Riding my bike along a field in mid February, I saw a bobcat. I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. I wondered why he wasn’t hibernating, all snuggled up with his ladycat, but according to Phyllis J. Perry’s seminal Animals that Hibernate, some animals (including bobcats) don’t. Woodchucks dig a burrow, garter snakes hole up with hundreds of their friends, snails “close up their shells with a cement-like material.” Me? I just lie down in bed.
But it’s March now, and I’m starting to stir. Spring ’13 hasn’t quite sprung yet, but it’s close; I can smell it (your spring may bear the scent of daffodils and raindrops, but mine is somewhat closer to festering gym socks).
I need a goal, something to look forward to, something to propel me right on up out of bed. I’m deciding whether to focus on bog snorkeling, the Texas Water Safari (San Marcos, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico: 262 miles), or cycling in the Race Across Iowa. Just kidding, I’m not yet badass enough to do any of those. Still, I need some motivation, a little fire lit under me that I can only douse with hard work and good-natured competition.
So while I’m deciding, I’m having a go at these 12 titles. Two of them suck, but the other ten will fire you up.
Carmichael, Chris & Jim Rutberg. The Time-Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week. Velo. 2012. ISBN 9781934030837. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781937716202. SPORTS
Carmichael (The Time-Crunched Triathlete), a former Olympian and pro cyclist turned coach, begins with a fairly technical discussion of the science underlying his method. Even though it’s clear and neatly summed up, do you really need to know about ATP, glucose, lactic acid overload, and how they all interrelate? Nope. As long as you do the work, it doesn’t matter if you understand lines like “you’ll be working at intensities between lactate threshold and VO2 max.” Nitty-gritty science aside, Carmichael’s training plans detail exactly what to do to ramp up your short-term (i.e., around 11 weeks) strength and performance. The programmed combinations of endurance, steady state, and tempo rides with power intervals and climbing repeats are rooted in the principles that Carmichael develops for professionals. This is not a method for all riders. In fact, the author points out that riders who can commit more than ten hours a week to training will be better served by a more traditional endurance-training program. VERDICT Almost every dude I know is crunched for time, and you have nothing to lose by trying one of these plans. Self-coached athletes familiar with adapting cookie-cutter workouts to their own needs will be on familiar turf. It’s not a long-term solution, but it will get you a hell of a lot stronger than what you’re doing now: flipping through Mark Johnson’s Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life over beers and planning to ramp up your training…someday.
Dicharry, Jay. Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention. Skyhorse. 2012. 309p. ISBN 9781620871591. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781620872253. SPORTS
I love this book, as will any runner who has ever wondered whether his or her carcass can be made to move any faster. Dicharry isn’t so much concerned with readers’ speed as much as their overall health. See, overall health leads to strength, and the ability to run strong leads to speed. This dense, meticulous tome’s ten chapters contain a lot of information, but Dicharry keeps the tempo upbeat by comparing runners to Gumby, describing the load rate of an overextended front foot as “the toilet bowl of doom,” and presenting nine introductory mobility and stability tests (I fail pretty miserably at the hamstring stretch and tissue flossing). From gait and the spring in your step to anatomy and the biomechanics of running, the author’s critical eye overlooks nothing. Best is the refreshingly jaded outlook; he debunks many popular misconceptions such as the purpose and best methods of stretching (it is essentially a mobility issued related to the stiffness of your tissues) and the pronouncements of the running industry (e.g., barefoot running is not a panacea for runners). Minus: The book badly needs an index. Plus: The male and female runners in the photos are lovely to behold. Plus you’ll finally be able to tell the difference between metatarsalgia and sesmoiditis! VERDICT Running nerds, unite! This thorough, sober guide delivers on all aspects of running. It’s a critical purchase, and, as Pete Townsend would say, at less than $15 this is a bargain—the best you ever had.
