Taking a break from running, swimming, or cycling? Fill your free time with one of our book and film recommendations.
Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness
Review by Raoul Mansukhani
‘Peak Performance’ by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness is aimed at people who are already working hard towards a goal. Most performance improvement books are aimed at people improving their effectiveness in a particular field, e.g. running or business performance. This book is different because it looks at commonalities between performers across disciplines. It considers what can be done to work towards a goal in a way that is effective but also enjoyable and avoids burnout.
Many runners will be familiar with the authors. Steve Magness achieved his 4 minute and 1 second mile personal best while still at school. He was later an exercise physiologist working with Mo Farah and Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon project, which he left because he felt the team was behaving unethically. Brad Stulberg is a journalist who writes about the science of human performance. He is a former sponsored age group triathlete and consultant at McKinsey’s.
The book is broken down into three sections. Section 1 relates growth to stress and recovery. When you are working, the book states, you should work hard and without distractions. Methods for optimal physical and mental recovery are provided, as well as suggestions for avoiding burnout and long-term fatigue. The book also has some good ideas for what to do when you are stuck on a problem.
Section 2 is about priming: putting yourself in a situation where you can do your best work. If possible, you should have a routine around doing your chosen task. Know where and when you perform best and do what’s most important to you at that place and that time.
Section 3 is about having a sense of purpose and working towards it with your set of values. Working towards a purpose that you believe in, and which will benefit others, improves performance and motivation and reduces the risk of burnout.
For all suggestions, there is an explanation and academic references. Having said that, reproducibility of results is a major problem in public health. I’m sure most readers will find at least something they disagree with. Another criticism is that some of the advice assumes people have control of their working environment and daily schedule. Obviously, many do not.
I found this book an interesting and thoughtful read. It has certainly challenged my approach to tackling big goals in my life. I’d be interested to find out whether other Serpies find it does the same for them.
Twin Tracks: The Autobiography by Roger Bannister
Review by Diana Valk
In a time of cinder tracks and low-tech kit, Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. Amazingly, he achieved this while studying for a career in medicine. I knew these basics about Bannister, but I wanted to know more, so I picked up ‘Twin Tracks’, his 2014 autobiography.
‘Twin Tracks’ covers Bannister’s life starting from his childhood in Harrow, through his studies and running in Oxford, and ending with his work at Pembroke College and retirement. I came away from the book with a feel for the wide scope of Bannister’s accomplishments. These included not only his racing, but also his work as a neurosurgeon and his involvement with the Sports Council and the International Council of Sport and Physical Education.
Reading about his work with sports organisations, I realised what a determined and principled person he was. He comes across as a man immune to political bullying, with very clear views on sport and its importance to society. A story that illustrates his fearlessness comes at the time of the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government felt that British athletes should join the boycott, but Bannister did not go along with these views. He describes a meeting where he voiced his opinion to the US Ambassador and representatives from Thatcher’s government.
“I had discovered that there was that very week in Moscow a delegation of businessmen from the British chemical industry…I said it looked as though the government thought it was suitable to use sportsmen as pawns in the boycott battle…I felt that it was a massive hypocrisy to ban athletes while at the same time permitting or encouraging a trade delegation…As I spoke I could see Ian Gow [Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary] scowl and his jaw drop; clearly he was shaken.”
The autobiography truly shines in the sections Bannister devotes to his running career and his thoughts on the future of sport. You can feel Bannister’s love of sport through the writing, which gains a spark and excitement in these chapters.
Bannister’s descriptions of his races are particularly thrilling. I especially enjoyed his memories of “The Miracle Mile,” his race against John Landy during the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. Much was made of the match. It seems Bannister saw it as not just a race, but also a chance to defend his training methods, which were constantly scrutinised in the press. Landy enjoyed training publicly, running lap after lap of impressive intervals on the main track. Bannister’s training looked feeble in comparison.
As Bannister recounts the race, you can feel the tension mounting. Landy led the whole way and it was only in the last stretch that Bannister pulled ahead as Landy looked over his left shoulder. That moment is now immortalised in a statue. You have to feel a bit sorry for Landy. Not many people have their second-place finish cast in bronze.
Never content to just sit, Bannister was constantly challenging himself. Even in retirement, when many people decide to kick back, he took up woodworking, started a book club, and joined a walking group. He made sure the walks always involved a pub lunch and a pint.
Bannister achieved so much that it’s easy to feel inadequate in comparison. However, the autobiography includes some anecdotes that we all can relate to. I for one was heartened to realise that, just like me, even the great Roger Bannister sometimes came home from work, didn’t feel like running, but forced himself into his kit to go out for thirty minutes. ‘Twin Tracks’ is book full of interest, not just for Roger Bannister fans, but also those who are curious about the history of running and would enjoy reading some compelling race descriptions.
