Jackie attended the annual Illinois Master Naturalist’s conference last week, and came away with any number of interesting tidbits, but one in particular stuck with me: Forest bathing is like ergonomics.

Both Jackie and I have had our understanding of ergonomics informed by Katy Bowman, who points out:

Modern ergonomics is not the scientific pursuit of what is best for the human body, but the scientific pursuit of how the human body can be positioned (in one position, for eight or more hours at a time) for the purpose of returning to work the next day, and then the next and the next and the next.

Don’t Just Sit There by Katy Bowman; excerpt.

What Jackie learned at her conference was that the Japanese concept of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) has roots in the same idea. When Japanese salarymen started dying from overwork, a lack of exposure to nature was put forward as a partial explanation.

If the problem is a lack of exposure to nature, then immersing yourself in nature is an obvious solution. But, of course, actually immersing yourself in nature would take too much time out of the workday. Hence the research into forest bathing is all about finding the minimum effective dose. There is little or no research into figuring out the optimum time for humans to spend in nature.

Keep that in mind when you read yet another article about how just looking at a forest scene for 20 minutes reduces salivary cortisol 13.4%, or walking in the woods for just 40 minutes improves mood and boosts feelings of health and robustness.

I’m not so much interested in the answer to the question, “What’s the least number of minutes I can spend in nature and not die early from overwork?”

I’m more interested in questions like:

  • If I go for a walk in the prairie, is that as good as going for a walk in the woods? Do I get added benefits if I divide my time between them?
  • Is doing my workout under a tree in a nicely mowed lawn as good as doing it in the woods?
  • Is running past a cornfield or soybean field nearly as good as running down a forest path? How about running past a row of osage orange trees? A suburban lawn? Between two suburban lawns on the other sides of 6-foot privacy fences?
  • If I can’t get to an actual natural area, how should I choose among possibilities like a park, an arboretum, a formal garden, a managed forest, or an unmanaged thicket? How do various water features (lake, stream, creek, natural pond, detention pond, drainage ditch, etc.) affect the benefits?
  • Is just sitting on a concrete patio outdoors better than sitting indoors?

I have my own tentative answers to many of these questions, but very little data.

I did an experiment a couple of days ago: I tested a combined workout that doubled up two pairs of exercises that I’d been doing separately. Up to now I’ve been doing four sessions each week: two where I do pull ups & pushups, and then two where I do dips & inverted rows. (Together with a leg exercise and a core exercise each workout.)

That was working very well, but it meant 4 upper-body strength sessions each week, which is a lot. Throw in a couple of lower-body strength sessions as well (such as hill sprints or kettlebell swings), plus a rest day, and I didn’t have a day to do anything else. This sort of volume has been well for me so far, but I think I may have reached a limit, and would benefit from a cycle of deeper recovery than just a week of lighter workouts: Except for “de-load” weeks in mid-March and mid-June, I’ve been averaging close to 5 workouts a week since the end of January. I’m thinking I want to take it down a notch.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I want to structure my training through the fall and winter. One obvious change was to go from four days of upper-body strength training per week to just three. The problem was that I didn’t see an easy way to evenly cover the range of pushing and pulling exercises at a reasonable volume with just three workouts a week, except by doing both pairs in each workout.

Hence my experiment, in which I did just that.

It was not a complete success. I managed to crank my way through the workout, but it was very long and tough. I don’t think I could keep it up three times a week for months.

Happily, while describing my difficulties to my friend Chuck, I had a brainstorm: I could do threes workouts per week—two of them just like what I’ve been doing (one with pull-ups & push-ups, and then another with inverted rows & dips), and then do just one combined workout. That keeps my workouts even, as far as covering all four exercises twice each week, without being quite so overwhelming as trying to do the combined workout three times a week.

With just three upper-body strength workouts per week, I have four days for other stuff, and I can mix and match as I choose. I can do the hill sprints that Anthony Arvanitakis recommends, or I can do kettlebell swings. (Either of those makes a good HIIT workout.) I can go for a run. I can go for a hike. I can do my animal moves. In particular, I can do two rest days, if that seems like a good idea. (Which I think it probably does. At least my Oura ring thinks so.)

This all got started back in February, when I figured out that I was lacking in consistency. (Previously I’d imagined that the problem was a lack of intensity.) Targeting 5 workouts a week has meant that, even when I miss one, I get in more than when I was targeting 3 workouts a week—even if I didn‘t miss one.

