Published on: 12/08/2022
Running is a sport that inspires like few others. The image of the stoic, solitary marathon runner is not only impressive but also moving to many. This is likely a large part of why there are so many movies about running. And it’s not only the nature of the sport but also the athletes who dedicate their lives to it.
So, if you’re wondering how to spend your next rest day, why not check out some of the movies on this list? We’ve compiled a guide to our favorite fiction and non-fiction movies about running. Whether you’re looking for entertainment, learning something new about the sport, or getting inspired, our list is sure to have something for you!
Our Guide to the 11 Best Running Movies of All Time
Chariots of Fire
Chariots of Fire is arguably best known for its iconic original score, but it’s an incredible work in its own right. What’s more, this must-watch movie is based on a true story. It covers the lives and backstories of two British athletes who went on to compete in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Its protagonists are the runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Abrahams is a Jewish man who uses running as a means to tackle prejudice. On the other hand, Liddell is a Christian for whom running is an expression of devotion to God.
Despite the hardships they face in their pursuit of athletic excellence, both go on to achieve Olympic glory, winning gold medals in their respective races. Chariots of Fire went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. A true testament to the incredible performances of the cast, as well as its strong writing and directing.
The Barkley Marathons: the Race that Eats its Young
The Barkley Marathons is easily one of the most hardcore running documentaries out there. It focuses on the annual Tennessee ultramarathon of the same name. Originally inspired by the jailbreak of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., the Barkley Marathons is renowned for being one of the world’s toughest ultras. Only 14 runners have ever completed the Barkley since it started in 1986. The race climbs some 25,000 feet, consists of five laps of a 20-mile course, and takes 50+ hours to finish.
The Barkley has gone on to achieve a sort of cult status among participants and enthusiasts alike. Only 40 runners enter the Barkley each year, and registration instructions are never even made public. Prospective participants must complete an essay outlining why they should be allowed to compete. Most of them are subsequently rejected. The course itself is unmarked and without aid stations. The race starts when its director lights a ceremonial cigarette.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Covering themes like classism, poverty, alienation, institutionalization, and privilege, the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, is far more than a film about running. However, running is how its protagonist copes with the stresses of the world. The movie focuses on Colin Smith, a disaffected delinquent who is sent to a borstal to be rehabilitated.
The institution’s governor quickly notices Smith’s talent for running and takes him under his wing. He awards him privileges ironically inaccessible to Smith outside of the borstal’s walls. While it’s clear from the running scenes that Smith thrives in the sport, it eventually leads him to betray his morals. This complex psychological drama is easily one of the best movies about running that we’ve ever come across.
While not exclusively a running movie, Saint Ralph is a moving, life-affirming comedy. Ralph is a teenager who decides to run the Boston Marathon, believing it will wake his mother from a coma. Ralph is initially unfit and struggles to keep up with the rest of his school’s cross-country team, but he quickly improves and becomes one of their best athletes.
Despite his mischievous nature, it’s clear that Ralph cares deeply for his mother. His father was killed in the Second World War, so Ralph resolves to take care of her. Saint Ralph culminates with the Boston Marathon and offers a deeply moving ending.
The Jericho Mile
The Jericho Mile is set in the renowned Folsom State Prison in Southern California. Some of the extras were even prison inmates at the time. The film tells the gritty, morally complex tale of Larry Murphy, a convict who struggles with a life sentence that he feels is deeply unjust.
Murphy uses running as a means to blow off steam and escape the mundanity of life in prison. Folsom Prison’s psychologist notices that Murphy has a gift for running, and Murphy eventually ends up training with California State’s running coach in preparation for the Olympic trials. However, despite his record-breaking performance at the trials, Murphy is limited due to his conviction. Full of plot twists and moments, uplifting and heartbreaking, the Jericho Mile went on to win three Emmy Awards. It’s worth well a watch!
Featuring Tom Hanks in perhaps his most iconic role, this film tells the story of the young, kind-hearted Forrest Gump, who becomes a top college athlete and, later, a war veteran. While running doesn’t always take center stage in Forrest Gump, it is a crucial part of the narrative nonetheless (‘run, Forrest, run,’ anyone?).
Later, Forrest goes on to marry his childhood sweetheart, become a ping pong champion, and accidentally unearth the Watergate Scandal. Not bad for a man from such humble beginnings! Clocking in at over two hours, this movie is epic, heartwarming, and an absolute must-watch.
