Book Review: How Bad Do You Want It? By Matt Fitzgerald

This is my first book review for the Friday Fitness Blog so we’ll see how the format shakes out over time but here we go:

Overall I loved the book. So if that’s all the review you want there you go, I think you should read it. But, still in general, there’s one thing I really liked about it – it’s very compellingly written. I’ve read, and criticized, books in the past that start every section off with an anecdote about a thriving athlete who then makes a mistake then rises up again. It just feels like lazy emotion pumping ‘inspiration’. But How Bad Do You Want It is thrilling to read, it’s not the format that makes a book good or bad, it’s the writing. Fitzgerald used to write for sports magazines and it really shows, he can summarize people running in clumps in such a way that I nearly held my breath.

Then of course he’d get into the studies of why someone who should have lost didn’t. Sports, and running in particular have gotten really sciencey lately – mostly because you can sell people expensive shit if you science it up a lot, you can’t buy courage – and it’s easy to think that a race is won or lost by glycogen and V02 max. But Fitzgerald wants you to remember, and wants to prove with studies not just anecdotes, that it really is still a matter of who can dig deeper. This book goes really well with Endure by Alex Hutchinson, if you’re the type to pair books like wine as I do.

So let’s dive into specifics:

My first dog ear is about intent. Athletes who decide to use hardship to get mentally stronger do become mentally stronger, more so than athletes who have that intent. And furthermore on intent, something I’m drafting a blog right now about how You’re Not Going To Run Yourself Thin and there’s a study mentioned about people being much more likely to drop out of marathon training if they’re stated goal is weight-loss or social recognition rather than if they’re motivated by personal achievement and self-esteem. So you gotta want it for the sake of wanting it, not for the desired outcome.

Next was about attitude and expectation. Anyone who’s had a hard day at work and then an unexpected hard day a work will get this. Runners who ran for 20 minutes rated their feelings after the 20 minute run as positive, runners who were told they were going to run for 10 minutes then were surprised by a 10 minute extension had their positive feelings, quote, nosedive. It doesn’t say if speed was controlled for and maybe people just went out too hot and got tired but the point is a 20 minute run can be uplifting or terrible based on your mindset. I knew this sort of thing and when I’m running races I often tell myself I’m merely here, don’t think too far ahead, don’t have expectations, etc, things like that.

Ah here’s a good one. Specific goals, as always. After a baseline assessing run some students were given quantitative percentages to aspire to improve by while other were told simply to ‘do their best’ and both groups were set lose to train before being tested again. And yeah, the advice do your best doesn’t cause people to do their best but telling people to get 10% does cause them to get 10% better.

There’s a lot of things we knew vaguely that we, by reading, now know concretely and I really love that feeling. You’d think it would feel redundant but it’s actually affirming. Moving on…

A part I wanted to highlight reminded me of a tedtalk. There’s a lot of talk in the inspiration industry (and yeah, it’s an industry and like all industries it’s goal is to draw more value than it gives. Otherwise it would be a service.) about how Bannister inspired people, made them realize it was possible to break the 4 minute mile and then people started doing it on the reg. Which isn’t quite true. John Landy, the second to break it, was already close and training to do it and was beaten more by coincidence than anything and furthermore the number of people who’ve broken it is still around 1300 and that number shrinks every time you factor in changes in technology as stated in the linked tedtalk.

In the book however we talk about Yvonne van Vlerkan who broke the woman’s Ironman record that had stood for 14 years. Then her record was broken the next year. Then that record was broken the next year. Before 2008 only seven women had run the distance in under 9 hours and by 2011 it was straight up common. Miraculous and inspiring? Probably a change in technology.

If you know about The Hour in cycling you know the same thing happened. They stripped technological advantage away, making people ride with the same level of advancement as classic record holders, and lots of people found out they weren’t actually better.

I’m going to jump to an out-of-order bookmark here because it’s another part where I disagree with the book. Or, I should say, I think the book skews something.

It’s the story of an athlete who, after being shot in a hunting accident (which in the moment he handles quite well as does another traumatically injured athlete in the book so just a side note that being an endurance athlete really does have benefits in a crisis) starts to just tank in cycling. From up and coming champ to complete loser. Then he finds out he has anemia and starts taking iron and he rebounds. The book glosses over it and tells the story like it’s a matter of how he started believing in himself again but come on, he had a physical aliment and he corrected it. That’s not mind over matter, that’s matter.

I’m a much stronger proponent of a Johann Hari style idea (author of the amazing Lost Connections which I wrote about on my other blog here) that the body feeds up to the mind, physical health is mental health, etc. I know from experience that you can’t think yourself out of depression no matter how bad you want it but you can train for a marathon and notice the depression lift as if from the background of your life.

Like I said though I knew that and I think everyone knows that and the positive reminder of How Bad Do You Want It is that it’s possible to become too focused on the body and ideal conditions while forgetting to be mentally tough. So back to the bookmarks and holy cow this post is long… We’re on page 90. I’ll cut this in half.

The next bit is on overly active internal critics so stay tuned for that fun stuff.