I don’t want to give up the consistency, I just want to take the volume down a notch. Hence the struggle. But I think now I’ve got a plan.

Pair of Speed Force shoes on a handsome rug.

I’ve been meaning for a long time to write about the various minimal shoes that I wear these days, and since Xero recently gave me an affiliate link, now seems the perfect time.

First up is the Speed Force, which is Xero’s running shoe.

My experience with the Speed Force shoes is slightly fraught, because my pair arrived right after I aggravated a long-standing foot injury. To recover from the injury I ended up taking a long break from running, so these shoes have only recently started to get the wear-time they deserve.

Despite that unfortunate association, I really like these shoes. They’re the lightest, most minimal shoes I’ve got.

As part of my foot rehab, I’d did some actual barefoot running, which was highly effective: When I was actually barefoot, running didn’t aggravate my sore foot, whereas when I ran in shoes (even minimal ones), the injury would flare up again. That difference prompted me to remember that these shoes had a removable insole to provide just a tiny amount of cushioning. I took the insole out and that was the adjustment that got these shoes close enough to actually barefoot that I could start running again.

I’m sad that I missed almost the whole summer’s running, but I’ll make do with fall and winter running.

For me, these shoes provide exactly just what I want from minimal running shoes: Some puncture resistance and some thermal resistance. (They also provide some abrasion resistance—comfortable, but perhaps part of the reason my foot injury was so persistent. If you run with correct form there shouldn’t be any abrasion; protecting yourself from it just enables bad form, leading—at least in my case—to injury.)

The Speed Force shoes are the maximally minimal shoes I had been looking for. Check them out at my affiliate link. Buy a pair (or any of the other Xero shoes) and earn me a tiny pittance!

There are several other Xero shoes, boots, and sandals that I wear regularly, which I’ll write about over the next little while.

Since spring I’ve been using some workout plans put together by Anthony Arvanitakis. For eight weeks from late May to early July I did his Superhero Bodyweight Workout, and since then I’ve been following along with bodyweight workouts he’s been sharing for the summer.

One limitation that I’ve had all this time is that I haven’t been able to do the hill or stair sprint workouts that he suggests, due to a lingering foot injury. After repeatedly resting my sore foot until it was nearly all better, and then trying to get back into running, only to have my foot start hurting again, I finally took a full month off. That was enough for my foot to finally feel entirely better, so last week I went for a 3-mile run as a test. My foot didn’t hurt during the run, but was sore again that evening and the next day.

I took another week off from running, and then today decided to try a different tack: Those hill-sprint workouts.

Three things about this make it make sense to me:

  1. Hill sprints are lower impact than running on flat ground (because the ground is higher for each next step, so your foot doesn’t fall as far).
  2. The total mileage is much less (today’s workout was just 0.5 miles).
  3. My running gait is better when I’m sprinting.

Putting those things together makes me think that maybe hill sprints will let me run at least a little without aggravating my foot injury.

Another thing I’m doing is extending my warmup quite a bit. I did my full dynamic stretching routine before heading to the workout location. Once I got there I scrupulously followed the prescribed warmup routine, jogging up the hill at 50%, 60%, 70% and 80% intensity (I actually did 5 preliminary jogs up the hill, at gradually increasing intensity). After each of the last two warmup jogs I did a set of 12 straight-elbow push ups (what I call rhomboid pushups) as preparation for the pushup part of the workout.

The main workout then was 4 sets of sprinting up the hill at 90% intensity, walking down, and then doing as many pushups as I could do with perfect form (I did 10, 10, 8 and 8 pushups).

I also did something I’ve always resisted in the past: I drove to my hill. (This being central Illinois, hills are few and far between. My hill is at Colbert Park.) Usually I don’t like to drive somewhere to get exercise—why not walk or run and thereby get more exercise? But with my sore foot, that much extra running would definitely aggravate the injury. Even walking that far might be an issue.

One thing I need to be careful of is to be sure to get in my full wrist warmup. I’m pretty good about that ahead of a rings workout, but perhaps wasn’t as scrupulous as I should have been this time. But the pushups put enough stress on the wrists that it’s good to get them fully warmed up even before the rhomboid pushups.

I’m pretty pleased with my workout. My foot (really my ankle) is a bit tender this evening. We’ll see how it feels tomorrow. On the schedule I’m (tentatively) following, I’ll be doing hill sprints again Monday. If my foot is completely pain-free at least several days ahead of that, I’ll proceed with that plan.