The Lore of Running

The Lore of Running
4th Edition. Tim Noakes, MD. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2003

How to review the book of everything? Over twelve hundred pages, none filler, no big print, The Lore of Running covers biology, physiology, training for all endurance distances (with more careful attention to racing “short” ultras than any similar publication), the history of distance running, biographies of notable runners, genetics of running, elite training approaches, how to run a race, how to travel to a race, what to eat, when, and how much, how much to sleep, how to select shoes, what surfaces to run on and how much, avoiding injury, identifying and recovering from injury, possible running ‘lifetimes’  — well, you get the idea. If you want the primary reference book for all aspects of running, this is it. The recently-published 4th edition is up-to-date enough that the photos used to illustrate shoe flexion are of my current trainers.

Noakes, a professor at the University of Cape Town, includes the science of running; he also includes a lot anecdote. This is not a bad thing. There’s not much choice, since the difficulty of carrying out controlled long-term experiments with hard-core competitive runners leaves many holes in scientific knowledge. In general, the science and the anecdote are clearly separated. Occasionally they’re not — anecdote will be used to support a conclusion that’s really an opinion. However, these instances are not the norm, and Noakes is such an honest writer, and generally so careful to avoid stating theory as fact, that a little alertness on the reader’s part is enough to catch the occasional substitution of a result Noakes likes from those dictated by systematic empirical evidence.

There’s another science writing aspect of great value, nicely presented: Noakes covers other’s opinions, especially dissenting opinions, fairly and thoroughly, and addresses them directly. This is more than uncommon in running books. Almost equally uncommon, he frequently makes clear where things are uncertain or theories incomplete.

To give a flavor of the book, here are Noakes’ fifteen “laws” of running.
1. Train frequently all the year round
2. Start gradually and train gently
3. Train first for distance, later for speed
4. Don’t set yourself a daily schedule
5. Alternate hard and easy training
6. At first, try to achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training
7. Don’t race in training, and run time trials and races longer than 16 km infrequently
8. Specialize
9 . Incorporate base training and peaking (sharpening)
10. Don’t overtrain
11. Train with a coach if possible
12. Train the mind
13. Rest before a big race
14. Keep a detailed log book
15. Understand the holism of training

A nice set; others could be substituted, but following these will reduce the likelhood of injury or burnout and reinforce the notion that common sense may have something to do with endurance athletics.

Noakes’ most interesting contribution, only developed in the 4th edition, is his Central Governor theory, that the mind/brain determines what you can do as a runner. This isn’t a “how to psych yourself up” method, it’s a testable theory of performance, combining intelliegent skill practice with acute self-monitoring. About time this was developed. There’s far too much crap about “mental toughness” – which generally means someone doesn’t have a clue. Noakes does not mean, “Oh Now I’m Beyond Limits.” Rather, the consequence of his theory is that training your body without training your mind in very specific ways is half-training. Mindless training is certainly what a lot of people do, but it’s not what the elites do, and (reviewer’s opinion) it leaves out the most challenging and rewarding part of running.

Noakes isn’t perfect. He’s wrong about the effect of age on maximum heart rate (Ch 6), and his claim that 20 years is about the maximum length a racing career can span is questionable. Given the huge volume of material he covers, not bad.

The book is amazingly comprehensive. Unlikely to be read cover-to-cover, but a great browse, and it provides an answer (and a review of the evidence, and fair coverage of others’ dissenting opinions) to most anything. It’s not even expensive, either. If you have the 3rd edition, get the 4th. If your running library is only going to have one book, this is it.


–Jim Kornell, February 2004

Please follow and like us: