The Best Running Books

date May 26, 2020 location Chicago, IL

Over the last couple of years, I've accumulated quite the list of books about the topic of running. Many of these books were consumed in audiobook format, during my long runs, while others were enjoyed on my kindle. As my reading has picked up during quarantine time, I thought it would be interesting to put together a list of my favorite running books. Most of these books are primarily about running, while others simply pertain to running tangentially (looking at you, Shoe Dog). I ultimately decided to keep a more wide-ranging criteria, making the list more diverse and interesting.

Running books can be classified into these three categories:
Memoirs - biographies and autobiographies about runners and other running related accounts.
Science - science based and instructional books about training, usually including studies on running or running related science.
Fiction - fictional books about running.

My rankings are based on the following criteria:
Accessibility - Does this apply to a broad audience or a smaller niche like elites or ultra marathoners?
Entertainment - Is this a page turner?
Lasting Impression - Did this leave an impact?

Without further ado, I present to you my favorite books about running:

Honorable Mention (in no particular order)

Running the Rift (Naomi Benaron - 2010) Fiction - "Running the Rift" is the fictional story of Jean Patrick, a once in a generation Rwandan runner, whose life and olympic dream is threatened by political tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu populations. The book follows Jean Patrick's life from his early childhood through his adult life as Rwanda's internal conflict threatens not only his athletic aspirations, but also his family and loved ones alike.

The Perfect Mile (Neil Bascomb - 2005) Memoir - "The Perfect Mile" chronicles the pursuit of a sub 4 minute mile by England's Roger Bannister, Australia's John Landy, and American Wes Santee. Following disappointment in the 1952 Summer Olympics, each of the three athletes dedicated their training to pursue becoming the first runner to break the 4 minute barrier in the mile. The book details the unique challenges faced by the runners: Bannister, who would have to balance his training with his studies to become a physician, Landy, who's home country lacked interest in the sport and therefore found himself unable to find other runners to train with, and Santee, whose military obligations and feuds with amateur sports governing bodies interfered with his quest to become the first under four minutes. While this story is a captivating one on its own, it's particularly interesting today, in comparison with Eluid Kipchoge's recent attempt at the sub 2 hour marathon only without the shoe controversy.

Iron War (Matt Fitzgerald - 2011) Memoir - The story of what Fitzgerald calls "The Greatest Race Ever Run", the 1989 Ironman World Championship. The book details the personal lives and athletic careers of two of the greatest triathletes of all time, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, whose professional running career pinnacles' would align at the sport's greatest competition. Fitzgerald accounts in detail the contrasting upbringings and personalities of these two legends and the buildup and nuance of the race itself, closing out with the careers and lives of the athletes following the race. While I myself am not a triathlete, I found myself captivated by Fitzgerald's storytelling and anxiously waiting for the race outcome, not knowing who would win before reading the book.

The Runner (Markus Torgeby - 2018) Memoir - The autobiography of Markus Torgeby, a Swedish runner that decided to live in a remote Swedish forest at the age of 20 and dedicate his life to running. The book serves as a real-life account of someone who opted for "the simple life", opting for a life outdoors over the more traditional 9 to 5. The story includes the ups and downs of his youth running career, his mother's battle with Multiple Sclerosis, a side trip to Africa, and the author's subsequent battle with a borderline eating disorder. While I found moments of this book liberating, I found that Torgeby's writing lacked engaging detail, focusing too much on the less interesting background of the author's upbringing, and not enough of the liberating anecdotes from his runs in the remote Swedish wilderness.

The Running Dream (Wendelin Van Draanen - 2011) Fiction - The fictional story of Jessica, a high school track star whose life comes crashing before her after suffering the loss of her right leg in a tragic bus accident after a track meet. The novel details Jessica's grief in the loss of her leg and her battle with the idea that she may never run again, let alone compete in another running competition. While the book has overwhelmingly positive reviews on goodreads, I found the story and writing a bit better suited for the young adult audience it was written for.

The Long Walk - (Richard Bachman (Pseudonym), Stephen King - 1999) Fiction - Perhaps the only thriller book ever written related to running, "The Long Walk" is the story of an annual event where 100 boys are selected from across the country to compete in a last man standing race. Each time a competitor drops below the speed of 4 MPH, he earns a warning, and upon the third warning, the runner is euthanized by one of many soldiers enforcing the race bylaws. No, this is not another creation from "The Barkley Marathons" race director Lazurus Lake, this story was penned under Stephen King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman.

