BOOK REVIEW: Karate Science by J.D. Swanson

Karate Science: Dynamic MovementKarate Science: Dynamic Movement by J.D. Swanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I picked up this book, I did so with the hope that it would be to striking as Jiichi Watanabe’s excellent book “The Secrets of Judo” [now sold as “The Art and Science of Judo”] is to grappling. That didn’t turn out to be the case. If Watanabe’s book has a fifty / fifty split between science and judo, Swanson’s book is about 80 percent Karate manual and 20 percent science. It’s a fine book about karate techniques, but if you want to understand biomechanics and how to optimize your movement, I think you can do better (particularly, if you would like insights that apply beyond Okinawan Karate.)

The book had two failings, keeping it from living up to its potential. First, it didn’t use graphics as well as it could have to help the reader visualize what is being said, or to point out the subtleties under discussion. Second, it generally presents the science at a shallow level. I’d been pleased to see that there was a chapter on breath, because I think that’s one of the most important and under-discussed factors in any system of movement (martial or otherwise.) However, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t much to it besides some philosophizing about ki-ai.

There were a few valuable tid-bits here and there, points about which the book adds to one’s scientific / bodily understanding. The best example of this is probably the discussion of Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP,) which is where the book most shines with respect to offering some food for thought.

If you study Okinawan Karate and are looking for discussions about the difference between how various schools perform techniques, this may be the book for you. However, if you’re expecting some science in a book entitled “Karate Science,” I suspect you can do better.


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BOOK REVIEW: Move by Caroline Williams

Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind FreeMove: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free by Caroline Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book presents a pop science accounting of some of the more interesting scientific literature on the benefits of moving one’s body – be it through dance, martial arts, walking, or otherwise. That being active is an important element of maintaining a healthy mind and body will come as no surprise. Still, there are a number of specific points this book makes that may come as a surprise to many, such as that those who do an hour of intense exercise a day but otherwise live desk warrior lives may not be as well off as they think.

As the topic (and the scientific literature from which the book draws) is huge, the author focuses specifically on the mental benefits of physical movement, both attitudinal / psychological benefits and cognitive benefits such as improved creative thinking or memory. I found the book’s organization to be beneficial, and – in particular – believe it was a smart move to include chapters on breath and rest – topics that are integral to a life of movement, but which might not spring to mind. Particularly, the chapter on breath discusses findings on synchronization of breath and movement more than does many books on breath or movement, as well as offering extensive discussion of the benefits of 3 and 6 breath per minute (bpm) breathing.

There are a lot of books out there on this subject – though usually they focus either on exercise or on a particular approach to movement. Those who read extensively on the topic may not find much that is new in this book. However, I think “Move” holds its own, and also distinguishes itself in some of its fine points of emphasis. Certainly, if one is looking for a book to introduce someone to the benefits of movement, this is a prudent choice.


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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Anatomy, 3rd Ed. by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

Yoga AnatomyYoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has several competitors, and so this review will focus on a few of the features that I believe make it one of the best books on yoga anatomy, and the most appropriate for many users. To clarify, H. David Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” has some advantages over this book, but Coulter’s book is also denser and will send neophyte readers to the glossary / internet / library much more often. On the other hand, some of the other yoga anatomy books fixate entirely on postural yoga and treat it entirely as a matter of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement. While a lot of this book (and any such book, really) focuses on skeletal alignment and muscular engagement, I appreciated the books exploration of breath and the nervous system – topics that are often neglected. In short, this book offers a mix of reader-friendliness and detail that makes it at once approachable and tremendously informative.

One important feature of this book is that it avoids the dogmatism of some yoga texts, encouraging experimentation and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to bodies is bound to fail. This can best be seen in the “Cueing Callout” boxes that explore the pithy adjustment directives for which yoga teachers are famous (and often satirized,) advice that is often misunderstood in ways detrimental to a student’s progress.

A second key feature involves keeping anatomy and physiology distinct from the folk science of yoga / ayurveda. While Kaminoff and Matthews do refer to ideas like prana and apana, they do so in a broad, conceptual way that doesn’t conflate said ideas with science. A common problem in yoga texts is conflation of science with folk science such that confused readers are left with a muddle of puzzle pieces that don’t belong to the same puzzle.

