The 16 best running books for 2021: The most interesting and inspirational reads

Learning from the experience of others to take your training to the next level
16 inspirational running books for 2021

There are shelves and shelves full of books about running. Some will inspire you to push yourself that little bit further, that little bit longer, and see you reach new levels of endurance you never thought you could achieve.

We’ve selected a list of some of our favorites.

From meditative journals on what running means to writers, to accounts of the pure agony (blisters, lots and lots of blisters) and mental fortitude required when attempting to break long-standing records.

These books offer insight and inspiration in equal measure, as well as attempts to decipher why we actually enjoy lacing up our trainers on and putting ourselves in an uncomfortable situation, often on a daily basis.

Running With Sherman by Christopher McDougall

Best running books: Inspiration guaranteed

The author of one of the most influential running books of all time, Born To Run (see below), returns with a new book about running with a donkey, of all things. And you may be surprised to learn it is a truly inspirational read.

McDougall begins the book by taking ownership of a severely neglected donkey he names Sherman. Sherman is on death’s door, but after months of care and gentle coaxing, the author manages to defy all the experts and get the donkey moving. Then McDougall learns about burro racing, a genre of running in the US where competitors lead donkeys along canyons and up mountains in races of around 15 miles.

He decides this is the sport for him and Sherman and, after entering a major event, begins training with his wife, a friend who had been suffering severe depression and two more donkeys. What follows is a wild running journey and an enlightening insight on the stubbornness of donkeys and how animals can help those with mental health problems.

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down by Ida Keeling

Best running books: Inspiration guaranteed

If you've ever needed inspiration to get out and run then this incredible story about Ida Keeling, a 104 year-old woman that didn't start running until the age of 67, will hit the spot.

The honest memoir of Ida covers her life in the Bronx over a century that saw the Depression and the Civil Rights movement as well as the murder of her two sons. It was her daughter that encouraged her to take up running at a late age, something that helped Ida deal with her loss and find a new energy for life.

From those first steps, Ida has gone on to compete in a a number of events, even becoming the world record holder for the fastest 60-meter dash for the 95-99 age group. Motivated by her faith, her family and a changing nation, it's an incredibly deep insight into what running has become over the last few decades.

A Race Like No Other by Liz Robbins

Best running books: Inspiration guaranteed

There aren't many races in the world that have the level of global interest of the New York Marathon, and whether you've done it, want to do it or just want to hear about one of the world's biggest events, A Race Like No Other is an exceptionally heartfelt and detailed account of the race.

Throughout the book, Liz Robbins covers all aspects of the event in beautiful detail, from the history of its meteoric rise to become the biggest marathon in the world to a mile-by-mile overview of what it's like to take on the challenge. It's not just a book about running though, acting as an honest testament to what the event means to competitors and spectators, why people do it and what emotions go through runners as they cover the 26.2 miles.

If you've run the race or plan to do so one day, it's an essential read that covers off the bulk of what it's like to take part in the enormous event.

Beyond Impossible by Mimi Anderson

The best running books to add to your shelf

Mimi Anderson’s journey is an inspiration to many, runners and non-runners alike. After overcoming a long-standing eating disorder, she took up running in her late 30s, teaching herself how to run on a treadmill (and stopping after just one minute of running for fear she was going to die), and struggling to complete even 5km at first.

Then she got the bug, and from there went on to complete longer and longer races, eventually breaking multiple world records, including the fastest time for a woman to run John O’Groats to Land’s End. The deep depths she had to go to complete this record forms the backbone of this gripping read, with plenty of insight into her other ultramarathons and achievements which include Badwater and the Marathon de Sables. A book that will inspire you to get out there and challenge yourself to find new limits.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

The best running books to add to your shelf

The fiction writer and regular runner reflects on the affect running has had on his life, after taking it up in 1982. He runs 10k every day after writing for four hours, wherever he is, and always tries to run near water as he finds it calming – as he says in his introduction, “No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.”

The book takes the form a running diary, and Murakami’s humble, unassuming style feels meditative in itself as he provides valuable insight into his writing life and techniques while talking about running.

North by Scott Jurek

The best running books to add to your shelf

You could easily place Jurek’s previous book, Eat & Run, on this list (if not for the useful vegan recipes alone), but we’ve gone for North due to the addition of his wife, Jenny, and her accounts at the end of each chapter on her efforts to crew ‘Jurker’ as he attempts to break the fastest-known time record for running the Appalachian Trail.

It shows just what it takes to complete a challenge like this, importantly not just for the runner themselves, but also the support crew – the stresses and lack of sleep they endure in order to help a friend/loved one reach inside themselves and run 2,200 miles over 47 days.

Jurek has a lyrical style of writing that captures his thoughts and feelings as he ran – “There was so much to learn from running and sharing these wilderness passages as they crisscrossed through ranges and canyons like blood vessels spanning the continent”.

Running Home by Katie Arnold

The best running books to add to your shelf

Arnold was a writer on US adventure magazine Outside, and wrote this memoir reflecting on her finding ultra-running through a magazine assignment when she interviewed the original ‘Ultra Marathon Man’ Dean Karnazes (also well worth a read).

From there, like British runner Damian Hall, she turned from journalist to elite runner. However, this doesn’t examine her running life in minute detail, it’s more about her relationship with her father and how she worked through her grief following his death. It also examines how to be a parent while training for long-distance endurance events.

Running With The Buffaloes by Chris Lear

The best running books to add to your shelf

Admittedly, not the most gripping of synposes – sports writer Chris Lear follows the University of Colorado’s cross-country team through their 1998 season. However, via unlimited access to the team members, coaches, practise sessions and competition races, he’s crafted a page-turner of a novel about cross country running, and it’s not often you can say that.