Skid Row Marathon, Directed by Mark Hayes
Review by Coralie Frost
In May the documentary Skid Row Marathon was released at selected cinemas across the UK. I was lucky enough to watch it at Kingston’s Odeon and walked out with an even bigger love for the power of running. In the words of Serpentine’s very own Sid Willis, “running is magic” and Skid Row Marathon is a showcase for its transformative power. It is apparent from the start that this is a documentary about more than just training for a race – it’s about handling demons, challenges and everything horrendous life can throw at you, and about responding with kindness to fellow humans and with strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
Skid Row is an area in downtown Los Angeles with one of the largest populations of homeless and vulnerable people in America. Midnight Mission is a homeless shelter, located in Skid Row, for those suffering on the streets to help build their lives back up and deal with their demons. Here is where we meet Judge Craig Mitchell who in 2012 was asked by one of his defendants to visit the shelter. Mitchell is a High Court Judge who has spent most of his career playing his part in the judicial system, often sentencing people to lengthy periods in prison. It’s obvious that this affects him and his role in putting people behind bars burdens him as he knows that whilst a prison sentence can mean justice, it all too often does not mean rehabilitation. A believer that everyone deserves a second chance, he wants to help people coming out of the prison system turn their lives around. Standing in his Judge’s robes and trainers he makes a statement that one wrong act does not define a person in his or her entirety.
Judge Mitchell is also a keen runner, and a believer in the power of running to develop resilience and empower people via setting goals and having a training plan. Following his 2012 visit he started the Skid Row Running Club and the documentary follows the personal journeys of some of the members. His vision is to get as many people running so that the benefits of running cross over into their personal lives (I wasn’t surprised that so many people wanted to join him. As an early bird the 5:45am club runs sounded dreamy!). We are soon introduced to the new runners, each with their own powerful story and challenges. Running is never the complete solution but as one of the Skid Row runners suggests, it’s the catalyst to building a new future.
Those who complete the marathon training programme get the chance to experience an international marathon. Judge Mitchell decided to choose the gruelling looking Ghana Marathon. Considering this was the runners’ first marathon – in severe heat and breathing in lorry fumes – it was a considerable challenge! The fact that they couldn’t wait to start running with the Midnight Mission runners again after completing the marathon is a testament to the strength and hope running has catalysed within them, changing their lives.
A year later Judge Mitchell takes a second group to the Rome Marathon. He is a one-man band fundraiser for the people on Skid Row he cares so deeply about. He manages to raise enough to cover the expense for all those signed up, taking away the ever-present financial uncertainty and burden. All the runners complete the marathon, but Judge Mitchell never knows whether it will be his last. His own health implications means that running becomes more difficult for him with every marathon. But for him leading the club and the experience of running trumps any suggestion to stop running.
While watching you forget the unwholesome histories of the runners. It proves how running can take down barriers and prejudgments and bring people together from all walks of life. Rafael is on parole for first degree murder after shooting a teenager. You find yourself cheering for him, wanting him to get through the training and achieve at the marathon. His remorse shows throughout the documentary and proves that an action does not define a person for the rest of their life.
Every runner has a story of why they started and what running means to them. Serpies and runners in general are one of the most supportive communities and always try to recruit our friends and family to join us. Running helped me through mental health problems and in that respect has been my saviour. If it can help me, it can do so much for those in less fortunate positions in society. As Judge Mitchell proves, reaching out to prison, homeless or other challenged communities can greatly enrich the lives of the people who need it most, all the while giving so much back.
Support in the UK
Prior to the start of the documentary a short film was played featuring some of the organisations and sports people in the UK using sport to play a role in changing lives for the better.
The Running Charity aims to improve the lives of 16 to 25-year-olds who are homeless or at risk of homelessness across the UK.
The short film also featured parkrun Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt. They have recently set up prison parkruns, showing how sport can help benefit absolutely everyone in society.
Skid Row Marathon was both an inspiring and deeply troubling documentary, showing how running is accessible to everyone, but also how challenging it is for those living on the streets. We need more programmes and organisations like Mission Marathon, The Running Charity and parkrun, to change lives for the better.
You can find out more about Skid Row Marathon at https://www.skidrowmarathontickets.co.uk/
Raoul Mansukhani has been a Serpie since 2004. He spends as much time as he possibly can in Richmond Park.
Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S in 2012. When she is not running she is thinking about archaeology, forensic anthropology, or the next book on her reading list.
Coralie Frost started running in 2014 and has since fallen in love with marathons and triathlon. She’s one of Serpentine’s Mental Health Ambassadors, supporting any club members who are experiencing mental health problems.
Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).