Regular readers of The Wired Runner will know that we do not shy away from recommending that some days, it’s a Netflix day. There are many reasons today might not be a running day. Some days you just can’t manage to get out the door and take a run. Perhaps it’s raining out and you’ve had a cold. Maybe you’re recovering from an injury. Or it could be that you just had one of those days… And are lacking some motivation. But you’ve still got that block of time carved out in your schedule.
Whatever your reason behind not being able to run, you don’t need to miss out on your running fix entirely just because of bad weather or aches and pains. Why not use this time to take in a great movie about running?
Today we’re having a look at the best running documentaries. When you can’t do the thing yourself, the next best option is to watch inspiring stories of other people doing the thing!
Each of these documentaries is in equal parts interesting and motivating. It’s the perfect way to end off an evening, spend a lazy rainy Sunday, or sneak some good viewing into your lunch hour.
Top 3 Best and Favorites
Spirit of the Marathon
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The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
Skid Row Marathon
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Best Marathon Documentaries
1. Spirit of the Marathon
Thinking of running a marathon? This documentary should be the first step in your training.
The film offers a short history of the famed Chicago Marathon, and then zeroes in on six different runners and their training leading up to the 2005 race.
What makes this a superb watch is that not all six runners are pros. There are two elites, but some are amateurs and intermediates, some are first-timers, and others are older than one might expect for a marathon runner.
It gives us an idea of how the top athletes prepare themselves, mentally and physically, for running a 26.2-miler. But the real gem is the unique insight into how regular, non-professional runners get themselves into the zone for big races.
There’s not a lot of footage from the actual marathon. It’s much more focused on what leads up to it and how participants prepare themselves, although there is some commentary by well-known marathoners.
Runners of every level can relate to the people involved, and will be touched and inspired by the personal stories behind every one. Those who are fans of Deena Kastor will be especially interested to get a glimpse into the lead up to her first big marathon victory.
In the end, the title says it all – it’s the spirit that makes the biggest difference, no matter your running level.
2. Spirit of the Marathon II
This film is the sequel to the first on our list, and is every bit as inspiring. It follows 7 participants preparing for the Rome Marathon, including professional runners from Rwanda and Ukraine, a retired cross-country running coach, and a runner raising awareness for pancreatic cancer.
If you’re looking for a full-on feel-good movie, this may not be the one for you. It’s brimming with emotion, frustration, anticipation, and motivation. You’ll learn what it really takes to be a marathon runner, whether you’ve already got a few under your belt or you’re planning on doing your first.
It’s filmed a bit differently than the first, choosing to forgo the epic soundtrack for the more natural sounds of a race. There’s also less focus on the training process and more on the actual race, with snippets of history narrated by famous runners sprinkled throughout.
It’s also mostly in Italian, but it’s an authentic representation of the circumstances the runners were in. If you thought the first one, was the perfect running movie, you might be slightly disappointed by how different this one is.
But it’s well worth the watch for any runner who wants some inspiration from real, raw people determined to reach their dreams.
Breaking the Marathon Record
Every runner tracks their times and sets goals for improvement. This film takes marathon running a step further and examines what it takes to set a new record and do what’s considered impossible – running a marathon in under 2 hours.
It began as a project created by sporting giant Nike, in collaboration with National Geographic, and was crafted into a documentary film after the race.
The documentary follows three Nike runners as they train for an attempt to reach this lofty goal. It’s a fascinating scientific look at how they train, while balancing their athletics with their lives back home in Africa.
The documentary culminates in the big race, highlighting every small moment in an action-packed, epic run.
It’s not your average record-breaking documentary. The main protagonist’s personal motto is “No human is limited,” and ultimately Breaking2 is the story of three elite athletes finding whether that is true. Runners who are interested in the science behind what the body endures while running will find it to be compelling viewing.Stream on Amazon
Top Ultra Running Trail Documentary
4. The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
“Most people would be better off with more pain in their lives,” ruminates a former participant in a secretive race so long and difficult it’s referred to in the plural form. We could debate whether Breaking2 is, at its heart, a story of grace in the face of failure. There is no debate about The Race That Eats Its Young: the movie investigates a race where failure is its central feature, by design.
This is the story of a race so challenging, so beyond the limits of human capacity, that most years there are no finishers. And of course it’s the story of the trail-running eccentric who dreamed the race up, and the diverse cast of characters who willingly subject themselves to it, knowing they are almost certainly doomed to fail. It manages to be fascinating, awe-inspiring, emotional, and kind of ridiculous at the same time.
In the ultra-running community, much of the vocabulary of this film is now the stuff of myth: the conch, the lighting of the cigarette, Rat Jaw, the Fire Tower, The Yellow Gate. 60 hours in the mountainous woods of Frozen Head State Park.
