Emil Zátopek was a straightforward runner, who had few secret methods: "My running was very simple; it was out of myself. It didn't matter about style or what it looked like to others; there were records to break."
Zátopek discovered tapering - or Zatopek phenomenon - accidently when he got a food poisoning in 1950. He had to spend a few days in hospital before a race, which he won of course (in those days he won every race he entered). But he didn't have any tapering plan.
The champ didn't worry about food too much: "At one time I was so confused by various doctors' good advice that I almost died of hunger and thirst. If you come to think of it, you never see deer, dogs and rabbits worrying about their menus and yet they run much faster than humans."
1952 Olympic Games
Zátopek almost missed the 1952 Olympic Games, twice. "The doctors said I must not compete. I had a gland infection in my neck. Well I didn't listen and what happened? Three golds."
A fellow runner was omitted from the Olympic team because of political reasons. Zátopek said "If he does not go, neither do I". The Czech team traveled to Helsinki without them, but there were 10,000 Finns waiting for Zátopek at the airport. The authorities gave in under pressure, and the two runners boarded the next plane.
Helsinki Olympic Marathon
Zátopek didn't plan to run the Olympic marathon at all in Helsinki, but luckily he decided to give it a try and the rest is history. As it was his first marathon ever, Zátopek simply followed Jim Peters, who had set the world record of 2:20:42 in London six weeks earlier. Peters lead a suicidal pace for the first half.
It was a straigh out-and-back course, and when the lead group approached the turnaround point Zátopek asked Peters if the pace was too fast. Peters, who was suffering, replied that they were running too slow. Zatopek then gradually pulled off from others - except Gustaf Jansson of Sweden, who stayed with the leader for a while. Eventually Zátopek arrived alone at the Stadium and set the new Olympic Record with 2:23:03. Peters failed to finish due to cramps.
Afterwards Zátopek confessed "I was unable to walk for a whole week after that, so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known."
"If you want to win, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon."
Zátopek was well aware of the need for speed if he wanted to succeed. "When I was young, I was too slow. I thought I must learn to run fast by practicing to run fast, so I ran 100 meters fast 20 times."
He was known for running intervals almost every day - or night: "I was practicing even during the night with interval running, which at that time was a very unusual schedule." It was an obvious solution for him: "Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast."
A typical track workouts would consist of 5-20 x 200 meters at about 34 seconds, followed by 20-40 x 400 m between 75-90 seconds and finally 5-20 x 200 m again; all of these with a 200 m recovery jog. It was done for endurance as much as it was for speed.
"You must be fast enough - you must have endurance. So you run fast for speed and repeat it many times for endurance."
For strength Zátopek would rambo 20 miles through forests and mountain trails, wearing army combat boots, and sometimes a tree trunk in his arms.
Zátopek would occasionally fill up his bath with water and dirty clothes and then run barefoot on his laundry.
Once he threw Dana into a river, where she broke her ankle on a rock. Dana couldn't walk for a while, so Emil carried her around on his back while running.
"When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn't matter. Am I tired? That's beside the point. If one can stick to the training throughout the many long years, then willpower will be no problem. It's simply that I just have to."
"There's a great advantage in training under unfavorable conditions."
Zátopek preferred the natural vitality of Africans to our Western lifestyle: "We forget our bodies to the benefit of mechanical leisure. We act continuously with our brain, but we no longer use our bodies, our limbs. It is the Africans who possess this vitality, this muscular youth, this thirst for physical action which we are lacking. We have a magnificent motor at our disposal, but we no longer know how to use it."
"If there is luxury, there is the danger of degeneration. Sit behind a wheel of a car and a man gains time, but loses condition. There was no car. I ran instead. Look at the distance runners today: they are mostly Africans, runners from underdeveloped countries. They are not softened by luxury."
"A runner must run with dreams in his heart, not money in his pocket."
Ron Clarke, to whom Zátopek once gave one of his gold medals, said: "I loved his personality, his willingness to help: he was enthusiastic, he was cheerful - all virtues that rank very highly with me. His friendliness and love of life shone through every moment. There is not and never was a greater man than Emil Zátopek."