Finn, Adharanand. Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth. Ballantine. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780345528797. $26. SPORTS
The latest, greatest entry in the kick-me-in-the-ass-and-inspire-me-to-get-out-there-and-run-dammit genre, this is the story of a gifted but unmotivated British runner who never quite lived up to his potential. The best thing is that he’s not anyone famous, he’s just a dude like you and me, a journalist with a wife and kids and car payments—and a nagging feeling that he could somehow be better. Since he idolizes Kenyan distance runners (e.g., Tergat, Kibet, Kirui), Finn took a massive leap of faith and moved kit and caboodle to Iten, a sort of marathoner holy land in the Kenyan hinterlands. Inspired by its high elevation, culture of running, and (literally!) bazillions of elite, record-holding runner residents, Finn got his run on with a vengeance in Iten, skillfully describing all via a travelogue-esque narrative. A decent runner, Finn at first had trouble keeping pace with even the slowest female Kenyans. As he gradually improved, he susses out the titular “secrets.” These aren’t earth-shaking, but they do highlight vast cultural differences, such as the fact that when elite Kenyan runners aren’t running, they’re not doing anything. (Literally. They are lying around.) Finn eventually turns in a 78-minute half marathon and a 2:55 full (note to the uninitiated: those are really good times). VERDICT This work chugs right along beside John Bingham’s Accidental Athlete and Christopher MacDougall’s Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.
Fitzgerald, Matt. Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. Velo. 2010. 264p. ISBN 9781934030578. pap. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9781937716110. SPORTS
Fitzgerald’s (Brain Training for Runners) excellent little book encourages readers to listen to, rely on, and hone our kinetic instincts: to, in other words, feel the run. At a certain level, running is just running. At a completely ‘nother level (the one where it starts getting hard), it’s your brain keeping your weakening body moving. As any accomplished Ironman, marathoner, or ultrarunner can attest, one trains the mind as well as the body. Sound a little mystical? Well, if you’re Luke Skywalker just learning about the Force, Fitzy is Yoda urging you to harness it by exploring “how you can use the emotions of confidence and enjoyment to shape your future training.” By processing that feedback, your body learns how to run harder and faster, be injured less frequently, and build “psychological momentum” that will carry you through tough training days and races. Sound like too much to ask? The process of rewiring your “running brain” will be hard on Type-A athletes used to running through injury and nailing every training day. This doesn’t champion a method or sell anything; it instills a sense of physical confidence that will inform you when it’s best to, say, rip the head off your run or abandon it altogether. Sound like good advice? Yes, and it comes from an experienced, top-notch writer-athlete who has interviewed many elite runners on the effects of brain power and positive thinking. VERDICT Pair of running shoes: $120; this book: $18.95. The power of math tells us this is 100% win.
Irons, Nick. Swim Lessons: Ten Secrets for Making Any Dream Come True. Clydesdale. 2003. 203p. ISBN 9780972960601. $24. SELF-HELP
Let’s make this clear: Irons is no Martin Strel. Strel, an overweight, wine-swilling Slovenian known as Big River Man, has swum the length of just about every river known to man. Strel has brass balls. But you know what? Irons has even brassier balls. See, whereas Strel somehow manages to eke out a living as a marathon swimmer, this book tells the story of how Irons swam the length of the mighty Mississippi basically on a dare as a way to raise awareness and money for multiple sclerosis research and to honor his father’s battle with the condition. A former college pool swimmer (He did more than six miles in the pool A DAY) Irons undertook the insane quest to swim 1,550 miles, traveling from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge by swimming five hours a day, six days a week, for four months. This is not a swim primer, hell, it’s barely a swim journal—it’s much better. In material that’s presented in the form of a self-help book, readers are encouraged to follow Irons’s “swim lessons.” For example, he urges readers to gain self-confidence by drawing on past experiences—or go forward on blind faith if they’re feeling frisky. VERDICT Irons’s infectious enthusiasm and endearing, homespun style has enough Positive Psychology 101 to restore your faith in mankind. Can’t get enough? Check out the documentary on him.
