Ankle dorsiflexion turns out to be useful

For going on two years now, I’ve been working on recovering the ability to squat. I’m not talking about the exercise called the squat, although I do that too. I’m talking about the ordinary human resting posture of lowering your butt down near your heels and relaxing there.

The reason I’ve been working on it for two years is that I haven’t been flexible enough to get into a proper squat. My flexibility has been improving pretty slowly, but it has been improving—I can now get down into a pretty good squat if I have a bit of heel support.

The change that’s been driving the improvement, but (as needing heel support shows) the area where I still need to improve, is ankle dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up toward your knees. It’s the opposite of plantarflexion, which is pointing your toes away from your knees.) To improve my ankle dorsiflexion I’ve been doing a variety of calf stretches with both straight and bent knees.

I don’t really have a before picture, but my ankle flexion used to be just about zero. That is, my ankle would bend 90° (as in standing up straight) no problem, but bending it up further simply didn’t happen. I used to think that was normal, and didn’t really try to stretch my calf to go beyond that range.

Now that I’ve been doing my stretches for a while, I can manage a bit of dorsiflexion:

Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill
Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill

The thing that prompted me to write this post, though, is not that I’m a few degrees closer to being able to squat, but that this added range of motion turns out to be useful for other stuff. In particular, as demonstrated in this picture, walking uphill.

There’s not a lot of call for walking uphill in east-central Illinois, but you can find places where it’s possible to go up a hill. Jackie and I visited one a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself putting my new range of motion to good use.

See, if you can dorsiflex your ankle, then the heel of your back foot can stay on the ground as you stride uphill. This lets you use your glutes to drive yourself forward and upward.

If you can’t dorsiflex your ankle, then your back heel comes off the ground as soon as your front foot goes forward. Now you’re stuck pushing yourself up with your relatively wimpy quads and calf muscles.

I’m not surprised, I just hadn’t though of it. This natural movement stuff turns out to have all kinds of side benefits.

First very long walk in a very long while

Last summer we were doing lots of very long walks, getting ready for our day hike of the Kal-Haven Trail. This year, without that motivating event, we haven’t done nearly as many.

We’ve done plenty of walking, of course. We’ve even taken some long walks. But since our big hike last summer, we’d only done one very long walk, back in October last year. (A very long walk is one longer than 14 miles. That post includes the explanation of how I picked that distance.)

With this lack of very long walks in mind, a couple of days ago I suggested to Jackie that we should go for a 15-mile hike, and we agreed that Saturday looked like a good day for it.

Jackie has signed up to be a Master Naturalist, and because it’s an endeavor of the Urbana Park District (among other groups), she wanted to visit some Urbana parks. So, we made a point of hitting a few as we walked, including Carle Park, Crystal Lake Park, Busey Woods, and Meadowbrook Park. We’d thought to hit the newish Weaver Park, but to do so we’d have had to go a long way along one of two rather uninspiring, somewhat busy streets. We decided to save it for a day when we were out in the car.

We did some casual route planning, but basically we figured we’d just walk to (and around) parks until we hit our 15 mile goal, and then catch a bus to home. And that would have worked great, except that we really wanted to visit Meadowbrook Park, where we had volunteered in a stewardship work day last week. And that would have been fine, except that the Sunday bus service to Meadowbrook is pretty limited.

Once we’d seen the parts of Meadowbrook that we particularly wanted to see, we’d hit our 15 mile goal (or nearly), and I sat down to check the bus timings. Asked for the best way home by bus, Google Maps suggested that we just walk home—about 3 miles, along Race Street and Curtis Road. I suggested to Google Maps that we might want to walk to First and Gerty, where we could catch the Yellow bus home, but that would be almost as far as just walking home—and end up taking longer, because we’d still have the bus ride ahead of us.

In the end, we just walked home. It was okay, even though there aren’t any sidewalks along Race or Curtis. A good bit of the way we had wide swaths of recently mowed grass along the side of the road, which gave us a nice place to walk well away from the traffic. Other places we had to walk right on the edge of the road, but the drivers were all good about steering clear of us (and we had a ditch we could have bailed out into if necessary).

Some of the stretches were pretty weedy, which made for some harder walking, and some places the weeds hid uneven bits in the ground. Those might have been a problem last year, when nearly every long walk we took was further than we’d ever walked before, meaning that our feet and ankles tended to be tired and sore for the last few miles, which is no good for walking over uneven ground.

