Top 20 athletics books

To mark world book day the editor of AW picks his most treasured athletics and running books

Choosing your favourite athletics or running books is a bit like trying to name your top movies of all time or No.1 sporting moments. There are so many to choose from and, of course, everyone’s taste is different.

Long before the advent of the internet, I began devouring athletics books aged 11-12 in the early 1980s. Then, during the last 20 years, I’ve been AW’s unofficial book reviews editor with the majority of new athletics and running-related books landing on my desk.

So, in no particular order, here are my 20 favourites.

Sebastian Coe, Born to Run with David Miller

As a budding teenage middle-distance runner in the 1980s I lapped up this book during my formative years. Coe later brought out several other autobiographies but this one remains the original and best as it charts his rise from teenage talent to world record-breaker.

The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx

This 1970s classic inspired the original running boom although the author famously died from heart failure during a run aged 52. It’s the original ‘how to’ book offering advice on every aspect of running.

Lore of Running by Tim Noakes

Far more comprehensive than Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running, it is hard to find a more definitive book on the sport than Tim Noakes’ tome. It covers everything from injuries and physiology to training and diet in authoritative fashion in brilliant detail. A bona fide bible of running.

The First Four Minutes by Roger Bannister

The story of the greatest athletics feat in history is told by the very man who did it. As it turns out, Sir Roger can write a bit too and his quest to run the first sub-four-minute mile is beautifully regaled.

Train Hard, Win Easy by Toby Tanser

If you like to read about how top athletes train, this is one of the best. Published in 1997 by a Kenyan-based writer it covers in detail the training programmes of Kenyan world-beaters such as John Ngugi and Paul Tergat.

Official Centenary History of the AAA of England by Peter Lovesey

I’m often surprised how often I refer to this book especially when writing about the early days of the sport in England. Mel Watman has since produced more recent and comprehensive books on the world’s oldest athletics governing body but Lovesey’s splendid hardback printed in 1979 has stood the test of time.

The Toughest Race in the World by Mark Butler

An amazingly detailed and useful guide to the world cross country championships. Despite being printed in 2002, I still refer to this book a lot, especially when the now biennial world cross itself comes around.

All-time Greats of British Athletics by Mel Watman

One of the retirement projects for the former editor of AW as he put together definitive career summaries on top British athletes from Walter George and Alf Shrubb to Denise Lewis and Paula Radcliffe.

The Coe & Ovett Files by AW

It’s arguably a little self-indulgent to include an ‘AW publication’ among this list but in my defence I fell in love with this book long before I joined the AW editorial team. It is basically a series of reproduced clippings from the magazine relating to Coe and Ovett during their heyday and altogether makes a terrific read.

Photo by Mark Shearman

Running Scared – How Athletics Lost Its Innocence by Duncan Mackay and Steven Downes

If you read this book you will realise that problems such as doping and corruption have always plagued athletics. The authors were among the most prominent athletics writers in the 1990s and turn of the millennium and their book takes a deep, dark look at the seedy underbelly of the No.1 Olympic sport.

The Mechanics of Athletics by Geoff Dyson

Many of the principles of athletics such as jumps, throws or hurdles techniques have remained unchanged for years and Geoff Dyson, the father of coaching in British athletics, covers them all in amazing detail accompanied by superb illustrations in this 1962 book.

Ultra-Marathon Man by Dean Karnazes

A world-wide best seller and it’s easy to see why as the story of this ultra-marathon runner dances from page to page in entertaining and inspirational fashion.

ATFS annual edited by Peter Matthews

This is the international equivalent of the British Athletics stats book produced by NUTS (National Union of Track Statisticians) although it is put together by the Association of Track and Field Statisticians. Meticulously compiled and full of several interesting features every year in addition to the pure stats.

British Athletics by the NUTS

Now into its 62nd year, the latest edition has Dina Asher-Smith on the cover. Unfortunately like all stats books it has struggled during the internet era but remains a brilliant source of facts and figures and has been invaluable to myself, especially during my early years writing for AW.

Athletics Statistics, London 2012

Edited by Mark Butler and produced by the IAAF, it is a great resource of stats. Similar facts and figures are produced in handbooks for other Olympic Games and world championships but the London 2012 edition is special for obvious reasons.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

A classic tale of running and the book that inspired the bare-foot running movement. The joy of running jumps out of every page.

50 Greatest Marathon Races of All-Time by Will Cockerell

Like many books in this list it is now a little outdated but it nevertheless is still a brilliant read and historical resource. A labour of love by an author who is also a decent marathoner himself, it is a high-quality publication that describes in detail some of the best 26.2-mile races in history.

World History of Track & Field Athletics by Roberto Quercetani

Published in 1964 by the doyen of athletics writers and statisticians, who died last year aged 97. Definitely one of my most treasured books.

Testament of a Runner by WR Loader

This little-known 1960s classic captures the spirit of the sport in beautiful style, describing in detail what it means to run. Or, the author would say: “I mean, really run.”

The Complete Book of the Olympics by David Wallechinsky

This book ran from 1984 to 2012 but was sadly not published for the 2016 Games. Unbeatable when it comes to short, reader-friendly summaries of Olympic finals. Not just athletics either as it covers all the sports. 

» Jason Henderson has edited AW since 2001 and wrote the official London 2012 book on training for athletics field events published by Carlton Books and also Collision Course, the Olympic Tragedy of Mary Decker and Zola Budd, published by Birlinn

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