What I Learned Reading 52 Books In 2014 (Part 4)

So, here we are, at the conclusion of my overview of books I have read in 2014. If you missed it, you can revisit Parts One, Two and Three before reading.

40. Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
by A. J. Jacobs (4/5).


This book was really really funny. There is such a large amount of information out there about what we should be doing to ensure we stay healthy, and most of it is impossible to do on a daily basis. However, over a two-year period, A.J. Jacobs has tried to do everything to improve his health. He has a list of over 1000 things to work on, and attempted to work through them all. Frustratingly for him, things seemed to get added to the list quicker than he could cross them off. It was good to see someone try a ton of health promoting things, and see his conclusions regarding what worked and what didn’t. It’s especially important given that a lot of the information we receive about health today can be conflicting, or difficult to do. I would definitely recommend this book as a light-hearted read.


41. Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Hooks, Helps and Hurts Us
by Murray Carpenter (4/5)


In this book, Carpenter looks at caffeine, and both its positive and negative effects on the human body. The book starts by providing a social view of caffeine, meeting cocoa and coffee growers in South America, and illustrating how the Western worlds reliance on this drug is helping, in part, to create a local booming economy in these regions. Carpenter then goes on to discuss the downsides of this, such as gang related crimes. The book them moves on to discuss the methods by which we get caffeine into our systems, whether these are safe, and whether caffeine in general is good or bad within our society. Again, really interesting points were made, and overall I really enjoyed the history of caffeine, along with the discussion regarding how “healthy” our caffeine habits are.


42. Psy-Q: You know your IQ – now test your psychological intelligence
by Ben Ambridge (4/5)


Yes! A popular psychology book. It’s always interesting to see how your brain works, and this book certainly does that, explaining some common psychological myths along the way. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, it exposed why some well known psychology experiments are a bit misleading, and was also full of fun little games and challenges used to illustrate the authors points on various aspects. Very good!


43. The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth About Success
by David Epstein (5/5)


I read this book in two days. It is excellent! Epstein explores what makes elite athletes different from the layperson, and whether or not this might be genetic. It’s an adventure that takes us to Jamaica, Kenya, and other talent hotspots around the world. Throughout, Epstein discusses genes that might be linked to sprint or endurance ability, baseball, and other sports. Interesting aspects include a family in Finland with a genetic polymorphism that causes them to have very high levels of EPO – and they just so happen to be good at endurance sports; whether there is a gene that can place at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s from multiple concussions, or a gene that increases the risk of sudden cardiac death. The genetics of the NBA was also very interesting.


Another important aspect of this book is that it adds to the 10,000-hour debate. Epstein does a good job at debunking this arbitrary score by illustrating that Donald Thomas won the 2007 World Championships at High Jump having only been doing high jump for a year. In my opinion, it seems like in sports where physical attributes are more important, such as athletes, genes play a larger role than in skill dependent sports, where skill-level and experience is also important. Throughout the book, Epstein also shows the important of a good environment to enable you to get the most out of your genes.


Please read this book, it is brilliant.


44. The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance
by Nessa Carey (3/5)


Enthused by “The Sports Gene”, I decided to pick up another book about genetics. This one was still an interesting read, but based more about general health and well-being. Because my interest in this area isn’t so great, and this book goes into a good amount of scientific detail, I found it slightly harder going. It was well written, and good examples were given to simplify various aspects, so I was still able to enjoy the book. Of particular interest was the section on obesity – our grandparents and our mothers nutritional status at various points in their lives can have a big effect on how likely we are to be obese or not. Fascinating!


45. Ready to Run
by Kelly Starrett (4/5)


I’m a big fan of Kelly Starrett, and I think you should be too. Kelly runs the website www.mobilitywod.com, where he has regular videos showing and explaining the need for various mobilisations. Kelly’s first book, Becoming A Supple Leopard, was excellent, and really changed my thinking about how I move, as well as how I look after my body. In today’s world, we as humans are engaged in motor patterning and positions that wreck or biomechanics. These poor patterns and positions then lead to pain and/or injury. People involved in exercise at any level are then at an increased risk of injury and poor performance during physical activity. For example, most people slump at the shoulders, which causes issues at the cervical spine. Taking this forward into physical activity, a cervical spine that is not functioning correctly places unnecessary risk on the shoulders, and also reduces cervical rotation in certain exercises.


This book was written by Kelly for runners. The primary audience will be people involved in longer distance runs, but as a sprinter I still found it useful. Kelly introduces 12 different standards that he feels are necessary to be able to run injury free, and then provides ways to hit these standards.


His first book is a be better introduction into the general themes of human movement and mobility, but this book is also useful for individuals involved in running activities. If that is you, you should consider checking it out.