This year, it turned out to be no big deal. Despite this being our first very long walk since October, our feet and ankles were totally up to it. We were glad to get out boots off and sit down at the end of it, but we could have walked several more miles if that had been necessary.

The total walk came in at 17.78 miles, rather longer than I’d intended, but comfortably over the threshold for a very long walk. And we got to see some very nice parks.

I neglected to get any pictures along the walk, with one exception: I took a picture of the house where Chuck used to live in Urbana so I could send it to him. And, since that’s the only picture I took on this walk, it’s all I’ve got to illustrate this post.

Here you go:

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Free tai chi group practice

img_20160530_091940035_27254416212_oEveryone is welcome to join me and the folks from the tai chi groups I teach for free practice sessions this summer.

We’re planning to meet Monday-Wednesday-Friday 8:30–9:30 AM in Morrissey Park. (If we meet later it gets too hot before we’re done.)

These group practices sessions have no teacher or leader, so they’re free.

These sessions tend to be much like our usual classes:

  • A few minutes of opening exercises
  • Half an hour of moving Qigong
  • Ten minutes of standing meditation
  • A short tai chi form
  • The 48-movement form

This means that most of the hour is accessible to anybody, even complete beginners.

We’re starting Wednesday, June 1st. I’ve promised to show up for the first couple of sessions to help students from my beginner class get started on the longer form. (After that I’ll miss several sessions in a row because I’ll have family visiting, but there are lots of other friendly people there, many of whom know tai chi as well I do.)

Join us!

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Deliberately hilly walk

I think Champaign-Urbana is great. The university gives it cultural and scientific amenities far beyond its size. It’s a cheap place to live, which not only enables my lifestyle, it enables the lifestyle of any number of clever creative people who choose to live where they can make enough from their art to support themselves.

Just about the only thing that CU really lacks is relief—that is, a variation in height from one place to another.

What I mean to say is: it’s really, really flat. Take for example, this image:

Looking toward Yankee Ridge

That’s the hilly direction. I’m looking toward Yankee Ridge, which is about three miles away from where I’m standing. It may not look like much, but that hill in the distance is a big deal when you’re on a bicycle. At least, it is if you’re used to riding in Central Illinois.

Given the terrain, we don’t get enough hiking on hills, unless we make an effort to go to the hills. So, that’s what we did yesterday. We drove to Fox Ridge, a nearby state park which has some hills.

I remember hiking in Fox Ridge last summer, shortly before our big Kal-Haven trail hike, and finding that we were in pretty good shape for dealing with the hills, despite our very limited practice. That was less true this spring. I was a bit tired from my unexpectedly fast run the previous day, and we were both a bit out of shape from a lack of hills over the winter.

Still, we did okay. We saw some spring wildflowers, like these dutchman’s breeches:

img_20160416_101623469_26401844861_oAnd this buttercup:

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And this solomon’s seal:

img_20160416_110056171_26401892471_oTotal hiking was probably only a little over 3 miles, but the hills made it a very different sort of hike than our much longer hikes closer to home. Plus, we got to spend time in the woods.

So, that’s another bonus of Champaign-Urbana: We’ve got Fox Ridge State Park just 50 miles away.

Prairie burn

They burned the prairie behind Winfield Village this afternoon. While I was out for a run, I got some pictures:

 

Rejoice: The sun returns!

The solstice snuck up on me this year. The calendar shows it as being today, which it is if you live east of the United States. But it was actually a few minutes before midnight on the east coast and more than an hour before midnight here.

Happily, Geoff Landis (one of my Clarion instructors) posted a “happy solstice” message on Facebook (with a link to an astronomy site with the details) a few hours before the event, so I was able to appreciate it prospectively.

The longest night of the year has come and gone. I’m glad that’s over.

Why, in just six weeks, it’ll be Groundhog’s Day! And once that happens, it’ll be time start looking for our early spring!

The odd motivating power of an unbroken streak

I have mixed feelings about using the motivating power of maintaining a streak.

Lots of people do it. Lots of writers write every day. Lots of runners run every day. There’s probably no virtuous activity out there that doesn’t have someone who has done it every day (or every week, or every year) for decades.

I understand the power. I feel it too, as I’ll describe in just a moment. But I have mixed feelings about it, primarily for two reasons.

