by no means a natural, he’s renowned for his awkward running style where he would look like he was in complete agony grimacing with his shoulders rolling and hunched up. He came to the sport quite late and in 1941 had to be persuaded to take part in a local race supported by the shoe manufacturers he worked for in Zlin. He managed to finish second, and it proved to be the start of an incredible career.

In 1943 he came 4th in the 1500m at the Czech national championships and ended that season with personal best’s of 4:02 for 1500m and 15:26 for 5,000m. The following year he set up a national record-breaking 15 minutes for 5,000m with 14:54. It was a meteoric rise and in his first major championships, Zatopek surpassed expectations and finished in 5th place in the 5,000m at the European Championships, less than 20 seconds behind Britain’s Sydney Wooderson in a new personal best of 14:25. It was a hard-earned result and he was in the early stages of his now famous interval training regime, initially of 10x 200m, 20x 400m, 10x 200m reps, interspersed with 200m jogging.Despite such an impressive debut on the international stage, Emil Zatopek was still relatively unknown outside of Czechoslovakia, but this would all change at the London Olympics in 1948. Zatopek’s training load had moved on to a new level and his volume would reach a whopping 60x 400m on the track! Going into the Games his personal best stood at 14:10 for 5,000m and he also posted a superb 29:37 for 10,000m. This gave Zatopek the belief that he could pull off the amazing feat of winning Olympic Gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m, it was certainly a possibility; Zatopek was ranked as World number 1 for 5,000m and 2nd in 10,000m with a time only two seconds slower than Viljo Heino.

The first event was the 10,000m on Friday evening. The race panned out as expected Leading in the 5,000m Helsinki '52in the early stages with a fast tempo, rattling off 3k in 8:51, then 5k in 14:57 with Heino still leading, but the pace had dropped outside 3 minutes per kilometre and shortly after, Zatopek took the lead. This move broke Heino and he dropped out, leaving Zatopek on a solo run to win comfortably in an Olympic record of 29:59, some 47 seconds clear of 2nd placed Alain Mimoun. He lapped most of the field, including Britain’s Stan Cox and Jim Peters. Next was the 5,000m; as opposed to warm and dry conditions in the 10,000m, the rain made the track cinders hard work for the 5,000m. Zatopek forced the pace, covering 3k in 8:33, but it wasn’t enough to shake off Gaston Reiff who took the lead and rattled off the next kilometre in 2:52, leaving Zatopek and Slijkhuis a few seconds behind. By the last lap, Zatopek was giving away 50 metres to Reiff who looked to have the race in the bag. Reiff had his arms up in celebration a few strides up to the finish line, but Zatopek had unleashed an incredible sprint and almost caught him at the line! Reiff looked around and in a last-ditch panic just kept ahead winning gold in 14:17.6 with Zatopek 0.2 seconds behind.

In the following year he set his first world record with a time of 29:28 for the 10,000m, beating Heino’s 5 year-old mark by 7 seconds; it only lasted a month, as Heino responded with a 29:27. By the end of the season, Zatopek regained his record with a superb 29:21. By the 1950 European Championships in Brussels, it was a foregone conclusion for many that Zatopek would win the 5,000m and 10,000m. He was training harder than ever, running track sessions virtually every day, sometimes covering up to 80x 400m! This lead to him running a phenomenal 29:02 for 10,000m, destroying his previous best. At the Championships he ran 29:12 to win Gold, but it would be a much closer contest in the 5,000m against his old foe, Gaston Reiff. It was a great tussle all the way between the two and Reiff was in front at the bell, but Zatopek delivered the final blow with a tremendous final lap to win in 14:03, Reiff blew up and ended up being passed for 2nd place by the Frenchman Alain Mimoun.

In 1951 he was unbeaten at 5,000m and 10,000m and was setting world records in the 10,000m, 20,000m and the one hour run. Unsurprisingly, Heino held the records with 62:40 for 20,000m and had covered 19,339m for the hour. Zatopek improved this by covering 20,000m in under an hour with 59:51, thus also smashing the hour record with 20,052m (equates to 12.45 miles). Only a few runners could manage a sub 30-minute 10k back in the early ’50’s, yet Zatopek had managed them back-to-back in one race!

