On not overtraining

Overtraining is not my usual worry. Like most Americans, my big problem is undertraining. I never manage to get any serious aerobic exercise during the winter, because I don’t like exercising outdoors in the cold, and I don’t like any sort of indoor aerobic exercise I’ve ever tried. (Stationary bikes and treadmill running are both much too boring.) This past winter I did manage a regular routine of weight lifting and taiji practice. That stood me in good stead for maintaining some basic fitness, but wasn’t really enough.

Since the weather turned warm, I’ve been running and riding my bike a lot. My training log for this week shows:

  • three short (1.5 mile) runs
  • one long (3 mile) run
  • two short (11 mile) rides
  • one long (28 mile) ride

This is all great, but I’ve reached the point where I need to be careful. Up to now, the limitations of my fitness have made it impossible to overdo the exercise. If I ran too fast, I got out of breath and had to slow down. If I ran too far, I got tired and had to walk. Now, though, I’ve gotten fit enough that I could very easily push a little too hard and get hurt.

This is tough, because I’m just getting to the point where running is fun again. Today I finished up my short run and thought, “It’s over already?” Up to now, what’s been motivating me is my memory of how much fun it is to go for a run that’s well within (instead of barely within) my capabilities.

So, this post is mainly to remind me to be careful. My next long run shouldn’t be more than 3 miles. (If I’m smart, the long run after that should probably be 3 miles as well, but I’m probably not that smart.) When I do up the distance, it should probably only go up by half a mile, not by a mile.

If I am careful, I can probably have my long runs up to 4 miles by mid-July and 5 miles by mid-August. That gets me comfortably in shape for the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in late October, giving me a couple of months to train at distance and on trails.

(And it wouldn’t be like I’d be stagnating on the endurance thing. I can pile on some real bicycling mileage without much risk of injuring myself.)

But I still need to be careful. The first time I was running seriously I increased the mileage too quickly—in fact, now that I think about it, in order to get into shape for the very same Allerton Park Trail Race—and hurt my Achilles tendon. It took more than six months to fully recover. I don’t want to do that again.

But I do want to go for some long runs. I remember how good it felt.

Wildlife audience for our exercise

This is the grassy spot near the rear of our apartment complex where we do our taiji practice.

Today’s practice was special because we had an audience: a rabbit, a squirrel, three crows, and two juvenile groundhogs showed up to take an interest in our activity. They didn’t seem troubled (although when a guy came past with a dog on a leash, the rabbit most definitely took notice).

First thing in the morning I’d gone for a run and spotted a gazillion cedar waxwings. (Note: number of cedar waxwings approximate.) Actually, they would have been in this picture, too. Just past the little hill is the Copper Slough, and just across it is the path that runs around Kaufman lake, and it was just about here that I saw them.

I added a second lap to my usual run around Kaufman Lake, bringing the distance up to 2.41 miles—my longest run this season, and good progress toward getting back in shape.

After my run, Jackie and I went for a bike ride. We were testing both the route and ourselves for a possible ride to Philo in a few days. The ride to Philo, with a stop at the Philo Tavern for lunch, is our traditional first long ride of the year. Today’s ride covered the first half of the route to Philo, then headed back into town with a stop at Meadowbrook Park, making it a 17-mile loop. That went fine, so we figure the 28 mile round trip to Philo should be doable no problem.

We’re starting to get all sorts of wild ideas about possible long rides later in the summer. But our local wildlife audience is keeping things pretty wild right here at home.

Hiking and Viking at Forest Glen

Jackie and I went to the Forest Glen Preserve, a nature preserve in eastern Illinois, over near the Indiana border.

We scouted the campgrounds, because the local Esperanto group is planning to some tendumado. We found two, although there’s at least one more.

One is a pretty ordinary Midwestern campground with a mixture of tents and RVs. It was pretty full, but only as crowded as you’d expect on Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend. It had showers and flush toilets, firewood on sale, etc.

