Is Tom Cruise good at running? A super-scientific exploration

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IN 2018, TOM CRUISE finally joined Instagram, and fans sure felt the need for speed: He picked up 550,000 followers in less than an hour. Now he’s up to 6.5 million followers, and they’re greeted by the actor’s self-assessment of his own career in his bio. He could have gone with “Three-time Oscar nominee,” or “Sold $10 billion worth of movie tickets.”

But instead, he picked: “Actor, producer, running in movies since 1981.”

It’s a winking, self-aware nod to this much-memed chapter of his Hollywood career. He always gets the rogue bad guy with the rogue nuclear codes from the rogue country, and he does it in a sprint. By one running blog’s count, he’s run in 44 of his 52 movies, and that includes two running scenes in his newest movie, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which opens this week nationwide. A quick reminder: Tom Cruise is 59 years old, the same age as Wilford Brimley when he was chasing Mitch McDeere in “The Firm.”

But that raises the question… Is Tom Cruise actually a good runner? We convened an elite panel of Olympians, film critics and former coaches and set out on a mission to analyze Cruise’s running — and might have stumbled onto a never-before-told origin story of his first theatrical running moment.


The evolution

The official start of Tom Cruise, the running actor, was in 1981 when he ran in his first movie, “Endless Love.”

But perhaps the most formative run of Tom Cruise’s life came in 1980, during his senior year at Glen Ridge High School in New Jersey. His old wrestling coach, Angelo Corbo, says Cruise — then going by his legal name, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV — was a decent 122-pounder.

But Cruise came in one day on crutches right before the 1980 wrestling postseason and said he’d slipped coming down the steps at his house. Since he was done with wrestling, Cruise wondered if it’d be OK to go out for his first play, “Guys and Dolls.” Corbo said yes.

A few weeks later, though, Cruise came to Corbo and asked if he could come along to the state tournament to support his teammates. Corbo gladly welcomed him into the team van for the trip, and on the way to states in Princeton that March, they decided to get some lunch at a Mexican restaurant. His ankle had healed up enough to lose the crutches, so he walked in and sat down at the table with his teammates.

Almost immediately, Corbo says an assistant coach pointed at Cruise, then at a jar of hot peppers. “I’ll bet you $5 you can’t eat one of those peppers without drinking anything,” the coach said.

Cruise quickly said yes — “Tom always accepted any challenge, no matter what,” Corbo says — and chomped into it. Within seconds, everybody at the table thought smoke was going to start pouring out of his ears. Cruise leaped up and ran out of the restaurant with the rest of the team unable to keep up. “He ran real fast that day,” Corbo says.

When they caught up to him, his teammates and coaches found him on the ground in the parking lot, face buried in a snowbank, stuffing snow into his mouth to cool it down.

“Well, he didn’t technically drink anything in the restaurant,” one kid said.

The assistant shrugged his shoulders and pulled a $5 bill out of his pocket. “Here, you win, Tom,” he said.

With snow all over his mouth, Cruise gave a wide-eyed, toothy smile, similar to the one that would eventually sell somewhere around $10 billion worth of movie tickets. As Corbo describes the scene, he notes that Cruise had a look on his face of a satisfied performer who just captivated an audience for the first time. If there’s a pre-Hollywood moment when Thomas Mapother turned into Tom Cruise, that might have been it.

That messy restaurant run sure sounds a lot like the version we see in Cruise’s early movies. In “The Outsiders” and “Taps,” Cruise runs quite a bit, and it’s a sloppy, under-developed run. It’s not until toward the end of “Risky Business” in 1983 when Cruise vaults up his high school’s steps and jets through the hallways that the beginnings of a steady, faster form begins to emerge.

Caryl Smith Gilbert, a four-time NCAA champion coach who now leads the Georgia men’s and women’s programs, watched a reel of every Tom Cruise movie run and did a deep-dive analysis. She says she thinks Cruise steadily got better from 1981 until around the early 2000s, then had a breakthrough. Ever since, she says, you can see a clear desire to keep improving.

