Jan. 2nd, 2017

sawyl: (A self portrait)
An unexpected Christmas present in the form of a previously enjoyed copy of Gretchen Reynolds' The First 20 Minutes. A pop science book about exercise — principally running because, as Reynolds notes, it's hard to get laboratory animals to use stationary bicycles — it runs over the latest ideas in the field of sports science.

Reynolds begins at the beginning, examining the questions of stretching and warming-up. As someone who has never stretched before exercise, I was pleased to discover that static stretches are no longer recommended. There are some hints that dynamic stretching may help, but at lot of it seems to boil down to warming up gently before starting exercise in earnest.

The discussion moves on to a discussion of sports nutrition; an area where there seems to be a great deal more heat than light. Consulting various experts, Reynolds concludes that although exercise isn't sufficient to lose weight, it is an necessary precursor and for all the folk messages about the benefits of high protein foods and exotic sports drinks, eating a normal, proper diet and drinking water — or possibly milky tea! — work well and there is no evidence that slurping down large quantities of water during exercise helps and quite a lot to show that it is actively harmful.

The two chapters on strength and endurance are interesting, particularly as they apply to running. These indicate that core strength is not everything; that strength and endurance are not opposite ends of the scale but instead complement each other; and that a great deal of endurance is actually mental.

One of the experts, talking about the evolution of ideas about exhaustion notes that it was originally thought that exhaustion was a purely physical consequence of stored reserves running low until they examined evidence which showed that most people sped up at the end of an period of exercise — something that should be impossible if the physical theory was true — forcing them to conclude that much of the decline was caused by the brain telling the muscles to reduce their output. According to this model, interval training is no longer about boosting the strength of the muscles but rather about training the brain to realise that it is safe to exceed what it perceives to be its limits. Sadly, Reynolds notes, for interval training to really work, it really has to hurt!

Following a chapter on injuries and their prevention, we get a quick tour of some the ideas about ageing and exercise. Intriguingly, these suggest that a great deal of what we think of as inexorable age-related decline and infirmity is actually simply general unfitness and that living actively and healthily helps to combat a lot of the signs of ageing. The book concludes with a quick examination of the ever changing field of sports genetics — the conclusion of which is that genes are definitely a factor in sporting success, but only one factor among many — and some helpful suggestions on what to do next.

What makes the book particularly interesting, besides the overview of the current state of sport science, are the closing sections of each chapter. These feature an enumerated list of strategies to address the some of the problems raised by chapter, providing an easy and positive summary of where to go next.

The First 20 Minutes is a good mix of the informative and the inspiring. In fact it is just the thing to read over the new year, when thoughts naturally turn to goals for the next 12 months and a general feeling that one ought to be trying harder, training more, and finding strategies to get out of one's comfort zone and start improving again.


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