The 25 Greatest Running Books of All-Time
There have been scores of great books written about running. We called upon runners, coaches, writers, journalists, book editors (including our own esteemed book editing staff at VeloPress) for input in assembling our list of the 25 best running books of all time. As with any ranking, our list was too narrow to include all the worthy titles.
Do you agree with our choices and rankings? Share your thoughts and comments with us on Facebook and Twitter. (We purposely excluded books primarily focused on training, but we did add some of the great training books to our list of honorable mentions.)
25. Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There (1991)
Of all the books written about Nike, this is one of the best. Written by sisters Julie Strasser (Nike’s first advertising director) and Laurie Becklund (a reporter for the Los Angeles Times), “Swoosh” tells about alleged steroid use by Nike-sponsored athletes, under-the-table payments to amateur runners, and how Phil Knight, Steve Prefontaine, Geoff Hollister and a few others helped make Nike the most successful athletic shoe and apparel company in the world. (Another good book with less of an investigative slant is “Out of Nowhere: The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running,” which Hollister wrote a few years before he passed away in 2012.)
24. Run Like a Mother: How to Get Moving—and Not Lose Your Family, Job or Sanity (2010)
Although the generation of empowered mommy joggers probably started in the 1990s, Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea organized, authenticated and rallied the tribe with this landmark book—the first of three they’ve written together—and now it’s a movement. The authors offer insight, inspiration and plenty of training service content that encourages any woman (but especially mothers who are juggling a lot of things in life) to get fit and inspired through running.
23. Running With the Kenyans (2012)
British journalist Adharanand Finn immersed himself (and his family) in elite Kenyan running camps to uncover the secrets of the Rift Valley. He trained side-by-side with Olympic legends and up-and-coming hopefuls, ate their food, followed their customs, interviewed their coaches and came away with a mesmerizing glimpse at the culture of distance running at its purest level.
22. A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York (2009)
The New York City Marathon is the world’s biggest race—and one of the hardest to get into—but whether you’ve run it just once, finished it many times or are still pining for a chance to run through New York’s five boroughs, Liz Robbins’ journalistic approach is worthy of a read. The New York Times reporter covers the race through the eyes of five recreational runners with unique reasons for running the race and makes it come to life for the same reasons it has mushroomed in size since its inception 45 years ago.
21. Why We Run: A Natural History (2002)
Originally released with the title of “Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life,” this book explores the idea that human evolution was made possible by the ultra-distance running capabilities of human beings. Author Bernd Heinrich, a biologist and award-winning nature writer, investigates the physical, spiritual and primal desires and instincts to compete in a blend of anthropology, psychology, philosophy and his own personal passion for running long distances.
20. Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012)
Ultrarunning champion Scott Jurek is one of the greatest distance runners of his generation. Although many of the highlights of his career occurred before ultrarunning hit the mainstream (including seven straight wins in the Western States 100), he’s one of the sport’s first transcendent stars and one of the reasons for its recent growth. In his autobiography, Jurek tells about his childhood in Minnesota, his growing interest in ultrarunning, family challenges and his emerging running career. Most importantly, it also details how he went from traditional meat-eating dietary habits to becoming a vegan. He outlines his entire nutritional approach and serves up some of his favorite recipes.
19. The Accidental Athlete: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Middle Age (2011)
Known by fans as "The Penguin" for his back-of-the-pack speed, John Bingham is one of the unlikely heroes of the modern running boom. In this warm, witty memoir, the best-selling author and magazine columnist recalls his childhood dreams of athletic glory, sedentary years of unhealthy excess and a life-changing transformation from couch potato to "adult-onset athlete." It’s a must-read for new fitness-oriented runners or lifelong runners who have kept running despite slowing down through the years. What Bingham proves is that if he can become a marathoner and a healthy runner, anyone can.
18. The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances (2014)
Matthew Inman, a Seattle-based cartoonist known for “The Oatmeal,” burst on the running scene over the past few years by writing and illustrating honest, witty, authentic and sometimes brazenly awkward stories about his own running. His debut book is a funny and poignant look at the sport through his own curious pursuits as a marathoner and ultramarathoner. He’s one of the freshest voices in running, because he gets it all and because he isn’t afraid to question it all. Says “Born to Run” author Chris McDougal: "Finally! A voice that sings with the blerches of angels!"
17. Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind (2012)
No book has exposed and cultivated the spiritual connections between runner and running better than this book by Sakyong Mipham, a Tibetan lama and leader of Shambhala (an international community of meditation centers). Mipham, an accomplished distance runner who has also been trained in horsemanship and martial arts, explains how physical activity (and specifically running) is essential to spiritual well-being and offers lessons for any runner to create a mind-body connection.
