Book Review- Footnotes How Running Makes Us Human by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

I have to start out by saying this book is one of the most unique books on running I’ve ever read. Unique isn’t necessarily bad, just different. Cregan-Reid is a literature professor and runner who decided to write a book about biomechanics, psychology, and the environment in the context of running and literature. I’m quite sure I’ve never read another book that combined all of those things together before.

The book is divided into four parts:  sensing, reasoning, earthing, and roaming. I’ll discuss some of the things that stood out to me from each part. In the first part, Sensing, the author describes how he became a runner and his experiences with the early stages of running. He spends a great deal of time discussing running shoes and the history of running shoes. He also goes into detail about barefoot running and how he became to be a firm believer of barefoot running.

There is also a large section of part one of the book about Cregan-Reid’s visit to Boston to meet with Dr. Irene Davis at the Spaulding National Running Center. The author has an assessment of his running biomechanics and there is a lengthy part on ‘natural running’ and how shoes effect that. One quote that stood out to me from part one of the book is, “Running changes who you are and how you see, feel, and sense the outside world- how can you still be you if you run?” I like this quote a lot and think it sums up how much running changes a person.

Part two of the book, Reasoning, like the other parts of the book is filled with literary references and detailed personal runs by the author. One quote from this section I liked is “Put simply, running makes you smarter,” and he continues, “If performed in a softly fascinating (more on this later) and natural environment, running can make you better at your job, more independent, a more attentive friend or partner, care more for the environment, enhance your concentration levels, improve exam reports, and feel more attractive to whoever it is you want to attract.” Cregan-Reid backs up these claims with numerous references, which I’m not going to get into here but it is a weighty quote!

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Also included in part two is a discussion on “runner’s high,” with scientific studies and the author’s personal experiences with it. The author even has specific requirements for runner’s high:  the run will be longer than 40 minutes and the run takes place in a green space, plus some others mentioned in the book. Cregan-Reid also discusses a meeting he had with environmental psychologists from the University of Michigan, Dr. Avrik Basu and Dr. Jason Duvall. They discuss how distractions negatively effect our attention spans, among other things. Dr. Duvall has a study on the effect of ‘awareness plans’ on outdoor exercise. Basically, the groups that were aware of their senses had significant improvements in their well-being.

Cregan-Reid also discusses how running should be neither work nor exercise but more like play. He traces the history of exercise back to the 18th century and notes author Jane Austen’s references to exercise. By the 19th century, exercise is more commonly seen in what the author calls “leisured classes” of society. Poor people were working in the fields and doing other types of manual labor so they had no time nor need for exercise on top of this. Finally, the author says, “Running, like literature, like art, helps you to remember and re-experience some of the impossible strangeness of what it means to be who and what we are, of what it means to be human.”

Part three of the book, Earthing, discusses humans need to connect physically with the earth for our well-being. There are parts where the author discusses running in the fir and redwood forests of California. From this, he segues into a discussion on a review paper from 2010 that concluded forest environments lowered blood pressure and pulse rate among other things compared to city environments. Other studies have concluded that forest time “improved nocturnal sleep conditions for those with sleep complaints.”

Also in part three is a discussion on the treadmill as a torture device beginning in the 18th century. William Cubitt invented the treadwheel or ‘Discipline Mill,’ which soon became known as the treadmill. Beginning in 1818, prisoners of ‘Her Majesty’ who had committed more serious crimes were sentenced to hard labor, including put to work on the treadwheel. Oscar Wilde is one of the most famous victims, who spent as much as six hours a day on the treadmill in prison and was basically physically broken because of this. One interesting claim by the author is that he says he remembers nearly every outdoors run he has done in the last 12 months, but only a couple out of a hundred runs on the treadmill.

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Part four, Roaming, is basically about how exploring new places by running can be exciting and wonderful or it can be frustrating and disheartening. Cregan-Reid of course gives personal examples of this in this section, along with other sections of the book. There is also a discussion on wildness, freedom, and trespassing. Possibly the most famous author on this subject is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Walden. The author visits the replica of Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond but is disappointed to find the area fenced off in places and finds the area not so natural but rather touristy.