46. The Lazarus Effect: The Science That is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death
by Sam Parnia (3/5)


This is another book split into two parts – the first examines the historical and current practices involved in resuscitation, and the second is a slightly philosophical discussion about what happens to our consciousness when we die. The main premise is that with today’s resuscitation science, it is now possible to be dead for a longer period of time (hours), and then come back to life without any real negative effects. Take Fabrice Muamba, who in 2012 died on a football pitch, and was then successfully resuscitated. Fabrice was without a heartbeat for well over an hour, and in this time showed no sign of consciousness. So where were the constructs of Fabrice’s consciousness, the things that make him who he is, in this time? Do they just exist on a cellular level, as some people think, or are they a bit different? Parnia himself is particularly interested in near death experiences (or as he terms them, actual death experiences). He has set up a large, multi-centre study in the UK to examine the frequency of near death experience, and then record some of the individual’s experiences of this experience. It’s certainly very interesting, and it does raise some very interesting questions. However, the incidence of near death experience is so low (I think the study recorded two cases of NDE) that the questions aren’t really answered.


47. The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters
by Mark Henderson (4/5)


This is a really enjoyable book, exploring and discussing the role that geeks can play in shaping public policy. It looks at politics, education, the judicial system, and healthcare (among other things), explain what geeks can do to make these areas better. Similar to Ben Goldacre’s book “Bad Science”, there is a really good discussion of the scientific process, as well as how the scientific process has failed with homeopathy. I’m not a political person, but this book has made me more determined to ask for more evidence when politicians or people making decisions make bold claims. I want to understand the process by which they have arrived at these decisions. Anyone that likes science should take a look at this book to see how you can better shape the world you live in.


48. How to Take a Penalty: The hidden mathematics of sport
by Robert Eastaway (3/5)


This is an enjoyable short read about how maths shapes sport. Subjects covered include where to aim a penalty to increase your chances of scoring, the best tactic for average darts players, how angles affect snooker, and world record progression in athletics. Throughout these subjects, the authors introduce and simplify various statistical techniques, such an extrapolation, as well as a very light introduction to Bayes Theorem (they don’t call it that). Overall, very readable, and not too heavy on the mathematical proofs, making it very accessible.


49. No Easy Day: The Only First-hand Account of the Navy Seal Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden
by Mark Owen (5/5)


I’m sure just about everyone knows about the operation to kill OBL in 2011, in which US Navy SEALs carried out a raid in Pakistan, killing the leader of al-Qaeda. The film Zero Dark Thirty does a really good job of showing the whole process, and this book further adds to that. It gives really good insight into how SEALs prepare for missions, and tells a bit more of the story about what actually happened (as an aside, in November 2014 Robert O’Neill claimed that he was the individual who fired the shots that killed OBL. The author of this book, of whom Mark Owen is a pseudonym, disputes that – he states that a person ahead of him fired the critical shots, and then both he and O’Neill fired secondary shots into OBL to ensure that he was dead and no longer a threat. Newspaper reports with SEALs speaking anonymously tend to corroborate Owen’s account over O’Neills. By all account, the actual shooter, who is known only as “the point man” in this book, is an individual who doesn’t want any fame from this act. After firing the critical shots, he was rushed by two women who he thought were wearing suicide vests. He grabbed both of them and used his body to shield them from the other SEALs, in the expectation that he would absorb the bomb blast and save his team-mates. Fortunately there were no suicide vests, but this guy is undoubtedly a very brave, but humble, man). I really enjoy books like this, as they give a really good outline of the preparation involved. I always try to draw parallels between Special Forces and elite athletes; Special Forces are the military’s version of elite athletes, and they do things in training and preparation that have similarities between both. Really good advances come from the military that elite athletes can utilise in their training and lifestyle. The pre-mission prep that Owen describes is very similar to my own pre-race routine, checking and re-checking important pieces of kit. Obviously, the danger is much higher for him!


An interesting addition to this story is that the author is now being sued by the US Government for publishing this book, as they feel he has given away secret information. The author counters this by stating that everything is the book can be found in other sources. To check this, I watched the film “Zero Dark Thirty” after reading this book. The film mirrors the book’s telling of the raid almost exactly, to the point where I can pretty much determine which actor is playing the author. But Zero Dark Thirty was filmed before this book was released, which means that the author isn’t responsible for this telling. The book also doesn’t mention the use by the US of stealth helicopters, something that the US media widely reported. Overall, it seems a bit odd that Owen is being prosecuted for this, despite the fact a Hollywood blockbuster shows the raid essentially exactly as he tells it, and Owen purposely holds back other information.


