BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

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5 Non-Yoga Video Channels that Are Great Resources for Yoga Teachers

As I’ve been expanding my pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice, I’ve found myself searching beyond traditional yogic sources of information at times. It turns out that there are several disciplines from which valuable tidbits of information about breath can be gleaned, including: martial arts, freediving, and physiology.

As I was on a freediving site (shown below, #5) learning some lung capacity expanding exercises, it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to do a post of some of the sources of information that I’ve found useful that wouldn’t necessarily be stumbled upon by those looking for information on yoga.

5.) Adam Freediver: This enthusiastic and whimsical Aussie freediving champion offers fascinating tips on respiration — many of which are of use out of the water as well as in.

4.) Physical Therapy Video: Bob and Brad, Physical Therapists, offer advice and exercises that may be helpful for students with hyperkyphosis (excessive back rounding), duck foot (excessive external rotation of legs), or a number of other common postural / bodily challenges.

3.) SOLPM (The Science of Learning Power Move): This site offers progressions and capacity building exercises that will help one with challenging exercises, e.g. handstands, that most people can’t do without a gradual building up. As with the Adam Freediver channel, not all of the videos are relevant, but a number of them are.

2.) Crash Course:: This witty educational channel presents excellent graphics and a light-hearted and watchable commentary by Hank Green (one of the Vlog Brothers.) The Anatomy and Physiology Series is particularly relevant, but there are select videos in other series — such as Mythology — that one may find illuminating.

1.) TED Talks: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with TED, but you may not be aware of the breadth of topics they’ve covered, including meditation, biomechanics, yogic philosophy, breathing, and more.

Honorable Mentions:
Calisthenic Movement: Like SOLPM, this channel can help build up some of the challenging maneuvers, such as handstands, but you may also find out something useful about more rudimentary exercises, such as planks.

ASAP Science: This science channel that uses line-drawn graphics has some interesting and informative videos on topics such as meditation, hypnosis, and nutrition.

5 Fun Facts about Breathing

Annapurna, Nepal; Taken in May of 2018

5.) The Death Zone may be a myth, or — probably more accurately — everyone may have their own personal death zone:

It’s widely stated as fact that above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) every human being is dying, no human can acclimatize, and the race is on to get back below that altitude before the body is damaged beyond its ability to repair itself. This hard-limit is widely publicized in reputable, mainstream publications such as National Geographic. There’s a certain logic to such a limit. In response to the diminished pressure of oxygen, the body produces more hemoglobin (that’s acclimatization), but the bloodstream can only take up so much hemoglobin.

Mark Horrell, in his mountaineering blog, challenges the idea of a one-size-fits-all hard limit, and provides anecdotal examples that contradict the 8,000 meter cap.

4.) Sticking one’s face in water allows one to hold one’s breath longer:

Sensory cells in the face and nostrils sense wetness and this sensation triggers a slowed heartbeat (bradycardia) and constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) so as to reduce blood flow to the extremities.

A more detailed explanation can be read here.

3.) Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works because our lungs only capture about 20% of the oxygen in each inhalation:

If we had super-efficient lungs, our exhalations wouldn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain the patient receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR.)

This and many other fascinating respiratory facts can be found on the Crash Course videos on the subject.

2.) In two weeks time the breath you’re exhaling right now will have spread out around the globe.

Sam Kean’s book, Caesar’s Last Breath, discusses this subject in great depth. In fact, the title is a reference to the fact that in each breath it’s likely that one inhales a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath.

1.) When you lose weight, most of it (84%) is lost in exhaled carbon-dioxide:

This may not be a question that ever occurred to you, but I bet you find it fascinating once it’s brought to your attention. It’s not like when you cut 5 kg, there’s a fat pile sitting somewhere. More about this subject can be learned here.

Nadi Shodhana; Alternate Nostril Breathing

BOOK REVIEW: Running Anatomy, 2nd Edition by Puleo and Milroy

Running Anatomy 2nd EditionRunning Anatomy 2nd Edition by Joseph Puleo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores anatomy (and to a lesser degree physiology) as it pertains to running, and shows how one can strengthen anatomy to increase one’s performance as a runner.