The final chapter is about the author’s experience running the London Marathon. This was the author’s first race since school, so there were no 5k’s or other distances leading up to this marathon. Cregan-Reid, who is an asthmatic, applied for a charity spot, was accepted, and began raising money for Asthma UK. Four days before the race, Cregan-Reid’s asthma worsened after he caught a cold. Concerned about running a marathon when he was ill, he told everyone he wasn’t able to run. When he went to formally withdraw from the race one day prior to the event, he had missed the deadline that would have allowed him to run it the following year.

The morning of the 2012 London Marathon, Cregan-Reid awoke before 6:00 and debated whether or not to run the race. He decided to wear his heart-rate monitor and run so slowly that his heart rate wouldn’t exceed 130. He walked the mile from his apartment to the race start with his partner. The author made his way to the back of the 35,000 people at the race start, with the agreement that he would check in with his partner along the course to make sure he was OK. Ultimately, he finished the race and says that “at mile 26.2 I find that, almost by accident, I have run a marathon.”

There are several references to the author running in cities around the world, including the places I’ve already mentioned, as well as Venice, Paris, the Cotswolds, California, and Boston. Being a runner who loves to travel, I found these sections interesting, as I too love to explore new cities by running. Finally, the author states that running has made him more “self-reliant, resilient, and free.” I would concur with this statement about myself personally.

While this book may not be for everyone, especially if you’re put off by the many literary references, I found it refreshingly different and enjoyed it. At 293 pages, it’s not what I’d call a “quick read,” but it’s not meant to be. If you enjoy running and would like to read a book about the history of running, biomechanics, and psychology involved in running, written in a unique way, I recommend checking this book out.

You can find this book at your local library or on Amazon here.

How many of you have “accidentally” run a marathon? Do you enjoy reading books about running that aren’t full of advice but more about the history of running and other aspects of running like psychological effects?

Happy running!

Donna

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Review of “Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life” by Stacy Sims and Selene Yeager

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I first heard about this book through the Another Mother Runner podcast several months ago but I only recently borrowed it from the library. Why the long wait? Honestly, I just didn’t really think it could be that good. I’ve read other books written by female athletes, although not a ton, but I just wasn’t that inspired by them. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t anything special either.

“Roar” is not only a book for female runners but for female athletes in general and I can honestly say it’s one of the best books for women that I’ve read. Dr. Sims is not only a nutrition scientist and exercise physiologist but also an athlete herself. One quote I really like from the book is “You are not a small man. Stop eating and training like one.” This sums up the book well.

There are 17 chapters in “Roar,” covering everything from pregnancy to menopause to the female digestive tract, although there is some redundancy in places, but I found the book to be laid out well and easy to follow. “Roar” is filled with scientific information and while I’m a scientist and may be a bit biased, I thought it wasn’t too scientific for most non-scientists to follow. I also liked the “Roar Sound Bites,” brief summaries at the end of each chapter.

Not only does Dr. Sims lay it all out there for women by explaining how hormones effect athletic performance, she gives advice on how to control hormonal effects on our bodies. For example, women should take in protein high in leucine before exercise and within 30 minutes of  exercising to help maintain muscle when hormone levels are high. One thing I learned about myself is I need to be consuming even more protein than I previously thought. Dr. Sims recommends 1 gram of protein per pound per day for athletic women (this is much more than is recommended for non-athletic women).

Dr. Sims also has examples of daily diets for athletes of all kinds including triathletes, cyclists, and runners. She sometimes will give comparisons of their current diet vs. what Dr. Sims recommends they eat. There are also exercises with photos that take up two chapters of the book that she recommends for female athletes. A not-so-fun fact is that women who don’t strength train lose at least 3% muscle mass per decade after age 30.

