Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Review: The Runner's Brain

For me, running is 90% mental and 10% physical. That should be no secret to anyone who reads my blog. My biggest challenge when training for distance races isn't the physical training. It's the mental training. I'm lucky to have a coach who gets that and has worked hard with me to basically get out of my head. It's a work in progress, as this past week's session with her proved.

We were doing cleans into a front squat, and I apologized for messing up. It just feels so awkward! Becky told me to put the bar down and do 5 burpees. Crap!

"You've got to stop apologizing. You have to just move on, " she told me. I'm a work in progress.

When The Runner's Brain by Dr. Jeff Brown came out this fall, I moved it right to the top of the book club reading list, bumping a few books I had already scheduled. Sorry about that. I couldn't wait to read this one. I have read quite a few reviews on other blogs and was excited by the positive response. I've also read quite a few interviews with Dr. Jeff Brown, which is why I decided not to interview him myself. I'll post links to those at the end of the post.

Anyways, I thought I'd have a unique perspective on this book since for the last couple of years, I've been working really hard on getting out of my head. Because of the work I've done, there wasn't a whole lot of new information for me. Instead, I found everything he said to confirm the work I've been doing with Becky.


Dr. Brown starts off by giving a little anatomy and physiology lesson about the brain, talking about the reticular activating system. The RAS is the area of the brain that takes all the incoming information and decides what you need to pay attention to. The RAS can only hold a finite amount of information, and Dr. Brown says that you need to choose that information wisely.

"Before you build the confidence to respond with a 'heck yeah I'm a runner', your RAS needs to believe. And it needs to send a message to the rest of your brain that it, too, should believe. Your job is to throw the RAS as much and as many different types of information you can about your being a runner. This is how you can strenthen your identity as a runner."

Dr. Brown talks about setting goals, which help you define success and motivate you, and dressing the part, calling it "enclothed cognition". I don't know about you, but I sure feel more confident when I head out for a run in my tights and technical shirts than I would if I put on some baggy old sweatpants and sweatshirt. Not to mention how heavy those would feel. Same goes for life in general. If you are feeling down, doesn't it perk you up to shower and put on an outfit you know looks good on you? In the picture above, it was foggy and drizzly, so I put on my "RunHappy" shirt, just to give myself a boost, and had a great run! Corny? Maybe. But it works.

Goal setting should be realistic, says Dr. Brown, and there should be a backup goal. Kind of like what some people do, setting A, B, C, etc goals for a race. This year's Chicago marathon was the first time I made a backup goal and was I ever glad I did that. There was no disappointment on my part for not achieving my primary goal because I had the backup plan, which was successful.

Dr. Brown also talks about how we train our brains to respond to the run, the elusive runner's high, and the power of magical thinking. I laughed about that last one.


You get the point. 

There's a section devoted to racing and the importance of the social aspect of running. Dr. Brown also addresses pre-race jitters and post-race blues. As he says, most trouble for runners occurs before and after the race. The majority of us do well during the race because running is what we do. We just focus on the task at hand. He gives some suggestions on dealing with pre-race anxiety. 
"The moral of the story is that you should attend to the things you can control and minimize the things you can't..."
Easier said than done, right? That's why he suggests visualization.
"Your goals should be to manage your anxiety by thinking confident thoughts. Try coming up with some canned mantras you can easily remember and repeat to yourself....Just come prepared and give the best effort you can give on that day....Stick to your rituals."
 The book finishes up with Dr. Brown's 7-Step Fit Brain Training Plan and some thoughts from elite runners.


This was a great little book with helpful tips that could benefit every runner. I liked that the book didn't contain a lot of superfluous information. For me, this book was confirmation of what I've been working on for the last couple of years. These things he suggests do work, but you need to practice them, just like you do your running. Because this book is more like a handbook, I'd recommend more in depth reading if you want to take your performance to the next level. Dr Brown also wrote The Winner's Brain. There must be a lot of runners struggling with mental toughness because I found a ton of books to recommend. These include Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald,  RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel by Matt Fitzgerald, How Bad Do You Want it: Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald, Mental Training for Runners: How to Stay Motivated by Jeff Galloway (new edition coming out April 2016) and The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremow.

