What does the evidence show?
You don’t really need more gear. You need knowledge and inspiration.
‘Tis the season, once again, to rack your brains for the perfect gift for the endurance junkie in your life. You could, as Triathlete magazine’s gift guide suggests, pick up a pocket-sized 50,000-volt Taser in case anyone tries to steal one of your Strava KOMs (I’m reading between the lines here). Or you could stick to good old knowledge, inspiration, and vicarious adventure—a book, in other words.
This has been an unusual reading year for me. When my book, Endure, finally came out in February, it was like emerging from a multiyear literary hibernation. In the desperate struggle to finish it, I’d all but stopped reading for pleasure for most of the previous couple of years. So I’ve been playing catch-up, plowing through a bunch of books I’d be meaning to read for ages. As a result, the list below is not a best-of-2018 list. Instead, it’s a pretty eclectic mix of books that I particularly enjoyed this year that also have some sort of connection with the general Sweat Science vibe, along with a few titles I’m still looking forward to tackling. Hopefully you’ll find something that clicks for you or your loved ones.
‘The Nature Fix’ by Florence Williams
I have one major criticism of this book, which is that it’s the book I’d hoped to write after Endure. It’s a look at (as the subtitle puts it) “why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative.” And importantly, it’s firmly grounded in science, not just a bunch of people saying they really like trees. I’ve been a big nature fan for a long time, but this book shifted my perspective about when, how, and why I should get outside. I read it in September, and within a week I’d bought a kayak to make it easier for me to get out onto the river near my house.
‘The Hungry Brain’ by Stephan Guyenet
As a science journalist, to be totally honest, I’ve gotten tired of the endless, cyclical, tribal debates about the causes of and solutions to obesity. And I’m going to resist saying something like “Finally, the book that answers all our questions and solves the obesity crisis once and for all!” The nice thing is that Guyenet doesn’t make that claim either. Over the past decade, he has emerged as (to my mind) the clearest and most incisive commentator out there on the science of nutrition, but also the least prone to hype and oversimplification. The book is a fascinating exploration of current research on how our brains are wired to eat, and what that means for how we should think about food.
‘On Trails’ by Robert Moor
At the New York Marathon last month, I had a chance to catch up with my old roommate and mentor-in-the-arts-of-life, Gennady. He’s the one who introduced me to Leonard Cohen, the New York Times crossword, and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” He had a copy of On Trails in his bag, so I picked one up as soon as I got home. I’m halfway through it now, and it’s amazing—deep thoughts and fascinating science on the origins and meaning of trails, whether blazed by ants or Appalachian thru-hikers. Outside ran an excerpt when it came out, so I probably should have known about it before—but better late than never.
‘Alone Against the North’ by Adam Shoalts
Shoalts is a young Canadian explorer in old “Age of Exploration” mold. Of course, there aren’t any more continents to be discovered, and every inch of the globe has been mapped—at least from the air. But that’s not the same as “ground truth,” and much of this book revolves around Shoalts’s attempt to find and map a northern river that no one in recorded history has ever descended. He finally picks a target in the desolate Hudson Bay Lowlands, and his surprise plunge over an unmarked and unmapped 15-foot waterfall is one indication that he’s truly in virgin territory. Whether Shoalts is “Canada’s Indiana Jones” or, as some critics argue, an anachronistic pseudo-imperialist trying to relive the glories of colonial conquest, is worth thinking carefully about. Either way, his insistence that the age of exploration isn’t over, along with the wild tales of his journey, had my trip-planning fires burning hot. (Shoalts also has a new book, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, that’s in the queue on my bookshelf.)
‘Let Your Mind Run’ by Deena Kastor
I’ve written at length about the role of the mind in dictating the limits of endurance. But how do you actually put this idea into practice? While I’m strong on the theories, that’s not the same as living it. So it was interesting to read Kastor’s memoir (co-written with Michelle Hamilton), which in some sense is a book-length paean to the power of positive thinking. Let me be totally frank: Kastor’s thousand-watt positivity is the kind of thing I would have scoffed at for many years. Even now, it sometimes seems a little too pat. But then again, she has an Olympic medal—and the research in my own book suggests that her faith in the power of the mind is well placed. If you’re exploring how your mindset can influence your performance, this is certainly worth a read to get the perspective of someone who has thought carefully about it—and has been to the top of the mountain.
