I have always been disappointed by the lack of books for competitive runners. There are plenty of how-to books for beginner runners, but while there’s nothing wrong with those books, they just don’t apply to the lives of high school or college athletes or anyone who pursues the sport of track and field or cross country seriously.
The following list is one that I’ve been cultivating since I was 16 and began to realize this was a problem. There are books on this list about track, books about cross country, books for the running history buff, and books for the spiritual runner. They are motivating and inspiring, and will help you get pumped to put in a great season of training, whether it’s for a 5k or a marathon. And though I included a special category for the competitive athlete, the truth is that all of these books are relevant to the competitive athlete.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a a good place to start if you’re a serious runner looking for a book you can relate to.
- For Anyone and Everyone: Once A Runner, by John L. Parker Jr.
Parker’s cult classic follows young protagonist Quenton Cassidy in his quest to run the mile faster than anybody else on earth. It’s been named by both Runner’s World and Competitor magazines as the best running book ever written, and for good reason: Parker’s narrative is beautifully written (and exceptionally quotable), and his depiction of an elite athlete’s day to day life is surprisingly easy to relate to. Warning: this book will make you want to go crush a run when you finish. Further warning: you may also want to marry Quenton Cassidy when you finish.
- For The History Buff: The Perfect Mile, by Neal Bascomb
Bascomb takes his readers back to the year 1952, when three men on three separate continents – Englishman Roger Bannister, Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee – set out to defy the odds and run a mile faster than 4 minutes. At the time, the sub-4 minute mile was believed to be a myth; scientists theorized that it wasn’t humanly possible to run that fast for that long. Bascomb’s story of the men who set out to prove otherwise will make you believe in miracles – and if you love learning the backstories of a huge historical event, this will satisfy your history-loving heart.
- For The Fierce Females: First Ladies of Running, by Amby Burfoot
This is a recent discovery of mine that hooked me from the moment I cracked it open and read the forward by Shalane Flanagan. It’s easy to forget just how far the sport of women’s running has come in recent years (especially for those of us that were born after the passage of Title IX), but Burfoot makes sure you’ll remember the heroic stories of the pioneers who paved the way. He chronicles the story of 22 women – some you’ve likely heard of, many you haven’t – who fought bravely for the right to compete, and does so in a way that will make you proud to be a woman.
- For The Cross Country Crazies: Running with the Buffaloes, by Chris Lear
This is such a great book in so many ways. Lear spends a season with the 1998 men’s cross country team at the University of Colorado – guided by now legendary coach Mark Wetmore – as they pursue a national championship, and as Adam Goucher (yes, THAT Adam Goucher) pursues individual gold. The story is at once compelling, exciting, motivating, and touching; it is both triumphant and tragic. If nothing else, you will put down this book with a renewed appreciation for your team.
- For The Track Junkie: Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, by Kenny Moore
Moore’s epic telling of Bill Bowerman’s story is not for the casual fan – at 480 pages, it is not a short read. But true track nerds and stat lovers will rejoice over the level of attention and detail Moore pays to Bowerman’s life and 24-year career at the University of Oregon. Nike fans will like this one, as the story of Bowerman’s waffle-iron shoes and the humble beginnings of the swoosh also make the cut.
- For The Galen Rupp Superfan: Duel in the Sun, by John Brant
As Galen Rupp fans anxiously await his debut in the Olympic Marathon -Rupp competed in both the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games, bringing home a silver medal in the 10,000 meters in the latter, but has never competed in the marathon before – they can occupy themselves with Brant’s account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, a down-to-the-wire slugfest between Dick Beardsley and Rupp’s coach, Alberto Salazar. The race is the star of the story, but the insight into Salazar is what makes it invaluable.
- For The Spiritual Runner: Running & Being, by Dr. George Sheehan
Dr. Sheehan helped spark the American running boom in the 1970’s with his fervent belief that exercise should be joyful, and that running should be as enjoyable as playing. This one is for your runner friend with tattoos of trees and mountains on their backs; the one who likes to commune with nature during their runs. They probably love Alexi Pappas, and they love to post artsy Instagram pictures of themselves running.* They will love Sheehan’s book, a 270-page celebration of running, the earth, and life.
- For The Competitive Athlete: How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald
Though it was published just last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitzgerald’s study of the “psychobiological” model of endurance performance eventually takes its place among the classics. The book is something of a hybrid; in some ways it’s a how-to manual for improved athletic performance, but it’s also a collection of stories featuring brilliant endurance athletes. It changed me as an athlete and inspired me. (Bonus: in most books, authors use “he” as a generic pronoun. Fitzgerald consistently, purposefully, uses “she” instead, and it made my little feminist heart very happy.)* I’m 100% this person, so please don’t think I’m making fun of you if this is you. I actually probably love you, and we should hang out and be friends.
Like I said, this list is by no means exhaustive – if you have favorites of your own, let me know in the comments section! Let’s create a resource so that we can all build our running book libraries together (and subsequently get PUMPED UP TO CRUSH OUR PRs!). In the meantime,