16. The Silence of the Great Distance: Women Running Long (2000)
Frank Murphy combined his experience as a writer, runner, coach, director and sociology professor to write “a stirring account of the development of women's distance running.” Although he chronicles American legends Doris Brown Heritage, Mary Decker Slaney and Suzy Favor Hamilton, the primary narrative of the book is about Stephanie Herbst, a nine-time All-American at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s who promptly walked away from the sport. Through the examples of Herbst and Kathy Ormsby, Murphy tells of the intensity, dedication, passion and pressure of women’s athletics.
15. The Complete Book of Running (1977)
Before there was “Born to Run,” there was “The Complete Book of Running.” While this book has long been out of print, it’s still one of the most important books about running ever written (selling more than 1 million copies), Author Jim Fixx captured the essence of running and distilled it to the recreational fitness level. He helped grow the original running boom exponentially by showing that anyone could become a jogger with a little bit of knowledge and a good pair of shoes. The book is full of smart how-to advice, coaching insights and philosophical vignettes that have mostly stood the test of time. While many books have since offered more advanced concepts, Fixx changed the world forever with this book (and his 1980 follow-up, “Jim Fixx’s Second Book of Running”) by making it acceptable for grown men and women to run around in shorts and T-shirts in a personal quest for fitness, freedom and self-expression.
14. Feet in the Clouds: The Classic Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession (2004)
Richard Askwith explores the centuries-old sport of fell running, one of the few endurance sports “to have remained implacably amateur and utterly true to its roots” through several hundred years of competition in the Lake District and Snowdonia regions of the U.K. It’s a great read and a fascinating immersion into this quirky but authentic segment of running. Askwith’s on-the-ground reporting includes a look at some of the most legendary races, weeklong competitions and some of the most celebrated figures in the sport.
13. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Written by Allan Sillitoe, this is a story about a rebellious working-class boy, Colin Smith, who, after being sentenced to a reformatory school for robbing a bakery, comes of age through long-distance running. His stay at the reform school is rough until the headmaster begins to cultivate the boy’s natural talent as a means to show rehabilitation and maturity. Smith embraces the challenge and recognizes that running can offer him the ultimate sense of freedom.
12. PRE: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend (1977)
Much has been made about Steve Prefontaine in recent years, but if you want to get the inside dish about the rise and fall of this legendary American distance runner, this is a must-read. Tom Jordan’s riveting biography of this rebel runner who died too soon includes captivating insights from rival runners, teammates and coaches. It serves up an authentic glimpse of the man who was a record-setting runner destined to become the iconic figure who remains one of the greatest runners in U.S. history 40 years after his untimely death.
11. The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It (2004)
Published on the 50th anniversary of the world’s first sub-4-minute mile, this is a compelling book that profiles the three athletes who were determined to become the first runner in history to break the 4-minute mile. Neal Bascomb writes with eloquent detail how history was made and changed running forever. The story focuses equally on Roger Bannister, the young English medical student, Wes Santee, the brash Kansas farm boy, and John Landy, the privileged Australian.
10. Running and Being: The Total Experience (1978)
Originally published in 1978 and reprinted in 2013, this is a masterwork by one of running’s greatest writers, the late Dr. George Sheehan. It has been called “an educated man's narrative of his midlife return to the world of exercise, play, and competition.” Although it focuses more on life than it does on running, it serves up inspiration for a lifetime of fitness, happiness and freedom, proving that a mental-physical-spiritual synergy can develop out of a consistent commitment to the running lifestyle. Sheehan was one of running’s first great writers and, although he passed away in 1993, his words of wisdom remain as astutely profound as ever.
9. Lore of Running (1985)
South African sports scientist Tim Noakes is one of the world’s leading exercise physiologists who has not only studied distance running but has also run more than 75 marathons and ultramarathons during his career. His research and his passion have made this 944-page “bible of running” the preeminent scientific book on the sport since it was first released 30 years ago. It has continued to earn acclaim as the author updates it with new material. It opens with a definitive look at the physiology and biochemistry of running and how to apply that information to training the human body based on science and research. Noakes also dedicates a section to racing, from 10K to ultramarathons, and how to push the limits of performance, plus details on ergogenic training aids, how to reduce the chance of injury, running mechanics and numerous other topics related to performance-oriented running. The most recent edition, released in 2002, includes interviews with 10 world-class runners that put Noakes’ work into context. This is a must-have book for every serious runner, but it certainly can’t be digested all in one sitting.