It’s aimed more at serious runners, due to the inclusion of detailed training logs which can make for dry reading if you’re not into that kind of thing, but the drama behind the characters in the team more than makes up for the time skimming training sessions (although there are plenty of training tips you can take away from it).

Feet In The Clouds by Richard Askwith

The best running books to add to your shelf

This not only deals with author Askwith’s obsession with completing the Lake District’s famous Bob Graham Round (42 peaks, self-navigated, within 24 hours), but it also serves as an enthralling history of fell-running in the UK, with many of the sport’s great characters and record-holders interviewed, including ‘Iron’ Joss Naylor and Pete Bland.

You don’t need to be a fell-runner to get the most out of this, or indeed have ever tried fell-running – the stories behind some of the records and runs will inspire you, even if it’s just going out for a completely flat 5k loop around the block in the sun. By the end you’ll be talking about races such as the Langdale Horseshoe and Skiddaw like a seasoned fell-runner.

There Is No Map In Hell by Steve Birkinshaw

The best running books to add to your shelf

Another one in the vein of Jurek’s unbelievable challenge, this time in the claggy north of England, specifically the 214 ‘Wainwrights’ in the Lake District. The Wainwrights are a list of hills/summits set out by fell-walker Alfred Wainwright in his influential seven-volume Practical Guide To The Lakeland Fells released between 1955 and 1966.

Fell-running legend Joss Naylor set the record, famously continuing after his shoe rubbed through to the ankle ligament – “it was a pain that bit into me all day… like red-hot needles shoved into my ankles”. Birkinshaw knows his limits – he is not as fast as Naylor, but believes that he has planned a more direct route, and aims to sleep less.

The account of his seven days running is gripping and, in typical Yorkshire style, deadpan and understated – Birkinshaw is an athlete of stunning endurance and humbleness. A true running hero.

Runner: A Short Story About A Long Run by Lizzy Hawker

The best running books to add to your shelf

British runner Hawker has been victorious in the UTMB an unprecedented five times – no other athlete can lay claim to such a vast haul of UTMB golds. However, she remains relatively unknown for her achievements.

This book follows the unassuming runner’s journey and love for the mountains, her first UTMB where she was woefully underprepared, buying her first pair of trail shoes just before starting the race and standing “scared witless” on the starting line, yet still, against all the odds, triumphed against some of the best ultrarunners in the world. Her self-taught approach will get you reassessing your own potential.

The Rise Of The Ultra Runners by Adharanand Finn

The best running books to add to your shelf

Guardian journalist and runner Finn’s latest book follows his introduction to the world of ultra-running. And he doesn’t do things by halves, entering himself into one of the hardest ultras on the planet, the 171km Mont Blanc-skirting UTMB.

In preparation for this epic race, he meets a range of runners and tries to understand why they do it, while taking part in some of the world’s most brutal ultramarathons, including Anglesey’s Ring O’ Fire, which nearly breaks him, and London’s 24-hour Self-Transcendence Race, which leads him to dig deeper than he’s dug before and - in doing so he makes some eye-opening discoveries about himself.

Endure by Alex Hutchinson

The best running books to add to your shelf

Less a running journey, more a deep dive into the science and medical theories behind endurance and how and why runners can access extra reserves of energy when needed. Some of the experiments and athletes Hutchinson talks to will redefine what you see as your own limits.

By examining things like oxygen, hydration, muscle, pain, fuel, VO2 max and how your brain affects endurance, there are plenty of tips you can utilize in your own training and you may well find you can extend your own endurance, which will come in handy during your next marathon.

Running For My Life by Rachel Ann Cullen

The best running books to add to your shelf

A memoir from a true non-runner, Rachel Ann Cullen had never taken much interest in running until she was diagnosed with severe depression and bipolar disorder, having also suffered for years with body dysmorphia and low self-esteem.

Taking up running helped her deal with her demons, and she went from struggling to complete a 10-minute run to a marathon PB of 3.16 at the Yorkshire Marathon. You cannot fail to finish this without not only laughing a lot at Cullen’s internal monologue, talent for humorous description and 90s nostalgia but also feeling inspired to lace up your trainers and hit the trails.

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall

The best running books to add to your shelf

This is the one that can lay claim to changing the running industry and sending a surge of people out on the streets in minimalist running shoes, or even fully barefoot. Released in 2009, journalist McDougall’s journey into the world of ultrarunning paved the way for all the books that have followed since.

In it, McDougal meets runners such as Scott Jurek (see below) and ‘Barefoot Ted’, and runs with the famous Tarahumara runners of Mexico, who can keep going for miles and miles on tyre-tread shoes and a chia-based drink called iskiate. A must-read for anyone with an interest in running.

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes

Best running books: Inspiration guaranteed

Nowadays ultra-running is far from a niche sport. The widespread take-up of new events and long-distance endurance athletes has normalized it to the point where it feels like it was always like this. Back in 2005, it was a different world though – and one man spearheaded the movement.

That man was Dean Karnazes, a marketing executive who suddenly decided to get out and run ridiculously long distances. His story is about exploring the world of ultra-running in a time where there was no social media, when rocking up to an almost impossible endurance event in the middle of nowhere was an alien concept to normal runners.

The book is almost a piece of history now, documenting the early days of ultra-running and how it developed. Whether you're new to the sport or just want to read a riveting and exciting story, it's an incredible overview of how ultra-running started and how the world perceived it.

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