Zatopek was unstoppable and even decided to enter three events at the Helsinki ’52 Games; 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon. No-one had ever managed to win, let alone medal, at those three events in one Olympic competition! His strongest event; the 10,000m went as planned; going through halfway in a steady 14:43, with Alain Mimoun and Britain’s Gordon Pirie closely following. The pace then increased until it was just Mimoun and Zatopek, then with just over a kilometre to go Zatopek pulled away and won comfortably in 29:17.  Again, the 5,000m would prove to be much more difficult; Herbert Schade had a personal best only a few seconds slower than Zatopek’s and decided to go out and take the race on at a fast pace, covering 1k in 2:47. The pace, as expected, gradually slowed down and Schade was unable to get a gap on Zatopek, Mimoun, Reiff and Chris Chataway. Schade’s 4th kilometre was 2:54 and on the last lap Chataway made his move, but was being closed down on the last bend, suddenly Chataway fell as he was being crowded out. Zatopek thundered down the straight to win in another Olympic Record of 14:05. Mimoun finished second to his great rival and Schade was rewarded for his gutsy effort with a Bronze medal. The question now was, could he win the marathon as well???

Zatopek was regularly covering distances in excess of 20 miles with his interval sessions, but he hadn’t done any specific long runs or raced a marathon before. No-one was quite sure how he would perform, but he was certainly a threat and world record holder Jim Peters knew it. Zatopek introduced himself to Peters before the marathon started and his aim was to follow the Englishman. Peters stormed off at a very fast pace, but would surely have to slow down after covering 10k in under 32 minutes. Zatopek was looking good less than 30 seconds behind. Peters was caught just before halfway when the famous exchange of words occurred; Zatopek asked Peters how the pace was; Peters, probably in slight agitation, called his bluff replying that it was too slow. Zatopek double-checked and got the same answer, he then decided to pull away from Peters who managed to stay in contact for a few miles before falling back and eventually having to drop out with leg cramps. The Swede Jansson tried to follow, but by 30k, Zatopek was out on his own and went on to win by over two minutes in 2hr 23:03, another Olympic record and not too far off Peter’s world record of 2hr 20:40. Zatopek had achieved the impossible; Gold in 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, no other athlete has achieved this amazing feat in the history of the Games. It wasn’t the only medal for the Zatopek household either, as his wife Dana won Gold in the javelin!

As expected in 1953, more world records followed, but he was now facing tougher competition against upcoming stars such as Gordon Pirie, Chris Chataway and the Soviet, Vladimir Kuts. Even though he was now in his thirties, he was still getting faster with a new personal best of 14:03 in the 5,000m and 29:01 for 10,000m, as well as bagging world records for 15 miles (1hr 15:26), 25k (1hr 19:11) and 30k (1hr 35:23). In the following year he set a career best and world record for 5,000m with 13:57.2 in May (splits: 2:47, 5:34, 8:23, 11:13, 13:57) , knocking a second off Gunder Hagg’s time set in 1942. Two days later and it was another world record; 10,000m in 28:54.2 with perfect pacing of 2:47, 2:56, 2:54, 2:55, 2:53, 2:55, 2:53, 2:55, 2:55 and a fast final kilometre in 2:46!

At the European Championships in Berne, Zatopek was hot favourite for both the 5,000m and 10,000m again. It was yet again another comfortable victory in a major championships 10,000m, as he lead from the start covering the first 5k in 14:28 and going on to finish only a few seconds off his world record in 28:58, nearly 30 seconds ahead of 2nd place. In the 5,000m, however, Vladimir Kuts sprung a surprise by breaking away at the start with a 2:44 kilometre. Zatopek was unable to go with the pace and Chataway was reluctant to move ahead of Zatopek at such an early stage. Kuts maintained his gap of 70 – 80 metres and went on to win and take the world record with 13:56.6 and Chataway running 14:08, edging Zatopek into 3rd in 14:10. It was a disappointment to only get Bronze after dominating for so many years. Later that year he tried to get his record back, only just failing with a new pb of 13:57.0. Chataway then beat Kuts in October to end the year as the number one 5,000m runner with 13:51.6.

Knowing that he was now struggling against worlds best at 5,000m and aware of the improving 10,000m times from Pirie and Kuts, Zatopek increased his training to extortionate levels. He was averaging 165 miles per week in January, running various 400m sessions everyday, sometimes as much as 50x 400m in the morning, followed by 40x 400m (all jog 200m recovery) in the afternoon! The volume then increased to 180 miles per week. It was an incredibly extreme training regime and proved to be too much. He was struggling to repeat performances from previous seasons, losing often in 5,000m races as well as suffering rare defeats to Kuts and Pirie in the 10,000m. He did manage to add to his world record resume by improving on his 1951 performances for 15 miles and 25k. He covered the first 5k in 15:15, then 10k 30:24, 15k in 45:44 and 20k in 61:07. He reached 15 miles in 1hr 14:01 and 25k in 1hr 16:36.4. Both records would last for a decade until Britain’s Ron Hill would eventually better them.


