Almost three years ago, after having run the Mumbai Marathon on a particularly humid day even by the sultry Mumbai standards of the past, I finished the marathon, and promptly proceeded to empty the contents of my stomach on the expansive (at least by Mumbai standards) Azad Maidan. And that was my 15th visit to Mumbai (that was the 15th edition of the event). You’d think that someone who had run nearly 30 runs of marathon distance or over would have learnt to manage his stomach, and look less clumsy. The only saving grace that day was that I was not the only one in such a state of distress. I only partially consoled myself that at least I didn’t end up in the medical tent.
The trouble with running long distances is that hardly anyone has it all figured out. Paula Radcliffe, who held the women’s world record in the marathon until recently, famously did not finish the event at the Athens Olympics, despite being one of the favourites to win. Haile Gebrselassie, who held the men’s world record till 2011, failed to finish his marathon events in London in 2007 and Fukuoka in 2012, amongst several marathons that he started, but failed to finish even in the Top 3. Haile and Paula are just two of several former world record holders who have suffered from various injuries and stomach issues across races they didn’t finish at all, or didn’t finish in the Top 3. And we are but mortals. There are two critical aspects to preparation in athletic events: the training that goes into getting into shape for the events, and the nutrition that goes into the athletes training for these events. There are other external aspects like equipment, and some like sleep, which are influenced by training and nutrition, but training and nutrition are more actively controllable. Arguably, the training part is the simpler one, at least by comparison.
Training as a runner can be broadly divided into understanding the runner’s anatomy, following the training plan the athlete uses, the strength training that is required to ensure the runner can handle the training, and managing injuries if and when they occur, or better still, keeping them at bay. The ordering of these topics isn’t accidental. You need to be able to tell your ass from your psoas before you can decide to strengthen it. These days, one can spend a lifetime on just YouTube and of course Instagram, and even Pinterest, looking up various people, not all of them experts, and emerge none the wiser, given the divergence in advice. Here’s where Chris Napier’s new book, Science of Running: Analyze Your Technique, Prevent Injury, Revolutionize Your Training, comes in. Clear communication with fantastic illustrations for every element of training discussed above, makes it a great pick for your running needs. It is the sort of book I wish I had when I started running almost two decades ago, instead of having to refer to different books for different elements of training. Further, the magic words you need to use are stomach issues. Almost everyone who has attempted to run a marathon, or a longer duration endurance event, will have either experienced a rather painful mishap personally, or witnessed one. And the search for a solution to their woes is the runner’s equivalent of Indiana Jones’ quest that launched the movie series.
To paraphrase that old saw, the way to an athlete’s heart is through his gut. And Patrick Wilson’s exceptional new book, The Athlete’s Gut: The Inside Science Of Digestion, Nutrition, and Stomach Distress, is another book that I would recommend to all runners. Training has seen different schools of thought for almost a century now — though ordinary people have had access to it only in the last four decades or so, thanks to the flourishing of running magazines, and now the internet. We see people of all sorts, from weekend warriors to amateurs and professionals training anywhere from three days a week to seven days a week, following protocols of high intensity training to mostly heart ratebased training, although gut issues have plagued athletes of all sorts of protocols, without prejudice. And part of the problem is that some of us are embarrassed to even admit the existence of the issue to other people, let alone discuss them. Wilson’s book is a handy resource in this sensitive situation. While there have been books on nutrition before, there hasn’t been one that has covered everything from nutrition for training, to how your gut bacteria affects your performance, to tackling dietary supplements, and even the potentially fraught area of mental health and its impact on athletic performance and more, all connected by the gut, as implausible as that may sound. The book is a deceptively light read, and the fact that the author stays humble and humorous with various references to pop culture makes it immensely enjoyable.
In addition to being well informed, another utility to learning from the best is that you also develop mental models for evaluating situations that you have not (and in all likelihood, neither has the author whose book you have just read) encountered before. And you develop a good bullshit detector. For example, every few years, there’s a purported new elixir in the market. In my limited time spent running and coaching, I have seen barefoot running, minimal shoes, low-carb-high-fat diet, keto diet, bulletproof coffee (whoever named it definitely couldn’t shoot straight), intermittent fasting, Crossfit — just to name a few, some of which may have their time and place. I have used a somewhat feeble reasoning to counter enthusiastic pitches from the adherents of the latest such fad — the day the top three athletes among both men and women in the Olympic marathon all follow the same path (nutrition, footwear, training, etc.), I will follow the same. Until then, a sound mind, good old hard work focusing on the fundamentals, with generous helpings of patience will have to do.