Barefoot walking (and a little running)

A couple of years ago, I switched to “barefoot” running—with those quote marks there because I was not actually running with bare feet. Rather, I changed my stride, trying to match the stride of someone who was barefoot, landing on the forefoot rather than the heel.

I bought two pairs of minimalist running shoes (Road Glove and Trail Glove, both by Merrell), both featuring thin, flexible soles with zero drop (that is, the sole was the same thickness from the heel to the toe).

The changed stride demanded a lot more strength and endurance in my calf muscles, which took most of the summer to develop, but it felt natural right from the start. In my third summer of “barefoot” running, I’ve had no hint of running injuries, while hitting distance benchmarks that I haven’t hit in years.

However, my ongoing explorations of natural movement have convinced me that walking and running with actually bare feet probably offer some advantages.

The interwebs are full of advocates of barefoot walking and barefoot running, and frankly they’re kind of scary. They tend to be hugely invested in the idea that everybody who wears shoes is totally missing the boat. Their articles on the subject are full of references to the number of bones in your feet (26) and the number of joints (33), with the point being that there are extensive structures in your foot to deal with the challenges of walking on uneven surfaces. Wear shoes all the time, and those structures lose that capacity. The joints adapt to scarcely bending, the small muscles in the foot adapt to the tiny range of motion available inside a shoe. These things are arguably bad, even if the tone of the barefoot advocates sometimes seems a bit overwrought.

I started walking outside with bare feet some time in the late spring. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember going easy on the barefoot walking in the couple of weeks leading up to our big hike, so we must have already been doing it by early June. (My concern was that even a very minor injury—stepping on a thorn, bruising my foot on a rock, stubbing my toe—might be enough to keep me from being able to walk 33 miles.)

Once the big hike was over, I resumed my program of gradually increasing my barefoot walking, first just around the block that includes our townhouse, then more broadly in Winfield Village, then to nearby parks and natural areas.

And somewhere along the way, I started to understand the fervor of those barefoot advocates. Walking barefoot is a transformative experience, in a way that’s hard to make sense of if you only walk in shoes.

First of all, it brought back memories of being a little boy. I spent as much time as possible barefoot as a boy, and (because my parents thought that was fine) that ended up being a whole lot of time. Crossing the parking lots here in Winfield Village—walking on the small bits of grit and gravel that accumulate anywhere cars drive—hurt my feet in exactly the same way they hurt each spring the first few times I crossed Huron Street at the beginning of barefoot season when I was a boy. Crossing blacktop that’s been baking under a hot sun is another pain that’s as fresh in memory as it is distant in years. So is stepping on a thistle. Those things—and the wonderful feeling of stepping from hot asphalt into cool grass—were all things I’d not thought of in 40 years.

Second, the adaptations to walking barefoot are different than I’d imagined them being. Somehow I had the idea that I’d “toughen up” the soles of my feet, and that would protect them from pointy rocks and such. That is happening, but it turns out to be the least important part of adapting. Much more important is recovering enough range of motion in those 33 joints to allow the foot to conform to an uneven surface. Experiencing that process—feeling joints in my feet move in ways that they haven’t moved in decades—has been fascinating.

Third, paying some extra attention to my feet has made me notice that I don’t have nearly as much control over my feet (and especially my toes) as I ought to. For example, although I can raise or lower my big toe independent of the other four, I can only just barely move the other four as anything other than a group. My toes don’t bend back far enough for me to be able to transition from a deep knee bend to kneeling. (This is something that was noticed by instructors a couple of different times when I was studying a martial art of the sort that involve kicking, but the observation never came with a plan for how to improve my toe flexibility.) They’re also quite inflexible bending forward.

Bare feet on the concrete weir in the ditch behind Winfield Village.

Fourth, bare feet are more stable. I mentioned in an earlier post that crossing the weir behind Winfield Village was challenging. I’ve been practicing, and have gotten pretty good at it in both hiking boots and in my minimalist running shoes, but it sure is easier in bare feet.

The adaptations to barefoot walking are taking longer than I remember them taking when I was a boy—or maybe they aren’t. I mean, it probably took me two or three years to go from crawling to being a toddler, to running around the yard barefoot, to being able to walk across the street barefoot. Perhaps now, after 40 years of virtually never going outdoors with barefeet, I should not be surprised if it ends up taking two or three years once again.

Finally, today, three years after switching to “barefoot” running, I actually tried barefoot running. I didn’t run very fast or very far—I spent 33 minutes to go about a mile. I walked parts of the path, as well as stopping to take pictures, and to exercise my squats briefly on the other side of the weir. Even with the caveats: barefoot running.

Oh—I also saw a Great blue heron, and got some nice pictures of the prairie. Here’s one:

our prairie 2

Hill repeats, wall traverse, brachiating

I ran 7.73 miles a few days ago. As best I can tell from my fragmented records, that’s my second-longest run ever, after an 8-mile run I did in 2004 while getting in shape to do the Lake Mingo Trail run that year.

In an email discussion, my friend Chuck lamented that he wasn’t currently in shape to match my feat, blaming part of his circumstance on trying to add mileage too quickly, leading to hurting himself. Looking at my running log, I was surprised to see how few runs I’ve taken this summer—I’m really just averaging about one run a week. I knew in theory that long walks would replace runs to a certain extent, in building and maintaining the fitness needed to go for long runs, but am surprised it replaces them to this extent.

One thing I don’t get enough of around here is hill climbing—it’s just too flat. However, there is one reasonably large hill close to me, in Colbert Park.

The hill at Colbert Park
The hill at Colbert Park

I’ve long wanted to do hill repeats here—run up the hill hard, recover while jogging back down, and repeat. But it’s just far enough from home that on my previous runs to the park, I didn’t manage to do repeats—just up the hill, back down, and then home again.

Today, though, I did five runs up the hill.

Both to and from, I pass Prairie Fields Park, which has a pretty good playground, including a climbing wall.

Playground climbing wall and Prairie Fields Park
Playground climbing wall and Prairie Fields Park

On the way to the park, I paused to do a short wall-traverse, just working my way around the corner there. After I did it, though, I realized that I’d cheated—I’d climbed up to where I could use the top of the wall as a handhold, which made it too easy. So, after my hill repeats, I returned here and did it again, this time avoiding using the top of the wall. I worked my way around the corner okay, but found myself stymied when I wanted to traverse the next segment, where there’s a gap in the bottom. I’ll have to try that again next time.

Back in Winfield Village, I visited one of our playgrounds, where there’s some bars set up for brachiating.

Bars for brachiating at Winfield Village playground
Bars for brachiating at Winfield Village playground

I’ve been working up to being able to swing from bar to bar, but had imagined that I’d need to be able to hang from one hand to be able to do it. Turns out, to swing from one hand to the next you only need to be able to hang from one hand for a moment, and I can already do that. I went from the ladder to the platform, turned around and went back about two bars, but didn’t make it all the way to the ladder. Next time, or maybe the time after.

From a different playground, the one right behind our townhouse, I practiced jumping down, first from a lowish level, about two steps up, and then from slightly higher, about three steps up.

All in all a very satisfactory morning of movement. Plus, in the afternoon, we got in a bit of a walk with Jackie’s mom in downtown Champaign.

Here’s the view from the top of the hill at Colbert Park. It looks like there’s yet another playground going in there as well!

Looking back down the hill
Looking back down the hill

Missing my zombies

I’ve praised the game Zombie’s, Run! several times over the past couple of years. It’s great fun. It’s gotten me out several times to run in weather cold enough that I’d have otherwise just stayed inside. It’s kept me company on several treadmill runs that I’d otherwise not have finished. But I haven’t played it in quite a while, because more and more I find that I want to be fully present in my runs.

This isn’t a big change. I’ve never been much on listening to music or the radio or audio books while walking or running, and not just because of the various dangers, from traffic or muggers or stray dogs or whatever. (Those dangers are real, both from having your ears covered and from being distracted, but I think they’re pretty small, and pretty easy to ameliorate through simple things like looking carefully at road crossings.)

The main reason I didn’t listen to things while running was that I enjoyed running, and didn’t want miss the experience. (And of course, mindful exercise is more effective than distracted exercise.)

Maybe it’s a pretty good compromise to distract myself from my unpleasant workouts—trudging through the cold, running on the treadmill—and maybe I’ll do that again next winter. But lately I’d had no inclination to distract myself.