Near that one (but far enough away that noise wouldn’t be a problem) was the “tent campground.” It was different in that it didn’t have parking spaces for the campsites. There was an area just a few yards away where you could leave your car for up to 20 minutes to unload, and then you were supposed to move it to a parking area that was still really quite close—I’ve carried my luggage further in a hotel. Still, it seemed to be enough to discourage campers. Even Memorial Day weekend, there was nobody there—sixteen vacant campsites. (It did lack flush toilets. Also, the recent rain had left some of the campsites under water, although the dry sites were also vacant.)

Once we’d scouted the campgrounds, we went for a hike. We picked the Big Woods trail, which a posted list had described as the most rugged of the preserve’s trails. We took that with a grain of salt. Here in the flatland, pretty much any change in elevation seems to qualify a trail as rugged,  but it was somewhat rugged. The train went down twice into ravines, then back up again, and ended at an observation tower at what I assume is the high point of the preserve.

We saw plenty of neat stuff—sugar maples and tulip trees, white oak, sassafras, ferns, various kinds of mushrooms. (I saw what might be the tallest sassafras tree I’ve ever seen. It was huge. I usually think of sassafras as being scrubby little things.)

The trail was muddy, but only very muddy in a few places (plus, of course, the places where it crossed running water). We ran into three very wet, dirty guys with tools who said they’d been doing trail maintenance.

The trail was only a little more than 1 mile, but out-and-back so we got in maybe 2 ¼ miles of hiking.

We left it at just that much hiking, because we still needed to go to the Viking Reenactment, which was the reason that we were visiting Forest Glen this weekend in particular.

Two of the reenactors seemed to focus on fiber crafts. One is a member of the spinners and weavers guild, and was using some of Jackie’s handspun yarn to demonstrate weaving with a warp-weighted loom. We had a fun chat.

The other fiber-crafty person told us about her theory of mud-colored peasants. Many reenactors, she said, end up with clothing in colors of sheep, because dyeing fabric is another whole skill that you need to learn—and making your own natural dyes is two or three more skills (growing or gathering dye plants, and learning how to prepare them for dye use). However, in her experience meeting actual modern-day poor peasants, even the really poor ones go to considerable effort to not be the color of mud. Hence, she proposed, actual Viking-era villagers probably wore clothing that was as brightly colored as possible, within the limits of the natural dyes that were available to them. (They had several sources of yellow, yellowish green, red, and purplish red. Blue was available. A really good green was tricky, because you had to get a good yellow and then overdye with blue.)

Despite her theories, all the other reenactors seemed to be wearing clothing in natural colors.

What with scouting and hiking and viking, it was already lunch time. We had lunch at Gross’ Burgers, then headed home (pausing just a bit at a rest stop to let a severe thunderstorm pass).

A good outing.

Long runs and rides

Bicycle on the side of a country roadI miss being in shape for long runs and long rides, so it’s great to finally be making some progress.

Since I always get out of shape over the winter (I’ve never been able to get myself to run in the cold), I’m always having to ramp up in the spring.

I’ve got a nice 1.5 mile loop that I use for my early season runs. An important milestone is when I’m first able to do a “long” run of longer than that—this year a 2.12 mile run last Sunday. Not very long, but I know from experience that, once I can do a long run, I can ramp the distance up pretty quickly. If all goes well, by mid-summer my “short” runs will be 2.5 miles (same as my short loop, except adding a second lap around Kaufman Lake) and my long runs will be 5 or 6 miles. Still short by distance running standards, but long enough for me to feel like I’ve gotten a good workout.

The biggest obstacle to making proper progress is a pernicious habit I have of letting the weather tempt me into deferring my rest days: When the forecast is for rain tomorrow, I’m inclined to squeeze in a workout today, even if I ought to rest.

That can lead me seriously astray when—as is common on the prairie—we get into a weather pattern with several days in a row where the forecast is for rain tomorrow. Each day I think, “I’ll go ahead an get in one more run today, then take a rest day tomorrow when it’s rainy.” A few days of that, and pretty soon I’ve got sore knees or sore ankles—something that can blight a whole season.

Happily, the rain actually did arrive today, so I’m taking the rest day I should have taken Monday or Tuesday.