Finally, as one who’s found pranayama (breathwork) to be one of the most profoundly transformative elements of a yoga practice, I appreciated that the book not only had a chapter on breath dynamics, but that all the posture discussions included a “breath inquiry” section that encouraged readers to reflect upon the effect of the posture on breathing, as well as suggesting ways in which a practitioner might experiment to improve one’s breathing.

The only criticism I have is that many of the text-boxes in the early chapters seemed to contain random information that could have been incorporated into the text, into footnotes, or edited out altogether. [In contrast to the aforementioned “Cueing Callout” boxes that had a clear and distinct purpose.] If you’re a yoga teacher or dedicated practitioner without a deep scientific background, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this book for learning about the anatomy of yoga.


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Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.

BOOK REVIEW: Ageless Intensity by Pete McCall

Ageless Intensity: Effective Workouts to Slow the Aging ProcessAgeless Intensity: Effective Workouts to Slow the Aging Process by Pete McCall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Know thyself. If you’re getting up there in years but have maintained a high level of fitness via a well-rounded fitness program throughout your adult life, this book is an excellent reference and you should definitely give it a look. However, if you kind of let yourself go a bit during your working years and – approaching retirement – want to increase your quality-of-life and lifespan through fitness activities you never had / took time for when you had a full-house and were climbing the corporate ladder, this isn’t a good starting point and probably won’t work for you. McCall successfully argues that older people can (and should) safely do high-intensity fitness activities, but the book doesn’t offer much in the way of modifications and adaptations to transition people who might have limited range of motion, bone density issues, or atrophied muscles. It presents a lot of solid information on aging, exercise, and the confluence between them, but the workout guidance is largely the same as would be offered to a twenty-something athlete.

The organization of the book is typical of workout manuals: background information (including on aging), chapters describing exercises for various types of high-intensity workouts, a chapter on sequencing, and a chapter about various approaches to building a routine (i.e. home v. gym, etc.) [I will say the book’s approach isn’t minimalist / cheapskate friendly, and presumes access to a wide range of weights, machines, and gear. (As one whose fitness regimen is built around three items – 1.) a pair of running shoes; 2.) a single pull-up bar / dip apparatus; and 3.) a yoga mat – it was more complicated / expensive than I go for; but I understand most have other preferences.) It does offer some guidance for budget exercisers, but not many of the exercises discussed use bodyweight.)

As I say, know thyself.

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BOOK REVIEW: Master Your Core by Bohdanna Zazulak

Master Your Core: A Science-Based Guide to Achieve Peak Performance and Resilience to InjuryMaster Your Core: A Science-Based Guide to Achieve Peak Performance and Resilience to Injury by Bohdanna Zazulak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book shows readers how to build a core that is strong, stable, and which improves resilience. It’s predominantly directed toward women (and those with female students and clients,) and the author’s background involves the study of how improved core stability reduces injury risks, risks which are demonstrably greater for females. That said, most of the practices are applicable to both sexes and where a difference exist, they are discussed. The book presented many beneficial practices to gain better awareness of the core musculature, much of which is deep inside and is only felt in subtle ways.

The book consists of two parts. The first part (Ch. 1 – 8) provides the vocabulary and the common conceptual understanding to grasp the lessons of the second part (Ch. 9 – 13,) which is the actual program. Zazulak’s program uses the acronym BASE (Breath, Awareness, Stability, and Empowerment) as its organizational schema. I appreciated that breathwork was given a seat at the table. Breath is often taken for granted, and even athletes don’t always recognize the importance of training for better respiration, or how integral breath is to better movement.

My one criticism involves how graphics are used in the second part of the book. Exercises are described textually, and then at the end of each section there is a drawing (or drawings) that clarifies the exercise. Leading the text description with the drawing would greatly enhance readability, allowing readers to focus more attention on warnings and small details rather than on the relatively cognitively demanding task of translating words into a mental picture. I would recommend readers skip to the table to review it before reading the descriptions, but this is easier with some formats than others.

If you want to know more about how to build a core that will make one more resistant to injuries, give this book a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Functional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr & Mary Kate Feit

Functional Training AnatomyFunctional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Exercise regimens that improve the body’s ability to coordinate movements in order to carry out particular actions relevant to the exerciser’s life have increasingly come to be valued in recent years. (Traditionally, fitness regimens often focused on one muscle / body part at a time without an eye toward whether the strengthened muscles worked well together when applied to the required motion – or sometimes regimens focused entirely on how the muscles look.) This book is designed to show muscle activation for a wide range of functional fitness training exercises. It is one volume in a series of anatomy for sports / exercise books put out by the publisher, Human Kinetics.