I feel sorry for the people who find exercise so unpleasant that they need to be distracted from what they’re actually doing. I enjoy my runs too much to want to miss them by being immersed in a fictional world—even a fictional world as much fun as Zombies, Run!

Doesn’t mean I don’t miss my zombies.

Almost a full squat

Along with all the other natural movement stuff I’ve been working on, I’ve been trying to recover the ability to do a full squat—heels down, butt just above the ground. I’ve made enough progress to feel like bragging about it.

This was almost a surprise to me. I’d been practicing with support—hanging onto a door frame or tree trunk, because I’m not quite strong enough and not quite flexible enough to keep my balance without some help. But a few days ago, while out for a run, I paused to retie shoe, and decided to squat to do it, and found that I could very nearly do a full squat—presumably because the running had gotten me warmed up enough to boost my flexibility.

I do want to criticize my form here: my back is way too round. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to load myself up with weights on a bar and try to push it up with my back like this. But I’m not lifting a bar, just my body weight. As a step toward developing the strength, balance, and flexibility to do a full squat, I’m pretty pleased with this.

I captured a little video. It’s kind of slanty, because I did it by leaning my phone against the base of a tree, but I think it accurately captures my current capability.

Views from a run

I used to feel that it was very important to maintain a steady effort during a run. (I would always note in my log if I’d had to walk for a bit.) I’ve completely gotten over that idea. I no longer hesitate to walk or stop for any number of reasons.

Partly it’s that I rarely have to slow to a walk because I’m out of breath—something that was a common occurrence when I was so out of shape. Now I slow down or stop for other reasons—if I step wrong and get a twinge in an ankle or a knee, to traverse a challenging bit of trail with care, to hack an Ingress portal. Or, as I did at several points today, to take a photo.

The run I’ve taken most often since I moved to Winfield Village makes three passes through this prairie:

Prairie Sunflowers on the middle path at the Lake Park Prairie Restoration
Prairie Sunflowers on the middle path at the Lake Park Prairie Restoration

Just a few yards from where I took that picture, I saw this handsome zothie:


After that I cross the ditch that separates Winfield Village from the subdivisions south of us, and run in the Lake Park forest. Today, just after crossing the weir, I saw this little snapping turtle:

snapping turtle
Snapping turtle just south of the weir over the ditch just south of Winfield Village

At the southeast corner of the forest, there’s a patch of thistle. I tried to get a picture of a thistle flower, without much success. This picture of the patch as a whole does a pretty good job of capturing the purple flowers and the reddish grass that was growing with them:

thistle patch in forest
Thistle patch at the southeast corner of the Lake Park forest

So, there you go—views from a run.

It’s a bit over three miles (including a second pass through the prairie after the out-and-back in the forest). With the picture-taking, it took just shy of an hour, giving me an average pace of 18:26. A pretty slow run, but speedy enough picture-taking, and a whole lot of fun.

Dayhiking the Kal-Haven Trail

Two years we trained for this particular very long walk, without getting it together to make the trip to Kalamazoo during the few summer weeks when the days are long enough to through-hike the Kal-Haven Trail in a day. This year we made it happen.

At the trailheadWe meant to be at the trailhead by dawn which was 6:05 AM, but breakfast and final checking of gear took a little longer than we’d hoped. It was almost one hour later when we posed for pictures in front of the sign. We were walking just a few minutes later. Jackie started Endomondo at 7:06.

My brother, Steven Brewer, had offered to drive support, and did a great job. He drove us to the trailhead, met us at four or five points along the way to provide fresh, cold bottles of water, laid out a sumptuous, bounteous feast for lunch, and took pictures along the way. (He has written his own account of the walk.)

We made excellent time through the morning, clocking out a whole series of sub-18-minute miles, and reached Gobles a few minutes before noon.

The crushed limestone surface was great—smooth, level, hard enough for efficient walking, gentler than concrete. (There was one stretch in Bloomingdale that had been resurfaced with asphalt, which was much harder on the feet.)

photo_18363558004_oThere was one downside to the surface, though. Almost as it it were designed that way, my tread caught the limestone and pitched it forwards into my boots. I had to stop every few miles and shake a teaspoon of limestone grit out of my boots.

Still great for walking on, and kinda pretty.