I follow much the same pattern with long bicycle rides. All the more so, really, because they’re even more dependent on the weather than a run. But the result doesn’t seem as pernicious. I can wear myself out with a few extra rides on what should be rest days, but so far the result hasn’t been the sort of injuries that set back my training.

So, rest day today. The forecast is for thunderstorms tomorrow as well, but we’ll still get in lifting and taiji, even if we can’t bicycle to them. Then, Friday, back to outdoor exercise. We’re just about ready for our first long ride of the season, traditionally to the center of the universe, for lunch at the Philo Tavern. (That link goes to a post from 2005 about that year’s first long ride.)

Illinois Marathon

Illinois Marathon runnings near mile 18
Lucie Mays-Sulewski in the lead near mile 18 of the Illinois Marathon

Several miles of the Illinois Marathon course run quite close to our apartment, so I thought I’d wander over and watch some of the elite runners go by.

The people who win a marathon run at about a 5-minute-mile pace. So, with the nearest point along the course being roughly mile 18, I figured they’d come past about an hour and a half after the start. My figuring was just about right, but I was a little slow getting out of the house, so the first two runners went by while we were still a block away.

We got to see the rest of the top men go by. They were pretty spread out—it doesn’t look like this is going to be a tactical race at all.

It was a grey, cool day. A bit windy for anyone hoping to get a great time, but otherwise perfect for running a marathon. It was, however, just a bit chilly for standing still. We watched runners go by in ones and twos until we saw the first of the women go by, then headed back home.

[Update: Checking the results, I see that the woman in the picture is Lucie Mays-Sulewski who went on to finish first among the women (and 24th overall) with a time of 2:52:54.]

Doing Taiji backwards

The Taiji form that we’re learning is handed. That is, many of the moves are not symmetrical left versus right. That seemed odd to me. In Aikido, each move has a left version and a right version and we always learned them both ways. My instructor says that some schools of Taiji do learn all asymmetrical moves as both left- and right- handed, but that most, including the version he’d learned, do not.

He told us a while ago that he’d added some mirror-image work to his own practice, and we even did a little bit in class. Many of the students resisted this, and we only did it a couple of times. Still, doing a mirror-image of the form seems like an obvious win to me, so I’ve just recently started to do so in my own practice.

What’s most interesting to me so far is the way doing mirror-image work makes me a beginner again. Not that my study of Taiji is at all advanced, but I had progressed beyond beginner—until this.

It’s a very different sort of being a beginner. When I was learning this form the first time, the hard part was simply learning how the moves went. In the time it took to learn what I was supposed to do, I worked through my coordination issues for executing the move. Doing the moves backwards, my experience is quite otherwise. I know how the move is supposed to go, but executing it backwards requires developing a whole new set of muscle memories. The practice exposes a part of the learning experience that was largely masked before—hidden by not knowing quite what I was supposed to do.

The whole thing is interesting enough that I’m sure I’m going to want to repeat this exercise on the long form, once I’ve gotten reasonably good at doing our short (9-movement) form backwards. I’m also going to have to think about other variations that might let me rediscover being a beginner in other ways.

The obvious varient would be to reverse the form in time—do it from the end back to the beginning. I’m not quite sure what the reverse of the kicks and stomps would be, but for the rest of it, working each form backwards would be straightforward enough. It’d certainly make me a beginner again.

Writing—and exercising—daily

Theodora Goss has a good post about writing every day, comparing it to exercising every day. She makes the point that, when you’re used to exercising every day, missing a day makes you feel crappy.

My own experience has been different, perhaps because my choices of preferred exercise include lifting weights and running, which both tend to wear your body down. They make you fitter, but only if you give your body a chance to recover.

When I exercise several days in a row, I gradually feel more and more beat up. I get sorer and sorer, weaker and weaker. Then, when I take a day off, I feel great. The next day I feel even better. I’ve often joked that it was like the old joke: “Why are you hitting your head on the wall?” “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

It’s actually pernicious. Some stupid bit in the back of my brain notices that feeling great is associated with skipping workouts. It conspires with the parts of my brain that would rather I sleep in and then sit around. It’s not smart enough to understand that I only feel great on a rest day if I had a couple of hard workouts in the days leading up to it.