Each exercise under discussion features an anatomical cut-away drawing showing the muscles that are working, as well as a list of the primary and secondary muscles, a diagram showing which planes are being worked in during the exercise, a step-by-step description of how each exercise is performed, and a brief discussion of what functionality is improved by doing the exercise in question — always with a supporting drawing of a relevant action / motion. Some of the exercises offer a variation.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first chapter gives an overview of what functional training is (and how it contrasts with other approaches,) and provides the necessary background to understand the exercises explanations (e.g. the planes of the body,) the rationale for what exercises are included, and what must be kept in mind with this approach to exercise. Chapters two through five look at various types of exercise, besides strengthening exercises. These include: mobility / flexibility exercises (ch. 2,) motor control / movement preparation exercises (ch. 3,) plyometric exercises and kettle-ball (ch. 4,) and power exercises using heavy weights (ch 5.) Chapters six through eight focus on strength exercises by body part: upper body (ch. 6,) lower body (ch. 7,) and core / rotational strength (ch. 8.) The last chapter provides advice on how to put a program of functional training together.

The book doesn’t include much ancillary matter. The front matter consists of a brief preface, and the back matter provides an “exercise finder,” a detailed index to find the desired exercise rapidly. [The latter has a nice feature. It includes a drawing of the exercise. That’s useful because exercise names, while prosaically descriptive, can often be confusing (e.g. what two trainers call a “hip extension” may vary, though they will both no doubt feature extension of the hip joint in some way.)] There is a page for those who are using the book for Continuing Education (CE) credit that explains what resources are available.

I found this book to be beneficial and educational. I learned a few new exercises, and was provided with some interesting food for thought. The drawings are clear, both in their representation of the exercise and the anatomical cutaways. If you are looking for information on functional training, particularly which discusses muscle activation, I’d recommend you give this book a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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BOOK REVIEW: Prescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg

Prescriptive StretchingPrescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Many people have problems that they are only aware of through symptoms like head aches or back pain that result from imbalances in muscle tightness. This book explores stretching, systematically.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, entitled “Stretching Fundamentals,” presents fundamental principles and background information. Besides basic guidelines for stretching, it also discusses anatomy and physiology of the muscular system at a rudimentary level.

The second part is about targeted stretches, and it forms the heart of the book. This section, literally, goes from head to toe (and then back to the arms) explaining techniques for stretching major skeletal muscles. For some muscles, there is more than one stretch shown, but for others there is just one. Each entry on a muscle is divided into two parts. The first, “Muscle Facts,” describes the muscle, the causes of tightness, the symptoms of tightness, tests to gauge how tight the muscle is, and any precautions that should be considered when stretching the muscle. The second presents the stretching technique with a line drawing and mention of any mistakes to avoid. There are a mix of solo and partner stretches, as well as those using a ball.

The third part presents programs for pain relief. There’s a useful section that discusses morning aches and pains, and the ways in which one is sleeping might be leading to a crick in the neck or shoulder pain. This section not only lists the muscles that one should stretch to address various issues, but it gives little anatomical drawings in the context of the stretch that both help show what one is stretching and gives a reminder of the stretch.

I came to this book from the perspective of a yoga practitioner and teacher. If you’re wondering how these stretches differ from yoga, a major factor is that balance is taken out of the equation. The stretches in the book are done in a stable position. The downside of this is two-fold. First, if you want to build and maintain balance, you need to do an entirely separate set of exercises for that (depending upon the condition of the individual that could be necessary or a waste of time.) Second, one needs access to a wide range of equipment such as tables, adjustable benches, etc. (not to mention a partner, in some cases) to make these exercises work. The upside is that the individual is in a safe and stable position, so if they have poor balance they are at minimal risk.

The last section is one assessing flexibility and muscle balance. People think more about the former than the latter, but for most people, how balanced opposing muscle groups are probably contributes more to painful problems in the body. Because some muscles are easier to stretch than others, a book that shows how to get to the more challenging muscles is a great thing to have.

The ancillary matter includes a variety of graphics (mostly line drawings and anatomical drawings), a section upfront on the major components of the muscular and skeletal systems, and a references section in back.

