How to Read a Running Book (3 Principles & 1 System)

(Note: I wrote about this topic in my first newsletter. You can see all my weekly newsletters here.)

There are countless ways to engage with the sport, and reading books is one of the best. It allows you to slow down and think. It permits you to pause, reread, highlight passages, or write your own thoughts down. You can make the experience what you want it to be. For many elite runners, it is a core part of their hidden training program.

My uncle shared with me a story about his time competing at Cal Poly SLO in the early 1980s, when they had a very strong team. He wanted to find an edge to help him break into the varsity team, so he went to the library and checked out all the running books he could find. When he got home he looked at the little cards that track who checked out the books, and all the top runners on the team had already read them!

As the author of a running book, I really want you to read more running books. (At least one more! 😉) But more than that, I want you to get more out of what you read.

Having said that, is there a "best way" to read a running book?

Actually, I think there is. Or at least, there is a "best mindset" to be in when reading any non-fiction book. It involves following three principles and one simple system.

3 Reading Principles

Three Principles to Read By

Before you sit down to read, make sure you're in the right mindset. These three simple principles will keep you straight.

1. The point of reading the book is to get better. Reading for pleasure is fine. But if you are reading to get better, then you should also have a system or strategy. You need to read intentionally.

Are you solving a specific problem? Improving a specific skill? Expanding your knowledge into a new area? Preparing for a particular situation?

We can read for many reasons. Have an idea of what you hope to gain from the book before you start reading. This will orient your attention to finding that information. 

2. You (dear reader) are in control. You have no obligation to complete a book, nor start on page one. Skimming is a perfectly legitimate strategy. So is reading one chapter and putting it aside. The Table of's just a suggestion. 

I often fall into the trap of reading a book because I haven't finished it. That's not a good enough reason. Once you know what you are trying to get out of a book, figure out the best way to get that info. 

You are in control. Read what you need to read to get better.

3. You are responsible for getting something out of it. What we get out of a book is up to us. Nobody can force you to learn something. But just as they can't force you, a book can't teach you anything if you aren't willing to invest your energy into it.

Books are vessels for ideas. But ideas alone have no value. The value is gained from applying them. How well you do that is on you.

3-step system for reading non-fiction

A simple system for reading better

Here's my simple system for reading any running book. It assumes you are reading with a desire to improve, the willingness to make decisions, and the responsibility to act on what you learn.

Step 1. Decide to improve an aspect of your training as a result of reading the book. Your "why" is to improve. The "how" is for you to find. You can allow the author to set the path or you can go straight to the part that you think is most applicable.

It's ok to read a small part of a book if it solves the problem you are working on. It's ok to read one chapter and never open it again. It's ok to solve your "why" and move on.

(And yes, this applies to my book as well! You won't hurt my feelings if you get something out of my book without reading it cover to cover. And you can.)

Step 2. When you find that idea, write it down and/or decide how to implement it right away. Keep it simple and build it into your training program now. Again, ideas have no value without action.

Start as small as you need to. Write a note about it in your training diary. Do the smallest version of the activity in your next workout. Talk about it with someone to keep the idea fresh. Do something. Don't wait.

If you go weeks without doing anything, you wasted your time.

Step 3. Share the book or the idea with whomever you can. Talking about ideas reinforces them, and having others supporting your change makes it easier to sustain it.

Don't go it alone if you don't have to. We all benefit from support. The more support you can enlist, the more likely you are to sustain your momentum and have that small change contribute to a leap.

If you're on a team, make sharing productive ideas a norm and watch the quantity and quality of small improvements grow and grow. It doesn't take much to get the ball rolling!

What Book Will You Read Next?

Now my shameless plug: you should read Make the Leap. It will make you better, it can be read cover to cover or strategically to address specific problems, and it will give you lots of simple powerful ideas to implement right away. And if you share it with your friends or teammates, all of you will get even more out of it!

(And yes, if you're wondering, this approach will help you get more out of my Five Non-Running Books All Runner's Should Read as well!)

Happy reading!