8. Running The Rift: A Novel (2010)
The debut novel of Naomi Benaron, “Running the Rift” follows a young Olympic hopeful from Rwanda who dreams of competing in the Olympics. But amid violence and genocide tearing his country apart, Jean Patrick Nkuba is quickly thrust into a world that is much bigger than his daily training for his competitive goals. He sticks to his dream but eventually has to flee for his own safety, leaving his girlfriend, family and country behind. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story that ties together an individual’s innocent and authentic passion for running with the bigger picture view of social injustices and a society in conflict. The author, an active runner and triathlete, and a professor at Pima Community College, is a talented writer who previously won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction and the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Working extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda helped her create a very lucid sense of the tension and strife in the lives of her characters. “Running The Rift” was awarded the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
7. Running With the Legends: Training and Racing Insights From 21 Great Runners (1996)
With an influence from a 1967 book called “The Lonely Breed,” Michael Sandrock, one of the country’s top running journalists for the past three decades, profiles the training and racing habits of 21 of the world’s best runners of the modern era from 800 meters through the marathon. Much more than a collection of biographies of fast runners, this book looks at the unique qualities that allowed each runner to achieve greatness amid a sea of other talented runners. Sandrock, an accomplished runner who trained with several runners in the book, is a rare breed of writer who can take the granular elements of elite running and make them come to life for a mainstream audience. “Running With The Legends” is an inspirational tome that transcends the generations of elite runners and international borders.
6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007)
This memoir by Haruki Murakami has made waves among North American readers since being translated into English a few years ago. It’s a personal stream of consciousness about one man’s participation running marathons and ultramarathons after taking up running in his early 30s. His realistic descriptions of what he puts himself through are amazing, especially when describing his physical, mental and emotional struggles to finish a 100K run. What makes this book so compelling is his ability to make the mundane thoughts of daily life and training come alive with engaging prose that runners of any ability or experience level can appreciate. Although it received mixed reviews from book critics, runners have raved about it for the honest, flowing style of its prose that all runners tend to have on the run. Murakami mentions some of the things he sees out of the corner of his eye during a run, embellishes his choice of music he listens to on the run and makes sure to remind his muscles who is boss. Certainly, any runner can relate.
5. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon (2007)
Anyone interested in American running should read this book about Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon track and cross country coach who co-founded Nike with Phil Knight. During his 24-year career at Oregon, Bowerman led the Ducks to four national titles and produced numerous Olympians (including the author, Kenny Moore) and record-setting runners. But he also instituted mandatory rest days for his athletes, researched new training methods, developed innovative running shoes and apparel and, of course, coached the legendary Steve Prefontaine. What makes this lengthy tome come alive is Moore’s exceptional writing, from gripping race accounts to the many intricate details that made up Bowerman’s complicated personality.
4. Duel In The Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley and America’s Greatest Marathon (2006)
This is the story about the 1982 Boston Marathon, the epic race that saw Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley turn themselves inside out in searing heat in a neck-and-neck battle to the finish line. John Brant craftily weaves the excitement and tension from that amazing race into the eventual, premature decline of each runner’s career. Beardsley suffered an unbelievable series of physical setbacks that led to a serious addiction to painkillers. Although Salazar would go on to run in the 1984 Olympics and win the 1994 Comrades Marathon, he suffered from paralyzing depression and a mysterious malaise for years. The book traces the evolution of the American running boom through the compelling biographies of two of its original icons.
3. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009)
Christopher McDougall’s 304-page autobiographical account of running almost-barefoot with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico has sold more than a half-million copies worldwide and remained on The New York Times’ bestseller list for more than four years. Although it contains some hyperbole, the book has earned its keep (and rave reviews) because McDougall’s vivid storytelling, compelling character development and in-depth reporting appeal to new runners, veteran ultrarunners, non-runners and couch potatoes alike. The book was one of the primary catalysts for the minimalist running shoe revolution that helped spur brands to develop lighter, lower-to-the-ground shoes using less material. It also spurred a revolution in running form, a growth in ultrarunning participation and a greater understanding of the universal language of running.
2. Running With the Buffaloes (2000)
When Chris Lear transferred from Princeton to the University of Colorado for his final year of college eligibility as a cross-country runner, he had no idea what would unfold around him. He penned this amazing journal-style book about the 1998 season that included enormous highs and lows, including the death of the team’s brilliant No. 2 runner, Chris Severy. The story takes a deep dive into the life of collegiate cross country and the success of the Colorado program led by its sage coach, Mark Wetmore. A cult classic among competitive runners within months of its release, it has stood the test of time because of the subsequent success of Adam and Kara Goucher, and Wetmore’s teams (which have won five NCAA titles since the book was released). It’s an exciting page-turner whether you’re a competitive runner, a former high school or college runner, or a recreational jogger who runs to stay fit.
1. Once a Runner (1978)
A cult classic for years among elite runners and college cross country teams—finally starting to garner appreciation by larger audiences during this latest running boom—this novel (originally self-published by John L. Parker) is all about the grit and determination it takes to be an elite runner. Although the book’s main character, Quenton Cassidy, struggles to find a balance between the intensity of his dedication and the real world, it’s that edginess and hunger that leads him to his great running accomplishments. The book was out of print for years, but re-released in 2009. A sequel called “Again to Carthage” was released in 2007 and a prequel titled “Racing in the Rain” came out in 2015, but neither are as compelling as the original.