50. Armed Action
by James Newton


James Newton was a helicopter pilot in a naval air squadron during the 2003 Iraq War. He was involved in conflict with Iraqi tanks in a dangerous environment, and as a result was well decorated after the war. This book was decent – I’ve certainly read worse war memoirs. I liked that it detailed some of the training that the crew had to go through to be war ready. One of the aspects that stuck out most to me was that they weren’t able to do much desert combat training in the run up the war. Instead, they had to fall back on their Arctic combat training. Apparently snow behaves very similar to sand when you are hovering over it in a helicopter – it billows up around you, reducing visibility and making you and easy target. The important lesson to take away from this is that you can’t always have sufficient training time in your “game” environment. Instead, you need to look for parallels and lessons learned in other environments. In addition to this, you need to think about how the “competition” environment differs from your usual, well-known environment, and what you need to do to offset this. So, using this example, flying a helicopter is pretty much the same across the board, with a few differences. In a desert, due to the heat it makes it harder to hover and take off, so the pilots had to find a way around this. In the end, they did a rolling take off, similar to a plane.


Another aspect covered really well in this book is that of stress. Now, of course the stress of being a competitive athlete pales into insignificance next to the stress of being in a combat zone, but it is still possible to learn from military personnel. Newton details some of the down time methods used by his team, and also mentions the decrease in performance he found with increased fatigue – a timely reminder that consistent rest in a high stress environment is important.



51. No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy Seal
by Mark Owen (5/5)


I really enjoyed this book, written by the same author as No Easy Day (#49 on my list). This book focuses more on the other missions and aspects of training during his career as a US Navy SEAL. Each chapter looks at a specific lesson or aspect, and then uses a real life example to illustrate this point. A lot of the lessons can be applied to sports, which is part of the reason why I thought this book was great.


One particular example regards the aspect of fear. As a SEAL, the author is put in extreme environments, such as having to jump out of a plane at night, or climb huge mountains as part of their training. In sport, we often also experience fear, although probably to a lesser extent, in the form of nerves. For big races in both athletics and bobsleigh, I used to stand on the start line not being able to feel my legs, and with my hands shaking. One trick the author utilised is that of the “three foot world”. In situations that were causing fear, he learned to only focus on things he could affect. So, when doing a night-time parachute jump, he focused on his gear and altitude, as opposed to looking around and focusing on how fast he was going, or how high he was. Similarly, when climbing a mountain, he would focus on his process, not how high he was. This crosses over into professional sport too; you have to learn to detach yourself from the larger goings-on and focus instead on what you can affect. So, in a race that is your performance – not the size of the crowd, or the people to your left and right.


Another useful lesson comes from the author’s experience of working within small teams of elite soldiers. These soldiers have all passed a gruelling selection and training process to get to this point. The parallel here with elite sport is that selection for high-level sports teams is also a selection process. For example, selection onto an Olympic relay team means that you have proven your speed and relay ability through both competition and training. What both teams have in common is that team-members do not need to be micromanaged. The author recalls a time where, as a team leader, he made the mistake of micro-managing a team member, who called him out over this during the after-action review. I’ve seen this quite a few times during my experiences with relay teams; once a coach starts to get a bit nervous close to competition, they start to micromanage the athletes. This can result in the coach passing his anxiety onto the athletes, or giving them too much information, which lessons their capacity to focus on the time in hand.


There are plenty of other lessons within this book that I think are applicable to sport, which over all made this book a very enjoyable read for me.




So that is the end of my 2014 reading review. As you can see, I missed out on getting 52 books by just one book. It was a really close call!


There were plenty of other books that I used in 2014, but because I didn’t read them cover to cover, I feel like I can’t count them in my list. Strength Training for Speed: Scientific Principles and Practical Application by James Wild was really useful for me when writing presentations on how to get people to run quicker, as was The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling by Ralph Mann. I’ve read specific chapters from High-Performance Training for Sports by David Joyce, and really enjoyed what I came across. Stability, Sport and Performance Movement: Practical Biomechanics and Systematic Training for Movement Efficacy and Injury Prevention by Joanne Elphinston gave me some really good ideas for my coaching of younger children in fundamental movement skills. I aim to read all these books from front to back in the future, if not this year.


On top of these books, for 2015 I also want to read I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre, as well as re-visiting Bad Science by the same author to refresh my knowledge of the scientific process (my girlfriend says I need to do this). I need to increase my knowledge of endurance exercise physiology, and to that end I aim to read The Science of Running: How to find your limit and train to maximize your performance by Steve Magness, and Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise by Alex Hutchinson.


Overall, the end result of this challenge has been an increased amount of reading for me in 2014 compared to previous years. I have deliberately set aside times to read, usually pre-bed, and done all I can to protect these times. It has been a useful endeavour, although with some much new information I do tend to forget certain books that I didn’t find all that useful. I also found myself not attempting to read books that were more than 300 pages, as I knew I would struggle to finish. This year, with no specific goal in mind, I can relax a bit more, and read longer books if possible. I’ll update you on my progress this time next year!





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