There are also of course large chunks of the books devoted to diets, sports-specific fueling, and hydration. In addition to specific examples of recommended daily diets for athletes, there are recipes for snacks. Not surprisingly, women’s hydration needs are different from men’s because of hormones. One interesting tidbit is that Dr. Sims partnered with nuun hydration to help re-formulate nuun performance hydration powder in 2016; the partnership was announced shortly after “Roar” hit the publication stands but there are no references to any of this in the book.

There are also sections on how women can deal with extreme temperatures and high elevation including specific ways to cope and a section on recovery after a hard workout. One interesting point is that when men take an ice bath, they can start shivering and get microspasms in their already-fatigued muscles, which leads to more soreness and stalled recovery. Women, however, need help speeding up vasoconstriction after a hard workout, so women can still benefit from ice baths.

The chapter on supplements was interesting to me because it’s part of what my field of study has included for my job. Many women may be surprised to read that the only recommended supplements mentioned in the book include iron, vitamin D, and magnesium. Calcium and antioxidants such as vitamin C are not recommended and in fact can be harmful. Dr. Sims’ opinion on supplements is in agreement with what I’ve also read from other scientists but this information doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the mainstream yet.

Finally, the last couple of chapters are about how men’s and women’s brains are different and how we can use this information. For example, women tend to have a greater ability for social interaction so we would benefit from things like group runs or cycling sessions. Also, positive thinking and mindfulness can be especially important for women who often need help in these areas. The final chapter is about biohacking (looking inside your physiology) and discusses everything from pee sticks to blood testing to the simple but often overlooked question, “How do I feel?”

As I said earlier, I feel like “Roar” is one of the best books geared towards female athletes that I’ve read, and I do recommend picking up a copy. I read a review on Amazon that this book isn’t for the average athlete, but is more for elite athletes, and I disagree. I’m by no means an elite athlete and there was plenty I could take away from this book. OK, now I need to go eat more protein!

Have any of you read “Roar?” If so, what did you think? Are any of you intrigued about the book now and would like to check it out? You can see if you public library has it or Amazon has it for sale here.

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

Book Review- “Runner’s World Your Best Stride”

I recently read the book “Runner’s World Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster–With Fewer Injuries” by Jonathan Beverly. The title is a mouthful, but the book is a BEAST!

The whole reason I wanted to read this book is because I had been having several running issues. For whatever reason my gait had changed over the years and I had gone from someone with a nice, fluid natural gait to one where I seriously looked like I was hobbling. My right leg would hyperextend instead of naturally bending when I landed.

Before I even bought the book, I began working on my gait and trying to not hyperextend my right leg. It was a very long, difficult process that was extremely frustrating and I even gave up once but I knew I needed to try again so this past spring and summer I began working on it again. You can read more about that here if you’d like.

So back to the book. Why do I say it’s a beast? It’s so crammed-full of information, it’s almost too much to absorb. I had to read through it and not do any of the million exercises in it then read through it a second time and start doing some of the exercises for it to sink in. This book would be overwhelming to the brand new runner, I would think. I’ve been running for let’s just say a long time, and it was almost overwhelming for me.

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A big part of the book is devoted to discussing foot stride. With many people like physical therapists and running coaches to back him up, Beverly states that it really doesn’t matter where your foot lands on the ground. As runners, we’ve heard that our foot should strike mid-foot as opposed to landing on our toes or heels. Apparently it really doesn’t matter where our foot lands on the ground. Foot strike is variable and changes in different situations. Beverly goes on to say that what is more important than foot strike is what happens with your leg motion and body mass when you touch the ground. We should focus more on having a quick, fluid turnover.

There’s also a huge emphasis on the hips and proper posture. Beverly states we first need to play with balance, to see what it feels like when our hips are rotated in all directions. When we run our hips shouldn’t be twisting from side to side but rather the hips should be stacked under the torso. Since most of us have jobs where we sit for long periods of time, our hips have become tight as a result. There are several stretches in the book to work on not only tight hip flexors but also glutes. While sitting causes tight hips, it also causes weak glutes. When we run, our hips and glutes ideally work together.