How Bad Do You Want It (Matt Fitzgerald - 2015) Science - An interesting read about the psychology of endurance sports. Blending scientific studies with anecdotes as a coach and endurance athlete himself, Fitzgerald explains that our limits are merely a figment of our imagination and there is always room to push a little harder.

Eat and Run (Scott Jurek - 2012) Memoir Science - The amazing, candid story of an unlikely Midwestern kid becoming one of the all-time ultrarunning greats, juxtaposed with anecdotal, often unscientific attribution of those successes to a vegan diet. Without getting into the polarizing debate about the vegan diet, the story of his rise to running success is bookworthy enough. I personally finished feeling like the book would have held up just as well without the soapboxy narrative related to the merits of the vegan diet.

Running with the Buffaloes (Chris Lear - 2000) Memoir - An inside look at the University of Colorado cross country team's quest for a national title during the 1998 season. In my research on the best books about running, this book came up as frequently as any other, but to be honest, I personally found it to be a little underwhelming. While the magnitude of the team's challenge was great and Lear's access unprecedented, I found it to be repetitive and boring. Perhaps because I have never run cross country or participated on any sort of formal running team, I could not relate to the triumphs and tribulations of team-running and found myself quickly growing tired of the training session recaps.

80/20 Running (Matt Fitzgerald - 2015) Science - A training book centered on the idea that the perfect balance of any runner's training regimen consists of 80 percent of runs at low intensity and 20 percent at high intensity. While the book makes many good points about recovery, injury prevention, and physiology, I finished the book feeling like I could have gotten the same value out of a shorter piece.

The Incomplete Book of Running (Peter Sagal - 2018) Memoir - NPR host and Runner's World columnist Peter Sagal's running memoir. Sagal's writing style is humorous and engaging, and his story includes his youth battle with obesity, running the 2013 Boston Marathon (the year of the bombing), guiding multiple blind runners in marathons, his own race PRs, as well as his divorce and dealing with depression. The book also includes some beginner-oriented tips on getting into running, targeting those that have tried but failed to stick with the sport. As a Chicago runner, also in the later stages of my running career, I could relate to Sagal's lighthearted reflections on his running career and personal life.

Tier 5 - Just Making the Cut

25. Daniels' Running Formula (Jack Daniels - 1998) Science - Daniels' Running Fomula is a comprehensive guide to competitive running that includes specific running workouts including their relative intensities and physiological purposes, training plans for a variety of race distances, and various tables and formulas for calculating paces across races and training runs. Daniels methods are all backed by extensive science and research, as well as his many years of experience as a coach. The book covers nearly every topic of running including training plans, scientific studies, altitude training, footwear, nutrition, sleep, and much more.

24. My Year of Running Dangerously (Tom Foreman - 2015) Memoir - CNN correspondent Tom Foreman's memoir about running. As far as memoirs go, this is perhaps the most relatable to us weekend warriors managing our 9 to 5s without skipping a workout. Foreman tells the story of taking a 30 year hiatus from the sport before getting the running bug, running several races, then finding himself training with every minute of free time that he can find for an ultra marathon race.

23. Advanced Marathoning (Pete Pfitzinger, Scott Douglas - 2001) Science - Though very specific to running marathons and not meant for the average runner, I personally gained so much from this book in terms of understanding the concepts and purposes of the various types of runs that I felt compelled to include it, if only in the honorable mention section. If you've got a couple of marathons under your belt, and you want to step up your training beyond the typical marathon training plan you can download online, I highly recommend this book as long as you are willing to run at least 55 miles per week.

22. Running with Sherman (Christopher McDougall - 2019) Memoir - Born to Run author Christopher McDougall's unusual story about training a rescue donkey to run a burro race in Colorado. While this book was a departure from the prominent characters and themes of Born to Run, McDougall's storytelling abilities make it nearly as engaging.

21. Finding Ultra (Rich Roll - 2012) Memoir - The comeback story of functioning-alcoholic Rich Roll's transformation into an elite triathlete. While very inspiring, I found that Roll's physical transformation story would have been better received without the snake-oil like pushing of his diet. Nonetheless, Roll's story is an amazing one and definitely worth a read.