It sounds crazy, but it makes for one of the most spectacular, impressive, action-loaded running documentaries out there. With only 15 finishers in the 34 years since it began, it’s a serious reminder of what we can do if we put our minds to it, and what is means to risk failure.Stream on Amazon
Most Inspiring Documentary
5. Skid Row Marathon
Be prepared to shed some tears during this film, but you’ll come away inspired – not only to run, but to do some good in the world too.
The documentary tells the story of a judge in a criminal court who starts a running club in one of the most severe drug and alcohol-addled neighborhoods in the country – Skid Row, Los Angeles.
Realizing that he had little impact on the lives of the homeless and needy from his position as a judge, Craig Mitchell turned to coaching as a way of empowering those who need something to live for.
This film is all about transformation. It highlights the sense of camaraderie, purpose, and drive to do something positive, and how running brought that to one down-and-out community and turned lives around.
Get the tissues ready… and your running shoes, because this one will both touch and motivate you.
Age Has No Limits Marathon Documentary
6. The Human Race
If you think you could outrun a 50+-year-old, this film will have you in both shock and awe.
The movie chronicles six runners training for their big race, including legend Kathrine Switzer. The twist? They range in age from 55 to 85.
We highly recommend taking a couple of hours to watch this victorious film. No matter how old you are, you’ll be raring to go after seeing how these six motivating athletes run.
The Toughest Footrace On Earth
7. Running for Good
How would you feel about taking on a 156-mile marathon? A little unsure? Now imagine doing that alone in the Sahara Desert, pushing your body to its limits after doctors told you that you’d never walk again.
That’s what this film is all about. Triumph, purpose, and one amazing runner named Fiona Oakes.
Get ready to feel a myriad of things as you watch this film. It’s one woman’s story of overcoming incredible adversity to achieve spectacular feats, and for an incredibly heartfelt reason.Stream on Amazon
World’s Longest Race
8. 3100: Run and Become
For average runners, 1,000 miles in a year is something of an accomplishment. But there is a single race – in Queens, New York, of all places – that covers 3,100 miles. This event—the longest in the world—is known as Self-Transcendence, which is defined as “the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in spiritual contemplation and realization.”
If you didn’t realize that there’s more to running than just physical exercise, this documentary will shift your way of thinking about the sport.
This is a celebration of running and all that it means, to you, me, and runners across the world. Run with the multicultural participants as they take on this grueling challenge, and experience the triumphs and pains alongside them.
In the end, you’ll understand that running is far more than just exercise. While the outward act of running looks fairly similar from person to person, it’s the internal motivations and struggles, mental and emotional, that make each runner unique. There’s a universal energy at play in all of us as we run, and this movie takes a deep dive into that topic.Stream on Amazon
Top Comedy Running Documentary
9. Once Is Enough
This may be our pick for the best comedy. But in addition to a good dose of laughter, you’ll get an important reminder that life is what you make of it.
Showcasing the life story of a chubby comedian who vows to get healthy after his mother passes away due to obesity, it’s a funny and inspiring tale that has a good mix of hilarious and moving moments.
All runners will enjoy this film, and be reminded of the difference running makes in their life. The overriding theme throughout this film is a quote by Mae West – “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”Stream on Amazon
The Boston Marathon is one of the most prestigious and well-known races on the calendar. Many runners will know it for its 2013 tragedy. Long before that day, though, it was already one of the most historic marathons in the country. It’s also the oldest in the world.
Narrated by Bostonian Matt Damon, this movie weaves through the rich history of the marathon. From its origins in 1897 to its most recent disaster, the film is a sweeping chronicle of more than a century of amazing stories and footage from this iconic race.
Whether you’ve run the Boston, are planning on running the Boston, or are just a casual runner with no big goals of completing marathons, this is a stunning tribute to a race that has stood the test of time and influenced more runners than we know.
New York Marathon
11. Run For Your Life
The TCS New York Marathon is the largest in the world, attracting close to 100k applicants and with over 53,000 finishers in 2019. But do you know who started it all?
One eccentric, Romanian-born Jew who found himself in New York in the 1960’s fell so deeply in love with distance running that he funded the first of many New York Marathons out of his own pocket.
That man was Fred Lebow. This film is an overview of his life and the beginning of the marathon that influenced a multitude of other large, well-known races.
Some may find history tedious. But every runner considering taking part in this historic event would benefit from learning a little about how it all started.
It’s packed with superb archival footage and interviews with many high-profile people involved in the marathon from the very beginning.
It’s a fascinating journey through the evolution of one of America’s most iconic races, sprinkled with a good bit of motivation, endurance, and unbreakable human character.