I had made sandwiches, and Steven had gotten all sorts of stuff to go with them—german potato salad, red bananas, hummus, flat bread, raspberries, raw veggies, and brownies for desert.

Trailside FeastBehold our awesome lunch, served trailside, complete with cloth napkins.

It took some minutes to loosen up after we got started going again, but we were almost matching our pace, carrying on with sub-20-minute miles right along until we hit mile 25.

I was still feeling pretty good then. We had slowed down a bit, but as we passed mile 27, I tweeted, “Has blown through marathon distance and is pressing for 33.5 miles. South Haven here we come!”

Pretty much just about then, though, I started dragging a bit. We had walked farther than we’ve ever walked before, and the last few miles were tough.

We pressed on, walking at perhaps a 22-minute pace. Jackie held up better than I did, as you can perhaps tell from this picture, taken very close to the end of the trail. Steven had suggested that we smile, and both Jackie and I did our best:

Approaching South HavenAt that point it was merely a matter of trudging on. We wrapped up at 33.41 miles as measured by Endomondo, and Steven popped us into the car and drove us to the restaurant for a celebratory feast.

At about that point, my body seemed to have lost the ability to thermoregulate—I was shivering so hard my teeth were chattering in the slightly cool air of the South Haven evening.

Jackie wrapped her arms around me to keep me warm, and Steven got this picture as well:

18964591362_299df20f06_oAfter a good night’s sleep, a big breakfast, and a nap after lunch, I think we’re all largely recovered. I stiffen up a bit if I sit still, but am not really even very sore. In the morning we got out to play Ingress, and I was able to walk around pretty much as usual. I’ll take at least one more day off before I go for a run, but basically I feel fine.

We have no plans for even longer walks, but we’ll certainly keep walking, perhaps expanding to multi-day through-hikes of the sort where your gear is schlepped for you from B&B to B&B.

It was a great experience!

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.

Learning to trust my appetite

For most of my life, my appetite was a terrible guide as to how much I should eat: If I ate until I felt full, I gained weight; if I ate few enough calories that I would lose weight, I’d feel hungry all the time.

Late last summer, this changed. It happened like this.

I had managed to lose quite a bit of weight over a period of about three years, and was nearly down to what the National Institutes of Health consider “normal” weight. But just at that point—only three or four pounds above that threshold—my weight loss suddenly slowed.

This was kind of discouraging—especially so, because it seemed there would be no easy way to push on through those last few pounds. I was already eating a good, healthy diet. It was summer, so I had already ramped up my physical activity. I had already cut way back on things like snacks and deserts.

I thought pretty hard about my options, and came to the disheartening conclusion that I would have to resort to “portion control.”

Although the only thing I could think of, this seemed like a terrible idea. I had spent most of my adult life trying to “eat less,” with roughly the same degree of success that one might have trying to breathe less—I could do it for a while, but only through total focus. It never worked for longer than I could maintain that focus.

The next step would have been to ask Jackie to provide smaller servings. But before I got to the point of actually doing so, something very strange happened: All of a sudden, I didn’t want to finish my meals.

This was a very different feeling from what I used to think of as feeling full. I had always been able to tell when I was about to eat too much—the point where, if I had any more, I’d be doomed to hours of feeling overstuffed. Learning to pay attention to that signal had been a key step in the weight loss I’d managed to this point, but this was something different. Long before I’d eaten that much, I was suddenly feeling like I’d had . . . enough.

After a couple of days of this—of leaving a third or more of my meal uneaten because I really didn’t want any more—I did ask Jackie to provide smaller servings. But instead of a desperate and unlikely measure to lose those last few pounds, it was just a recognition of how much I wanted to eat.

I paid attention to this new feeling of how much I wanted—how much was enough. Sometime in the next few months—as I lost those last few pounds, and then continued losing weight at a slow pace—something occurred to me: This was what it’s like to be normal.

Although there’s a lot of obesity these days, even now most people are normal weight. This is—I had always assumed, and now was experiencing first-hand—because most people have a good sense of how much food was enough.

It was easy to start trusting this feeling when it came to eating less. Now that my experience with it stretches back most of a year, I’m starting also to trust it when it tells me I’m still hungry even after eating a normal amount of food.

