It’s hard to fathom there was once a day when runners from outside of East Africa dominated competitive distance running. But this was the case in the early days of the sport, when the likes of Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, and Ville Ritola—all wearing the sea-blue Nordic cross of Finland on their uniform—were the first runners across the Olympic finish-line tape in nearly all the middle and long-distance events from 1912 to 1924.
Because of their success, these three runners came to be known as the “Flying Finns.” They laid the groundwork for eventual powerhouses like Kenya and Ethiopia. Hannes Kolehmainen, a bricklayer by trade, was first to win for Finland, garnering three Olympic gold medals in Stockholm in 1912. Nurmi and Ritola followed in the footsteps of “Smiling Hannes” with Nurmi setting 22 world records and winning nine Olympic gold medals throughout his career in the 1920s. Ritola still holds the Olympic record for the most track and field medals in one Olympics, collecting four gold and two silvers at the 1924 Games in Paris.
Despite the fact that it’s been roughly 100 years since the Finnish heyday, there are many lessons to be learned from these amazing athletes. What made them so great? How did their training and approach to competing differ from their rivals? What were the secrets of the Flying Finns? We’ll answer these questions and unveil some of their biggest secrets so you can apply them in your own training and racing.
Be “hungry” to prove yourself.
Ryan Lamppa, the founder of Bring Back The Mile and himself a Finnish-American, points out that Finland didn’t achieve its independence until 1917. “Finns had and have a strong sense of national and cultural pride,” he says. The Finnish runners, led by the legendary Paavo Nurmi, embodied and showcased that pride with their running prowess. Collectively, The Flying Finns were the New York Yankees of the era. Lamppa says that from this desire to distinguish themselves as a new nation in the relatively new modern Olympics helped the runners band together with a common purpose: prove that they were capable of competing with athletes from more established nations.
Keep your diet simple.
Similar to today’s Kenyans and Ethiopians, who consume fresh vegetables, starches like ugali, and raw milk, Finns like Kolehmainen, a vegetarian, ate whole-grain bread and drank milk sometimes straight from the cow. Thor Gotaas, author of numerous running books, including Running: A Global History, says that the Flying Finns grew up in mostly poor families and were used to the simple diet that complemented the demands of long-distance running. “Finland had a late industrial revolution compared to Norway and Sweden, and their diet became refined and ‘modern’ later than in many other countries,” Gotaas says. Because of Finland’s colder winter climate, the runners needed to consume more calories than modern-day East Africans, but the simplicity of the diet remains a constant.
The little things go a long way.
When Nurmi was competing, there was no such terminology, but nevertheless, the Finns embraced these concepts. Gotaas points out that the Finns cross-country skied during winter and came from farms where heavy labor on a daily basis was a way of life. Additionally, the Finns established a solid aerobic base in the winter thanks, in part, to copious amounts of walking. Tim Noakes writes in The Lore of Running that Finnish runners incorporated walking two to three times a week into their training—going as far as 60K—from January to March. And Gotaas notes that many of these walks were with a heavy backpack to strengthen the back and legs. Additionally, he says that a lot of their workouts took place in favorable, healthy locales. “They trained much on soft surfaces: in the woods, on snow and on roads in the woods, in fresh, cold air,” he says. Gotaas notes that the Finns also incorporated recovery techniques like sauna and massage between their workouts.
Toughness is a good trait to possess.
Lamppa points out that the Finnish language has a unique word that pairs quite well with distance running: sisu. “That [word] means grit, determination, bravery, never give up, fortitude and more, and the Finns take that word to heart (ask the Russians and Swedes who never could truly conquer the Finns),” he says. “The Flying Finns displayed plenty of sisu when racing.” Gotaas agrees. “It was taboo to show signs of weakness,” he says. “The Finnish sisu meant that a person should show strength and willpower.”