1956 would prove to be Zatopek’s last at the highest level, he ended 1955 ranked 11th at 5,000m with 14:04 and 8th in the 10,000m with 29:25. Aware that his best chance of Gold at the Olympics in Melbourne would be in the marathon, he focused more on training and raced infrequently on the track, running 14:14 in 5,000m and doing just one 10,000m race, which he won in 29:33. Even though Zatopek was far from his best, he still had a great chance in the Olympic marathon. There was question marks about his fitness though, as it was rumoured he had suffered from a hernia, missing the national championships won by Pavel Kantorek in 2hr 29. Clearly all was not well in the Olympic marathon, he let the leaders open a gap early on, but it was at nowhere near the pace set in the race four years ago in Helsinki. Mimoun in his first Olympic marathon went through 20k in 68:03 and 30k in 1hr 42:47 before going on to win by about a minute in 2hr 25. Zatopek was never really in contention, but bravely battled on to finish 6th in 2hr 29:34.

His career lasted for another couple of years, even managing his best performances for nearly 3 years with 14:06 for the 5,000m and 29:25 for the 10,000m in 1957. At the age of 36, he retired from top-level athletics after an incredible career that spanned 15 years.

Sadly, the political instability of Czechoslovakia would affect him greatly and during the 70’s and 80’s. He was removed from the Czech Communist Party and given a low-paid labourer job with a geological surveying team in remote areas of the country, almost living in exile. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Zatopek was rightfully reinstated in the governments Sports Ministry in 1990. He died at the age of 78 in November 2000.


Zatopek’s training was revolutionary and instigated a major improvement in the standard of distance racing throughout the 1950’s; many emulated him trying to match his training regime. Zatopek’s training was based around Fartlek and intervals. Fartlek training is a varied pace run with variable duration of efforts and recovery over a period of roughly an hour, with half to three-quarters of that at race pace. Finnish legend Paavo Nurmi pioneered this type of training in the 1920’s. Zatopek’s interval training, however, was groundbreaking. Before Zatopek came along, most track sessions consisted of time trials or a low number of repetitions at very high intensities. Zatopek’s idea of running short intervals in high volumes initially puzzled his contemporaries, but by 1948, it was clear that the old training ideas were inferior to Zatopek’s regime. The blueprint Zatopek session of 10x 200m, 20x 400m, 10x 200m (all jog 200m) is used by many runners even today, although, few athletes could stand up to his monstrous 60x 400m, which he would often do at the height of his career.

Below is an example of one of his toughest training weeks from 1954, taken from Bob Phillips’ “Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek” book, not for the faint hearted!

Mon: am – 40x 400m. pm – 40x 400m.
Tue: am – 50x 400m. pm – 40x 400m.
Wed: am – 50x 400m. pm – 40x 400m.
Thur: am – 40x 400m. pm – 40x 400m.
Fri: am – 40x 400m. pm – 40x 400m.
Sat: am – 30 x 400m. pm – 1 hour jogging and exercising.
Sun: am – 2 hours jogging and exercising.
It’s interesting to note that although he had some of his best performances that year, he never got anywhere near that form in the following years. It seems likely that this training gained only short-term benefits before it burned him out. 

Zatopek rarely used a stopwatch for track sessions and did most of them on his own. He had two efforts he worked at; 5k pace and 10k pace. The 400m sessions were mainly done at 10k pace and the 200m reps would be used to improve speed for 3,000m and 5,000m races. In a typical day, he would get 7 – 9 hours sleep, going to bed between 9 – 10pm and getting up between 5 – 6am, the aim would to get 10 hours sleep the night before a race. He would start work at 7am; doing a session in his break and then another after work at 4 – 5pm.


1500m: 3:52.8

3000m: 8:07.8

5000m: 13:57.0

10,000m: 28:54.2

Marathon: 2hr 23:03

Further Reading

There has been plenty written about this great runner over the years, with frequent zat-bookarticles appearing in running magazines as recent as 2013 in Runners World for example. There have been two biographies written about Zatopek. “Za-to-pek”, Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek” published by Bob Phillips in 2002 is a terrific book that is still in print. It lists all his known performances throughout his career and also has lots of useful information on the training he did. The other one is simply titled “Zatopek The Marathon Victor” by Frantisek Kozic, which covers his career up to 1953 and was translated to English in 1954. It’s incredibly rare and when it does appear, it usually costs at least £50, often reaching three figures. It has some flaws, as some passages don’t seem to have been translated very well. Still, it’s a cracking book if you can get it at the right price.