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Once described by an observer as resembling “a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt,” Zatopek’s style was unorthodox. But he was notorious for unrelenting grit, not smooth running. “I shall learn to have a better style,” he retorted, “once they start judging races according to their beauty.” His was not an effortless lope that carried him smoothly across the track, Milne of Athletics Weekly once reported on a race: “He ran as only a Zátopek could run such a distance one moment looking like a super-tuned machine, the next like a fugitive from justice; grimacing painfully in one lap, smiling contentedly in the next, and finally winding up with a last lap that would have done credit to a first-class miler.”

Interval training wasn’t invented by Zatopek, but after a lull in its use by athletes during the period of WWII it was Zatopek who began to push its use to new extremes. When he first began his experiments with startlingly high-volume interval training in the forests of Stara Boleslav (often run in his army boots, through the snow and mud), contemporaries were appalled. ‘Everyone said, “Emil, you are a fool!”’ he reminisced. ‘But when I first won the European Championship, they said: “Emil, you are a genius!”’

At the time the use of such techniques was not standard practice. Emil was not known for his natural speed, and the training was aimed at running a fast pace, with recovery allowing repetitions and a gradual extension of the cumulative distance that could be run at that increased pace. “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast.”

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