The Gym Jones Approach to Distance Running

Pretty much anything Mark Twight offered up was so difficult in the kind of way where you wish you had never been born – and even more than that, wished he had never been born.” – Gerard Butler, King Leonidas

In 2007, an epic movie was released in theaters called 300 that chronicled an outnumbered Spartan army fighting off Persian soldiers in the Battle of Thermopylae. Legend has it that 300 Spartans held off about 100,000 Persians in a grim fight to the death.

King Leonidas in 300 - Trained by Gym Jones

King Leonidas in 300 - Trained by Gym Jones

The movie was fascinating to me because the entire cast of Spartans were in unbelievable shape. You could tell that they possessed a gritty, functional fitness by the way they looked and moved. After some research, I learned that they trained full-time for months to prepare for this movie. Their trainer was Mark Twight, founder of Gym Jones.

Check out the Gym Jones website. If you’re not scared to go in there and do a workout, you didn’t read enough of their site. Their approach to fitness appeals to me (maybe I’m a sadist) and I incorporate aspects of their workouts into my own gym routine.

Here is a glimpse at how the cast trained for the movie 300. I don’t see any Bowlfex machines in this gym, do you?

The Gym Jones Approach to Distance Running

The workouts that the cast did to prepare for the movie have some basic principles that are true across almost any sport. It’s a basic formula for success that when applied correctly, can help you focus on the “big wins” that will make you dramatically faster.

Keep it simple. None of the actors wore heart rate monitors or fancy gear when they trained. They got in the gym and dominated their workout without scrutinizing every detail. No Garmin GPS devices, no obsessing over every split, no bullshit.

Stop whining. Running isn’t fun all the time. You’re going to have bad days. Everyone does and what separates the great from the rest is the ability to keep their motivation high during times of bad running. Mark Twight called guys “losers” who couldn’t finish workouts – he valued a person’s ability to give it their 100% with no excuses.

It’s going to hurt, accept it. As a distance runner, I know that my sport hurts when I want to perform. I don’t try to avoid it like a football player either – in fact, I actively pursue it because it means I’m doing something right. Mark Wetmore, the cross country coach at the University of Colorado, has a great quote about this:

“In football, you might get your bell rung, but you go in with the expectation that you might get hurt, and you hope to win and come out unscathed. As a distance runner, you know you’re going to get your bell rung. Distance runners are experts at pain, discomfort, and fear. You’re not coming away feeling good. It’s a matter of how much pain you can deal with on those days. It’s not a strategy. It’s just a callusing of the mind and body to deal with discomfort. Any serious runner bounces back. That’s the nature of their game. Taking pain.”

Stick to the Basics. I love the look of Gym Jones – a bunch of free weights, boxes, rings, and a few scary items like a giant tire. You don’t see any bowflex machines, recumbent bikes, or Elliptigos. From a running perspective, it’s a call to stop worrying about negative-splitting your last interval on every 200 meters, or if your last workout was at tempo or half-marathon pace (they’re probably about the same). Do the miles, give your best on your workout days, and live to run another day.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a minimalist runner (and not just about running shoes) so I think this is why I view the training for 300 as a direct parallel to distance running. Focus on hard work and the big items like volume, doing core and strength exercises 3-4 times per week, a solid long run, and a challenging workout. You can’t go wrong – and you probably won’t miss your Garmin.

To read more on Gym Jones’ approach to training Spartans and “creating a gang,” read Mark Twight’s article. If you want to incorporate more strength work into your running program but don’t know where to start, check out the Rebel Fitness Guide.

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  1. “Mark Twight called guys “losers” who couldn’t finish workouts” — yea, I don’t care for people too much who deal in absolutes.

    • Usually I agree Wes, but in this case considering the movie they were making, they had a very ambitious goal. Mediocrity couldn’t be tolerated. Mark says in the article I linked to, “And the answer is that we’re not here to make friends; there’s a job and it’s got to be done.” It’s not very kind, but it worked for them.

  2. “It’s going to hurt, accept it.” I think that’s the part that I didn’t get before. I grew to love the hurt though since I knew it was making me stronger and faster. Now even though some of it hurts, I’m still having a blast every time I run.

  3. Jason, I think you are on the right track regarding strength training as a means of injury prevention (and increased efficiency and speed) for running. However, I believe the idea that generally short, hard efforts plus once-a-week longer sessions produce adequate endurance is utterly wrong IF using the Gym Jones definition of endurance, which begins at 90 minutes. 5km, 10km and 10 miles are neither distance nor endurance to us, which makes your understanding of The Gym Jones Approach To Distance Running incorrect. The 500-1100 hours of volume per year undertaken by our distance/endurance athletes suggests they only focus on short, quality efforts within the context of much longer individual and collective training sessions, and during the appropriate part of the competitive season. It is important not to confuse what actors and stuntmen did with the training our fighters do or with what the bike racers, climbers, Nordic skiers and runners do.

    This article in the Knowledge section of the Gym Jones public site will help clarify some of these issues:

    Mark Twight

    • Thanks for the comment Mark. I don’t want you to confuse my intention of basic principles with specifics. This post was just outlining some very basics that the actors went through that are common among many sports. And comparing elite athletes with new runners or age-groupers isn’t a fair comparison.

      A few examples: I think whether or not a certain run is considered “distance” is relative to individual’s ability level. For me, 90 minutes is surely an “endurance” or “distance” run and is about 13 miles. But slower runners run many fewer miles in the same time, so you can’t equate miles with time. An elite runner will often run double sessions every day with no single run (aside from a LR or medium LR) being longer than 90 minutes. Despite the 100+ miles/week, is that not endurance?

