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"Runner's bible" should not be taken lightly

[This article originally appeared in the December 2002 issue of Northwest Runner magazine.]

Tim Noakes is a physician, an exercise scientist, and an ultramarathoner. He thus is uniquely qualified to write a book such as Lore of Running, an exhaustive (and exhausting) treatise that bills itself as "the runner's bible." Like the Holy Bible itself, the new fourth edition of Lore of Running is quite lengthy (1277 pages) and will be read from cover to cover by only a small fraction of its owners. However, the book's scope is so broad -- topics range from "Achilles tendonitis" to "Zatopek, Emil" -- that virtually all runners would enjoy reading at least one of its 15 chapters. The book will be especially appealing to coaches, serious competitive runners, and athletes with a strong interest in biology and/or medicine.

My own interest in Lore of Running centers around Noakes's efforts to dispense training-related information and advice based on solid scientific studies -- an approach that I have termed "research-based coaching." In reading Lore of Running, I was not entirely satisfied with the author's incorporations and explanations of research data. Nevertheless, the book constitutes a noble attempt to present this information to a lay audience, which is never an easy task.

Strengths of this book

1. Noakes cites and discusses relevant scientific sources. While many running books claim to offer a "scientific approach to training," my opinion is that hardly any provide adequate scientific justification for their specific recommendations. Lore of Running is something of an exception in that many practical training issues are addressed using appropriate references to pertinent research studies. For example, Noakes argues that the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is wrong to advocate the intake of large volumes of fluid during exercise. In doing so, he cites and critiques the original studies upon which the ACSM recommendations are based as well as additional studies that have led him to adopt a dissenting viewpoint. Irrespective of whether one is convinced by Noakes's arguments (which do have some merit), he does an admirable job of laying out exactly what he thinks and why.

2. Noakes devotes adequate space to opinions contrary to his own. Many coaches and scientists present their views as the correct ones and the only ones worth knowing about. Thankfully, Noakes is less dogmatic than that. The above-mentioned section on fluid replacement is one instance where he makes an earnest attempt to summarize both sides of a debate. Another is the section in which he summarizes his lengthy feud with other scientists on whether maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max) is an important determinant of exercise performance. While Noakes argues that a high VO2max is an effect rather than a cause of superior athletic performance, he freely acknowledges the opposing perspectives of other scientists, thus allowing readers to sort through the evidence and reach their own conclusions.

3. Noakes draws appropriate attention to the brain's ability to influence exercise performance. Perhaps the biggest difference between the third and fourth editions of Lore of Running is that the fourth edition features Noakes's newly developed "Central Governor" theory of exercise performance. According to this theory, exercise performance is determined by two key factors. "The first," he writes, "is a pacing strategy that is pre-programmed into the athlete's subconscious brain as a result of his or her previous training and racing experiences. The second are acute alterations to that pre-programmed strategy resulting from sensory input from a variety of organs -- heart, muscle, brain, blood, lungs, among others -- to the exercise controller or 'governor' in the brain." In other words, the brain provides an initial pacing strategy that it subsequently modifies according to feedback from the heart, muscle, etc. Although this theory can be reduced to a statement of the obvious -- we run at a pace specified by our brain -- it is a useful reminder that that any comprehensive scientific explanation of fatigue must include the brain in some way. This emphasis on the brain is a welcome departure from traditional exercise science research, which has largely focused on the heart, blood, lungs, and muscles.

Weaknesses of this book

1. Noakes doesn't always extract useful insights from the large amounts of information he provides. As stated above, one strength of Lore of Running is its presentation of multiple perspectives on controversial issues. However, some parts of the book resemble a catalog of lists rather than a scholarly analysis. Chapter 2 contains six tables showing how six different authors interconvert performance times at different distances; Chapter 10 contains 11 tables' worth of marathon programs designed by different coaches; Chapter 6 describes the training habits of 35 elite athletes. Personally, I wish that Noakes had devoted less space to the mere documentation of different approaches and more to the critical evaluation of their scientific validity.

2. Noakes mixes scientific and anecdotal information without clearly distinguishing between the two. Noakes rightly criticizes popular notions for which there is no compelling empirical evidence, yet he himself makes numerous claims based largely or solely on anecdotal (as opposed to scientific) information. In particular, he derives his "Fifteen Laws of Training" from the experiences of athletes and coaches, with minimal consideration of the exercise science literature. Typical of this section is Noakes's description of the tapering program advocated by swim coaches Forbes Carlile and Frank Cotton, after which he concludes, "The 1962 European Swimming Championships proved the correctness of this approach." The fact is that one team's success at a particular swim meet proves virtually nothing about the correctness of one training regimen vis-a-vis another. While anecdotal evidence can be useful, it is not the same as scientific data and should not be treated as such.

3. Lore of Running contains inaccuracies, misleading statements, and misattributions. Any 1277-page volume is bound to contain a few typos; however, I was troubled by the number of problematic statements I encountered while reading this book. Some selected examples: Chapter 1 states that muscle contraction speed is determined by the rate at which the thick filaments burn ATP, whereas muscle power is determined by the amount of calcium bound to troponin C. This explanation is contrary to textbook descriptions of muscle contraction yet is not attributed to any particular source. Chapter 3 says that the "crossover point" between carbohydrate and fat metabolism as occurs at about 70% of VO2max, yet Figure 3.11 indicates that the crossover occurs at about 35% of VO2max. And Chapter 6 disputes the idea that maximum heart rate declines with age, yet this age dependence is clearly upheld by a wealth of experimental evidence (e.g., Whaley et al., Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 24: 1173-9, 1992; Engels et al., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 69: 94-8, 1998).

Not a true "runner's bible" ... or is it?

Is "the runner's bible" really an accurate description of Lore of Running? It depends on exactly what is meant by the term "bible." Lore of Running is not an infallible work to be taken literally and accepted without questioning, and Noakes does not ask us to treat it as such. If the "bible" label is instead meant to denote an interesting and important book deserving to be read with a critical yet open mind, it fits Lore of Running quite nicely.

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