Another big piece of the posture puzzle is arm swing. Many people probably underestimate the importance of our arms for running. Beverly devotes an entire chapter to arms and effective arm swing. There are of course multiple stretches for the chest, back, and shoulders and a section on arm swing exercises.

Probably not surprising is that there is another chapter entirely on the foot. Beverly talks about the barefoot running movement and has multiple sections throughout the book about running shoes. Suffice to say the author feels that cushy shoes with tons of padding aren’t doing our feet any favors in the long run. While he doesn’t say to throw out your running shoes and run barefoot, Beverly does say to run in the least shoe possible. There are multiple foot and ankle stretches and exercises designed to strengthen our feet and ankles.

Stride and cadence are discussed with many experts weighing in that a faster cadence doesn’t always make a runner faster. According to the author, one problem with increasing your step rate that can result is your form suffers. Hip flexors get over-worked and arm swing is more in the front of the body rather than the backward motion it should be. Basically Beverly says that some runners may be able to increase their cadence and thereby become faster runners, but only after they’ve addressed posture, hip flexibility, glute strength, and upper body mobility.

I think the book can be summed up from a section in the preface entitled “A Process, Not a Problem.” I’ll paraphrase here. The process of having good form isn’t something you’re born being able to do, nor a matter of good or bad movement like where your foot lands. Running well requires an effective range of motion from our limbs which are restricted from daily sitting. In the US where most people drive to work, drive to run errands, and even drive to a trail head before going on a run, our hips have become tight and our glutes weak. Without working on our posture, hips, shoulders, and overstriding, we’ll never achieve good running form.

You can buy the book on Amazon here. I don’t recommend just borrowing this book from your local public library. There’s just too much information here to be able to read through it in a week or two. You’ll also want to keep it to have all of the stretches and exercises available. Obviously there’s no way anyone could incorporate all of the stretches into their weekly schedule. I suggest choosing some of the ones where you need the most work and focus on those and every so often going back and doing some of the ones you haven’t done in a while.

What do you all think? Does this sound like a book that would help or interest you?

Happy running!

Donna

 

Book Review- Runner’s World Train Smart Run Forever

I recently read Runner’s World Train Smart Run Forever by Bill Pierce and Scott Murr and would like to share some of my thoughts here. I’ve been a follower of the authors’ training program for several years and this is basically an update with some more details. Pierce and Murr established the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) many years ago and that has grown and evolved over the years.

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FIRST began as four free lectures a month to help local runners with their training and running that has expanded to include laboratory assessments, gait assessment, nutritional advice, and much more. It’s not uncommon for there to be a waitlist for FIRST retreats. Laboratory fees range from $45 for body composition measurement to $425 for a combination consisting of VO2 MAX / Lactate Threshold  / Gait measurements. A 3-day nutritional assessment seems like a bargain for $50. The May 18-21 2017 retreat (which was sold out months in advance) was $1500 and included all activities, assessments, etc. except lodging. All of the information can be found on this website. There are also many different coaching options from individual coaching to group clinics and team coaching.

Now to the book. As I said, I was already familiar with the FIRST running philosophy, which is geared more toward runners in their forties and older. The basic idea is to run less but work harder and add cross-training, resistance training, and stretching. If you follow their plan, you will be working out for a cumulative of 7 hours a week. This includes 3 days of running, 3 days of cross-training, and 3 days of strength training (some days include both cross-training and strength training). You stretch for 10 minutes every day except one where you stretch for 15 minutes following the long run. Every day you are doing some form of exercise, with a minimum of 25 minutes on a day you strength train 15 minutes and stretch 10 minutes. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy workout plan just because you’re only running 3 days a week.

You may be saying, well this wouldn’t be enough for marathon training, and you would be right. The authors state this is a good base for beginning a marathon training plan. It also could be altered by adding longer runs. However, for my purposes, it works great for training for half marathons. It would also work well for shorter distances but I feel it’s perfect for half marathons and the only alteration I need to do is lengthen the long runs.

