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The Long Run Book Club: The Science of Running

lhoward-artMy reading has consisted of children’s books for most of the last six years, and while books like Everybody Poops and Harold and the Purple Crayon have important messages, I’ve been desperate to find a way to bring grown-up literature back into my life. I knew it’d never happen if I just waited around for quiet free time, so I asked David Hanenburg if I could write a series of book reviews for Endurance Buzz. I suggested some of the recent books on running (‘cuz I’m a running geek and because it’ll be another six years before I find a way to justify time for fiction). I told him I wouldn’t be writing formal critical reviews exactly. They’d be something more along the lines of conversations you might have on the trail about books you’ve just read.

“Hey, I just read this Science of Running book. The author is this fellow who is the Head Cross Country coach at the University of Houston. He’s a speedy runner himself, and, anyway, he says that it’s good to do some fasted long runs because it helps the body adapt to dealing with low glycogen during a race.”

“That sounds idiotic and miserable.”

“I know. But he says….”

The conversation topics will be geared towards things that will be useful to ultrarunners (and TALON runners in particular whenever possible). These conversations won’t be exhaustive, comprehensive, or thorough treatments of the books– we’re supposed to be talking while we run afterall. Hopefully, they’ll pique your interest though, and leave you with some fodder for your next run. I’m hoping the “reviews” will also generate some good discussion in the comments.

So without further ado:

The Science of Running: How to find your limit and train to maximize your performance by Steve Magness (Origin Press, 2014.)


This is a large book folks. 8.5 x 11 inches large. 332 pages. It’s about a 7 out of 10 on the “Tim Noakes Lore of Running Tome Scale.” And it reads a bit like a doctoral dissertation. Party Time! Excellent! (That was for you masters runners.) Steve Magness is the Head Cross Country coach at the University of Houston. He also coaches a number of professional runners, and has coached for Nike. He still holds the Texas High School State Record for the mile. (4:01:02)

The book presents both sports scientists’ understanding of the physiology and mechanics of running and training, as well as, the actual practices of the best and most successful running coaches. Magness aims to “bridge the gap” between science and practice. “The coaches will get in depth scientific knowledge and a new training paradigm for distance running, while the sports scientists will get a look at what actually works with runners in the real world.”

This is definitely a book that I will refer to again and again – as both a runner and a coach. My copy is full of underlining, and stars, and comments in the margins. I am only sad there isn’t an index. There are descriptive topic headings within each chapter, and information is reiterated from one chapter to the next, but the book is so dense that an index would be very helpful – or at least a complimentary box of page tabs. In the end, I found myself wishing I had time to outline all the information that pertained to marathoning and ultrarunning, so I could remember it. That is my one criticism of this book: the information is not presented in a particularly memorable way for the novice runner with a weak exercise science background. The information is there, but you have to work to make it your own.

With that in mind, I’ve chosen a topic for the “Running Conversations” that I’ve always found confusing.

Running Conversation #1: VO2 Max

So there’s a chapter in the book titled, The Fallacy of VO2max. I skimmed through the first four chapters to get to it. For whatever reason, VO2max, and exactly what it measures, has always been hard for me to remember and articulate. (I have a similarly fuzzy grasp of the semicolon.) I do understand what it is, but I have to hunt for that understanding every time I want to use it. For you folks like me, and for those of you who don’t have any idea what heck VO2max is, Chapter 4, “An Oxygen Problem,” does a nice job of going through the details. Your VO2max is simply the maximum amount of oxygen your muscles can actually use during a minute of intense exercise. You need oxygen to run, so the more oxygen your muscles can use, the better you’ll run (theoretically).

Magness details how there are lots of things that affect the volume of oxygen your muscles can use:

  • how well your lungs work
  • how well your heart works
  • how many red blood cells you have
  • how well your blood vessels can transport oxygenated blood
  • the density of capillaries around your muscles
  • how many mitochondria are in your muscle cells (Remember 7th grade science and that cell organelle worksheet? Mitochondria: powerhouses of the cell)
  • and more.

He goes on to describe how you can design your training to address different pieces of the VO2max equation.

All that said, I still leapt at the prospect that VO2 max might not actually be all that important. One less thing to remember. It seems that VO2max, is popular and ubiquitous, in part, because it’s measurable – easily measurable – and has been measured since the 1920s. Recently, though, the idea that improving VO2max improves endurance has been called into question. Magness cites a number of studies that do not support that theory. He also points out that VO2max doesn’t actually improve in well-trained runners. (No index in the book, but lots and lots of references.) The current contention is that VO2 max doesn’t actually represent the maximum volume of oxygen the muscles are able use. Rather, the amount of oxygen available is controlled by the brain. Basically the brain acts to protect itself and the heart by limiting blood flow to the skeletal muscles when it perceives any shortage of oxygen during exercise. This is Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Model.

Magness ends the chapter by relieving of me any motivation to improve my ability to quickly remember and articulate what VO2max is.

“The bottom line question that needs to be asked is why is so much of training focused on a variable that does not change in well-trained athletes, barely changes in moderately trained athletes, levels off after a short period of time, and does not even correlate well with performance?”

Running conversations I’ll definitely have after reading this book (but not now because it’s very late and there’s some dark chocolate I’ve hidden in the cupboard that I need to check on):

  • Fasted Long Runs
  • Volume v. Intensity
  • Periodization
  • Peaking and Tapering

Let me know if you want to talk about any of these topics.

And let me know:

  • what you thought of the book if you’ve read it
  • if you have questions about anything I’ve written – or haven’t written due to the lateness and dark chocolate.

Here is Steve Magness’ blog: It covers a number of the topics in the book and it’s nice and searchable.

Next month: Kilian Jornet’s Run or Die. I’ll have the review ready for November. Read the book by then if you can, so we can have some good conversations about it.

– Liza Howard

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About the author

Liza Howard Liza Howard became addicted to ultra running belt buckles back in 2008 and now runs for New Balance and coaches fellow ultra runners. She also teaches for the Wilderness Medicine Institute and is a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. For more information on Liza, check out the About page where you can learn about her coaching, trail running camp, and daily life musings.

2 Responses to “The Long Run Book Club: The Science of Running”

  1. on 13 Nov 2014 at 1:28 am B

    Interesting. I’ve never had my VO2 Max measured so I guess this isn’t good or bad news either way.

    Would you go so far as to recommend this book to someone who isn’t necessarily as well versed in exercise science as you are? I do my fair share of reading, but I’m certainly no Liza Howard.

    I would be interested in hearing about fasted long runs, though…as someone who sometimes gets up too early to eat much before her long runs, I wonder if I’m doing myself any good or not 😉

  2. on 22 Nov 2014 at 6:44 am Liza Howard

    The book isn’t a page-turning beach read, but I think Magness does a good job making the information understandable.