For more information on Dr. Jeff Brown, Carly Pizzani, who writes the blog Fit Fine Day recently posted an interview with him. You can read this here. There is also a 2 part podcast interview on Marathon Training Academy

Did you read the book? What did you think? Do you use mantras to keep you on track? Any special pre-race rituals that you must do? Do you use visualization to keep focused? Any advice you'd like to share?

I'd love for you to link up your review of The Runner's Brain or any other fitness/running related book. If you don't have a blog, post your review in the comments! And if you do link up, don't forget to link back to this post, using the image below.


Next month we are reading the scandalous autobiography by Suzy Favor Hamilton: Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness. I'm really interested in reading about how this Olympic athlete fell into a life as an escort before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Runner's World gives a little background information here. The review and linkup will go live on Friday January 15.



As always, thanks for playing along!




56 comments :

  1. I really liked this book. The tips really resonated with me and were things I could put into practice right away. The next book selection sounds intriguing.

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    1. I liked this book too! It was simple and easy to incorporate into my running! Thanks for linking up!

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  2. I actually added this book to my wish list on Amazon (which I prompty sent to my sister), so I hope to find it under the tree on Christmas morning. Since I'm running my first marathon next Fall, I really need to start workong on the mental aspect of running.

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  3. I need to get this book, methinks. I have a lot of innate mental toughness (see my marathon results after a summer of not training at those speeds, and no, that is not a brag, just a fact), but I need to learn how to help others achieve a similar result!

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    1. I know that my brain is my weakness--reading this book really helped me see how far I've come!

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  4. I thought this was a good read. Thinking back to a time I was successful (with anything not just running) helps my confidence when I'm not so sure about something.

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    1. That's a good tip! Now that I've had some nice success on the road, I have those experiences to draw on and to push me when things get tough.

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  5. I have not read it yet. I ordered it this morning from the library. To answer your questions, though, yes, I use mantras all the time. They really DO work. Some of my favorites are:

    .You've got this! (Trite, I know, but it still works for me, largely because I can still hear my former trainer's voice saying it and she was instrumental in getting me started).

    .I get to do this.

    .I am stronger than I thought.

    .Quitting is not an option.

    .I've never quit on a run yet. I'm not quitting now.

    .I AM a runner.

    .I've done this before. I can do it again.

    I visualize when I stretch. I do it less well when I run. That's a goal for 2016.

    My ritual is simple, active stretching pre-run, no matter how short the run is planned, even two miles. I never neglect stretching (cool down, too).

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    1. Mantras are a huge part of my arsenal. I try to choose one to carry me through my marathon training. This year it was that Journey song, Don't Stop Believin'. Still makes me smile!

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  6. I have not read the book. I do use some mantras while I run...often reminding myself to get out of my head, just keep running, keep going, and it's not so bad...stop whining. Sometimes I literally just try to tune out from everything around me and only focus on my music or the run. I can drown out my self doubt when I do that.

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    1. Music helps me get through rough spots, too, Annette.

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    2. Music is huge for me. When I ran Chicago, I had to turn it up to tune out the crowd. I needed to focus.

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  7. The mental game is exactly what I'm trying to focus on for next year. Thank you so much for this informational post. Saving this so I can buy all the books!

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    1. I want to read a couple of the other ones I listed too!

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  8. Great review! I am definitely a head case and I know that I hold myself back sometimes due to my negativity. Maybe I need to read this book??

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  9. Always looking for new books to read - will add this to my list!

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    1. Nothing earth shattering but it all makes good sense!

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  10. I really want to read Fast Girl! I saw Suzy on Dr. Phil talking about it. Okay time to see if my library has it!

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    1. It's a quick read. I'll be curious what your take is on it!

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    2. It's in, I'm picking it up this afternoon! Hey I hate to ask you a medical question but you mentioned in a comment on my blog that you were surprised I could run that pace with 2mg of Ativan taken less than 24 hrs before. I actually had a really hard time hitting the paces I wanted. I was under the impression Ativan is out of your system in like 6 hours, but could that have affected my running the next day? Could it have caused me to be more dehydrated, thus the cramping and side stitch? I know the flying doesn't help on the dehydration front...

