Why Athletes Should Be Readers

You are an athlete if you:

  1. Sign up for a race/athletic event
  2. Train for the race/athletic event

That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest, most skilled, or most experienced. Being an athlete is a state of mind, a way of being, NOT a way of looking or performing.

With that said, if you’re an athlete you’re also probably…

  • A “Type-A” personality
  • Disciplined
  • Push yourself too hard, or on the razor’s edge of “too hard”
  • Value quantitative improvements and clear accomplishments
  • Balance many commitments

For these reasons, you might not think reading capital-L-Literature is for you. Sitting down and reading a book seems rather lame in comparison to a long run. Or, after your run when it’s time to relax, you’re too exhausted to do something mentally difficult like read Moby Dick. Besides, you already have so much on your plate that it doesn’t seem possible to squeeze in reading.

But, really, the traits of a good reader are also the traits of a good athlete.

Good readers pay attention to the form (novel, poem, play, short story, etc.) of the material they’re reading. They think about how form impacts the meaning of the words. (Similarly, athletes think about how different forms of exercise impact their fitness. A high intensity interval session is going to develop different muscles and systems than a long slow run.)

Good readers pay attention to little details in language and analyze how these features impact the big picture of a story (like what many athletes do when they assess their training data with Garmin, Strava, or TrainingPeaks).

Good readers question the reliability of a narrator, and wonder what gaps exist in the narrative (just like an athlete should question the training template they found from a certain coach or online program and ask themselves, “What’s this person’s style? Is this protocol the right one for me?”)

Good readers love the experience of watching a story unfold, they don’t skip to the end (just like a good athlete enjoys training not just race day).

You see, readers and athletes aren’t that different.

Many athletes already have the mental skills to be good readers, they just haven’t practiced applying their abilities to literature. But spending just fifteen to thirty minutes a day reading—say, every night before bed—will not only make you a better athlete, but a more satisfied and complete person.

Why?

  1. Reading the great works of the past gives you something to be proud of that’s not related to your physical performance (so if you get injured or don’t do as well as you’d hoped in a race, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment by training your brain)
  2. Developing “close reading” skills for literature will sharpen your ability to analyze and interpret your own training data
  3. Listening to an audiobook during long endurance sessions is way more invigorating than music. To start off, I recommend listening to Anthony Heald’s narration of Frankenstein. The speeches about greatness are EPIC! (It’s beside the point that Dr. Frankenstein repudiates striving for greatness in the end… none of us are trying to make a new species. We just want to compete in a race)
  4. Reading is a pleasure, one that you deserve to have…

Taking the time for yourself to sit and read (or go for a walk and listen to audiobooks) is undeniably a form of self-care and, possibly, a way of cultivating empathy and self-reflection (neuroscientists and psychologists are still on the fence about this one, but it makes intuitive sense).

Let’s focus on the importance of self-care and a healthy mindset.

These topics have become increasingly prominent in the health and fitness world. Talks on mental health and spirituality abounded at Paleofx 2016 and 2017, drastically more so than in previous years. Health and fitness podcasts are not only incorporating the ideas of positive self-talk, body image, and even plant-based medicine for spiritual/mental growth, but are actually featuring these concepts at the center of their episodes (listen to Tawnee and Lucho discuss the Central Governor in Episode 215 on Endurance Planet, Stephanie and Noelle’s “How to Love Your Body” Parts 1 and 2 on The Well Fed Woman Podcast, and Ben Greenfield’s interview with Mike Bledsoe “Tattooed Crossfitter to Bearded Monk” on The Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast).

My point is that an unprecedented number of people are now considering ways they can improve their mental wellbeing. Athletes in particular are changing their focus. No longer is the body consuming 100% of our attention. We’re increasingly considering how we can cultivate our minds.

In some ways, the mind-body connection isn’t new for the athletic world. Many athletes practice visualization, mindfulness in their routines, and train their brain to push beyond it’s supposed limits. All of these practices are difficult, requiring immense amounts of willpower and discipline. That’s why we like them.

But I would like to propose a way for athletes to cultivate their minds in a different way. In addition to “training the will to suffer,” it is absolutely crucial for athletes to train the will to settle in, relax, and concentrate. This is a mode of brain training that requires parasympathetic dominance (the Central Nervous System’s aptly nicknamed “rest and digest” state). In this way, athletes can learn how to enter and sustain for long durations the highly coveted “flow state,” where time slips away, creativity abounds, confidence soars, and simply amazing things are produced.

This practice not only promotes physical recovery, so you can push your muscles harder during workouts, but it also trains your mind to take stock of minuscule details (leading to better decision-making in training and racing) and have greater compassion for your self and others. This last point is the most important.

Too many athletes treat themselves with a sadism that would be considered unlawful in other contexts! They maniacally restrict calories and/or macros to attain race or competition weight. They do high intensity interval sessions until puking or collapsing. They plunge in freezing water or roll over medievalesque torture devices. I do or have done all of these things. And to some extent, I think they’re important. It’s good to suffer sometimes. Cultivating physical and mental toughness is a noble thing. But equally, so is cultivating physical and mental compassion. Can you cherish yourself for saying, “This is enough” as much as for saying, “I can take more”? In my experience, we don’t. And that’s a problem. We need to cultivate our minds not only to be tough, but to be loving as well.

I firmly believe that taking the time to relax and read literature is how athletes can train more positive states of mind.

I can’t believe no one has suggested this before. Athletes are encouraged to practice yoga and meditation all the time, but never to pick up a book. Why?

Perhaps it’s because of the “dumb jock” myth. Based on this societal perception, no one would consider handing an athlete a big nineteenth century British novel and saying, “Kick back and relax.” Because, of course, those meat-heads would just use the darn thing as extra weight on the bench press.

However, the notion that athletes are stupid is one that I am entirely unwilling to accept.

In fact, I am absolutely positive that the “dumb jock” is a dying, if not extinct, breed. I’m consistently blown away by the athletic community’s eagerness to read scientific research on physiology and metabolism. The quality of discussion between scientists, medical practitioners, fitness professionals, and athletes (amateurs and elites alike) on podcasts, websites/blogs, and social media is really quite profound. Athletes are not stupid. They are relentless in tackling challenges, attentive to details, and oh-so passionate about becoming better at their sports.

My goal is to channel those ambitious, meticulous, enthusiastic minds to read a few literary classics. If you can understand the basics of a ketogenic diet, then you can understand Dickens, I promise.

Keep listening to the FitLit Podcast and reading articles on this site to learn how.

Posted by

PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, Ironman athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and hammock extraordinaire with a guilty penchant for over-priced health foods.

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