Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dirtbag Book Review: Run- The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel

*Author' Note: I read this book for a BRS book review, but much of what it says fits very strongly in with the Run Happy ideas. PLUS, Chapter Two is actually called "Run Happy". So there.
Run Happy:
a review of Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel
by Matt Fitzgerald

“Luke, trust your feelings.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Master

“90% of baseball is mental. The other half is physical” -Yogi Berra

Have you ever read a book and four paragraphs in to it you discover yourself nodding at everything you read? Then, as you progress through the book, you never stop nodding? That's what it was like reading Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel. Thoughts that I had about endurance sport but had never been able to verbalize were appearing before my eyes. Matt Fitzgerald had been in my head! He was writing what I had long suspected, had sometimes written about regarding my own workouts, and had occasionally spoken about with other athletes. The importance of the role of the mind in physical achievement and how trusting your body can lead to great gains.
Now, let's be honest. Many times the point of reading is to discover new ways of thinking and viewpoints to which you have never been exposed. This happens all the time, both with fiction and with non-fiction. Born to Run leaps to mind. But, to be even more honest, it is really nice to read something which completely validates your own personal feelings about something. Feelings and thoughts which were come by naturally and without outside influence. Hence all the Post-Its. Here is a book, I thought, where the author is putting to words all those things I knew I was right about. I must keep notes.
The main thrust of the book, in case the title isn't clear enough, is the idea that your body knows how to run, and how to run fast, better than anything else. It knows better than your coach, though a coach can learn to listen to his runner's bodies. It knows better than a training guide, though those are useful tools for building familiarity and structure. And it knows better than any expensive piece of equipment you can buy, though...actually Fitzgerald doesn't sound much impressed with expensive gear. In fact, in an increasingly modern running world, Fitzgerald advocates for an intensely minimalist approach to running. He suggests that, while heart rate monitors and VO2Max levels may have their place, they can be more of a hindrance than a help in a runner's quest for speed. After all, if you feel strong but your heart rate monitor is saying that you have reached the target heart rate for this run are you going to listen to your body push a little harder, increase your perceived effort a little more? Or will you accept what the machine and The Plan for the day is telling you? Is that choice the best choice?
Now, if you are reading this the chances are very high you are a minimalist or barefoot runner. While only mentioning barefoot running explicitly one or two times many of the concepts of running the author espouses dovetail nicely with the barefoot running philosophy. For example, look at this quote: “Mind-body running is a coherent approach to running based on the simple idea that your perceptions tell you everything you really need to know to succeed in the sport.” If I had to choose one sentence in the 250+ page book which sums up everything he wants the reader to know that would be it. And that same sentiment makes up the underpinning of the barefoot running lifestyle. You take off your shoes and a whole new world of sensations opens up under your toes. The ground comes alive and your feet tell you things about stride, foot strike, and pacing that you never knew before. In the chapter called “Run Beautifully,” the author puts forth the idea that there is no Perfect Stride to which all runners should aspire. That each runner's stride is a little bit different and the only reason to teach technique is to sell more books and DVDs. “Indeed,” he says, “I believe that if all runners ran barefoot, the various running techniques would not exist.” Now, I think we will never see Fitzgerald advocating a barefoot-only style of running on TV, but that might not be as much due to him being a mainstream voice in the running community as it is due to his belief, as it reads in this book, that there is no One True Way to running happiness.
In Run, Fitzgerald preaches listening to your body to such a detailed extent that specific workouts are planned, not days or weeks in advance, but nearly on the fly. Runs should be developed and adapted based on how the runner feels that day while following the most basic of plans, (i.e. interval day, distance day, hill day, rest day) which can also be flexible if absolutely necessary. The body knows when it needs to rest, when an injury is on the horizon, and when it is ready to truly suffer through a day at the track. So he shies away from giving specific training plans, which seems to be a departure from many of the author's other books. He mentions that in the past he has written running books which he admits contain ideas contradictory to those found in Run. I like that. I think it shows an ability to learn from experience and an openness to new ideas, both touchstones of the minimal and barefoot philosophy.
Instead of strict by-the-book planning, a trial-and-error process predicated on an individual runner's experience with running is suggested. There is an appendix at the end, but it contains very simple, skeletal frames on which the runner can hang a plan. This idea of building runs as they come up is, for me, quite intimidating. The author seems to understand this and provides scaffolding to increase every runners chances of success, recognizing that it might not work for everyone. Nothing does. Which is kind of the point of the book.
Barefoot runners place a great deal of emphasis on intuition and listening to all the information constantly flowing in during a naked run. One example you see cropping up all the time on various barefoot running message boards is the “hot spot” issue. A post might say something like, “I was having a great run, but felt a hot spot developing on the outside of my foot and decided it was time to walk/put on the minimalist shoes I brought just in case.” A later post from the same runner might go on to say that their hot spot problem has gone away. Fitzgerald would say that this runner used their intuition to protect themselves from further injury, something that would have been impossible in traditional shoes. The runner addressed the weakness in a proper way on the fly, and made adjustments later. Why did the hot spot go away? Did the runner's feet toughen up? Or did running by feel allow the runner's body, with or without her knowledge, to make minute stride adjustments, thereby fixing the problem?
