Sunday, December 12, 2010


If you only buy one book on running, then buy this one. It should really have been called "The Bible of Running", although it's true that I most probably would not have considered buying it had that been the case. It is a pretty hefty tome and goes into a lot of technical detail but it is not meant to be read from cover to cover; rather it is a reference book. It has chapters that go into great depth on heat evacuation - if you are a regular on this blog then you'll know that this is one of my pet subjects - on energy systems, on technique and on injury prevention and recovery. What sets the book apart for me is the section on training: it has case studies from some of the most famous and successful athletes and coaches, including excerpts from their training programmes. The book is orientated towards running but it is of interest to anyone involved in endurance sports.

Tim Noakes is one of the most respected researchers in the field of Sports Science. From the same stable comes "The Runner's body", two of the authors of which hail from the same University in Cape Town. In fact, these two - Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas - are those responsible for the excellent Sports Science Blog.

What is most surprising about the book is that, in spite of being endorsed by Runner's World - a magazine which appears to make a living out of trotting out the same old hackneyed populist articles year in, year out - is that it proceeds to debunk pretty much every myth about running there is. I was already familiar with the myths about drinking to replace lost body weight, about lactate acid causing fatigue, about pronation and motion control shoes, about cramps and electrolyte imbalance but there were a couple of new ones for me too: namely, the myth that VO2max is an unalterable determinant of your running potential and the myth that you can never do too much stretching. On this last point, according to the popular thinking on stretching, the one single adaptation that the body makes in response to running that is detrimental is that the muscles shorten and become less flexible. It does seem strange that we should have evolved in this way if it were truly detrimental; however, the authors claim that the rigidity increases the energy return in the stretch-recoil response of the muscles and that too much flexibility actually slows you down. I'm quite pleased about that as I have always been rubbish at stretching. (This is a good example of how we choose to believe what suits us.)

This book is by no means a smart-arse attempt to be contrary or, indeed, to fuel conspiracy theories. It is, if you like, the equivalent in the field of Sports Science to books written by Steven Hawking for the layman (except that it is somewhat more credible). The sports science that filters through running circles and running magazines corresponds to research which was current a number of years ago; just as in any science, the paradigms are always shifting and human knowledge is becoming more profound.

"The Runner's Body" has a good section on nutrition which is clearly based on the same ideas as the latest offering from Matt Fitzgerald. If the above authors are the equivalent of Steven Hawking, then Matt Fitzgerald would be Simon Singh: that is to say, he is not himself a sports scientist but he is very good at doing the leg work and writing up his findings in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. What I found particularly interesting was seeing what athletes actually ate (bearing in mind they may be contractually obliged by their sponsors to say they take certain products). There is also a chapter with some healthy recipes that looks worth me trying my hand at. I've already talked about my success in losing body fat in a previous post - that was all thanks to this book.

Matt Fitzgerald has also written a book called "Brain Training for Runners" which is also very good, if not a little bit spun out. In this book he expands on what is essentially Tim Noakes' "Central Governor" theory that fatigue in exercise is induced by the brain so as to avoid catastrophic damage (or death). Of course, just as anyone who has suffered from a mental illness will be too aware, this doesn't make it any less insurmountable. Still, there are a number of implications and this book studies what you can do to improve your performance.

It's difficult to choose between the two books on Pose Running by Nicholas Romanov but this is the more recent one and some of the ideas are a bit more polished. There's also a nice appendix where you can see the results of studies that were done on the ground impact forces during running. It is, as its name indicates, a book on triathlon - certainly the sections on cycling and swimming are interesting - but I can't help feeling that he is stretching the point by giving so much protagonism to gravity in the development of these techniques. It is reassuring to see that you come up with essentially the same ideas that have been already dealt with in other books that specialize in these sports but to insist on the subtle differences I think detracts from the overall aim. As I have mentioned before, it was strange to me that running was considered to be the only sport whose technique was magically bestowed upon us at birth, never to be lost, and so it should be no surprise that the community of sportsmen that really brought the Pose Method into the spotlight were the triathletes, all too aware of the importance of technique in swimming and cycling. This book goes some way to completing the circle.

I'm a pretty terrible swimmer so you'd be wise to take any recommendation of mine for anything to do with swimming with a pinch of salt. Bear in mind that beginners have learnt to swim (properly) more recently than experts and so remember the experience more clearly. I did a weekend of Total Immersion classes and went from covering a 25m pool in 22 strokes to covering that same distance in 15 strokes. In swimming, the number of strokes you take for a given distance is a good measure of your efficiency. I went back to 22 strokes the next day but at least I know what I am supposed to be doing - it is just a question of putting my mind to it.

Many people say that Total Immersion is nothing new - that all modern swimming techniques put emphasis on buoyancy (hydrodynamic body position), moving your body past your hand rather than ripping your hand through the water etc. The distinguishing features of Total Immersion seem to be that (a) it is aimed at long distance (and especially triathlon) swimming, encouraging a very economical two beat kick and (b) that, instead of separating the upper body from the lower body, you work on the whole kinetic chain from the ankle to the shoulder, rather like a golf swing. You are positively deterred from using kick boards, fins and pullbuoys. The technique made a lot of sense to me as I could see the parallels with rowing.

I haven't yet found any really  good cycling books for triathlon. I think this is because the cycling leg of the triathlon (especially the Ironman) is so different from most other types of cycling - with the exception, perhaps, of time trialling - that it tends to get covered in triathlon books which cover the other two sports as well. These three are all good (I even bought the Joe Friel book in spite of it proclaiming itself a "bible") especially if you are new to triathlon, as I was this year. There are so many details you need to know, much more than just three sports but also the two "extra sports": the transitions T1 (from swim to bike) and T2 (from bike to run).

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