This used to happen all the time—unless I was eating too much, I’d always be hungry. To lose weight, I’d had to come to terms with this, come up with strategies for not eating as much as my body thought I ought to have.

That was a hard habit to break, but I’m starting to trust my appetite.

Part of what’s letting me do this is that I’ve been tracking my weight for years. Over the past nine months or so, I began to see a pattern: My weight was declining very gradually—on track to fall to the mid-point of the “normal” range in a year or two.

When I’d eat what I thought was an appropriate amount of food and still feel hungry—when I’d stick to what I thought was appropriate and not eat more just because I wanted more—my rate of weight loss would spike up toward the rates that I saw during the previous three years.

Upon reflection, I decided that the basic trend was probably where I wanted to be. I probably ought to lose some more weight—I suspect that the mid-point of the normal range would be an excellent weight for me—but there’s certainly no rush to get there. In fact, a very gradually declining weight is probably extremely healthy, in terms of blood sugar and lipid chemistry.

I’ve about come to trust my appetite—to have some confidence that it will guide me to an appropriate weight and keep me there, if I just eat right, get plenty of exercise, and pay attention—but I’m in no hurry to put it to the test. I’m actually quite happy staying on a slow downward track toward that point, and feel little inclination to sprint for the finish.

What a luxury it is, to have my body tell me when I need to eat more, and then tell me when I’ve eaten enough.

Our last few tune-up hikes

We’ve decided not to do another even longer walk before we do the big hike of the Kal-Haven trail. (Coming up later this month!)

I’d had it in my head that we’d do a 30-mile walk, but the more I thought about it, the less it appealed. Mainly, it seemed like it would make the main event less special. (“Oh. We walked 3.5 miles longer than our longest training walk. Big deal.”)

We will do one more walk of close to marathon distance, somewhere in the 20–25 mile range, but besides that, we’ve been doing some shorter walks of a more rugged nature, hoping to address some deficiencies that cropped up on the marathon-length walk.

In particular, I noticed that toward the end of really long walks, my hips get tired and seem kind of wobbly when I walk over uneven ground. I thought one way to address that, besides doing more longer walks, would be to find some especially uneven ground to hike on. That’s why we went to Fox Ridge and later to Forest Glen—the trails would let us get in some longish walks with some slightly different sources of stress than just more longer.

Today we hiked at Allerton Park, doing a bit over 6 miles of some not-too-rugged trails. We’d had it in our heads to do 6 more miles on the other side of the Sangamon River, but decided to skip it due to schedule constraints—we would have had to rush to get home in time to got to my Esperanto meeting and the farmers market this evening.

Besides the hike, we also took half an hour or so to do some taiji in the Fu Dog garden. That was very nice.

Once again, I got to put my parkour practice to use.

There’s a path that leads—used to lead—to the back of the mansion, and there used to be an iron spiral staircase that got you up to the top of a retaining wall the separates the grounds (at one level) from the steep slope down into the forest and the Sangamon.

We hiked up that trail—what’s left of it—only to find that the iron staircase has been removed.

The wall there would be beyond our capability to climb, but just around the corner (separating the mansion grounds from the pond), the wall is shorter—about chest high.

It’s been a long time, but I just did what I would have done as a boy facing a wall of that height—I put my palms on it, then jumped up high enough that I had enough leverage to go ahead and push myself up onto the wall.

Jackie found that she couldn’t jump high enough to get to where she could push herself on up, so she reached over the top of the wall to where she could hook her fingers over the far side. Then she just scrabbled up as best she could, her boots sliding on the bricks, but catching enough that she managed to get herself up onto the wall.

We were both pretty pleased with ourselves. I doubt if we could have climbed that wall five years ago.

I neglected to get a picture of the wall from today, but here’s a picture from a few years ago, looking across from the far side of the pond (click to embiggen):

allerton mansion retaining wallWe were way over on the right, and our climb was from just above the pond. (There are two walls there. We just climbed the lower wall. There’s a path at that level, and then a second retaining wall up to the level of the mansion grounds proper.)

On an unrelated note, today seemed to be Path Crossing Day for the snails. I scarcely took a step down the path without seeing a snail.

Here’s the first snail I spotted:

trail snail at allerton parkIsn’t he a handsome fellow?