The Difference a Decade Makes in Women’s Running Books

 

While ringing up my purchases, the helpful clerk at BookPeople asked conversationally, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

Sighing wearily, I responded, “Yes, I did. That one book I came to get…and these four others I couldn’t help buying.”

Books are my crack. The most successful way to deal with this addiction is to avoid exposure, so I only go to the bookstore when I need something specific (though impulse control only goes so far once I’m there). Cookbooks? When a new one comes in, an old one must go out. Lately, I’ve been getting my fiction fix via the Austin Public Library.

Running books have been a particular passion, though I put a halt to any further acquisitions once I moved out of my office. I wonder: what are my fellow runners reading these days?

Take a look at just how far writing about women’s running has travelled over the decades, and afterward, please share your favorite running books in a comment.

Three photos of nature, flowers, and a runner on the trail with title, "Evolution of Women's Running Books by the decades."

A version of this article first appeared in the Austin Runners Club newsletter

When I started running, my husband created a monster by giving me two things that Christmas — a running log and a copy of Runner’s World Complete Book of Running: Everything You Need to Know to Run for Fun, Fitness, and Competition.

I had started “seriously” running (I’d run haphazardly since we’d met back in college, the yeah-I’ll-do-the-Capital 10,000-if-you-do type of running) in August 1997, determined to dump the hideous extra pounds that had crept on over the years. I figured I’d run every day; get up, put on my running things, take my son to preschool, and hit the roads. No excuses. After five months, I’d hit a plateau and was frustrated. I just didn’t seem to be progressing beyond my slow, lumbering 3-mile pace.

That book was my first look at “training,” and it was an eye-opener. I’ve been training and reading training books ever since.

That particular book was a great generic starting guide but, after awhile, I began to look for books that particularly addressed WOMEN as runners. Runner’s World Complete Book of Running has a nice 23-page section for women runners, covering safety, 31 “special tips” for women, a list of notable women’s running dates and runners, answers to important body-related questions, and something inspirational from Joan Benoit Samuelson. But it wasn’t enough.

So, over time, I made it a point to look for books about running specifically written for female runners by women.

Books Written for Women Runners by Women

What I’ve found is a funny representation of how women’s running has been perceived by decade. There really isn’t much published for women prior to the 1970s. 1967 marked Kathrine Switzer’s legal entry in the Boston Marathon (she registered as “K. Switzer” and no official realized she was a woman, until Jock Semple jumped on to the course and tried to throw her out). People still believed that running was physically bad for women and women weren’t really cut out for competitive racing.

From the 1980s

Marathon Mom: The Wife and Mother Running Book

Photo of feet in trail shoes resting in a creek
A trail run at the end of the day makes everything better.

Marathon Mom: The Wife and Mother Running Book gives a pretty accurate reflection of the thinking in the 1970s. Published in 1980, the book is written by Linda Schreiber with JoAnne Stang. The book’s perspective is Schreiber’s, who writes about her life as a wife and mother first. She began running in 1974 to get some relief from the five kids at home (this is how many of us moms start, though few have five at home).

There are many photos of the author running alone, using surprisingly bad form, and with her family. Schreiber spends a fair amount of time presenting the argument that  women have the right to run, even including tips on how to explain running to the family. There is some solid, basic information but the dated attitudes (and facts), such as these, really detract:

  • Schreiber assumes that the women reading the book are stay-at-home moms; there is no advice for the working mom/woman/runner.
  • The book was written before running bras were widely available, so the section on picking a bra is totally irrelevant to today, as are most of the other clothing recommendations.
  • I love this information on running shoes: “A pair of running shoes can cost from $20 to over $40, but they’re your only piece of equipment. With care and periodic repair, the shoes can last a year or two….”
  • There is no actual training schedule or workout information but a lot of purely personal observation.

Not a recommend read for today’s woman runner, unless she’d merely like to peruse this woman’s personal story.

Running Free

Another book that came out in 1980 was written by Joan L. Ullyot, M.D. Again, it’s written in the first person, more as “read about my life and learn something about running” than a training book. The title, Running Free, gives an idea of the tone. No homey advice for moms — it’s more feminist (though I hate to use the term, since it is so often taken negatively) yet equally dated. To be honest, I couldn’t even read all of it!

The Woman Runner: Free to Be the Complete Athlete

The women’s marathon event wasn’t part of the Olympics until 1984. It seems that this recognition brought a more serious look at women’s running, and the books that came out in the 1980s reflect this. The Woman Runner: Free to Be the Complete Athlete by Gloria Averbuch moves into this new era.

Averbuch writes from a ten-year history as a runner and a career with the New York Road Runners Club. The tone shifts; this is an instructional book aimed at women athletes, not one woman’s musings on running as seen through her life story.

