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The Best Running Movies of All Time
Finish your run, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the best cinema our sport has to offer.
Peter Gambaccini, Tom Layman, Taylor Dutch
You’re a runner, so you probably not only love actually getting out and clocking miles, but also talking about running, listening to other people talk about it, reading about running, and watching running. So of course, you have to know the best running movies of all time so you have a few great films to turn to when you just can’t get enough of the sport.
So we compiled a long and varied list of films, spanning five decades, that can provide deeper dedication to and enjoyment of running. Whether it’s a true story about some of the greatest runners in history, or it’s Forrest Gump from which everyone still repeats famous lines, take a look at our list of classic movies and documentaries. You can buy, rent, download, or stream pretty much all of these the next time you need some added motivation or just want to relax with some interesting cinema—listed in order of release date.
Think we’re missing one of the best running movies? Let us know in the comments.
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1The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Adapted from a short story, the oldest film on the list of best running movies has elements that still ring true today. The film tells the story of a youth (played by Tom Courtenay) who gains privileges at his tough boarding school because of his ability as a long-distance runner. In a way, it’s a coming of age piece that should resonate with a lot of people.
As a defiant loner behind prison bars who finds the emotional release he requires through running, Peter Strauss deserved the Emmy he won. His staunch individualism will resonate with restless persons who did not opt for a team sport. The scenario is admittedly a bit improbable; Strauss’ character becomes one of the country’s top milers while incarcerated in Folsom Prison. But Strauss can really run, and when he talks about “floating” it might be the first moment of unadulterated bliss in his character’s life.
The opening scene alone in this running movie is worth the watch. It will make you want to run in the surf with your buddies to the sounds of the memorable score. There’s a sensational set piece during the match race around the college courtyard at Cambridge, and you get well-drawn and contrasting 1924 Paris Olympic heroes—the taciturn and proud Harold Abrahams and jubilant and devout Eric Liddell. But Chariots plays very fast and loose with historic fact and stands up better if you worship all things British. The theme is still played at road races in the 21st century—it’s that good.
Mariel Hemingway is credible as a gifted young pentathlete in a cast of actual Olympic-caliber athletes including Patrice Donnelly, a real-life Olympic hurdler, who tells her “Everything I’ve always wanted, you’ve got.” The scenes of Hemingway and Donnelly running in the dunes of California inspired many imitators. Real life Olympic marathoner and legendary sportswriter Kenny Moore shows up as Mariel’s other love interest—a water polo player. How can you not want to see this?
The small war of elbows between Billy Mills, Mohamed Gammoudi, and Ron Clarke in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 10,000 is thrillingly done here, with Robby Benson far more believable as a (roughly) half-Sioux distance runner, than he was as a pint-sized basketball hero in One on One. Mills’ struggles to overcome stereotypes and fight for the approval of his buttheaded coach make it seem miraculous that he even got to Tokyo. The film’s big payoff comes when the coach tells Benson/Mills “That was the greatest race I ever saw a man run,” and you think it was, too.
This was a labor of love for former University of Pennsylvania track star Bruce Dern, and it was tough to finally get released and get it seen. The protagonist is the type of thorn-in-everybody’s-side that Dern plays so well. A man who paid dearly for rocking the boat in the dreaded amateur era seeks redemption by training for one of America’s foremost mountain and trail races. The California scenery and the race action are everything you want, and the movie is not predictable.
We will admit that this is a guilty pleasure, and doesn’t involve “running” in its truest sense. But how can you not want to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger run as a prisoner turned contestant where the ultimate prize is freedom? But first he has to escape death at the hands of professional killers.
This movie’s reputation has slipped a bit since it swept the Oscars 20 years ago, but the gripes seem to be more about what it doesn’t do than what it does. It’s surprising how much of the plot is taken up with running, most rewardingly, in the exquisitely photographed scenes of Gump’s transcontinental treks. And the footage of young Forrest, dashing faster and faster to escape his tormentors’ pursuit, condemned many of us to hear “Run, Forrest, run!” shouted out of passing cars for years afterward.
It may be the most viscerally exciting “running” movie ever made, even if it’s not really a running movie at all. A flame-haired German woman in Doc Martens sprints all over her city in an effort to save her thoroughly useless boyfriend. This is a movie for which the phrase “non-stop action thriller” was invented, but it’s more stylish and electrifying than the typical lot. Lola doesn’t take the bus. Lola—even in cartoon animated form, in some scenes—can really run. This is very nearly a training film.
The second of two dramatized version’s of the life of Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine is the slightly superior one, thanks in large part to a smartly understated performance by Donald Sutherland as his coach, Bill Bowerman. But Billy Crudup deserves credit for capturing the iconoclastic nature of Pre, equal parts charismatic and exasperating and, as clichéd as it might sound, a rebel at precisely the ’70s moment that track and field needed one.
It’s uplifting and for those who really do believe in miracles. But for most, this requires a major suspension of disbelief, especially in the Boston Marathon sequences of a young Canadian boy who is somehow a serious contender at a very tender age. It also contains what must be, of all the dozens and dozens of renditions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the one that is the absolute worst.
This one should be very high on everyone’s list. The movie follows six runners, some fabled and some not, as they prepare for the 2005 Chicago Marathon. How can you not be moved when one of the six tells us: “I had really reached a point in my life where I didn’t think that I could ever be happy again,” and then finds, “I can pretty much do anything.” Spirit of the Marathon got expert wisdom about the marathon from people who really are experts and can think and express themselves.