I will divide the book up into three parts, though that division is not explicitly made by the authors. The first three chapters discuss running fundamentals. Chapter 1 explores the nature of movement in running. The reader learns about the phases of the running gait and the muscle activation relative to said phases. The second chapter focuses heavily on the anatomy and physiology of the cardio-vascular system and the impact it has on muscle performance. Chapter 3 discusses external factors that can influence running performance such as air temperature, humidity, terrain, and altitude.

The second part of the book consists of the middle five chapters, and gets to the heart of the subject. These chapters investigate the role of musculature in running and show numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen said muscles as well as describing the activation of muscles in those exercises. Starting from the ground up, these chapters proceed as such: feet and ankles, legs, core, shoulders and arms, and chest and back. One might not think that the upper body is critical to running, but the authors demonstrate otherwise.The exercises selected assume the availability of a full range of fitness equipment: machines, free weights, as well as elastic bands and BOSU – though some bodyweight exercises are included.

The third part of the book explores some odds and ends that are crucial, but not covered in earlier chapters. Chapter nine explains how to avoid injuries. Running is an activity that offers plenty of opportunity for repetitive stress injuries because it’s an endurance activity involving iterated actions. Chapter ten explores alternative training programs (e.g. training in the swimming pool or on treadmills), and the pros and cons of such activities. The last chapter is about gear, and – not unexpectedly – much of it is devoted to shoes and questions such as whether one needs orthotics. It should be noted that the authors are firmly in the camp that favor footwear. (There are many advocates of barefoot running in recent years.)

There are many color drawings that show which muscles are activated by movements. The drawings are clear and effective. There is an index of exercises at the end that makes it easy to find various exercises.

I’d recommend this book for runners and trainers who are interested in how muscles can be strengthened and stretched to increase performance and minimize the risk of injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Perfect Breathing by Al Lee and Don Campbell

Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a TimePerfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time by Al Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no set of yogic practices with a greater power to transform one’s life than breathing exercises (pranayama.) With this in mind, I’m always on the look out for new sources of insight into breathing – be it from free-divers, Buddhists, sports scientists, yogis, martial artists, or else-wise. This book provides an overview from a diverse set of experts with descriptions of a number of different breathing practices (e.g. Taoist qi gong, yogic pranayama, a practice for runners, etc.,) but it takes as its central tenet a six-second breath that it recommends as the titular “perfect breath.”

Breathing practices are often underestimated. People, after all, figure that they’ve been breathing every day of their lives, so who can teach them anything on the subject. The idea of reading a book on breathing is right up there with watching the paint dry or the grass grow for excitement. Unfortunately, in parts – many densely pack up front – the authors do too little to dissuade readers of this belief. In early chapters and sprinkled throughout, the book is rife with truisms and banal comments that will leave the rankest neophyte thinking they aren’t going to learn anything of value. That said, I’m glad I kept with it, because the authors convey some powerful insights by telling the stories of people from various walks of life who’ve achieved great things by improving their breath.

The book is organized around a central structure of breathing as a tool for improvement of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. This is sound approach to covering the topic, and the discussion of breath as a means to emotional control is particularly beneficial and welcome. It could be argued that the coverage of the topic of spirituality could have been jettisoned without much loss. The authors talked around the subject in away that was vague and insubstantial. To be fair, they may have been trying to avoid running afoul of individuals who were either secular / scientific (non-spiritual) or who had strong sectarian beliefs on spiritual matters.