Tier 4 - Solid Reads

20. Anatomy for Runners (Jay Dicharry - 2012) Science - While not a page turner by any means, Dicharry's "Anatomy for Runners" is the holy grail source for understanding the complex running machine that is the human body. Furthermore, this book explains the physiology of certain running injuries, followed by exercises to treat and prevent those injuries from occurring in the future. Read this book and you can impress your friends by explaining to them what proprioception means and why they can skip their morning static stretch routines.

19. North (Scott Jurek - 2018) Memoir - World renowned ultrarunner and Eat and Run author Scott Jurek's recount of his attempt to set the FKT (fastest known time) thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. After decades of ultrarunning, Jurek sets his sights on a new type of adventure that requires him to run nearly 50 miles a day for more than a month and a half on tough terrain. Documenting his experience throughout the journey, Jurek offers a unique account of the record setting event as it unfolds.

18. Run the World (Becky Wade - 2016) Memoir - "Run the World" is the memoir of NCAA All-American, Becky Wade, who earned a Watson fellowship following her 2012 graduation, allowing her to visit nine different countries and explore their cultural approaches to running. Uncertain about pursuing a professional career in running, Wade explores what running means to various cultures, allowing her to identify what running means to her and help reinforce her instinct to dedicate her career to the sport. In researching books about running, "Run the World" was absent from lists put together by others, but filled with history, training practices, and first hand accounts of elite level runs with athletes, this book is an absolute hidden gem.

17. Can't Hurt Me (David Goggins - 2018) Memoir - The amazing autobiographical transformation story of David Goggins. Describing the challenges that come with growing up poor, overweight, and black, Goggins makes drastic changes to his life, making his way through the military ranks before ultimately becoming a Navy Seal and ultra marathon running elite. Reading this book is nearly as inspirational as it gets, made even better by listening to Goggins speak about these adventures in long-form podcast/audiobook format.

16. The Way of the Runner (Adharanand Finn - 2016) Memoir - A follow up to "Running with the Kenyans," "The Way of the Runner" is author Adharanand Finn's recollection of uprooting his family and moving to Japan in hopes of understanding the culture of arguably the most running obsessed country on the planet. "The Way of the Runner" details Japan's infatuation with the Ekiden event - a team based relay race usually of a very long distance. In this book, you'll discover the Hakone Ekiden, Japan's biggest Ekiden race, rivaling the Super Bowl in terms of per-capita viewership, and how the race may actually be holding back Japan's elite runners from global accolades.

Tier 3 - Cracking the Top 15

15. Ultramarathon Man (Dean Karnazes - 2006) Memoir - Icon and ultrarunning pioneer Dean Karnazes describes what it's like to truly be addicted to the sport of running in "Ultramarathon Man." Featuring tales of middle of the night runs, eating whole pizzas without breaking stride, and winning races, "Ultramarathon Man" is responsible, in part, for the recent rise in popularity of the sport.

14. Life is a Marathon (Matt Fitzgerald - 2019) Memoir - Matt Fitzgerald is my favorite running author and "Life is a Marathon" is the running-centric, unflinchingly revealing, roller-coaster story of his life. The memoir toggles between stories of his biggest running moments and those of most significance in his personal life, including his personal struggle with low self-confidence and his wife's battle with mental illness. Though Fitzgerald is by no means a professional runner, nor his life story particularly unique, "Life is a Marathon" serves as a motivational source for us middle-of-the-packers trying to express what running means to us.

13. The Rise of the Ultra Runners (Adharanand Finn - 2019) Memoir - "The Rise of the Ultra Runners" is a piece that captures the current state of the ultra running phenonmenon. The book features profiles and quotes from some of the world's best ultra runners, including internet famous Sage Canaday, and legends Jim Walmsley and Kilian Jornet. It also discusses the complicated question of why the world's best ultra runners don't come from the powerhouse countries of all other running competitions, Kenya and Ethiopia. Finally, the book discusses the author's own experience in the sport of ultra running, giving a first-hand account of what it really takes to race at a distance more than 26.2 miles.

12. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami - 2008) Memoir - One of running's most famous books, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" is the story of Japanese author Haruki Murakami's life experiences and their relation to his running career. After selling his small business to devote his life to writing, in 1982, Murakami begins running to fill the void left after leaving his busy entrepreneurial career. Running begins to feed his passion for writing, and vice versa, inspiring running adventure stories in Greece, Japan, Hawaii and New York. "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" is a relatable, yet captivating tale of one man's life and his passion to run.

