Monday, August 15, 2016

#34 [2016/CBR8] "How Bad Do You Want It?" by Matt Fitzgerald

I'm so far from an elite athlete, even the comparison is comical. Yet I've pushed myself often enough and hard enough while running, rowing, or cycling, that I have some understanding of the pain of pushing past your limits. So, I was intrigued when I heard about this new book, How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle (2015) by Matt Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald's main thesis (supported by lots of science) is that your mind is the limiting factor in athletic endurance performance. It is your perceived effort that limits what you are able to accomplish. As you get fitter, your actual and perceived effort will decrease for the same amount of work. But you can also decrease your perceived effort and increase performance without any actual fitness gains. Fitzgerald looks at the personal stories and important races of a number of different athletes, including runners, cyclists, triathletes, and rowers. He uses each story to exemplify a certain principle in the science of endurance racing.

Since I'm into this kind of thing, I found all of the stories fascinating. They were often tales of immense talent coupled with frustration and failure inevitably ending with an inspiring comeback or win. It's inspiring stuff. The science is also fairly interesting. The main problem I had with this book, though, is that Fitzgerald tried too hard to match the science with the story of his athletes. The book would have been rather dry and boring without the inspiring wins, so I definitely understand his motivation. However, the success of one athlete in one race depends on so many factors, many of them still unknowable and unquantifiable, including who the competition is and how the competition is feeling. I feel that the book lost some of its credibility in its effort to tie everything together a little too neatly.

For example, Jenny Barringer was a remarkable young runner who had easily won every cross country race she'd run that season. But she lost it at her final and most important race. After feeling dizzy during her warm-up, she literally collapsed in the middle of the race. Although she was able to eventually get back up and finish, she came in near the end. Fitzgerald used Jenny Barringer's story to show that you had to expect and even brace yourself for the pain you were going to feel in the race. Barringer apparently had so little competition in the races leading up to her big one, that she was not prepared to push herself to the limit. I don't buy this explanation at all and think she was suffering from some unknown, physical problem. Why did Barringer feel dizzy during her warm up? She shouldn't be feeling bad in the warm-up if it was the unusually hard competition that made Barringer collapse. In addition, usually, if you're not prepared to push yourself very hard, you slow down, you don't physically collapse. No one knows exactly what happened that day, but I was not convinced by Fitzgerald's explanation.

I found this same problem with a number of Fitzgerald's other anecdotes. Greg Le Mond came back from almost dying after being shot with a shotgun. In order to win the Tour de France, he had to race the time trial of his life. Fitzgerald used Le Mond to show that athletes often improve more with time-based goals than with those that are more general. However, Le Mond's situation does not seem to fit this mold. He started his time trial before his rival and did not have a clear time-based goal. There are probably thousands of reasons won that day, but I was not convinced it was because Le Mond had a time-based goal.

Finally, I did find the chapters on Thomas Voeckler and Willie Stewart directly on point. When Voeckler had an audience and unexpected success, he biked much better than expected and was able to push himself harder than he ever had before. Willie Stewart was able to use the plasticity of the brain to learn how to swim differently, and very successfully, after losing his arm in an accident.

After being a huge cycling fan for a number of years, I have become quite cynical when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. I'm sure there are clean athletes out there, but when I read a story about an athlete who improves dramatically, I can't help but wonder. I'm not sure, but I can guess that a way to decrease perceived effort is to take performance enhancing drugs. This is not the subject of this book, and it's probably unfair to expect Fitzgerald to open up that can of worms, but I found the question consistently distracting.

I did enjoy reading the individual stories in this book, and I learned something about the science of endurance racing. However, if you are looking for a guidebook to improve your training, this is too general to be useful in that regard.

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