Roll, Rich. Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. Crown Archetype. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780307952196. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780307952219. SPORTS
Roll is the kind of triathlete who can be overly enthusiastic about a sport that, like golf or Ultimate Frisbee, has its share of insufferable braggarts. But life is short and racing is fun. Roll starts the book by relating his struggles with mental instability, alcoholism, and binge eating; however, his tone doesn’t communicate inspiration well. If a miracle occurred somewhere along the way, it isn’t clear where, so what happens is that Roll finds religion-endurance sports and turns himself into a fit, healthy monster, but one who is self-absorbed. For example, he describes a day when he “painlessly hurled myself up a sandstone ridge, fluidly cresting yet another steep, craggy ascent, bearing the full brunt of what was now the midday desert sun without notice or care.” As a questionable bonus, he’ll sell you his “recommended cleansing program….” VERDICT If you want to have some fun, get out and run with Roll’s attitude.
Ryan, Monique. Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. Velo. 2012. 432p. index. ISBN 9781934030820. pap. $21.95. HEALTH
Never thought I’d get a “bookover” from what I thought was a textbook, but Ryan (Performance Nutrition for Winter Sports) may have achieved the impossible: penning an authoritative, informative, readable text on the titular subject. Though of special interest to runners, cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes—each of whom get a dedicated chapter—pretty much any athlete (or person, really) can get some great information out of this. Chapters are clear, well written, and full of awesome information for overall health on topics from hydration to building a solid base of nutrition (e.g., white potatoes=bad, lentils=good) and how to best get vitamins and minerals (from food, not supplements). For me, it is the little nuggets that strike home, such as “[s]tarting exercise with low muscle glycogen can lead to early fatigue,” which explains why some days see me tiring faster than others. Finding and balancing the right amount of energy/calories to meet the demands of what I need to do is my next big goal. Ryan encourages food journaling and eating a wide variety of foods (though I notice that fistfuls of cashews aren’t on her list!). The index proves helpful, and the many charts and tables make it easy to identify and understand dense information (e.g., the glycemic index of different foods). Female athletes, those in special environments, and those with dietary restrictions are given special consideration. VERDICT Get it!
Shapton, Leanne. Swimming Studies. Blue Rider. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780399158179. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781101584934. AUTOBIOG
Shapton (cofounder, J&L Books) was at one time a damned good swimmer. So good, in fact, that she did quite well at the Canadian Olympic trials. Nothing gets you further into your own head than mucho pool time, and these 30 reflective essays on myriad subjects show a perceptive, sweet young adult absorbing (even devouring) everything around her. Some pieces ramble and some are only loosely related to swimming, while others focus tightly on the subject, but all of them address swimming in one way or another. Whether she’s reflecting on how her brother introduced her to the music of Billy Bragg while driving her to practice or recalling the experience of confronting “…a perfectly detailed chunk of phlegm, suspended a foot below the surface…loom[ing] in my path like something from Jaws 3-D,” readers get a glimpse into the mind of an elite athlete. There are also inklings of how incredibly physically and mentally draining elite swimming is; sometimes it’s the reprieve Shapton needs from life, sometimes it’s vice versa. VERDICT The well-written pieces in this work, which won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, will mesmerize readers.
Steinberg, Jacques You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon. Viking. 2011. 290p. ISBN 9780143122074. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101544310. SPORTS
Sadly, not every book about triathlons is a winner. Here Steinberg profiles six athletes who entered Ironman Arizona in 2009. Their different motivations, training styles, and backgrounds all seem interesting—until Steinberg gets his hands on them. From there they are mangled, chopped apart, and reduced to mundane recitations. Stylistically, the author jumps from athlete to athlete; while this occasionally weaves a seamless sequence about perseverance or life/workout balance, more often than not it reads as scattershot. Worst, though, is the consistently melodramatic tone, describing competitors and their training in purplish, heroic terms. My friends and I know that spending a couple of hours in a pool or a day riding bikes isn’t heroic. It’s fun! Rushing into a burning building for someone? The stuff soldiers do to win a Medal of Honor? That’s heroic. Try instead Chrissie Wellington’s A Life without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey or Craig Alexander’s As the Crow Files: My Journey to Ironman World Champion.VERDICT This is an optional purchase best suited to triathletes and the special people (e.g., our very patient spouses) who love us.
