My Top 9 Thought Provoking Books of 2013


If you could track my book reading over the past decade of my life, the types of books I have been drawn to for improving performance tells an interesting tale.  When I was first getting interested in coaching, I read just about every running/track coaching/training book there was.  I started with the basics and modern books, Daniels, Coe, Lydiard, and so on. The books we have all read. This provided a foundation for modern training practice and layed the "base" down.  I needed this understanding to grasp what modern theory was all about.

Knowing the ins and outs of modern training theory, I wanted to know why things worked they way they did. This meant lots and lots of textbook reading on the science, physiology, biochemistry, and biomechanics of endurance sport. It became a quest to find out why things occurred. When I was an undergrad, I started with reading the grad texts in my spare time, such as Goerge Brooks all encompassing, and challenging read, Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications . Once I wrapped my head around that, I transitioned to more specific disciplines, such as Hargreaves Exercise Metabolism  These, and other similar reads, provided the theoretical knowledge base I needed to create a model for how exercise worked. It allowed me to critically evaluate claims. But it still didn't provide the answers.

I wasn't fully satisfied with the answers they provided, so after a year or two, my reading list shifted towards the classics. If science and current theory didn't provide a complete picture, maybe studying history would. It began reading the classics like Fred Wilt's Run, run, run, , Dyson's Mechanics of Athletics, Van Aaken, Cerutty, and as many of the older training books as I could get.  This provided the history.  I knew where we came from and why ideas had developed.  It gave me an appreciation for where our methods came from, as well as an understanding of why methods were left behind, or in some cases forgotten to only be rediscovered.



Still not satisfied with how all of this coalesced into training, I figured other sports must have answers that we don't in track. So the phase of exploring how triathletes, swimmers, rowers, speed skaters, XC skiers and basically any other sport which had similar energetic demands trained. This led me to the best book on lactate dynamics (Jan Olbrecht's The Science of Winning ), and Maglischo's tomb of a training book Swimming Fastest. I discovered the similarities and the eccentricities of training for each sport. How different sports attacked similar adaptations in completely different ways due to their limitations in their sport. But I also went back to my original childhood love of baseball. Not because of their training superiority (in fact, I'd argue the opposite, as they are traditionally behind and "stuck"), but instead for their integration of statistics for evaluating common assumptions. Books such as Moneyball and The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract used statistics to open up the door for questioning norms in a sport that was deeply ingrained in tradition for traditions sake.

At this point, my reading interest took another dramatic shift. This time back towards science, but not in the route you'd expect.  Instead of exercise science, it shifted towards the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and adaptation and evolution. After all, training is nothing more than providing stressors to the body. Robert Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers expounds on the work of Hans Selye and looks at adaptation and maladaptation to stress. Similar books, combined with those on long term adaptation and evolution, such as Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life provided the framework for evaluating how we face stress and adapt to it.

With the growth of the understanding of fatigue being similar to an emotional response, it only made sense that I tried to explore neuroscience and cognitive and behavioral psychology. It no longer was a game of balancing workouts, but instead understanding peoples responses psychologically to workouts. As well as an understanding of our own inherit bias towards communication and acquisition of knowledge. Essentially, psychology theories helped not only explain our interaction with fatigue, but also why we get stuck in our thinking. Maybe it's the fact that I'm getting closer to 30 and have been doing this coaching thing for almost 10 years, but understanding our bias in the way we think, helps keep you fresh and understand our own limitations. These books are reflected in my top books listed below.



What is the point of this discourse of my tendencies in book reading? I think it shows the evolution of a coach, for one. We see the foundation established with training theory, science, and a history lesson.  Followed by a branching out and exploring why we do things we do and whether or not we might be able to connect far fledged disciplines.  Perhaps even more so, what I hope you get out this little journey through history is the nature of searching for the answer. Often, we never reach the definitive answer to the question we seek.  Perhaps because their is no true answer. But in that journey searching for the simple question of how to best train for endurance activities, we learn more from the process, and don't actually need the exacting answer. You never know where the search for questioning norms, and "being better" will take us.

What I've learned through this past decade of coaching is that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be trapped within the world that we routinely reside in. Instead, branch out, let your curiosity take you where it will, and you will find inspiration and knowledge in sometimes distant and seemingly unrelated places that will make a large difference in your core discipline.

Without further ado, here are my top 9 books that I read in 2013, based on the simple idea of what books intrigued, challenged, and forced me to learn and question why I do things. I hope you enjoy the recommendations, and in the comments below, please leave your top books of 2013.


Top 9 books of 2013:

1. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
David Epstein wrote the must read book of the year in the world of sports. Epstein, a runner himself, attacks the subject of genetics in sports not like a journalist, but instead like a well accomplished research scientist. There's no hidden agenda or simple profound message to sell the book. Instead what you get is a well put together, entertaining story, with lots of hard data and science to back it up.