First, it tempts people into doing things they shouldn’t just to maintain the streak.

Any runner who has run every day for years has almost certainly gone for a run even though he or she was sick. If it’s just a cold, that’s merely pointless. But going for a run with the flu is life-threatening.

Second, the demotivating power of a broken streak is huge.

For example, I had a streak going in the game Ingress, where there’s a badge for maintaining an unbroken streak of playing every day. I’d gotten my badges for 15-, 30-, and 60-day streaks. When my 180-day badge was due, I found that had apparently missed a day—my streak had ended at 172 days. I immediately abandoned any thought of getting that badge, and quit making any effort to play Ingress on a daily basis. I still play, but my current streak is 4 days.

Because of those issues, I try to be careful about motivating myself by trying to maintain a streak. I still do it though.

I went for a walk yesterday, only because I’m trying to get out for a walk every day this month.

After I hurt my knees in late October, my ability to walk was constrained for several weeks. It was very sad. I missed the last nice days for outdoor exercise, stuck inside resting my knees.

I find it easy to exercise in the summer, and hard in the winter. Every year I imagine that, if I can just keep going through the fall, I’ll preserve the habit and be able to keep going through the winter. It hasn’t worked very well in general, and certainly is out for this year, so I figured I’d do something different: Establish a new habit. I am perfectly capable of just deciding that I’ll get out and exercise in the winter in particular.

So I did decide that. Specifically, I decided that I’d try to meet the goal I’ve established in Google Fit, to get at least 90 minutes of movement every day.

Google Fit’s evaluation is just a bit odd. It’s central metric is minutes, but what it actually counts is steps, and I have no idea exactly how it translates occasional steps into minutes. It works very well when I go for a walk, but when I do taiji, for example, I get essentially no credit for having moved during that hour.

(As an aside, I should mention that I could just manually enter the hour or two I spend doing taiji. I did that for a while, but it isn’t really satisfactory. Among the great thing about Google Fit are that it’s simple and objective—there’s no need to do anything other than just carry my phone all the time, which I do anyway. Manually entering activity misses the whole point.)

Anyway, yesterday was a cold, wet, snowy day. Just the sort of day on which any sensible person would decide to simply stay inside. But I had this unbroken streak going, and a plan to hit 90 minutes of movement each day in December. So, I went out in the cold, wet snow and walked the remaining forty minutes or so to hit the mark.

Cold, wet, snowy day
Cold, wet, snowy day

During the summer, one can just stay in when the weather is bad, and still get plenty of exercise. Do that in the winter, and it’s all too easy to end up spending three months indoors. So, I am using the power of an unbroken streak to prevent that.

Another couple of weeks, and it will be a habit. A couple of weeks after that, and I’ll have met my movement goal for the month of December—and having gotten that far, I expect I’ll be able to move enough in January and February as well.

For now, though, I’ve just checked—and I see that I need another 24 minutes of walking today.

At least it’s not snowing.

Sore knees; decluttering my workspace

I hurt my knees and toes a few weeks ago, being too aggressive with a new natural-movement thing. Recovery from this sort of injury is best accomplished with a mixture of rest and gentle movement, and that’s what I’ve been doing. My toes got better pretty quickly, but my knees have continued to hurt.

Gentle movement in the form of walking did seem to help, but as the soreness persisted anyway, I started ramping up the amount of rest, figuring that was what was needed. My knees would get better and then get worse again. Extra rest didn’t seem to help. It was very frustrating.

Yesterday it occurred to me that the problem might be the way I was resting: I was spending extra time sitting at my computer.

In particular, I was spending a lot of time tucking my legs back under the chair, resting my feet on two of the chair’s wheels. When I wasn’t doing that, I’d stretch my legs out, but my left leg (the one with the persistently sorer knee) was constrained in how much it could stretch out, because I’d put the subwoofer for my computer speakers under the desk on the left.

So, this morning I made two changes. First, I moved the subwoofer out from under the desk, freeing up space to stretch out my left leg. Second, I lowered my chair, making it easier to put my feet flat on the floor, and less tempting to tuck my legs back under the chair.

I’d had the chair height set with the screen in mind, after some neck issues seven or eight years ago. Those had been resolved by getting computer glasses (I had been tipping my head back to read the screen through the progressive part of my glasses), so I feel free to rejigger the space to address other issues.