Taormina, Sheila. Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes: Master the Freestyle Technique Used by the World’s Fastest Swimmers. Velo. 2012. 212p. illus. ISBN 9781934030882. pap. $18.95. SPORTS
One word: Wow. Taormina competed in four different Olympics in three different sports (swimming, triathlon, and the world’s coolest sport: modern pentathlon, which includes pistol shooting, fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3km cross-country run). Her book details the many different ways in which the self-coached athlete can start to kick ass in water. While the book is not as compulsively readable as, say, John Scalzi’s The Human Division (watch this space for a review next month), Taormina’s text is enjoyable and blessedly clear. Written for laypeople (i.e., not coaches or elite athletes), it unambiguously guides readers through the process of freestyle swimming: the catch, the pull, body position, developing a feel for the water. There are also many swim drills and dry-land strength exercises all illustrated with color photos. If you’re the type of person who can soak up practical information from a book, this is a crucial read. Supplement with videos of awesome swimmers like Scott Neyedli or Grant Hackett, a cheap underwater camera, some study and corrections, and you’re suddenly at the front of the swim pack. VERDICT Indispensable.
Foodstuffs, or: Why Long Workouts Don’t Matter if You Eat Your Way into Oblivion
Danowski, Debbie & Pedro Lazaro. Why Can’t I Stop Eating? Recognizing, Understanding and Overcoming Food Addiction. Hazelden. 2000. 350p. ISBN 9781568383651. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781592857548. HEALTH
Even though I’m not a compulsive over- or undereater, this book helped me figure out some of my issues (the big one? I haven’t yet mastered the phrase, “I’m full”). The key, as it happens, is eating healthfully. Calories are not created equal (who knew?). According to Danowski (The Emotional Eater’s Book of Inspiration), the calories in an avocado are better than the calories from a jelly donut. And while everyone reacts slightly differently to carbohydrates, sugar, and caffeine, each of these can be powerfully addictive substances. The book encourages low (but not zero) carb intake (like The Zone), and is supportive, informative, and critical of the diet industry. VERDICT If you have issues with eating, this encouraging, 12-step-esque plan is an excellent tool for your toolbox.
Michaels, Jillian. Slim for Life: My Insider Secrets to Simple, Fast, and Lasting Weight Loss. Harmony. 2012. 265p. ISBN 9780385349222. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780385349239. HEALTH
Since I was unfamiliar with Michaels except as a television personality with a penchant for shouting at people who could stand to lose a few pounds, I set my expectations for this book pretty low (about as low as 50 Cents’s Formula 50). I was pleasantly surprised, however, at the amount of high-quality information and common-sense advice in here. Michaels explains that the big difference between the ”ideal” you (the one you might find in a lite beer commercial) and the ”actual” you (the lumpy one in the mirror) comes down to making healthier choices, and she goes on to explain how to make that happen. Selecting the best nutrients, eating appropriate amounts, and cutting out (most) junk is as important, she writes, as is exercise. The differences between cardio and strength workouts are explained, as are the benefits of both. Presented in accomplishable, encouraging way, the diet and exercise information (many recipes, workout routines, and accompanying material) is worth the cover price. But there is also coverage of cooking, grocery shopping, and being vigilant on the go. Michaels also realistically addresses the many issues, such as kids, expense, time constraints, inertia, and cravings, that “normal” people will have when refining their lifestyle. She urges readers to use all-natural products, down to the level of cosmetics and cleaning products. Indeed, the skewering of the ”total crap” that many companies push on consumers is educative and delightfully critical of corporate greed. VERDICT Though Michaels touts this as the ”only book you’ll ever need,” it’s more accurate to say that this is better as an excellent starting place for your adventure in FitLandia, that mythical place where our abs are shredded and our hair is perfect.