“It’s right around the time he’s in ‘Collateral’ that I could really see it,” she says. “His technique got better, and I was like, ‘Hmmm, he has to be getting real coaching.’ And I also think you can tell that he must do this in his free time now. Like, he really is trying to get better.”


Size

There is a common misconception that most great sprinters must be tall, and the success of Usain Bolt (6-foot-5) certainly has played a part in pouring concrete around that idea. But the truth is, most great male sprinters are in the 5-foot-6 to 6-foot-3 range, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.

And breaking news, Tom Cruise is, uh, not tall. He’s often listed at 5-foot-7, but it’s always felt like the way college football SIDs decide to round up all incoming freshmen by one inch and 20 pounds. Whatever his actual height, let’s just say he won’t exactly be playing Jack Reacher any time soon. (Checks IMDb, stands corrected.)

But Cruise’s size shouldn’t — and doesn’t — matter much. “A lot of powerful runners are 5-foot-6 or below,” says three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. “It’s all about the turnover of your legs and generating velocity. I don’t think his height is a disadvantage.”


Hands

In “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol,” Cruise comes barreling out of a building as a massive sandstorm descends in the background. It’s a long, striking visual because of the way Cruise’s open hands slice through the air, over and over again, like he’s in the middle of a round of Fruit Ninja.

It’s one of the most glaring differences between his early film running and what he has done for the past 20 years or so. When Smith Gilbert says she thinks Cruise must have gotten some running coaching, she zeroes in on the major alteration to his hand movement — he’s gone from sporadically balled up, like many untrained amateurs, to remarkably straight in recent years. In many scenes from the past decade, Cruise’s parallel flat palms are almost comical, as if a robot learned how to run from watching another robot.

That must be bad then, right? Not necessarily. People often associate running with balled-up fists, but quite a few great sprinters — Carl Lewis, for example — look an awful lot like Tom Cruise when they run, with their palms open. Many high-level runners say that the open versus closed hands debate is entirely a personal choice, that there’s really no right answer.

In fact, coaches occasionally recommend that some runners consider a Tom Cruise-ish open-handed technique because, as strange as it might sound, great sprinters work hard to be as relaxed as possible. Smith Gilbert says clenching up hands can be the first sign that a runner is pressing, which affects the rhythm of their breath, which drains their speed and endurance.

“You can be open hand or close hand, as long as the shoulders are rather relaxed,” she says. “The goal is good form and being as relaxed as possible. Tom Cruise knows what he’s doing.”


Technique

Cruise’s technique can appear incredibly stiff at times, with his chest upright as though he’s getting buckled into a roller coaster, flat palms churning, chin high with his face tensed up. Both Smith Gilbert and Joyner-Kersee independently flagged Cruise’s running as being slightly too upright and recommended a little more forward lean. But only a little — and neither was sure that that would be how he’d run without the cameras on.

“I bet that’s something they make him do because it looks good on film,” Joyner-Kersee says. “In real life, I could get his speed up by just angling him a little bit forward.”

But they also both applauded Cruise’s technical prowess, saying it’s easy for a layperson to mistake stiffness for a good, consistent style.

“At the end of the day,” Smith Gilbert says, “running is one foot in front of the other, as fast as possible. Running velocity is stride length times stride frequency. And he’s pretty good in that regard.”


Pure speed

Believe it or not, Tom Cruise might actually be fast. Like, really fast. A few years ago, a Quora user attempted to analyze Cruise’s speed in several movies and estimated that Cruise hit about 15.3 mph at times, usually while wearing non-running shoes and full pants, no less. Cruise himself said he’s been clocked at 17 mph.