In the process, he puts the debate of nature vs. nurture where it should be. He wrestles away the extreme and inaccurate views of Gladwell espoused 10,000hr rules on one side and genetic determinism on the other. Epstein somehow tackles the question of what makes Jamaician sprinters fast and East African runners great distance runners, without inciting a race riot. Walking a fine rope, there are some very thought provoking questions raised by Epstein's work and the implications of some of the research is pretty profound.

Epstein's book is a must read for any coach or scientist. The stories are good, the science is better. In the end, he sticks the genetic argument right where it should be: a happy medium somewhere in the middle.


2.Thinking, Fast and Slow

Although this book is a few years old, I got around to reading and finishing it this year, so it's on my list. Kahnemann's book is about thinking. It essentially answers the question of how our brain processes information

Kahnemann has a gift of breaking down complex studies and information into a simple system. The title of the book refers to the "two brain" system he writes about, in which we have part of the brain that is devoted to "thinking fast" and quickly making a decision on the incoming feedback, and one that is the 2nd level which id the "deeper" thinking system.

While I could spend hours talking about the implications of this book, I'll simply state that it teaches us how we think. And while that might simple simplistic, what it does is teach us what our internal bias are and how to deal with them.  This is a must read for anyone who deals with people, which is to say everyone.

It might sound simplistic, but when you read through Thinking Fast and Slow, and realize that we go through life without realizing how our thoughts develop, and without realizing that our own bias causes us to make many false assumptions, it's kind of mind blowing. Read this book.

Mine is filled with such highlighted knowledge drops as:

“It is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.  Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to.”

“Historians of science have often noted that at any given time scholars in a particular field tend to share basic assumptions about their subject.”


“People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory.”

“When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”



3. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
    The "barefoot professor" who elevated the status of minimalist running with his study published in Nature, takes on the evolution of the human body.  In particular he looks at it from a modern perspective, evaluating the state evolution has left us in and how that contrast with our modern envirnoment.

If you are a Paleo diet lover, or make claims that we should eat/training/etc. the way our pale ancestors did, then this book is a must read. Not because it will reaffirm your beliefs, but instead because it brings actual science to a trendy topic that was severely lacking hard science.

The central tenant of this book is the idea of mismatch diseases, meaning diseases which have arisen because of the mismatch between our evolution and our current environment. It's well worth the read just for the interesting perspectives on how this affects our health.

I would highly recommend this book for both coaches and health conscious readers. If one thing is taken away from Lieberman's work, it should be that putting things in evolutionary perspectives helps us determine the way the world works. If medicine were to take an evolutionary approach and understand where we came from, unique solutions and preventive medicine could be developed.

If nothing else, it's an intriguing and thought provoking book that cuts through the BS of paleo diet talks and gives a thorough evaluation of how we became human.

4. Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running


I've "known" Pete for a few years now, and his excellent blog is the first thing I recommend when people ask me about shoe recommendations. What I love about this book is that Pete lays out the fairest critique of running form, the shoe industry, and basically what it all means. There's no jump on the bandwagon, follow the fad, in this book. It's not a surprise since Pete is a scientist, but it's an easy to read, thorough discourse on all things running/shoe related.

For those interested in running shoes, minimalism, or anything similar, another high recommendation from me.


5. Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise



From fellow blogger, Alex Hutchinson comes a great book that goes over a wide variety of fitness and exercise related topics. What Alex has done is created a resource for the latest scientific answers to all of your fitness related questions. He puts the fads, trends, and common questions about exercise and health to the test and looks for actual research to answer the questions. A supremely well researched book. If you like his blog, you'll like his book.


6. Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention
This is my go to book for any injuries or "rehabilitation" work I need to do. Seriously, it's my go to manual, and I constantly reach for this as a resource.

I've been fortunate enough to work with Jay a bit as he did an evaluation on one of my runners, Jackie Areson, back in the day and essentially guided her rehab work. He's still one of my go to guys when it comes to injury issues, so I figured I might as well plug his book! But what really sets this book apart, is it gives you the science and the practical information needed to implement the suggestions. Most injury books do the "cop out" approach, meaning they say Ice it, rest, maybe some strength, but ultimately essentially tell you nothing and to consult a doctor or take time off. Jay gets to the bottom of why the injuries likely occur, but more so how to prevent them in the first place. His simple evaluation is one I use with my runners every season.


7. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Vintage)
As I mentioned at the beginning, I went on a neuroscience/cognitive psychology kick this year. Subliminal is another book in this genre that essentially made me think. When I read books like this, I'm looking for a different viewpoint. I'm trying to see if I can translate anything from how our brain functions and the world of neuroscience to my work in coaching.

In Subliminal, the author explores the subconscious. It's not as heavy of a read, but still relies on research and includes thorough citations. Overall, the theme is exploring the quite subconscious side of our brain and thinking. While we tend to focus on those thoughts that reach a conscious level, the reality is that the vast majority of work in our brain is at the subconscious level. That's what this book is all about.