One notable thing about this training plan you notice right away is there are no distances listed. You run for time, not distance. There is also the FIRST Exertion Scale (FES), which goes from 1, “very easy and relaxed” to 10, “very, very hard; maximal effort.” Your run workouts are based on the FES for a certain amount of time. For example, one of the long run workouts is to begin running comfortably, progressing from a 1 to 3 on the FES scale for 10 minutes then continue the run at FES of 4 for 80 minutes. If I was a really fast runner, I could run for 11 miles pretty easily with this workout, but I’m not that fast so I alter the run workouts to make sure I’m getting in the miles to prepare me for an upcoming half marathon. I think a big part of preparing for a half marathon is mentally preparing yourself to run for 13.1 miles, so I like to go up to 12 or 13 miles for my longest run before a race. If I’m only running for 90 minutes, there’s no way I’m going to run 12 or 13 miles in that time.

I’m skipping ahead, though. The book begins with a lot of background and introductory information. Things start to even get a bit bleak when they go into all of the statistics on “aging runners.” Believe me when I say they don’t sugar-coat anything in this book. They lay it all out there and have many numbers to back it all up. Like it or not, every single one of us will experience the following: reduced lean muscle mass, reduced bone mineral density, increased body fat, reduced cardiac output, reduced metabolic rate, and hormonal changes. Yay! All of this of course impacts your running and other physical activity performance.

But there is hope as long as you are realistic and don’t expect your race times to always keep improving forever. There are also many things you can do such as stretching more, doing weight training, and cross-training. You can also look at your age-graded performance over time. There are many websites to calculate age-graded race times for all distances.

There is a chapter devoted entirely to the marathon and another chapter titled, “Is long-distance running healthy?” that addresses the numerous benefits of cardiorespiratory fitness and of running specifically. Spoiler alert- runners have lower “all-cause and cardiovascular death rates.” Moving on, there is a chapter full of Q & A that they have been asked over the years. There’s a section that discusses the pros and cons of running alone versus with others.

In the chapter on nutrition, I found an interesting idea that I’m still testing. The author states drinking an 8-ounce can of a meal supplement such as Ensure or Boost with 220 calories and 32 grams of carbohydrates before a race. The morning of a half marathon I usually have a nervous stomach so the idea of just drinking my breakfast before a race is appealing to me. I don’t want to have to mix powders or anything else. I already do that with my Nuun tablets, which I always run with. I’ve been experimenting with Boost before my last couple of long runs and so far I think it will work for me.

I also enjoyed and appreciated the chapter called “Don’t forget why you are doing this,” where the authors talk about the joy of running.  I think it’s important to not take running and racing too seriously and just have fun; otherwise, what’s the point?

Now to the real meat of the book:

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This is where they really get into the details of the 7-hour workout week. There are detailed workouts for every day of the week, with numerous options to choose from, so you’re not just doing the same exact workouts week after week. There are images and descriptions for all of the stretches, both dynamic stretches before you run, and stretches for after you run. There are also descriptions and images for all of the strength (resistance) exercises. In fact, there is an entire chapter devoted just to strength training and another chapter just on stretching. To finish the book, there is an Afterword and several Appendices.

What did I think of the book? I thought it was extremely in-depth, descriptive, and helpful. As I said earlier, I was already familiar with the authors and their FIRST training plans. I’ve been a believer in running less but running harder and incorporating strength, resistance, and cross-training for several years now. I know everyone is different but for me, if I run more than 3-4 days a week and/or longer distances, my body starts to break down in the form of injuries or illness. I’m no longer in my 30’s and I was not blessed with a body built for running 30+ miles a week. If I want to continue running well into old-age, I know I need to follow the philosophy proposed in this book. The authors state in the Afterword, “The 7-Hour Workout Week works for us.” Quite simply, the 7-Hour Workout Week also works for me.

You can buy the book on Amazon here.