He also cites a study done by Irene Davis, founder of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware regarding impact levels in runners and how that relates to injury. I think we can all guess what her findings are. It is basic common sense. The higher the impact the greater the chance of injury. And this discovery lead Fitzgerald and Davis to suggest that the easiest way to develop a lower-impact stride is to try to run quieter. At this point in the review I will wait while all of you nod your heads and think about how you have probably noticed how much quieter you run without shoes. Again, given five seconds you can probably find a post on a barefoot or minimalist running forum like the Barefoot Runners Society where a runner remarks on how they snuck up on other runners while out for their daily sweatfest. Running quieter was not a conscious choice, but an example of the mind-body connection of running by feel. Your body sent specific feedback to your brain, which instinctively interpreted that information and made the changes required to prevent injury and sustain pace. And you became a running ninja.
Fitzgerald also deals with the emotional factors of running. The second chapter of the book is called “Run Happy,” which is a philosophy preached by many members of the BRS. He suggests that a happy runner is a fast runner because a happy runner enjoys her training, and enjoyment of training leads to more training, which leads to being a better runner. And being a better runner makes running more fun, which leads to a happier runner, which means...well, you can see where this is going. Conversely, there is a section later in the book about racing angry, and this section too lead to much nodding and note scribbling on my part. Short version- Racing angry can be good for you. Example from triathlon- Chris McCormack, two-time Kona Ironman Champion, often creates adversity in his head which he then uses as fuel during competition. Micheal Jordan famously did the same for his entire career.
As a triathlete, the things I wanted to take away from this book more than anything else were about gaining speed. How do I get faster? Did I find that? Yes, but not in the way I expected. At no point does the author say, “Do A and B will happen and your PRs shall fall like rain!” In fact, he suggests that experimentation and personalization are key factors in speed and training. Another quote which meshes quite nicely with the barefoot thought process comes during Chapter Three: Finding a Magic Formula. He says, “Don't blindly train the way you are taught to train as a runner...Each runner is genetically unique, and the only way to find optimal training is through mindful, ongoing experimentation.” What was taking off our shoes in the first place if not an initial step away from what we have been taught as runners and towards “mindful, ongoing experimentation?” Does that make me a faster triathlete? In itself, no. But the idea can lead to speed.
Another idea which will make me faster, and which I've internalized but had never been able to externalize, the that suffering and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive. To wit, the hurt of training does not mean that the training isn't fun. Running happy, which I've mentioned is the theme of Chapter Two, and suffering while running can and often do happen at the same time. This concept seems crazy to a non-runner. To someone not in shape, exercise hurts and hurting sucks. But to a fit person, burning lungs and jelly legs mean strength is coming. And that it took slightly longer today than yesterday for the lungs to burn and the legs to wobble means that the previous sufferfest worked. As an athlete, few things feel better than knowing all that work leads to a real, tangible result. And, because of the depth of the suffering, my mind-body connection will kick in during a race, telling me that I've suffered this much before, this isn't new, and this can be broken through, and I can catch that guy in boat anchors in front of me.
Honestly, there is so much in this book I loved. I could go on forever. I'm resisting the urge to give a full-on summary of every time a light bulb went off and a blow-by-blow account of every “Ah ha!” moment. But you don't have the time for that and neither do I. We'd rather be running.
Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel, is a book primarily concerned with racing. If you are interested in becoming a faster runner and are open to new and different ideas about how to get there, I think this book will help you in that quest. However, if you have no interest in racing and never plan on entering even a local 5K or Turkey Trot, I still think reading this book will do wonders for your running, your enjoyment of running, and your outlook whenever you pull on your shorts, put on (or take off) your shoes, and hit the road. And, to the barefoot and minimalist runners reading this, I hope I've supported my argument that this thesis of this book, running by feel, is a major part of the barefoot running ideal and that it would be a valuable addition to any runner's library.
As for myself, I can't wait to go back through my dozens of Post-It notes and refresh his ideas in my memory. I plan on using many of the theories I found, not only in my run training, but I think they will also translate nicely into my cycling and swim training and in my approach to racing (Example: Pre-race fear is good. It brings clarity, focus, and adrenaline. Embrace the Fear.). If you are anything like me, you may have even reached conclusions very similar to the author's on your own. And how good it feels to be validated in such a scientific, well-written manner. It makes for inspiring reading.
Run fast. Run happy. Run with feeling.

Verdict- 5/5 RDRU (Random Dirtbag Rating Units)

*This review was originally written for and posted at the Barefoot Runners Society. It also appears at my own blog, Dirtbag Fitness.


  1. you know I'm on this quest.. I need to check out the book. Thank you for the great review.

  2. Thank you for such a thorough review! I am looking forward to reading the book.