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Brain Training for Runners: a review

31 January, 2010

Some funny looks came my way on the bus out to UBC for my eight miler today (weekly total 15ish). I can’t decide whether this is due to that three-week-old, musty smell I can’t get out of my shorts, or if they’re just from curious, out-of-towners here for the Olympics. Or, they could be attracted by that beatific look of enlightenment that hasn’t left my face since I picked up Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Runners.

I’m always amused by how the latest running guru has a set list of universal truths and best practices for the runner aspiring to become faster. 10 ways to a faster 5k, 15 minute core workouts, we’ve all seen Rodale and the like espouse the latest set of remedials for the previous trend they hawked like an old-time religion. Similarly, Fitzgerald (or his publishers) claims to be progenitor of the latest running revolution. Frankly, this is hype: some of it is contrary to received wisdom (or may have been two years ago when it was published), but it isn’t groundbreaking. The idea of incorporating feedback, either objective or subjective, is not new, and calling the accumulated body of running knowledge ‘collective feedback’ is hardly revolutionary. Also, race-pace training approach dates back at least as far as Roger Bannister’s first four-minute mile.

That said, I am always skeptical about training plans prescribed by people who know nothing about where I’m at as a runner (is that a form of vanity on my part?). The author is also a coach, and seems prepared to cut everything down to first principles. He details his own experiences, both as runner and as coach, to build a philosophy behind the training plans that form the second half of the book, and, to be fair, flexibility (opting in/out, extending/omitting) is given its due. I was expecting this to be a book about mental training, visualizations etc. — the reason why I picked it up — and much of it is. I particularly liked the chapter on stride training, and more especially the section on proprioceptive cues (e.g. pulling the ground, pounding the ground, axle between the knees, butt squeeze and thigh drive), and I’m convinced these will complement the ones I’m already using. Furthermore, Fitzgerald’s approach is based around the Central Governor Theory (essentially, the idea of a physiological centre determining running limits, more or less independent of volition) which is both fascinating and useful.

The science is somewhat oversimplified (if you’re so inclined, refer to Noakes’ Lore of Running with its 80 page reference section. Another proponent of Central Governor Theory, he writes the foreword here), but lucid explanations of stride mechanics were very helpful to me. Overall, it was worth at least a walk to the library and the better part of a Sunday afternoon.

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