The sections on perception, feedback, and pain are all very readily transferrable to the world of coaching. Some of the more pertinent and interesting passages I had highlighted from the book are as follows:


“But modern neuroscience teaches us that, in a way, all our perceptions must be considered illusions. That’s because we perceive the world only indirectly, by processing and interpreting the raw data of our senses.  That’s what our unconcscious processing does for us- it creates a model of the world.”

“If a central function of the unconscious is to fill in the blanks when there is incomplete information in order to construct a useful picture of reality, how much of that picture is accurate?”

"We don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to observe and consider each detail of every item in our environment.  Instead we employ a few salient traits that we do observe to assign the object to a category, and then we base our assessment of the object on the category rather than the object itself.”

“The subjective experience of pain is constructed from both our physiological state and contextual data…when nerve cells send a signal to the pain centers of your brain, your experience of pain can vary even if those signals don’t.”



8. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

Dan Dennett's book is either one you will love or hate. It's not that it is a polarizing book, but instead I think depends on what you expect going into it and what kind of mood you are in when reading it. Dennett's book is all about thinking. It's a collection of "intuition pumps" which are basically concepts, ideas, and thought experiments designed to help you think about difficult topics.

If I read this 6 years ago, I probably would have thought it was a bore and quite simply a useless book. But having grown older, and hopefully wiser, the book lays out some simple measures you can take to help you get to the bottom of a particularly difficult problem. 

9. Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine is always going to be a hot button issue. It's positioned as the great counter balance to the cold and harsh western medicine. While western medicine has a lot to learn, it's imperfections shouldn't mean we believe in "alternative medicine" that doesn't work, is quackery, and doesn't stand the test of scientific rigor. While Offit's work can be pretty harsh on alternative medicine, it's a necessary dose of reality.

The book takes you through the popular alternative medicine categories, lays waste to their claims and pseudoscience, and "attacks" some of the greatest purveyors of alternative medicine quacker, such as Dr. Oz. Now it should be pointed out, before I get roasted, that I don't believe all "alternative" medicine is trash, and neither, I believe, does Offit. What I feel strongly about is having some sort of scientific theory and then evidence to why it should/does work. Of course, once that occurs, it simply gets absorbed into "regular" medicine and stops being alternative.

This is a book, and topic, that I think more should read up on, for the simple reason that continuing to support such nonsense as homeopathy or anti-vaccine campaigns doesn't just do me or you harm, but it does everyone harm. 




That's my list. What's yours? Leave a comment below on what you're top books of 2013 were.

6 comments:

  1. The Inner Game of Tennis ;-)

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  2. Eleven Rings:The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson

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  3. Great stuff!

    Just started a Master's in Biology/Cognitive Science and read some interesting stuff.

    - http://www.amazon.com/On-Intelligence-Jeff-Hawkins/dp/0805078533
    Mind blowing read that gets you thinking about what the brain's role truly may be.

    -http://www.idi.ntnu.no/~pinar/papers/adb2009.pdf
    A bit more technical, but gets into how certain actions are selected

    -http://genomics.princeton.edu/tank/pdf-publications/Sem.%20in%20Neurosci.1,%2067-79%20(1989)..pdf
    A classic paper on neural circuits and Central Pattern Generators (CPGs) - we have them in our arms (think drumming) and legs (think running).

    - Delta rule in Machine Learning - one aspect of calculating this deals with the learning rate error, which computes the error in the network. In order to learn, or adapt, there must be error in the network, otherwise there is no learning taking place.

    Anyway, I'm no expert, but if you want to chat more about the implications of this type of material that could influence coaching shoot me an email, jut dot harris at gmail dot com.

    Justin Harris
    Vassar College XC - Track

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  4. hmm your quotes from No 7 (subliminal) remind me a lot of paul watzlawicks' constructivism...
    its core statement goes sthg like that: we never experience things directly, but only sense information and our consciousness processes this information and puts it through available categories/templates to form the final experience. Thats why 2 people can "see" different things when observing the same event.

    hope that makes sense...english isn't my first language :-)

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  5. You seem to be quite critical of paleo diet approaches. And then in the same section, you praise Lieberman's evolutionary approach to understanding human biology. The best and most careful paleo/primal/ancestral thinkers do exactly that--apply what we know of human evolutionary biology to understand choices in the modern world, using the best science available. You seem to have set up a "trendy paleo diet" strawman, and then stake out a very similar position to Mark Sisson, Chris Kresser, Emily Deans, etc.There is, of course, junk thinking and junk marketing in the paleo world, but one could find that in just about every arena.

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  6. Great choices, I love most all these books and now have a few more that I'll need to pickup! I'm really excited to see evolutionary biologists get more involved in our sport as it pushes our thinking and challenges current paradigms.

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