reading list book covers

Reading List: Olympian Mara Abbott’s Top 4 Books for Athletes

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

The arrival of Spring in many locations makes it easy to get excited about being outside and training, but it’s important to be sure you’re bolstering your mental resilience too —whatever your level of competition.

During my own racing career, four books helped shape and sustain me as an athlete. None of them contain training advice, none of them are about bicycles, and only one of them has anything to do with endurance sports at all. Still, this quartet changed my thought patterns, altered my perceptions of challenge and success, and ultimately gave me the perspective and resilience I needed to get through a decade of competition and life on the road.

It is a bit of an eclectic list, so wherever your own head may be as the 2019 racing season heats up, I hope you can find something to inspire you — or at the very least, keep you from getting spring fever on your next recovery day.

When you need some spiritual perspective…


Illusions – Richard Bach

“You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You might have to work for it, however.”

“There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”

If you can’t tolerate a bit of mysticism and spirituality, this is not the book for you. Illusions is narrated by a solo, barnstorming pilot who comes into contact with another man, a self-described messiah. This book tells the story of their time together, and teaches us all that we ultimately control our own perceptions of reality.

My copy of Illusions was a middle school graduation gift from my church youth group leaders. As an athlete, this book reminded me that while sports are a very small part of life’s possibilities, the self-knowledge I gain in training and competition will be equally powerful wherever else I might go. Illusions teaches that while many of our challenges are self created, we require those exact challenges to grow.

If you’re looking to boost mental resilience…

art of learning cover

The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin

“When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away even as we inhale. We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.”

This book was required reading courtesy of my CTS coach, Dean Golich. It is an autobiographical account of Waitzkin’s journey to mastery, first as a child prodigy chess player, and later as a Tai Chi Chuan martial arts world champion. I underlined passages throughout my copy, rewrote them in patterns in my journal, and even texted a quote to Dean just a few months ago, laughing as I realized it applied just as well to life outside of sport.

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The Art of Learning teaches the mental processes that can carry an athlete through both failure and success. Resilience and equanimity are both keys to reaching long-term potential, and Waitzkin’s clear and introspective prose teaches the reader how to apply those principles in his or her own life.

If you’re looking to justify your own level of crazy…

Once a Runner by John L. Parker

“Training was a rite of purification; from it came speed, strength. Racing was a rite of death; from it came knowledge. Such rites demand, if they are to be meaningful at all, a certain amount of time spent precisely on the Red Line, where you can lean over the manicured putting green at the edge of the precipice and see exactly nothing.”

If you have runner friends, they may already know every word of this cult favorite, but I’ve found it to be a better-kept secret in cycling circles. Once a Runner is a fictional account of collegiate miler prodigy Quenton Cassidy. The story delves into his training program and philosophy (which your CTS coach may not actually approve of) and gives insight into the mental development of an aspiring champion.

There are several passages throughout the book that leave the reader wondering if Cassidy might actually be insane. Depending on my own headspace at the time of each particular reading, Once a Runner always provided me with just the behavioral affirmation I sought: It either let me know that I wasn’t alone in my lunacy, or told me that I could go further, because there was someone out there (albeit a fictional someone) who was crazier than I.

If you want to get lost in a story…

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

“Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted.”

The Art of Fielding is the story of Henry Skrimshander, a once-in-a-lifetime-talent shortstop at the fictional Westish College who chokes and loses his ability to throw. It is an engrossing and complex read, and is much more than a sports book—though I did still sometimes have to restrain myself from skipping through the romance bits for the next episode of the Henry-baseball storyline. The Art of Fielding was published to rave reviews from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and many others, and I myself spent one New Year’s Eve finishing it rather than going out to celebrate.

I first read The Art of Fielding at the end of 2011, when I had recently quit cycling in what would ultimately be just a one-year hiatus. I found the passages that described Henry’s devotion to baseball captivating, as they reminded me in perfect prose of the focus, purpose, and simplicity I loved about being a competitive racer. This book was the first thing that made me miss, desperately, the athlete-life that I had been trying so hard to forget, and for the rest of my career it served as a reminder of why I continued to compete.

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Comments 9

  1. Pingback: The Art of Patting Yourself on the Back (but not too much) - Mara Abbott

  2. Absolutely LOVED The Art of Learning. Especially the audio version read by Josh. I have read or listened to this several times! Juts bought Once a Runner on your suggestion. Thanks for the article.

  3. I read Illusions once a year. It’s a magnificent treatise on how to live. I actually believe I can vaporize small clouds (most of the time). Still working on the big ones. Once you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean.

  4. Illusions was my favorite book though HS and College. Sometimes you need to stop clinging to the rocks. I read “TAOF” a few months ago – loved it. No ones asking but I would add “Endure” by Alex Hutchison and “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker to the list of “must reads” for endurance athletes

  5. The first quote from Illusions has influenced my life ever since I read it at 23 yrs old, 38 years ago. It got me traveling around the world, into triathlon racing and living a rancher’s life in Montana. Interestingly, I just pulled out my battered copy last week for another read!

    Thanks for the other suggestions too!

  6. Once A Runner, and the sequel ‘Again to Carthage’ should be required reading for all endurance athletes. Both are such amazing books and incredibly motivating.

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