I Am Bolt
This documentary film covers the life and career so far of one of the world’s most elite runners, Usain Bolt. Known across the globe as the world’s fastest man, it’s clear that Bolt deserves all the praise and accolades that have been heaped on him. He has repeatedly smashed world records and won Olympic gold multiple times and comes across as a deeply down-to-earth, genuine person.
Without Limits focuses on the career of the distance runner Steve Prefontaine and his coach, Bill Bowerman. Tom Cruise produced the film, and it stars Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland. Prefontaine was arguably one of the most notorious runners of all time, and Crudup’s portrayal in Without Limits definitely does him justice. The film received lukewarm box office reception when it was released. but it’s very well-regarded by critics, with a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Personal Best is a highly compelling drama film that was released in 1982. Focusing on the same-sex relationship between two female runners, Personal Best is also often cited as one of the best LGBTQ movies. Patrice Donnelly, one of the most influential female track athletes of the 20th century, plays one of the protagonists. The other is portrayed by Mariel Hemingway.
Unfortunately, the production of Personal Best was marred by scandal. A strike by the Screen Actors Guild at the time was an obstacle to filming. Director Robert Towne also ended up in a feud with David Geffen, the film’s producer, eventually attempting to sue him for $110 million.
Despite all of this, Personal Best was eventually released. It tells the story of two athletes trying to reach their full potential and make it to the Moscow Olympics. They face multiple setbacks as runners and lovers on their journey, with ultimately a heart-wrenching ending.
Running Brave is a compassionate, heartwarming, and uplifting film. It’s based on the gripping life and backstory of the First Nations Olympian Billy Mills. An Oglala Sioux man living in South Dakota, he went on to study at the University of Kansas. There, he was discovered by sports recruiters and eventually given a place on the U.S. Olympic running team.
Mills competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the 10,000-meter run. He’s best known for his career-defining upset victory in the race. Coming third for much of the race, Mills sprinted into first place just before the finish line, snagging the gold medal at the last second.
While Running Brave is a great work of art in its own right, it’s also noteworthy for its depiction of First Nations cultures. Indeed, the movie is often acclaimed for its sensitive, realistic portrayal of the Oglala Sioux. Surprisingly for a 1983 movie, it avoids stereotypes or melodrama, as is often the case in films with Native characters.
On the Edge
On the Edge is a dark drama with political undertones. It’s based on the Dipsea Race, one of the world’s oldest trail running events and foot races. The film features a raw, gritty leading performance by Bruce Dern as Wes Holman, who attempts to run the Cielo-Sea, a fictionalized equivalent of the Dipsea.
Interestingly, On the Edge’s producers essentially pioneered a sort of crowdfunding when raising money to make the film. The movie’s writer, Rob Nilsson, and its co-producer, Jeffrey Hayes, traveled to racing events all across the US. They then asked attendees and participants for contributions of $10 to help back the film’s production.
Nilsson and Hayes managed to raise over $300,000 towards the budget of On the Edge through these contributions. It was clearly worth the effort! The film features a moving, relatable performance by Dern and its supporting cast alike.
If the films on our list have got you on the hunt for even more running-related media, then check out the movies and books below:
Even More Running Movies
- Long Green Line – A documentary based on the York Community High School Cross Country Team and how running helps the athletes on the team learn discipline, teamwork, and dedication.
- Brittany Runs a Marathon – A moving underdog story, Brittany Runs a Marathon sees its titular character take up running to lose weight and eventually take on the New York City Marathon.
- The Spirit of the Marathon – The story of six marathon runners in training for the Chicago marathon
- Race – Centred around the life of the African-American track athlete Jesse Owens, Race sees him go on to win four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, despite facing significant racial discrimination and hardship in the process.
- Run Lola Run – This zany, experimental German thriller sees the titular character, Lola, stuck in a sort of time loop and features extensive running sequences.
Running Books to Check Out
- Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Author Christopher McDougall travels to meet a distant tribe to learn what makes them such great runners.
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Essentially a set of meditations on the sport of running and how it transforms the psyche by Haruki Murakami.
- Epic Runs of the World – Covers many of the world’s most exciting runs and trails.
While it won’t necessarily help with your performance, watching movies about running can be a great way to feel inspired and more connected to the sport. From documentaries to dramas, running has been the focus of many incredible pieces of film. We love the films on this list and hope you can take something away from each and every one of them.