Recent Reads: The First 20 Minutes

I usually read books ridiculously quickly on holiday, sometimes because they’re easy to read and don’t have much of a story line, and sometimes, because I skim read…a little. It’s easy to do with fiction books, however nigh on impossible with ‘The First 20 Minutes’, due in part because it was so interesting, and in part because I would have become utterly lost.

The book sells itself as being about ‘the surprising science of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer’, all things that yes, I would like to know.

Warning, if you don’t like scientific testing on animals or statistics, you will probably not like this book. There are a lot of exercising mice discussed at length and not all of them are too happy about it.

The book is divided into sections, with a round up of the chapter at each end. I particularly focussed on the studies and info surrounding runners and running (as you might imagine!)

Stretching and flexibility are overrated- great for my legs, not so great for my recently completed yoga challenge. Gretchen (the author) points to numerous studies that show that static stretching does not prepare the body for activity, moreover it actually does the opposite. Some ‘studies have found that stretching before exercise decreases strength in the stretched muscle by up to 30%’, and that when researchers compared a group of 10k runners flexibility tests with their PB times, those ‘with the tightest, least flexible hamstrings tended to be the fastest’! Concluding that ‘tighter muscles allow “for greater elastic energy store and use”‘. Yay for those of us who can’t touch their toes!

Sport’s Massages might not actually work– a part of the book I am choosing to ignore somewhat, but sadly studies have shown that massage after vigorous exercise actually reduced the blood flow to tired muscles rather than increasing it. ‘Every stroke bore down on large and small blood vessels in the muscles, cutting off flow’, with scientists concluding that massage may actually impair the removal of lactic acid from exercised muscles. However, in another study, boxers were found to feel more relaxed after their massages- showing that they do provide some relief. Gretchen does quote Dr Tschakovsky saying ‘it doesn’t mean that massage has no benefits. It just means that we don’t know yet what they are’.

Can running make you less hungry? To be fair, the study did find that in men particularly, exercising for more than 60 minutes or at an intensity hard enough to burn 800 plus calories, led to a decreased appetite in people. I don’t think these men will be invited on our run brunches! Gretchen also talks at length about scientists findings that exercise might not actually be as key to weight loss as we all think it is, however, it is crucial in weight control. And that exercising in a ‘fasted state is more effective than exercise in the carbohydrate-fed state to stimulate glucose tolerance’- so a workout before breakfast will burn more calories and dietary fat than the same workout at another time. Whether you’ll be so hungry that you’ll want to eat your own arm whilst running, she doesn’t mention.

The faster you can run a mile, the longer you’ll live– well not exactly but ‘a growing body of science suggests that aerobic fitness may be the single most important determinant of how long you live, trumping whether you smoke or are obese’! I know, I am shocked, but also slightly thrilled. Furthermore, a study at the Cooper Institute ‘showed that the speed with which a man or woman can run a mile’ in their 40s and 50s ‘almost eerily predicts hear disease risk 30 to 40 years later’. You’ll be pleased to know you don’t have to be Mo Farah to reduce your risk, and that for 40-50 year old women, a 9 min mile (single mile, remember) achieved the lowest risk of heart disease in their 70s and 80s.

Distance and speed matter– something that most of us runners have drilled into our heads, in order to get faster, we have to run faster. ‘For athletes that are already trained, improvements in endurance performance is best achieved through high intensity interval training’. A study that took recreational runners and assigned training plans that either focussed on additional mileage or a reduced mileage but two intense interval sessions a week, found that those performing intervals recorded the greatest improvement in 5K performances. Don’t forget though the advice from Joe Vigil, that if you want to ‘be a better runner, swimmer or tai chi-ist, you must engage in ever-increasing hours of running, swimming or tai chi-ing’. Got it?

Don’t forget to weight train– I’m looking at strength training far more this marathon cycle to improve performance and reduce injury (I hope) and so these studies backed up many that I’ve read recently. There are ‘few downsides to weight training for endurance athletes and many advantages, chiefly that training seems to make people faster’, research has found that runners completing full body machine-based weight training became ‘physiologically more efficient’. Not only did they use less oxygen over the same distance, but their ‘late stage sprinting ability soared’. However, in another study, runners undertaking a plyometric training had an even greater, more noticeably powerful kick in the sprint stage of a run, more so than those training solely in machine weight training.

The book is written to include a lot of sciency stats but with a healthy dose of the author’s personality and ad libbing thrown in- something that I love. My only problem with the sheer number of stats and studies quoted is that those not quite as interested as I am may get a little bored. Whilst the book reaffirmed everything I know is good and great about exercise (and them some) for our health, mind and wellbeing, I do fear that it is ‘preaching to the converted’ a little, and as much as I would love my boyfriend or Mum to read this, I just don’t think they would make it through all 275 pages reading about the glory of exercise, and may therefore miss the key arguments. I do think that the summaries at the end of each paragraph are great for photocopying (is that allowed?) and passing out to relevant friends and family, or to add to one’s gym bag to ensure that you follow the correct warm up procedure!

Let me leave you with one of many startling facts from the book, ‘every hour of television that a person watches after the age of 25′ has the potential to snip ’22 minutes off of the viewers life span’. So turn the telly off and hit the road or pick up this book, it’s worth a read!

I was provided with a copy of ‘The First 20 Minutes’ in exchange for my honest review. The book talks about a lot more than just running, if you’re not into that sort of thing, although I’m guessing if you’re reading my blog then you sorta are! 

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