Last year, marathoner Will Blase wrote a story for a running blog, The Harrier, in which he wanted to explore the idea that Cruise might be the fastest actor ever captured on screen. He pitted Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” runs against four other iconic movie sprints — Tom Hanks from “Forrest Gump,” Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky II,” Harrison Ford running from a boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Marcus Henderson’s terrifying nighttime sprint toward Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out.”

After poring over footage for days, Blase reached a verdict that surprised even him: Cruise edged out Henderson for the gold medal in his unofficial movie Olympics, with Hanks and Ford at third and fourth, respectively. Stallone finished last. “That dude is a robot,” Blase says of Cruise. “It’s incredible. He has it boiled down to science.”

But would Cruise be better suited for sprints or slightly longer races? Smith Gilbert thinks Cruise would be great at the 800 meters or even the mile because she thinks he could sustain his top-end speed.

But Joyner-Kersee thinks Cruise could be a good 100-meter runner, and she says he looks like he might be in the 12-second range right now. “That’s really fast for people who don’t train to race,” she says.

And what would happen if Cruise did train? Well, first of all, Cruise should know that he has an open invitation to come work with Joyner-Kersee and her husband, former U.S. track coach Bob Kersee. “I believe we could work with him, see what he’s got,” Joyner-Kersee says. “We could probably get him to 11.5 with ease.”

For the record, 11.5 is very fast … and definitely fast enough to catch up to Robert Duvall on pit row if they ever have a “Days of Thunder” rematch.


Mental toughness

In “Mission: Impossible Fallout,” Cruise has a scene where he runs and leaps from one building to another. It’s a long jump that the script called for him to not quite make, slamming into the side of the other building and pulling himself up.

Even with cables attached to his back, it was a brutally violent scene. On an early take, Cruise lands exactly where he is supposed to, a few feet short of making it onto the other roof. But Cruise’s right foot bends at a gruesome angle — he’d broken it on impact.

Yet Cruise claws his way onto the roof, climbs to his feet and limps past the camera with a broken ankle. That take is actually in the movie. Cruise took two weeks off but then returned to shooting, even though his ankle wasn’t healed.

When he discussed it on “The Graham Norton Show” in 2018 alongside castmates Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill and Simon Pegg, Cruise looks so proud when they roll bonus footage of the gruesome break. Pegg blurts out that he can’t watch multiple times, and Norton tells Cruise he’s nuts.

But Cruise took it as a challenge — that word comes up over and over again when people talk about Tom Cruise.

“I knew I broke it instantly,” Cruise says. “We have a release date, so we have to keep going.”

Cruise has gotten only more aggressive about doing all of his own stunts, including the runs. He once told Men’s Journal that he likes to spend as much time as possible training for his stunts — and likes to oversee training for the rest of the cast, too. “If he wasn’t an actor, he’d be a great stunt man,” says legendary stunt coordinator Greg Powell, who worked with Cruise on the first “Mission: Impossible.”

One aspect of Cruise’s running that came up repeatedly with experts was the fact that so many of Cruise’s runs are in suits or regular clothes. Sprinters are notoriously fickle about wardrobe, wanting as little as possible, Joyner-Kersee says. She specifically marveled at the amount of running Cruise does in “The Firm” where he has on a suit and a long coat and is carrying a briefcase, and he’s soaked in sweat.

“I never even liked running if I got a few drops of rain on me,” she says, shaking her head. “To do something over and over again like he does, that’s good mental capability. He has the physical stamina, but to not get bored with it, doing it repeatedly and stay in character and still be able to produce what the scene requires. Even with breaks, it’s impressive.”

She laughs and looks back at a mural on her wall. It shows her running in her last Olympics. “I know toward the end of my career, I could always get up to 100% speed,” she says. “But I could only do it once. I’m not sure how Tom Cruise is doing what he does.”


Theatricality

There’s not much debate about this fact: Cruise is the Meryl Streep of running, and it’s virtually unfathomable to imagine anybody ever being able to put together both the body of work and the body to be running into their 60s.

And it’s not just that he does a lot of running in movies; it’s also that his running does a lot in his movies.