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    3. I'm not sure but I think it could have affected you--I would think it would make you more fatigued than anything. I'll have to ask my colleagues at work!

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    4. Thank you! I would love to know, especially if I ever plan on flying to a race again. I may just have to get drunk on the plane. ;)

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  11. I have not read the book but i need to. This is a great post.
    I do practice visualization before a run and try to picture myself strong and smiling at various points during a run and it helps! During a run I talk to myself...when I ran Richmond and I felt fatigued I told myself...not where I am but where I want to be....and that was the image of me crossing the line faster than I expected :) It doesn't work in heat though, heat brings me to tears.

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    1. Visualization is really helpful! I always try to picture myself victorious. Too bad it isn't always the way I cross the finish line! But we should be proud of our achievements no matter what!

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  12. I just finished Fast Girl a couple days ago..... I will keep my thoughts for myself for now and look forward to your review of it.... Didn't read the Runner's Brain but appreciate your summary:)

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    1. Ummm, I finished Fast Girl too and I'm going to have to let it stew for a while. Oh, so much to say...

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  13. I haven't read this book but I appreciate the detailed review. It sounds like something I need to add to my runner's reading list ASAP!

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    1. It should be essential reading for runners!

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  14. Sounds like a great book with some really great tips that so many athletes of all different levels can appreciate. Thanks for sharing!

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  15. I haven't read this one but I did read Brain Training for Runners. Also, I heard Bob Babbitt's interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton - it was extremely interesting and I would like to read that book as well.

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  16. ooh I've been wanting to read both of these books! I am going to get Fast girl and bring it on my trip next week so I am ready to link up next month! With my psych background both of these are really intriguing to me

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    1. I'll be really curious to hear what everyone thinks of Fast Girl! This should be an interesting book review....

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  17. I am adding this book to my "to read" list. I need to get over my mental hurtles too.

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  18. Great review! I haven't heard of this one before, but I can see it's one I would enjoy. I am a huge advocate on the mental game of running. I really do believe the mind is one of the most powerful things that we can actually control during a race! Going to have to add this one to my to read list, thanks for sharing!

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    1. It's a great read and chock full of stuff you can take to the road.

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  19. This book is on my Christmas wish list! I know I need to strengthen my brain more and this seems like it could help me a lot with my mental stuff during training and racing. Thanks for the review!

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    1. I hope you find it under the tree! I found it really useful.

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  20. Great review Wendy. The mental aspect of things running and otherwise tends to be the toughest part. Adding this to my wish list for the family.

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    1. Nice! I think everyone will benefit from his advice.

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  21. I loved this book and also did a review on my blog. I was fascinated with RAS and also, like you, comforted to know I'm doing all the right things when it comes to my mental game BUT I don't always put it into practice when I need it most. I'm still a work in progress.
    I had no idea there was a two part podcast so thanks for that! I will definitely be listening on the run :-)

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    1. Let me know what you think of the podcast!! And we'll both keep working on our mental game...

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  22. Yes I need to read all of those! My mental strength is my number one weakness when it comes to running. I read the Champion's Mind and highly recommend it as well.

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    1. Oh, I'll add that to my mental toughness reading list! Thanks for the recommendation!

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  23. This book sounds great and very useful for running and other major aspects of life! I like the quote about the body achieves what the mind believes! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. This was a good book for anyone really!

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  24. Thanks for a great review on this book! I have been wanting to read it and now I definitely will. I have been working on my mental game a lot and would love to get more info from this book.
    Totally want to read Fast Girl! I had so many thoughts and emotions when her story first came out. Very interesting...

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    1. I've already finished Fast Girl and I can't wait to hear what everyone else thinks about it. Interesting!

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  25. Great review! Lately my running has definitely been all mental. i just finished reading Once a Runner. Next I'm going to finish Girl Runner, then Fast Girl.

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    1. I read both those books--I had trouble getting through Once A Runner...

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  26. I liked the streamlined, handbook-style approach in this book. I found this a lot easier to read than Galloway's mental training book, which I could never make myself finish because there was so much extra stuff! Looking forward to Fast Girl - that'll be a change of pace for sure. :)

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    1. Oh, I can't wait to read everyone's reviews on Fast Girl!

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