This is a very affectionate documentary about pioneering New York City Marathon race director Fred Lebow. It’s a valentine to distance running’s development in New York, from the days when practitioners were few and Lebow was just about the slowest among them. He found, as the documentary capably reminds us, a way to make his indelible contribution. A must-watch when it comes to best running movies.
It’s about the 2005 season of legendary Illinois coach Joe Newton and the 221 students who come out for his boys’ cross-country team—even though more than 200 of them will be left behind when the major meets come. The effect Newton has on all of them is what’s worth witnessing. The man who says “It's nice to be great, but far greater to be nice,” manages to make sure his kids are both.
This movie follows Nikki Kimball, an ultrarunning icon who has won the Western States 100 along with several other endurance races, in her attempt to set the speed record on Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail in August 2012, when she was 41 years old. The crew spends four days capturing Kimball’s triumphs and struggles on the trail, which traverses the beautiful but difficult Green Mountains of Vermont.
If you are up for watching runners go through excruciating pain, then this documentary of a group attempting to complete the 4 Deserts ultra races is right up your alley. Each race for these amateur runners is a little north of 150 miles and runs through the Atacama Desert, the Gobi, the Sahara, and Antarctica. Brutal.
Louis “Louie” Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Olympics in the 5,000 meters (and had an amazing final lap while finishing 8th), but this film focuses more on what happens after he enlists in the Army when World War II breaks out. After surviving a plane crash in the Pacific and spending more than a month adrift at sea, he’s captured by the Japanese navy. While the running isn’t the centerpiece, it’s the mindset of never giving up that works on all levels.
18The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014)
The name says it all, chronicling one of the most brutal races that only a handful of brave souls can actually try. (Only 15 individuals have completed the 100+ mile race in the hills of Tennessee over the race’s existence.) For years, the Barkley Marathons was a race that nobody talked about. You had to know somebody who knew how to enter to even have a chance at entry. This documentary gives a great look at the trials and tribulations that a small number of runners put themselves through each year, and why the race director, Gary Cantrell, designed the devilish race in the first place.
This is a human-interest piece following two Kenyan runners—Julius Arile and Robert Matanda—who put aside their life as countryside warriors to focus on the sport. Director and filmmaker Anjali Nayar debuted this documentary in 2015. It shows how Kenyan runners go from poverty to reaching local and national fame in the sport. But it also displays just how hard it is to make it big in a country full of talented runners.
Kevin Costner stars as Jim White, a tough-love coach who leads a team of mostly Latino students in the San Joaquin Valley to cross-country dominance. But like most underdog stories, it was a work in progress to get there.
This documentary looks at the rise of distance running in the last 50 years and focuses on some of the major runners and figures who have helped shape the sport. Some of the subjects include Steve Prefontaine’s mark on the running scene, the situation at the New York Marathon shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and the growth of women’s running after Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in 1967. The film came out in 2016.
Jesse Owens is one of the biggest names in Olympic track and field history, and a story about the superstar’s quest to be one of the best ever is ripe for dramatization. The plot centers around his growth as a runner in the face of discrimination at home and as the top athlete at the 1936 Olympics, where Owens shows off his burgeoning talents in Berlin in front of Adolf Hitler and his vision of Aryan supremacy.
Directed by Tom Ratcliffe, this documentary tells the story of Roger Bannister, who became the first runner in history to break four minutes in the mile. With interviews from Bannister, his competitors, and prominent figures in the sport, the film explains the significance of the physical feat that elevated the sport.
This documentary was released after Usain Bolt retired from track and field at the Rio Olympics. The film chronicles the legendary sprinter’s rise in the sport—which includes world records in the 100 and 200-meters, eight gold medals, and 11 world championship golds—while giving viewers an inside look into his training, triumphs, and challenges as the fastest man in the world.
This is another one that never hit the big screen, but it’s worth your time if you want to watch what happens when human performance and science work close together to push the boundaries of running. National Geographic’s Breaking2 special follows marathoners Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese on their quest ot break the 2-hour-marathon barrier in 2017 along with a team of scientists from Nike. Once you get to know the runners, their race on a Formula 1 track in Monza, Italy, will leave you spellbound by the beauty of their attempt.
This Oscar-winning documentary is a must-watch when it comes to the best running movies. In a two-hour feature, filmmaker and American cyclist Bryan Fogel investigates performance-enhancing drugs with an emphasis on Olympic sports. By testing banned substances on himself and interviewing Grigory Rodchenkov—the whistleblower who exposed the systemic doping scandal in Russia—Fogel uncovers shocking revelations that go beyond athletics.
This newer documentary by the creators of Spirit of the Marathon chronicles everything from the origins of one of the world’s most iconic races to the tragedy in 2013 at the finish line. It’s a complete look at everything Boston Marathon from some the people who know it best. The film is narrated by Boston’s own Matt Damon.
Billy Crudup, the actor who played Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits, returns to the running genre as a coach who helps a high school cross-country runner cope with the death of his girlfriend. The film is based on the novel, Life at These Speeds by Jeremy Jackson.
Follow the journey of British vegan runner Fiona Oakes in the documentary Running for Good, which follows the world record holder as she tackles one of the toughest races on earth—the Marathon des Sables.
This is a movie about a woman who overcomes life’s challenges by tackling the New York City Marathon. In 2019, it charmed audiences and scored one of the biggest deals to boot at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
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