I found this book to be useful and informative. I’d recommend it for individuals such as trainers, yoga teachers, athletes, and others who want to understand stretching at a level beyond technique.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer & Matt Ruscigno

Plant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and PerformancePlant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and Performance by D Enette Larson-Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an updated and revised edition of a book previously called “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition.” The name change not only reflects the rise of veganism and other more restrictive diets, but also an increase in “flexitarianism” — or the reduction (but not elimination) of animal-based foods that is driven by health factors, by environmental concerns, or by a combination of both. One of the things I like about this book is that it offers a balanced discussion of how to meet the nutritional needs of athletics through a diet that is mostly or entirely plant-based. That is to say, it’s not trying to sell the reader on a particular dietary approach, and, therefore, doesn’t fall into the trap of pretending that the move is purely upside. Those trying to persuade readers of a given diet tend to overemphasize the studies showing the benefits of plant-based diets while neglecting to discuss the challenges to meeting dietary needs without animal-based foods – particularly if one has the substantial needs incurred by athletes. [Which isn’t to say there aren’t health benefits — and even performance benefits — to be gained, but thinking that one can make the switch without giving thought to the details is a bit naive.]

The book consists of fifteen chapters that take one from an introduction to the various forms of plant-based diets through specific dietary considerations (i.e. meeting caloric requirements, macro-nutrient needs, and micro-nutrient needs) and – finally – to practical matters of what to eat and how to prepare it. After an opening chapter that lays forth background information, chapters two and three deal in the related topics of getting adequate calories and getting enough carbs. Vegetables, after all, aren’t typically calorically dense, and so salad and steamed vegetables – while a beneficial part of a diet — aren’t going to meet the needs of an athlete.

Chapter four delves into meeting fat requirements. While carbs have come to be wrongly villainized in current fitness environment, there are some who are still working under the old “fat is the enemy” paradigm. In truth, one needs a diet that includes all three macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Those on plant-based diets who don’t (or can’t) eat nuts and legumes can run into problems with getting enough fat. Chapter five rounds out the chapters focusing on macro-nutrients by exploring protein needs. This is the chapter many readers will be prone to make a beeline toward. Athletes who are considering a plant-based diet are most likely to be concerned that they can’t get enough protein. This is a contentious topic because vegan and vegetarian athletes often want to pull their hair out over what they feel is a great misconception. They say it’s no problem hitting protein targets on a plant-based diet, and — depending upon one’s sport and one’s body — that can be true. But for some it takes planning. (e.g. It’s true that one can get a complete protein by eating rice and lentils. The challenge is that if you do go about getting the 2 gms of protein per kg of body weight that some athletes require by just eating rice and lentils you are likely to find yourself becoming obese because those high-protein foods are even higher in carbs.)

Chapters six and seven shift into critical micro-nutrient considerations. Chapter six is about bone health, which is a greater concern with respect to some forms of plant-based diet than others. Chapter seven is about iron intake and absorption. One thing that I found very important and interesting in this book is the discussion of how foods and nutrients that one might think of only in terms of their positive effect can also have a negative effect. That is, some nutrients that we need in a given quantity will block the absorption of other nutrients if taken in excess quantities. Chapters eight and ten are about eliminating the need for multivitamins or other vitamin and mineral supplements. Another thing that I appreciate about this book is its emphasis on getting all of one’s nutritional needs through food. While it doesn’t take an iron-clad opposition to supplements, it suggests that one should first make great efforts to meet needs with food before considering any supplement.

Chapter nine is about timing of food and fluid intake for optimal performance. It’s one thing to know what to eat, but one must also know when to eat and when not to eat. Chapter eleven investigates common problems that are often attributed to food and fluid intake, namely cramps and inflammation. The part dealing with cramps was particularly informative, as I learned that much of what I’ve heard on the subject (and / or that is commonly believed) is either not well-established in the literature or is plain old poppycock.

Chapters twelve and thirteen are about building a meal plan to meet one’s requirements, and modifying the plan to cut or gain weight as necessary, respectively.

The last two chapters are about preparing meals to meet an athlete’s needs with plant-based foods. The penultimate chapter is more about the quick meals and snacks, and the last chapter provides a collection of recipes.

There are several appendices containing information about nutritional information and various approaches to building a balanced diet. There are also graphics including photographs, tables, and diagrams. I can’t speak to how effective these are as I read a review copy that was unformatted, but I do know they are frequent throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for athletes, trainers, or coaches who are considering moving to a plant-based diet or who work with clients or athletes who are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise eat a predominantly plant-based diet.

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