“His running always conveys something important in the movie,” says Christy Lemire, a film critic at RogerEbert.com and cohost of the “Breakfast All Day” movie podcast. “He’s running toward something and he is going to get there — whether it’s freedom or the truth or his wife is in danger. It’s not just running as a crucial part of an action set piece. It is a physical manifestation of his ethos.”

When author and film critic Amy Nicholson set out to write her book, “Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor,” she felt compelled to dedicate an entire page just to Cruise’s running. As she worked her way through all of his movie runs, she picked out a few that stick with her.

For instance, she likes Cruise’s transformational running in “Knight and Day,” the oft-forgotten rom-com thriller with Cruise and Cameron Diaz. In that movie, Cruise is a covert operative pretending to be a schlub. So some of his runs are a little clunky … until he needs to be Ethan Hunt-like again later in the movie. “Some of his characters are better runners than others,” she says. “Watch that movie, because it’s an example of him having a goofy run. He allowed himself to be sloppy.”

She also thinks his range of runs in “War of the Worlds” is a key entry in the Tom Cruise running library. Before the movie began shooting, director Steven Spielberg and Cruise huddled about what kind of hero Cruise would be. Spielberg told Cruise that alien invasion movies always feature people who are standing up and fighting.

But he wanted to do something different — he envisioned Cruise’s Ray Ferrier as a scared dad, running away and running to survive, not to defeat the evil aliens. And the style of Ray’s actual runs needed to convey that, that he was terrified and just trying to survive the world for once, not save it single-handedly.

“He is charged in that movie to do nothing but run in fear and convince other people to run in fear with him — even when his own children want to stand up and fight back,” Nicholson says.

Lemire is a runner herself and says she can’t imagine having to combine the amount of physicality with whatever mood Cruise is trying to portray for audiences.

“He has to do so much with his eyes and his face and his gait,” she says. “He’s never going for a leisurely jog along the beach and enjoying the scenery. He’s trying to convey to us whatever his character is going through in that moment. And we underestimate that skill, that ability to make running a physical and emotional experience.”


So … is Tom Cruise good at running?

When he was Glen Ridge’s wrestling coach, Corbo would have his group of 20 or so wrestlers do a circuit around the high school. They’d run past the cafeteria, up the stairs to the second floor, all the way to the end of the school, down the stairs to the first floor, then all the way back to the cafeteria. “The loop,” he calls it.

Cruise often got roughed up in the room by more experienced wrestlers — by Corbo’s count, Cruise was 7-12 as a varsity starter. But when it was time to do the loop, he would morph into that kid who couldn’t back down from a challenge. He’d run the loop hard, getting competitive with some of the same teammates who’d squash him every day on the mat.

One time, Cruise had been hurtling through the hallways and sheepishly approached Corbo at the end of the run. He wanted his coach to come look at one of the big metal doors in the stairwell.

Corbo went with him and found that the small rectangular sliver of glass in one of the doors was cracked. Cruise had been trying to outsprint a teammate and plowed through the door so hard that he broke it. Corbo said thanks for telling him, and when he was asked later by a school administrator whether he had any idea how one of the thick glass windows had a long crack in it, Corbo covered for Cruise.

“I have no idea,” he said. “Those are pretty hard to break.”

So Corbo’s answer to the billion-dollar question of Tom Cruise’s running prowess is yes, he’s a good runner.

And the running experts agree.

“I’ve been to the Olympics,” Joyner-Kersee says. “And he has pulled me in: Tom Cruise is good at running.”

Before Smith Gilbert will answer that question on a recent Zoom call, she tilts her chin up to the sky.

“I think he is good at running — for Hollywood,” she finally says. “By that, I mean, I think that is him actually running in the scenes. But if he came out to race us at Georgia, we would demolish him.”

She drops her chin down and stares right into the camera then, and says, “But I bet he would love to challenge me on that.”

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