Reflections on Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley

Out of Thin Air, by Michael Crawley, is an excellent book about running. It’s not a book that focuses on training per se, but there are nuggets of running wisdom interspersed through its engaging storytelling.

Lately, I’ve been on a reading kick and a lot of the books I’m reading have been about running. Some are focused purely on training (think Faster Road Racing or Jack Daniels Running Formula), while others tell great stories about running (think What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and The Perfect Mile).

Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia is mostly framed as the latter. It’s written by Michael Crawley, an anthropologist who also happens to be an accomplished runner. He spent a little over a year living and training with a group of Ethiopian runners to better understand why they run and how they become so successful.

Through the course of the book, you meet some interesting characters and hear about their crazy training exploits – like waking up a 3am to do a hill workout. You learn about their motivation for running, visit different training camps, and follow them on the ups and downs of competitive racing. Michael has a knack for taking his anthropological research and findings and packaging them into an entertaining read.

If you enjoy running, you’ll enjoy reading this book. I know I easily made my way through the book in a few days.

But it’s not just a good story. There are some little nuggets of wisdom in here about running and training. Here are a few of my training-related takeaways, some of which have changed the way that I train and run.

A trail in a forest with lots of tall trees, great for running easy recovery runs.
The forest is a great place for easy recovery runs.

The Forest is a Great Place for Recovery Runs

Many of the easy runs Michael describes in the book start off this way. First, walk to the forest. Second, break into an incredibly slow jog that’s hardly faster than a walk. Three, slowly speed up.

I live near a network of trails, and I love trail running. But I always avoided trails on recovery days.

My trails are hilly – although nowhere near as hilly as the ones these guys are likely running in Ethiopia. Because of that, they tend to get my heart rate up and be a little tougher than running on a flat course. Even when I tried to maintain an easy pace on the trails, I’d find my heart rate increasing, and in some cases I’d be noticeably fatigued the following day.

But when I read in the book that the majority of their easy runs were on forest trails, I gave it another try. For the past two weeks, every one of my recovery runs has been on a trail. I’ve been extra mindful to start slow and keep the pace easy. While an easy recovery run on the road might be 9:30 to 10:00 min/mile, I’ve been running these trails at closer to 11:00 to 12:00 min/mile.

The result? A nice, easy run that leaves me loosened up and ready to go the following day. Yesterday, I did a hard workout (6×1 mile repeats at 10k to LT pace) and I was feeling a little beat up. This morning, I eased into a nice 45 minute jog on the trails and when I checked the data afterwards my heart rate averaged 136bpm. For me, that’s smack dab in the middle of the easy zone (130-140bpm).

This revelation makes it much easier for me to incorporate trail running into my weekly routine. Now, I tend to run three days on the trails – an easy to moderate day Tuesday and easy recovery runs on Thursday and Saturday – and three days on asphalt or dirt roads – an interval workout, a tempo run, and a long run.

There are a lot of benefits to trail running, and I think the increased amount of time on the trails will help keep me resilient and mobile. It prevents some of the repetitive strain of repeating the same exact stride and running mechanics every day.

Get Off the Beaten Path Once in a While

Another revelation about trail running is that you don’t necessarily have to run on the trails.

Michael describes more than one run through the forest where the lead runner meanders through the trees. They duck under branches, circle back on themselves, stomp through mud puddles, and attack hills at random. Every once in a while, he’ll comment on a nice, flat running trail as they run across it and continue until the wilderness.

On the one hand, this increases the novelty of running. When you run the same route day in and day out, it becomes monotonous. I started out with a single loop in my neighborhood, and that was fine for a while. But I don’t think I could consistently run the 40-45mpw that I’m doing now if every one of them was on that same loop.

You can introduce variety by adding new routes and trails, but there’s still a limit if you stick with a defined trail. At some point, everything loses its novelty.

But when you strike out at random through the forest – or even through a city – you can create a unique route every time you go out to run. You might pass by some of the same trees and places, but you’ll never run exactly the same route.

It sounded a little crazy to me at first – just like it seemed to Michael. But I decided to try it. I started my easy trail run on one of the trails, and then I turned randomly onto an open part of the forest. I dodged a few branches, leapt over a few tree trunks, and meandered my way through the trees until I hit a new trail.

It was really an interesting experience. The forest near my house is over 2,000 acres, and I got to explore some parts that I’ve never seen before. I’d been so accustomed to following the blazed trails that I never saw 90% of the forest.

I also realized that doing this made me slow down, and this helped with the recovery aspect of the runs. If I’m on a blazed trail, I tend to speed up – especially if its a doublewide carriage trail. But when I’m picking my way through an unblazed forest, I have to slow down. I take smaller steps, and I never really accelerate. It’s a good way to make sure, especially early in the run, that I’m not pushing myself too hard.

Try it out. Leave the trail, and just head out to explore. And if you don’t run on trails, try turning on a random road you’ve never gone down before. Unless you’re doing a prescribed workout with specific distances and paces, you don’t need to stick with a pre-mapped, pre-determined running route.

Incorporate Speed Every Day

If you read many posts or comments on r/running, you’ll inevitably hear that to learn to run fast, you need to run slow. People are often cautioned to slow down, and there’s a religious belief in the 80/20 concept.

And sure, that’s true to an extent. It’s even evident in the book. Michael describes how their training runs often start out at a pace of 7:00 min/km – which is equivalent to over 11:00 min/mile. For runners who are capable of running faster than 2:10 in a marathon, this seems incredibly slow. They’ll inevitably speed up, but they embrace the slowness.