Not being an idiot, I’m also trying to spend less time at the computer today, and will go on doing so until my knee is all better.

On a related note: One of the things I’m less able to deal with during the dark days of winter is clutter. Unfortunately, I’m also less able to get my ordinary decluttering tasks done. In the past, this has led to a vicious cycle of clutter making me more depressed and depression making less able to tidy up my workspace. Doing my other workspace reconfiguring left me with a bit of momentum, so I carried on with some preemptive late-fall workspace tidying. Behold:

Workstation 2015That grey box at the far left is the subwoofer, no longer under the desk.

My screen desktop is a photo taken in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration, about five minutes walk from my house. Here it is on Flickr:

Snowy late-fall day at Lake Park Prarie

It’s a beautiful image and well worth clicking through to embiggen.

I share a lot more photos in my Flickr photostream than I end up using in blog posts. After you click through to admire that one, check out some of the others as well.

The vitamin D window has closed

Me in the Snow
Me in the snow. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

Seven or eight years ago, I became aware of research that suggested that vitamin D deficiencies were a possible cause of seasonal depression. As I have long suffered (albeit mildly) from SAD, I figured it was worth trying a vitamin D supplement, and it did seem to help.

I worry just a bit about taking a supplement, because there are dangers with excessive doses of vitamin D. (A random site on the web suggests that doses over about 10,000 IU per day are dangerous, if continued for a period of months.)

So, I prefer to get my vitamin D via sunlight. A pale-skinned person like me can make upwards of 10,000 IU of vitamin D in just a few minutes of mid-day summer sun—but there’s no danger of getting an overdose: your skin keeps making it as long as you’re in the sun, but once saturated with an optimal amount, it starts un-making it as fast as it makes it.

But it’s the UVB light in the sun that makes the vitamin D, and at my latitude (I live at almost exactly 40° north), little or no UVB gets through the atmosphere during the winter. Specifically, the vitamin D window closed this year on November 20th. It’ll open again on January 20th—although of course it’ll be too cold to expose much skin to the sun for a month or two after that.

This past summer, I spent more time in the sun than in years past, and found that it made me feel especially good—like the opposite of seasonal depression. I imagine it’s the extra vitamin D, although I don’t see any way to tweeze evidence for that hypothesis out from the many other possible reasons. Perhaps it was just more bright light (as opposed to the UVB in particular)—surely the sun is the world’s best light box. Perhaps it was just being more active (I tend to get my sun walking or running, not sitting or lying in the sun). Perhaps it was the endocannabinoids produced during the longer runs in particular. Perhaps it was more time in nature (I spend a lot of my outdoor time walking or running in our local prairie and woods), which is known to be good for the mood. Perhaps it was the extra “together time” Jackie and I got on our very long walks. Perhaps it was the solitude of walks and runs by myself, providing space for meditation.

Whatever it was, I miss it in the winter, and I fixate on a vitamin D deficiency as a possible culprit. Maybe I’ll up my supplement dose. Of course, I won’t do just that. I’ll use my Happy Light™. I’ll go for long walks in the cold and snow. I’ll get out in the prairie and the woods. I’ll try to cover all the possibilities. But I’ll keep taking my vitamin D.

More Flickring

I’ve been putting my photos on Flickr for years now—my first photos were uploaded in 2004. I didn’t upload all my photos, just the ones I particularly wanted to share. (In those days, you had to pay for a Pro account to share more than 200 photos. By uploading only occasionally, I stayed under that limit almost until it was lifted.)

More recently, I configured my phone to upload all the photos I take with it to Flickr, but to make uploads private until I go and publish them. I don’t do that for privacy or security. (I figure once a photo is uploaded, it’s effectively public anyway.) I do it this way so that my photostream is a list of photos that I’ve chosen to share, rather than just all my photos.

I think I once had a “Flickr badge” with some of my photos on the sidebar of my blog, but it seems to have gone away at some point. I forget whether there was some technical reason, or if it just got lost when I changed themes or something. In any case, I once again have a widget on the sidebar, showing my most recent shares to Flickr.

It’s pretty far down on the sidebar. In case it’s too far to scroll down, here my most recent Flickr photos, as of this morning:

Preying Mantis

Prairie path in fall

Wooly bear

Jackie weaving squares

Prairie sunset