11. Let Your Mind Run - (Deena Kastor - 2018) Memoir - Olympic medalist Deena Kastor's memoir, "Let Your Mind Run" details the complete and chronological running career of the American legend. Kastor's autobiography teaches us that being born with talent is only a piece of what is required to achieve greatness. Taking us through her youth running career and collegiate struggles before ultimately reaching her professional breakthrough, Kastor explains how she unlocked greatness by paying attention to her thoughts, and shifting her psychology towards positive outcomes. While Kastor is one of the greatest runners in American history, her stories and insight prove inspiring and beneficial for even the most amateur enthusiasts.

Tier 2 - The Best of Science and other Greats

10. Running the Dream (Matt Fitzgerald - 2020) Memoir - The brand new work by running writing legend, Matt Fitzgerald, who, inspired by author George Plimpton's attendance at the Detriot Lions 1963 preseason training camp and subsequent book, "Paper Lion," joins the NAZ elite professional running team for 3 months in an attempt to achieve his marathon PR as a 46 year old runner.

9. Racing Weight / The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition (Matt Fitzgerald 2009/2013) Science - I've combined these two books into a single entry on my list (I make the rules around here). With so many diets being pushed in the running world (veganism, keto, carnivore, etc.), these books provide clarity with scienctific studies and how to apply them in all facets of a running cycle. Racing Weight was published in 2009, and in the ten years since, it has held up tremendously well.

8. Running with the Kenyans (Adharanand Finn - 2012) Memoir - The quest to answer the question: What makes Kenyan runners so much better than everyone else? Spoiler alert: it's a combination of factors. "Running with the Kenyans" is the story of running author Adharanand Finn's journey to Africa in an attempt to understand what makes the Kenyans so damn fast.

7. Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness (Suzy Favor Hamilton - 2015) Memoir - The unbelievable autobiography of Olympian turned Las Vegas escort Suzy Hamilton and her battle with mental health. While there are many stories of destructive behavior in endurance sport literature, this is perhaps the most unique and unexpected.

6. Endure (Alex Hutchinson - 2018) Science - The ultimate scientific overview of human limits in endurance sports, "Endure" is an interesting read that blends scientific studies with real life anecdotes about running. Hutchinson is a legend in the sports writing world and this is his Mona Lisa, earning my top spot for pure running science book.

Tier 1 - The Classics

5. Shoe Dog (Phil Knight - 2016) Memoir - The origin story of Phil Knight, founder and CEO of Nike. An amazing book that I considered for the top spot, but ultimately, it fell short because, while running is a theme of the story, the book centers more on business and other topics.

4. Once a Runner / Again to Carthage / Racing the Rain (John L. Parker Jr. - 1999/2005/2015) Fiction - The fictional trilogy of Quenton Cassidy, a Floridian youth runner whose running and life chronicles are intertwined with Vietnam era politics and struggles. Rather than ranking these three novels individually, I grouped them together, with "Once a Runner" being my favorite and earning the top spot for running fiction book.

3. Running Man (Charlie Engle - 2016) Memoir - The autobiography of one-time crack cocaine addicted, alcoholic ultramarathoner Charlie Engle. This amazing story highlights detailed accounts of addiction, incarceration, recovery, and the flourishing of an ultra running career filled with running feats and firsts that earns the top spot for running autobiography.

2. Born to Run (Christopher McDougall - 2009) Memoir Science - Perhaps no book in the history of literature has been more influential on runners than "Born to Run." "Born to Run" tells the story of the author's struggle to stay healthy running, intertwined with the story of elite American ultramarathoners competing against native Mexican runners of the Tarahumara tribe. The book poses a simple question that remains unanswered more than 10 years after its publication: do modern shoes make us better runners or more injury prone?

1. Unbroken - (Laura Hillenbrand - 2010) Memoir - The amazing survival story of American Olympian Louis Zamperini, whose pursuit of a gold medal at the Olympic games was put on hold as he joined the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Admittedly, I haven't read every running book in existence - no one has. Here are a handful of other running-related books on my to-read backlog. I plan on updating my list as I finish these. If you have other suggestions, hit me up on goodreads.