Sweat Science’s 2022 Summer Book List

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If you’re traveling this summer, my advice is: (a) bring lots of books and (b) keep them in your carry-on. It’s crazy out there, but one way or another you’ll get some time to read. Here are some of the titles I’ve enjoyed so far this year, some new and some old, mostly geared towards the Sweat Science themes of science, endurance, fitness and adventure.

“Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes” by Philip Skiba

(Photo: Courtesy of PhysFarm Training Systems LLC)

Skiba wears a number of hats, including sports medicine doctor and former advisor to Nike’s Breaking2 marathon project, but the label that fits best in this context is probably ‘performance engineer’. He refined his special expertise both as a coach and during his doctorate. Studies models the body’s response to endurance training and racing using training load algorithms and the critical performance model. As the title suggests, this book is a general treatise on training, with amusingly candid sections on a wide range of topics such as nutrition and assistive technology. But the real meat, and what sets it apart from the numerous other training books out there, are the explanations of how you use algorithms to guide — or rather, engineer — your training and competition.

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“The Sweet Spot” by Paul Bloom

The Sweet Dot cover
(Photo: Courtesy of Ecco)

This one doesn’t have “endurance athlete” in the title, but its subtitle is “The Joys of Suffering and the Search for Meaning” — so yes, it speaks to you, you marathon runner or cyclist or mountaineer or whatever. Bloom is a psychologist who recently moved to the University of Toronto from Yale, and the main question he addresses here is why do we choose to do hard or uncomfortable things, such as watching horror movies and eating spicy food meal? The answers he finds aren’t easy (George Mallory’s “Because it’s there” as a justification for attempting Everest isn’t enough), but they’re thought-provoking — and oddly reassuring for an endurance athlete. We’re not crazy.

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“As She Did” by Molly Huddle and Sara Slattery

(Photo: Courtesy of Rodale Books)

Mary Cain’s 2019 revelations about how her promising career was being derailed by “a system designed by and for men” kickstarted a long-overdue exploration of the cultural, social and physiological hurdles young female runners face are faced. It also indirectly led to this book by Huddle and Slattery, both of whom have successfully turned early potential into long and productive professional careers – albeit not without significant detours and challenges (as they discuss in this interview with Outside). The aim of the book is to collect the best advice from 50 other running legends over the decades and show that girls and women can have a long and fulfilling relationship with running. They don’t gloss over the challenges that remain, but the result is an uplifting and upbeat read.

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Do Hard Things by Steve Magness

Do Hard Things cover
(Photo: Courtesy of HarperOne)

There’s a famous story about a horrific 10-day training camp that Texas A&M football coach Bear Bryant imposed on his team in 1954, which resulted in about 80 out of 115 players quitting and allegedly planted the seeds for subsequent championship teams. From a longtime elite athletics coach and performance guru, this book is an indictment of this kind of macho toughness building—not just because it’s demeaning, but because it doesn’t work. Instead, Magness lays out a roadmap for resilience that involves embracing reality, listening to your body, and finding meaning in discomfort. (Outside an excerpt of the book here.) Magness comes from the world of racing and still draws many anecdotes and observations from it, but in this book he shows once again that he is an astute thinker about performance in a much broader sense.

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“Seven and a Half Lessons on the Brain” by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Cover of Seven and a Half Lessons on the Brain.
(Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books)

Feldman Barrett is a brain scientist known for some fairly extensive research into the neuroscience of emotion, which she detailed in a 2017 book. Seven and a half lessons is a different animal. Here’s how she described it on Twitter just before its 2020 release: “The world has enough 400-page thought books; I wanted a neuroscience ‘beach read’ that can be read in a few hours, makes you laugh a little, and makes you feel smarter.” The result is a surprisingly easy read indeed, although you can wade into the appendix at will. Still, it had many surprises for me in terms of persistent myths (like the dichotomy between our ancient reptilian brains and modern centers of rationality) and evolving ideas in neuroscience (the brain as a network rather than a collection of specialized sub-regions; its origins as a predictive engine) . And it gave me some ideas on subjects I read those 400 page thought books on (one of which was The Hidden Sourceby Mark Solms, on how predictive processing might lead to awareness).

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“Related” by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

'Kindred' cover
(Photo: Courtesy of Bloomsbury Sigma)

Sometimes when you read a book you feel that this is the case the definitive book on a subject. Whatever question springs to mind, it turns out there’s an entire chapter summarizing the history, current state, and future prospects of research in the field. That’s the feeling you get from Sykes’ exhaustive reappraisal of the Neanderthals, reissued in paperback a few weeks ago, that counters the long-held stereotype of a primitive subhuman species. The level of detail is truly remarkable and gave me the clearest picture I have ever had of what life would have been like tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago.

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“About Quality” by Robert Pirsig

Cover
(Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books)

The worst academic paper I have ever turned in was a ninth grade book review of Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. I didn’t even fully understand the superficial narrative, let alone the underlying philosophy. I returned to the book a few years ago thanks to a nudge from Brad Stulberg. I got a lot more of it this time, but I still wouldn’t say it was an easy read. That’s why I guessed on quality, a posthumous selection of Pirsig’s unpublished and published writings, curated by his widow Wendy Pirsig. (Robert Pirsig died in 2017.) The writings focus on the central concept in Pirsig’s books – what he calls quality – and they are artfully organized to trace the development of the ideas, making them much more accessible. Now I’m looking forward to getting started Zen one more time.

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“Nerve” by Eva Holland

'Nerve' cover
(Photo: Courtesy of The Experiment)

I thought I knew the roadmap for the Science of X books, but Holland’s take on the science of fear is far more personal than I expected. It’s both memoir and scholarly exploration, and as a result, it packs a stronger emotional punch (she’s been through quite a bit). However, even here there are many interesting scientific findings, including some novel new approaches to dealing with anxiety, that reveal how much we still have to learn about the subject. nerve came out in April 2020 while I (along with everyone else) was dealing with a new fear, but it’s worth going back to check out if you missed it. Here is an excerpt Outside was running when it was released.

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Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Title page
(Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Books)

I’ve successfully surfed for about three and a half seconds in my life (and that’s generous), but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about a surfer’s life. Journeys to mastery are interesting regardless of the specific skill being mastered, and there was much that felt familiar as he became totally immersed in a hidden subculture dedicated to a seemingly meaningless pursuit. I mean, I think it helps that surfing took him all over the world, to obscure and unknown places, where he met unusual people and hair-raising adventures, instead of spending his decades sitting in a dark room making origami command. But it’s the inner journey that’s the real prize here.

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“A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life” by Robert McGill

Cover
(Photo: Courtesy of Coach House Books)

Regan is an 18-year-old long-distance runner who has been unable to walk for three months due to a persistent stress fracture. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? But things get a whole lot worse – and weirder – in this dystopian novel. The action happens to take place during a pandemic, a plot point that seems to have been decided before COVID and is taking IKEA’s flat-packing concept to a surprising, but somehow logical, extreme. It’s exciting and fun, and McGill is a former national distance runner, so he gets the running parts right.

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Check out my holiday book list from last December for more ideas. Whatever you choose, enjoy your summer reading!


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