The book has seven parts. Part I consists of two chapters that offer an introduction into the topic. These could have been pared down without substantial loss of value. Part II (Ch. 3 – 8) is entitled “Your Perfect Breath” and it discusses developing awareness of breath, body, emotion, spirit, and introduces the fundamentals of how one should breath the “perfect breath.” Part III (Ch. 9 – 12) explores the role that breathing practices can have on improving health outcomes. It’s well established that the body puts healing / rebuilding on hold under high stress, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Breathing practices can help trip parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. Part IV (Ch. 13 – 15) is of particular interest to athletes and those who want to perform better at some physical or mental activity. In addition to discussing both physical and mental performance, the authors devote a chapter to what is sometimes called Flow (Csikszentmihaly) or The Zone, and how breath can play into quieting the mind to facilitate said state. Part V (Ch. 16 – 19) is about breathing as a means to take control of one’s emotional life. People in the throes of emotional turmoil are unlikely to notice how that turmoil influences their breath, but it has a major impact — and it’s a two-way street, i.e. one can help mitigate excessive emotional response through breath. Part VI (Ch. 20 – 21) is devoted to spirituality and the nexus of breath and prayer or meditation. The final part (Ch. 22) explores the idea of the final breath. I thought this was a valuable discussion, given the tremendous anxiety of coming to one’s last breath and its impact on people’s lives.

There are no graphics in the book. They aren’t greatly missed, but might have been useful in places. (It’s probably more accurate to say the authors could have gone into more depth if they’d used graphics and not stayed in such vague territory.) There is an appendix that lists and briefly describes the included exercises, and the e-book / Kindle version includes hyperlinks to the detailed description in the book’s interior. Having a link to the practices is a useful feature. There is also a short section of recommended readings.

While it took me a bit of time to get traction in reading this book, once I did, I learned a great deal. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in an overview of breathing practices for health, emotional control, and increased physical performance. The authors transmit expertise from a broad range of experts from various walks of life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen

Plyometric AnatomyPlyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book performs two tasks at once. First, it’s a guide to the broad range of plyometric exercises and how they can be conducted safely. Plyometrics take advantage of a phenomenon in which rapidly stretched muscles contract more forcefully and rapidly. However, you may recognize them as exercises involving jumping and other explosive movements that are used to build power. (Power being the ability to generate a force in as short a time as possible. This is in contrast to strength — a measure that’s only concerned with the amount of force generated.) I would go as far as to say the book could be useful for many individuals who don’t need any particular insight into anatomy, but who want to learn to do a wide range of plyometric exercises. (That said, if you are said person, you may want to shop around because you may find the one or two drawings per exercise may not be adequate for your purposes, and you may discover you need more guidance if you’re new to fitness activities.)

Second, the book educates the reader about what musculature is used in each exercise, and differentiates the primary movers from the secondary muscles. The book provides a happy medium useful for coaches and trainers. It doesn’t get bogged down in the anatomical and physiological minutiae, but provides enough information for individuals who want to see what muscles are working without drilling down into depths of great precision.

The book consists of nine chapters. Of these, the first two chapters provide fundamental background information. Chapter one examines how and why plyometric exercises work in a general sense. Chapter two gets into more logistical issues such as what equipment is needed (e.g. hurdles and medicine balls), what surfaces are ideal for practice (no small issue considering the loads generated), and how training progressions should be formulated.

Chapters three through eight are the core of the book. These are the chapters that describe exercises as I mentioned above. The first of these chapters presents foundational exercises. Plyometrics tend to be physically intense and so many individuals will need to build capacity before moving straight into a full-fledged plyometric exercise regime. The next five chapters explore (in order): bilateral lower body exercises, unilateral lower body exercises, upper body exercises, core exercises, and combination exercises (e.g. exercises that combine jumps with sprints or medicine ball throws with jumps and so forth.)

Each of the exercise descriptions consists of five parts: an anatomical drawing showing the action and the musculature involved, a description of how the exercise is safely performed, a text list of the muscles involved (divided into primary and secondary muscles as is the drawing), notes exploring unique considerations for that particular exercise, and variations for those who need to make the exercise more or less challenging.

The last chapter investigates injury prevention and rehabilitation. One learns how to evaluate some of the more high-risk behaviors and misalignments that must be corrected for exercises to be done safely. One also learns how a swimming pool can be used to help athletes rebuild their capacity after an injury, as well as how rehab activities can be done out of the pool.

There are graphics throughout the book. For the most part, these consist of anatomical drawings. These drawings show the body in transparent form so that one can see the muscles involved in each exercise. There is a reference section at the end of the book.

I found this book to be informative and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is seeking to expand their depth of knowledge about exercise science – particularly coaches, trainers, and teachers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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