‘Into the Silence’ by Wade Davis
Speaking of mountains, I’ve read a lot of Everest books over the years, but hadn’t read this one until a reader sent me an email about a piece I wrote about the “effort paradox.” Why do people sometimes seek out challenges because of, rather than in spite of, their difficulty? George Mallory’s famous quote about Everest—“Because it’s there”—isn’t a very satisfying answer, I wrote. Mallory’s actual motivations were much more complex, the reader pointed out, and were fascinatingly explored in Davis’s book, which is an exhaustive account of the early British Everest expeditions of the 1920s. This book, more than any other I’ve read on the topic, gave me a vivid 3D picture of what those expeditions were like and why they turned out the way they did.
‘String Theory’ by David Foster Wallace
This is a collection of Wallace’s writing about tennis—and, as it happens, another book I read after an email exchange with a reader, who saw parallels with some of the discussions in Endure. I’d read a few of the pieces before, but was glad I revisited them. Wallace’s insights about tennis, and more generally about the utterly peculiar inner world of competitive athletic endeavor, still resonate. And I learned some new words, which is always cool. On a semi-related note, another tennis-related title that’s in my queue after several recommendations is the 1974 classic The Inner Game of Tennis.
‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff
On the fiction side: a tweet from Des Linden put this one on my radar. It has some peripheral endurance connections, both in the plot and in the fact that Groff is the sister of Olympic triathlete Sarah True (and, consequently, the sister-in-law of 5,000-meter star Ben True). But that aside, the reason I’m recommending this book is that it kept me up later than I intended night after night for a week.
‘Running is My Therapy’ by Scott Douglas
My top science-of-running pick for this year actually has little to do with setting PRs or understanding VO2max. Douglas, a former colleague of mine at Runner’s World, takes his own anhedonia—a diminished ability to feel pleasure—as a jumping off point to explore the links between running and mental health. I’ve reviewed the book elsewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here other than to say that there’s way more science here than I expected. It’s a worthwhile read for all runners, regardless of the current state of their mental health.
‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell
Campbell was the comparative mythologist who coined the phrase “Follow your bliss” and wrote about the “Hero’s Journey” framework that underlies myths from around the world (and which famously inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars). He was also one of the top half-milers in the world as a student at Columbia in the 1920s. In a famous series of interviews in the 1980s, he told Bill Moyers that his peak experiences in life had all come while running: “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those two races. And those consequently were the experience of really being at my full and doing a perfect job.” The Power of Myth is an edited transcript of those interviews, and is probably the most accessible entry point to Campbell’s work. If you’re trying to figure out the best way to follow your bliss (and who isn’t?), this is an interesting read, and I think endurance athletes in particular will see their journeys reflected in Campbell’s thinking.
So that’s my somewhat idiosyncratic and not-very-timely personal top ten for the year. As a bonus, here are five 2018 titles currently on my shelf that I’m excited to tackle over the coming holidays:
- Land of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
- Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age by Jeff Bercovici
- To the Edges of the Earth: The Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration by Edward J. Larson
- Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running by Amby Burfoot
- The Playmaker’s Advantage: How to Raise Your Mental Game to the Next Level by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson
And, finally, three highly anticipated 2019 titles to start getting excited about, all now available for pre-order:
‘Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery’ by Christie Aschwanden (Feb. 5, 2019)
As the steady stream of PR emails in my inbox attests, recovery is the great athletic obsession of our time. Aschwanden, the lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight, delves into the research underlying the hype, and emerges with important and practical conclusions. If you really want to understand Tom Brady’s famous “recovery pajamas,” this is the place to go.
‘The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life’ by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (Mar. 19, 2019)
To find your passion, you must lose balance—“and that’s not always a bad thing,” this book argues. Stulberg, Outside’s Do It Better columnist, and Magness, an elite running coach, reunite for this follow-up to their 2017 bestseller Peak Performance.
‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’ by David Epstein (May 28, 2019)
Had Epstein’s next book after The Sports Gene been an extended meditation on paint-drying, I still would have pre-ordered six copies. Instead, it’s a rigorous challenge to the orthodox view that specialization is essential to developing expertise. “Generalists often find their path late,” the book blurb reads. “They're also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can't spy from deep in their hyperfocused trenches.” As a guy who took up journalism for the first time in my late 20s, I’m psyched to read this one.
Happy holidays to all!
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.