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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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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POEM: Running

Botswanans have a saying:
“only food runs”

I wonder how much that sentiment holds sway in India?

Because, as I was running in the park today
a man looked at me
and then looked back behind me
and then looked at me
and then looked back behind me

and then, smiling, he shouted something in Kananda
that could only have been:
“Whatever was chasing you is gone!”

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: Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and MindRunning with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Tibetan Buddhists believe Sakyong Mipham is the reincarnation of a great teacher from late 19th century Tibet. He’s also completed many marathons—nine at the time of this book’s publication. He’s certainly qualified to comment on meditation, running, and the nexus of the two–if there is such a thing. However, it may not be clear that the topics are particularly connected. Readers may have an intuitive sense that they are closely connected, but without sufficient understanding of both elements to draw sound conclusions.

The author, himself, proposes that one should recognize the points of contrast as well as comparisons between the two activities. A couple quotes make this clear:
“People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation’… in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation… It would be just as inaccurate to say, ‘Meditation is my exercise.’”
“The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.”
Later in the book, the author suggests that the apparent clarity after running usually has more to do with the “wild horse” of the mind being tired, rather than it being tamed. (Taming the mind being the objective of meditation.) That said, Mipham Rinpoche clearly believes that there are benefits to be had from an interaction between these two activities.

The book is divided into six parts. The first part gives background on basics like base-building, breath, what meditation is, and the challenge of starting to build a regime (either of running, meditation, or both.) The rest of the book is organized by way of a Tibetan Buddhist conception about how new skills are learned. This schema relies on animal symbolism. The first level is that of the tiger, and this is when one works on attentively and conscientiously building one’s technique. The lion level follows the tiger. The lion phase is a joyful one because a base capacity and fundamentals have been built and the initial struggle is in the past. The next phase is represented by the Garuda (a mythical eagle-like creature that features in Hindu as well as Buddhist mythology), and it’s expressed by challenging oneself to more demanding practice. The final phase is the dragon, and it involves moving beyond doing the activity for oneself to doing it for others. There’s a final part, entitled the windhorse, that is based on the notion of an energy that Tibetan Buddhists believe accumulates when one follows the aforementioned 4 phase path. This last part is a description of events that might be seen as the culmination of the author’s running career.

Within the aforementioned six parts, there are 40 chapters—most of which are only a few pages and deal with a specific aspect (or pitfall) of that phase of training.

I found this book interesting. Learning about the four phases (tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon) of skill development was illuminating, and I found myself thinking about how this idea could be more widely applied. It’s a handy conception with broad utility. The author uses stories from his own experience to add credibility as well as light-heartedness to the philosophy lessons being taught. While the book may seem ethereal, much of the discussion is on down-to-earth subjects like dealing with pain and injury. It should be noted that the introductory and tiger parts make up a little more than half the book—suggesting the importance of fundamentals. There’s a lot of valuable information on fear, confidence, and how to view pain.

I’d recommend this book, especially for runners and meditators—but not exclusively so. Many people who are interested in mind / body interaction will be able to draw useful lessons from the book, even if running isn’t your thing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich

Why We Run: A Natural HistoryWhy We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is actually several different books woven together. It’s part autobiography of the author’s running life, it’s part a study of comparative biology between various creatures with an endurance bent and humans, it’s part an examination of the evolutionary biology of humanity’s proclivity to run, and it’s part guide to preparing to engage in ultramarathons. Often I pan such books as being unfocused, ill-planned, and—most often—attempts to whip an article’s worth of material into a book length piece. However, Heinrich keeps it interesting enough that I don’t feel it necessary to level these criticisms. Still, my first warning to readers is that one has to read on for quite a while before one gets to the book that one thought one bought—i.e. one that answers the title question of “why WE (i.e. people in general and not the author specifically) run.” In short, you’ll need to have an eclectic set of interests to get through the whole book, but some may find reading only part of it gives them all they wanted from the book.

It should be noted that the book is on its second title. The original title was: “Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Ourselves.” The author explains in the front matter why the original name was changed (apparently some loud and obnoxious writer had a similarly titled book on a different subject and whined about it.) Changing the title wasn’t required because: a.) titles cannot be copyrighted, and b.) it wasn’t exactly the same title anyway. Still the new, more succinct, title may lead one to expect a succinct book, which this isn’t so much.

Some readers will enjoy Heinrich’s writing style; others will find that it ventures too far into flowery territory on occasion. I did enjoy it. However, I can see how a reader might find some of the descriptive sequences to be excessive–particularly toward the beginning of the book.

While there’s some overlapping and interweaving, one can think of the book in three sections. It’s written in twenty chapters. The first six tell the author’s story of getting into running and his youth. The next eight chapters deal in comparative and evolutionary biology. In general, these chapters look at the biology of other creatures as they pertain to said animals’ ability to engage in running (or activities that are like running in that they involve endurance of muscles and the cardiovascular system.) Also included in this section is the evolutionary biology of humans as it relates to becoming a species of runners. This is the core of the book and was the most interesting section for me. In it, Heinrich considers the endurance activities of insects, birds, antelopes, camels, and frogs. Each of these has a particular relevance. For example, camels are masters of endurance under harsh conditions. Frogs tell the story of the difference between fast and slow twitch musculature (relevant to sprinters versus distance runners.) Antelopes are, of course, the exemplars running in the animal kingdom, but the nature of their running is so different from that of humans (i.e. making quick escapes versus pursuing wounded prey.) The last six chapters can be seen as a guide to preparing for ultramarathon races, but it’s also a continuation of the author’s self-examination of his running life from the time he began ultramarathoning.

I’d recommend this book for readers who are interested in the science of human performance. It’s well written, and the insights it offers into the biology of other animals are fascinating. Whether you read the whole book or just the part that pertains to your interests, you’ll take something away from this book.

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