But what distinguishes the training runs in the book from a more traditional training structure is the range of paces in a given run and the incorporation of speed training every day. That 7:00 min/km run can easily progress to a 4:00 min/km run. Every run also ends with repeated sets of strides to work on speed and form.

Strides are something that I’ve neglected in my running for the past few months, and before reading this book I was starting to incorporate them slightly more often. But I never did them on recovery days. I’d tend to do strides on my one easy to moderate day (Tuesday) and only do slow running on my recovery focused days (Thursday, Saturday).

For the last two weeks, I’ve tried adding strides to the end of my recovery runs, and I really like it. Now, these are not full on sprints by any means. And the speed of the strides will vary greatly based on how I’m feeling on a given day. But I think the point of doing them after an easy recovery run is to help loosen things up and prepare for a faster run the next day.

For example, today I went for my slow trail run. As I closed in on 45 minutes, I made my way back to an open field and did 4 sets of strides. The first set was hardly at my marathon pace. I knew I was tired. I sped up a little bit over the next three, and by the end I was running about 5k pace.

If I was well rested and trying to really work on speed, I’d be going at mile pace or faster. So clearly these strides aren’t developing my high end speed. But I definitely feel looser afterwards, and so far I’ve felt great going into my workout the next day.

Don’t Do “Laps” In Real Life

There are references throughout the book to the idea of doing “laps.” While you might think that a bunch of runners would embrace this – they don’t.

The connotation of laps isn’t something productive. It’s unnecessary movement that doesn’t help you progress. Instead, it hinders your recovery. And recovery is one of the most important components of your long term growth.

If you’re training hard, you shouldn’t spend the rest of the day moving around on your feet. You shouldn’t be out and about, drinking. You should be at home resting, or at least doing something that’s mostly restful.

I’ve been guilty of this sometimes, and I can always tell afterwards. On more than one occasion, I’ve gone out for a long run and come home just in time to start cooking for company to come over. Inevitably, this means that my heart rate is going to stay elevated. When I look at my Garmin later in the day, I’ll notice that my stress levels are high and my body battery is low.

By contrast, on days that I’m able to lay about the house for a couple hours after my long run, I start to feel better and more relaxed, and my metrics on Garmin bear this out.

I’m lucky to have a job that doesn’t require a lot of physical movement. I spend a lot of time on the computer and on the phone. So after my run, after I’ve showered and eaten, I find a comfortable place to sit down and get to work. I try to be mindful of my need to rest – and to avoid running laps all day.

A big breakfast on a table. You don't need to eat before running, unless you want to.
Eat when you feel like it, but don’t rush to get some carbs in during some magical window of time.

Don’t Worry So Much About Food for Recovery

A lot of people seem to worry about whether or not they should eat before a run or how they can immediately eat some food post-run for recovery. A common question on r/running is whether it’s safe to run on an empty stomach, and it’s not uncommon to see people advocate that you feed yourself within a certain amount of time to maximize a magical metabolic window.

Well, the runners in this book couldn’t care less about all that.

Certainly, they eat enough. There seems to be a focus on eating a lot of carbs throughout the day, and at several points throughout the book they eat large meals to fill up after a hard workout.

But there’s absolutely no care in the world about eating immediately or fueling before a run. Michael describes going for a long run, sitting around for a bit, riding a bus a long way home, and not eating for hours afterwards.

If it works for these guys, then it’ll work for me.

Personally, I always run on an empty stomach. Until I start marathon training, I’m not going to bother eating on a run. And when I’m done running, I take my time before I eat. I usually walk a ways to get back to my house, take a few minutes to do a strength and mobility routine, and finally meander up to the kitchen. I’m not waiting hours before eating… but I’m also not bringing a snack along with me so that I can eat it immediately.

Teammates Push You To Run Better

This is one that I struggle with a bit, because I don’t have anyone to run with at the moment. Covid doesn’t help, of course.

Throughout the book, there’s an emphasis on the social and team-based aspect of running. It seems that the Ethiopian runners never train alone, and they’re always open to new friends. In one of the opening scenes, Michael goes off on a run by himself and he immediately meets some new friends who insist that he train with them.

More than once in the book, Michael seems to want to drop off and run by himself at a more relaxing pace. His teammates refuse, and they insistently snap their fingers until he falls in line behind them. It’s like the leader of the group has a certain power to drag other runners along with him.

And through it all, Michael seems to run faster. While he’s an amazing runner in his own right, he’s not in the same league as many of the runners who trains with. He’s not used to the altitude. Yet he makes it through many of the difficult training runs – despite possibly overexerting himself and flirting with overtraining.

Although you can certainly train to be a runner by yourself. Part of the beauty of running is that you don’t need anyone else and you can compete against yourself. But training with someone who is slightly faster than you can help you do things that might otherwise seem impossible.

On the other hand, training with people who are way faster than you is likely to be frustrating and ineffective. Michael can run a 2:20 marathon, while many of the runners he trains with in the book can beat 2:10. If his best marathon time was 2:30 or 2:40, he likely would have been left in the dust much of the time.

With that in mind, I’m content to train by myself right now. I’m still new, and I’m constantly improving. It would be difficult to find a whole group that would train at exactly the right pace for me.

But in a few years, when the newbie gains diminish and my progress plateaus, I may look for the motivation and help of a team.

What Did You Think of Out of Thin Air?

Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I thought Michael Crawley did an excellent job of telling this story and weaving in bits of wisdom about running. I definitely learned some things that influenced my training.

What did you think of Out of Thin Air? What was your biggest take away, and how did it influence your training?

And if you haven’t read it, grab a copy on Amazon. You won’t regret it.

For more books you should check out, see this list of the best books about running.

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