I love the notation on the copyright page: “Since women’s running is making history moment by moment, the information in this book is current as of April 1984.”

  • For the first time, I found a section on history of women’s running.
  • There are chapters aimed at runners as young girls and women 40 and beyond, not just advice on pregnancy and menopause.
  • Information on notable athletes is given, a look at running around the world is taken, and thoughts about accepting yourself as an athlete are explored in the first section, entitled “The Woman Athlete.”
  • The second section, “A Runner’s Body: What Women Want to Know,” covers the usual ground (pregnancy, hormones, menstruation, menopause, etc.) but addresses nutritional needs, steroid use, and injury prevention.
  • Part III takes you to “Running and Winning,” with training information (no specific schedules but explanations of how to put together phases of a program), clothing recommendations, lists of races, and—get this—predictions for the future of women’s running.
  • And there are actually appendices: a survey, statistics, results, list of resources, and a bibliography.

This book is still a worthwhile read and clearly a serious step above in terms of the type of information and the format in which it is presented.

From the 1990s

Photo of bucket of gerber daisies surrounded by runners feet.

By the 1990s, no one is questioning a woman’s ability or right to run. The amount of books for women runners skyrockets, and the quality takes a huge leap ahead.

Joan Samuelson’s Running For Women

One of my favorites is Joan Samuelson’s Running For Women by Joan Benoit Samuelson (and Gloria Averbuch — author of the previously reviewed title). In the preface, Samuelson writes in a personal tone: “It is my sincere hope that this book will help you to develop strength and wisdom as a runner and that your running will reside harmoniously with all other aspects of your life. As every runner knows, running is about more than just putting one foot in front of the other; it is about our lifestyle and who we are.”

Note that she is addressing runners — and it seems to just so happen that these runners are women. The book has an interesting structure; Samuelson periodically jumps in with first-person observations, but the body of the text is third person objective.

  • There are actual training programs, covering everything from the mile to the marathon, and recommended workouts to go with them.
  • Technical terms, such as VO2 max, appear along with appropriate charts.
  • Running drills and stretching are thoroughly examined and explained.
  • There is real life, practical advice (like how to carry a tampon during a race) in addition to competitive athlete training information.

All of this information comes from a gold medalist and former U.S. marathon record holder (Deena Drossin just broke Samuelson’s record, which stood in the U.S. for almost 18 years), who also happens to be a mom. I snorted when Samuelson wrote about the need to prioritize to fit running into a busy life — her supporting example (how she had to give up her two-a-days when she became a mother) didn’t really seem a propos to my having to work hard to fit in only one run. It wasn’t until I read Running Tide, her autobiography written with Sally Baker, that I realized this was truly a sacrifice; Samuelson had been running two-a-days, simply out of love for running, since she was in high school.

I highly recommend this book.

Running and Walking for Women Over 40

Kathrine Switzer (remember her?) published Running and Walking for Women Over 40 in 1998. Now we’re seeing a more specialized book for a niche of women runners.

  • More charts, graphics in a mix of first person and purely factual presentation.
  • Extensive information on modern running fabrics and clothing and practical suggestions for what to wear when. (Side note: If you’re a RunTex Forum addict, you’ve seen Switzer’s list of tips for buying a sports bra in various posts from me).
  • For the first time, I found heart rate monitor information.

This is a good book for any beginning woman runner, not only the runner over 40.

The Complete Book of Running for Women

And this brings me to Claire Kowalchik’s book, The Complete Book of Running for Women: Everything You Need to Know About Training, Nutrition, Injury Prevention, Motivation, Racing and Much, Much More.

Published in 1999, Complete Book of Running for Women is a relative of that first book given to me by my husband. Kowalchik is an editor at Runners World magazine, and she thanks Amby Burfoot (who edited Runners World Complete Book of Running, the book that got me started) and the Runners World staff for their assistance.

The evolution is complete; those original 23 pages have grown into a 432-page reference book full of good stuff for the woman runner (and the male runner, too). You name it, it’s got it.

  • Sections include essays by women runners that add an inspirational, personal note.
  • In addition to all the good things found in Samuelson’s and Switzer’s books are sections on treadmill running and more detailed nutritional information.
  • Explanations of foot anatomy and shoe construction.
  • Contains the best explanation of the female cycle as it affects running I have read.
  • Explanations of foot anatomy and shoe construction.
  • This is a must-have book for your collection (and guys would do well to sneak a peak at it, too).

Books from the 2000s?

Photo of pari of trail shoes next to flowers on gravel.
A trail run at the end of the day makes everything better.

I haven’t read that book yet, but I’ll let you know when I do. If the trend continues, women’s running books can only get better. Happy reading and running to you!

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Don’t forget to leave the name and author of your favorite running book from the 2000s (check the publishing date!) in a comment.

Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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