      I’m also a bit confused by you saying 10 miles is not distance/endurance, but 500 hours on the low end qualifies as “endurance” volume. For me, 500 hours of running in a year is about 82 miles per week. Only slightly more than 10 miles per day. And for a slower runner, 600 hours may not even approach 10 miles per day, so with your definition it’s not considered endurance but it is. It gets confusing.

      This is a good discussion, and an important one. For runners, following the basics is what will provide the biggest improvement in the long-term. Thanks again for your contribution!

      • Agreed that there was some confusion regarding the basic principles applied to a particular job and clientele vs. what our endurance athletes actually do.

        Using the low end value (500 hours) to attempt clarification yielded a particular mileage total for you. What about the high end? What about an emerge of the two extremes I cited? 500 hours annually may indeed be enough for someone who already has a 20-year base, or for someone who can only tolerate that amount of work or perhaps someone who simply cannot liberate more time from his/her life so it must be deemed adequate whether it is or not. How many do you know who approach the upper value of 1100 hours? The point was that short duration, high intensity training emphasis alone does not and cannot produce meaningful endurance fitness unless you use a 5km (20 minutes), 10km (40-45 minutes) or anything less than 90-minutes race/competition/performance as the definition. Several have shown that the coefficient of transferability of short time or distance efforts to long time or distance performance is negative.

        Our definition of an endurance effort is exactly as I stated: endurance does not begin until 90 minutes. Anything shorter may, of course, be accomplished at an “endurance pace” in a training context to produce a particular adaptation. But if the effort one is training for lasts less than 90 minutes we do not consider it endurance simply because at around 90 minutes fueling hydration, thermal regulation, etc begin to a greater influence on the outcome. For anything shorter those factors play less of a role.

        Our perspective on endurance includes efforts lasting 24-60 hours non-stop, which certainly influences our definition and I am not saying ours is the correct definition but it is the one we use.

        Another point in the first post was that applying the basic principles used for one project to any other objective is inaccurate thus ineffective. The underlying training philosophy may indeed be shared – and you touched on that in your article – but the actual intensity/volume/exercise choices made for the movie outcome do not apply to an endurance outcome if using the Gym Jones definition of endurance. Sadly – even if you do not – many folks do believe in what I call the shortcut method to endurance performance so anything I see that perpetuates the idea sticks in my craw. This doesn’t mean we avoid quality/intensity efforts but it does mean we don’t do them in periods/cycles when they are not appropriate.

        With all this said, and as you pointed out, for runners (and most everyone) following the basics provides the biggest bang for the buck and the best opportunity for improvement. Too many are looking for a trick or secret thing that might allow them to avoid the fundamentals when what they really need is to do the foundation work, pay attention to diet, and get more sleep.

        Finally, of course it is confusing. Training is as diverse as the number of individuals and events. One size does not and cannot fit all. Blanket recommendations are bogus if categorized as anything but general.


        • I don’t want to get lost in the weeds with this post – I didn’t ever mention volume, intensity, or what makes a distance runner. My premise is that principles, not specifics, are common among all sports. This post was half motivation and half training advice. I noted at the end:

          “Focus on hard work and the big items like volume, doing core and strength exercises 3-4 times per week, a solid long run, and a challenging workout.”

          Let’s open it up to other readers. What do you think?

  4. Fitz,

    You are piggybacking your thesis on the name and philosophy, the means and actions of my gym. It looks a lot like you are trying to draw attention to your site by using the movie, our brand and our hard work. You haven’t trained here. You aren’t affiliated with us. You have a vague grasp of our training principles. Yet you think you know what we did on that job and what we do with our athletes well enough to draw a parallel. You don’t know and I have simply tried to clarify what I consider to be your mistaken assumptions.


    • Mark – I’m sorry that it looks like I was using your gym to draw attention here. I was simply a big fan of the movie and the hard work that the actors did to prepare for their roles. Thanks again for your contribution here. – Fitz.

  5. I saw that 300 workout movie a bunch of times. After I saw an article about it, I just spent hours on Youtube looking at these crazy workouts. As for the long distance running tips, they are great! I have never actually gone on a run farther than 6 miles by myself, I am normally with someone else or a bunch of people. I’m by myself now though and I really need to get used to running by myself for a long time.


  6. Looks and sounds like my traditional Muay Thai training…Killer core work, speed, strength and endurance sessions…this sounds awesome, where do I sign up…

  7. Voice of Reason says:

    Good article…even better discussion. Mark, chill out buddy. I understand that for marketing purposes and overall branding you have to be intentionally cryptic and all wizard of ozzy, but geez man, turn it off once and a while. Bottom line is this, until you show me a major marathon winner that trains at your gym…all the wizard of ozzy speak sounds like a bunch of marketing and branding. All the crypticness and complicated workout speak are great from a comical entertaining point of view, but when you study distance running champions and see that their training consists of nothing more than an lot of running up steep hills…makes you look comical at best Mark. “Distance running for us starts at 36 hrs. Anything less than running 36hrs straight and we’re not talking about distance. 10k, 20k, 70k, thats all quick short distance runs for us…” Haha, Chillout Mark. Like i said, i get the whole wizard of oz bit but sometimes its a bit comical. For certain things you are great, but for other things not so much. There are a bunch of great trainers out there…from weight lifting, to tennis, to golf, to distance running, to merely aesthetic trainers…pick an effective coach that has the curtain open and is transparent. The marketing hype is great but sometimes its just a little much.


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