March 4, 2014

The Science of Running, Reviewed

I finished Magness' book in a couple of days. That could imply that it's a light, breezy read, which would be incorrect. It's heavy on the science, and if I'm being a touch critical, the prose wanders a bit. A co-author, or at least a heavier handed copy editor, would have improved things, I think. They also might have prevented the small handful of typos and formatting errors I noted, just on an initial reading.

It is worth noting, though, that I get paid to notice things like this. Furthermore, I'm paid to read scientific and medical journals, so sub-Joyce prose isn't immediately offensive to me, nor is jargon filled verbiage. But it is there. Noted.

Despite that, the book is still crucial, for the right person, and a useful reference for many others. If you're an exercise science dork, or obsessed with the why/how of running, then you need this. If you've read Noakes, Daniels, Pfitzinger, et al., and found yourself wishing there were entire pages spent on muscle fiber adaptations to various paces, then this is for you. Magness seems to presume that such people are probably quite fast, and in fact, cites the self-coached, sub-elite crowd as something of an intended target audience. But, despite his assertions to the contrary, there is a lot here for the intellectually hungry, of all fitness levels.

I can't speak as a coach, given that I'm not one. However, if I'm permitted a moment of imagination, this book would soon be dog-eared, were I advising others. There is a great deal of advice on tailoring plans to individual events, and distinct talent levels/fiber types within those. And the appendices are loaded with workouts, structured by event and intended stimulus. Speed endurance session for a  800m runner? Covered. Marathon specific long runs, peppered with surges, pace work, and all sorts of "stuff"? Covered. Strength circuits? Covered. I'm not kidding when I say that this is worth the money, even without the preceding book. (Of course, the book may be necessary to deploy these correctly. Unless you're already smarter than I am. Which is certainly possible.)

If you like running, and want something to inspire you out the door? Stay away.

The book is called The Science of Running. The title is instructive, and the contents deliver on that promise. It is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive - widely available to the public - guide to what running is on a cellular level, how it happens mechanically, and how we might improve it. The niche that will appreciate such a book is perhaps not large; but that niche should appreciate this book for that very reason. It is unashamedly dense, esoteric, and ultimately, for me, both essential and fascinating.

A few other notes:
  • Though Magness spent some time working at NOP, Salazar is never mentioned by name, that I can find. Nor is he included in Magness' list of coaching influences. Just sayin'.
  • Though many coaches are referenced throughout, Canova seems to me most influential to the philosophy and terminology contained. 
  • There are sample plans here, but they function as just that: Samples of how one might apply his training. There are no plans you are intended to follow yourself, which is precisely the point. Everything depends, and you have to figure out what works for you. The book challenges you, first in understanding it, then in applying what you've learned.
  • The references section is a fucking gold mine. So many fascinating citations. An endless rabbit hole.


  1. Great review, Alex. I have held off buying the book because I would fall into the category of sub sub-elite (though still above sub sub sub-elite). I may have to break down and get this. Every runner and coach I follow seemed to have pre-ordered it. Thanks for the info.

    1. Thanks. To be clear, I fall well below Magness' usual trainees - and probably a lot of the book's target audience - as well. But again, I think it has more to offer the running geek, rather than the necessarily uber-talented biped.

  2. Most of the physio books do tend to go that way ... towards the high end athlete. Of course, it could be argued that most the running books tend to go the other way ... towards the 20 mile a week athlete. There are not a lot in the middle ground (other than the ones you have mentioned).

    You'd probably enjoy Coe's book even though it is a touch dated. Slightly less scientific but interesting is Kevin Livingstone's book but it is a bit hard to find.

    Very interesting on Salazar.

    1. Run Less, Run Faster this is not.

      Magness actually references Better Training for Distance Runners a few times, especially when talking about strength training. The goal is, as with strength athletes, to get stronger. No high-rep pump work advocated.