The film opens showing Louis "Louie" Zamperini flying as a bombardier of a United States Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator bomber, during an April 1943 bombing mission against the Japanese-held island of Nauru. The plane is badly damaged in combat, with a number of the crew injured. The hydraulics of the plane are shot and damaged, but the pilot, Phil, manages to bring it to a stop at the end of the runway thanks to a flat tire.
Derice Bannock, a top 100m runner, fails to qualify at the Olympic Trial for the 1988 Summer Olympics when fellow runner Junior Bevil trips and falls, taking Derice and another runner, Yul Brenner, with him.
In 1919, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters the University of Cambridge, where he experiences anti-Semitism from the staff, but enjoys participating in the Gilbert and Sullivan club. He becomes the first person to ever complete the Trinity Great Court Run – running around the college courtyard in the time it takes for the clock to strike 12. Abrahams achieves an undefeated string of victories in various national running competitions. Although focused on his running, he falls in love with a leading Gilbert and Sullivan soprano, Sybil (Alice Krige).
In 1987, in Boise, ID football coach Jim White is chastising his players for an underwhelming half. Jim gets into a verbal altercation with one of the players, resulting in Jim throwing a football shoe with cleats at him. Following this incident, Jim is forced to move with his wife, Cheryl, and two daughters, Julie and Jamie. They settle down in McFarland, California, a predominantly Hispanic town. On their first night there, the family goes to a small restaurant and leaves to find a large gathering of Latinos in cars surrounding the place. One man makes suggestive motions toward Julie, prompting the family to leave faster.
Dennis Doyle (Simon Pegg) is about to marry Libby (Thandie Newton), his pregnant fiancée. However, he gets cold feet and runs away on the day of the wedding. Five years later, Dennis discovers that Libby, who has their son, Jake, has started seeing high-flying go-getter Whit (Hank Azaria) and realizes what he has lost. He finds out that Whit is running the Nike River Marathon in London, and to prove himself to his doubting friends and, most importantly, Libby and his son, he decides to run the race himself. He receives motivation from his two "coaches", Gordon (Dylan Moran), a well-meaning slacker who is Libby's cousin and Dennis' best friend, who has made a hefty bet on Dennis succeeding, and Mr. Ghosh Dastidar (Harish Patel) his landlord, who uses unorthodox methods of training, such as using a spatula to spank him. Days before the race, Whit proposes to Libby at her birthday party. Libby accepts and this puts Dennis in a state of deep depression. Meanwhile, Jake, who has formed a crush on a girl in his class, runs away angry when he discovers that she prefers another boy just because he has a ponytail. Dennis, upon being informed by a frightened Libby, tracks him down and explains to him that he will find many things he does not like in his life and he should just stand up to them and face them, rather than running away. Having made that mistake himself, he decides to race after all.
The film starts in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where a coach says "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag!" The story is taken back to the memories of the childhood days of a young boy which haunted him, resulting in him dropping to fourth. Partition of India in 1947 caused chaos which resulted in mass religious violence in Punjab in British India, killing the parents of Milkha Singh (Farhan Akhtar). He reaches Delhi and later meets his sister there. Living in impoverished refugee camps, Milkha soon makes friends and survives by stealing along with his friends. He falls in love with Biro (Sonam Kapoor), but she asks him to live a life of honesty.
In a series of establishing shots, Sam Archer (Amos) and his assistant Milo Jackson (Conway) are depicted as coaches at the fictitious Merrivale College; their teams invariably lose. A series of plot coincidences sends the pair to Africa, where they catch sight with their Safari guide Morumba (Don Pedro Colley) of the Tarzan-like Nanu, who can outrun a cheetah in full bound.
The year is 1928 in Gyeong-seong (modern-day Seoul), Korea. Young Kim Jun-shik (Shin Sang-yeob), his father (Chun Ho-jin) and sister Eun-soo (Jo Min-ah) work on the farm of the Hasegawa family (Sano Shiro, Nakamura Kumi) in Japanese-occupied Korea. Both Jun-shik and young Hasegawa Tatsuo (Sung Yoo-bin) are interested in running; by the time they are teenagers (Do Ji-han, Kobayashi Yukichi), they have become fierce competitors. Tatsuo's grandfather (Natsuyagi Isao) is killed in a bomb attack by a Korean freedom fighter, and subsequently a Korean runner, Sohn Kee-chung (Yoon Hee-won), wins a marathon race against Japanese competitors, further inflaming Korean-Japanese tensions.
Western Australia, May 1915. Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee), an 18-year-old stockman and prize-winning sprinter, longs to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He is trained by his uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) and idolises Harry Lascelles, the world champion over 100 yards. Archie wins a race with a bullying farmhand, Les McCann (Harold Hopkins), Archie running bare-foot and Les riding his horse bareback.
The films starts in 1987 with the doctors struggling to protect a woman and her baby. Meanwhile, the woman's husband prays to his native deity that if his wife delivers his baby successfully, he would name the baby with the name of the deity. The baby is born without any problems and as per the wish, they name the baby, Kunjithapadham (Sivakarthikeyan).