Despite my particular experience with exercise, though, my opinion on writing matches hers—I do much better when I write every day. It keeps me in the flow of my work. When I write every day, I don’t need to spend as much time warming up, getting started. I definitely don’t need to spend as much time getting back up to speed on an on-going project, but I think it helps even when I’m switching between projects.

Like Dora, I’ve pondered the parallels between daily exercise and daily writing. In some ways they’re the same—there’s a discipline involved that’s definitely self-reinforcing—but in other ways I’m not so sure.

I’ve sometimes overdone the writing—written too many words or for too many hours. When I do that, it’s tough to write the next day. I don’t know what I want to say next, and when I figure it out, it’s harder to find the words. I need to take a day or two off—do some non-verbal work, mull things over for a bit—before I’m ready to get back to work writing. And by then, something has often gone missing. The carefully maintained mental construct of what I’m working on deteriorates very quickly, if I’m not writing every day.

And there, I think, is why exercise is sometimes different. Exercise is all about stress followed by recovery. Writing is about inhabiting the world I’m writing about—something that works best if I do it every day.

How much exercise?

I’ve always struggled to get the right amount of exercise.

I used to blame much of my difficulty on having a job. My experience over the past three years makes it clear that it wasn’t so simple. (It wasn’t completely wrong. Especially when the days get short—when I would be going to the office before sunrise and returning home only after the sun had set—it was very difficult to get enough exercise. That is much improved.)

There have been periods I have managed to get enough exercise. Three different summers I managed to do so by organizing my exercise around training for a future event (twice a race, once a century ride), but those efforts never carried over into the following winter. More successful have been the times when I integrated my exercise into my day’s activities, such as by walking to school or by bicycling to work.

The first time I was running seriously, I kept a training log. At the peak in late summer I was spending just over 100 minutes per day exercising. (That was averaging a 5-hour weekend bike ride in with shorter weekday bike rides, almost daily runs, and two or three sessions of lifting per week.)

The problem was that 100 minutes per day turned out to be more than was sustainable if I was also going to hold down a job, keep up with household tasks, and have a life. Even now that I’m not trying to hold down a regular job, I’ve found it impossible to put 100 minutes per day into exercise.

That’s all prelude to mentioning the extensive coverage in the news lately on a recent study on physical activity and weight gain prevention. For people of normal weight, it seems that one hour per day of exercise was sufficient to prevent weight gain. People who got less exercise gained weight. (The details were complicated. People who were already overweight didn’t seem to benefit from exercise.)

Still, even with the complex result, it seems like a target of 60 minutes per day of exercise is a reasonable one. It seems to be enough to maintain a healthy weight. (That is, if you can’t sustain a healthy weight when you’re getting that much exercise, the solution is not likely to be more exercise.) And it’s well under the 100 minutes that I found unsustainable.

The first news story I saw on the study had a great line, to the effect that if an hour a day seems like too much time to spend exercising, think instead that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

So, that’s going to be my goal: about an hour a day of exercise.

I’ve already got two days a week covered—on Mondays and Thursdays Jackie and I have a well-established habit of doing about 30 minutes of lifting plus 60 minutes of Taiji. If I aim to spend an hour a day on the other five days of the week walking, I can hit my target even if I miss an occasional day due to bad weather or schedule problems.

And I’ve already started. Thursday I did my lifting and Taiji. Yesterday I walked with Jackie for an hour just after lunch. Today I walked into campus for the Esperanto group meeting.

One great thing about this new exercise plan is that I don’t need to work up to it—I’m already in good enough shape to walk for an hour every day. I just need to do it.

Taiji, weight shifting, and intention

One of the practices that we do in our Taiji class is a moving qigong exercise with a Taiji stick where we bring one end of the stick toward us, press that end down and point it down toward a spot outside the foot on that side.

We’d long done two versions of that exercise, one where we just shift some of our weight to that foot, and another where we stand on that foot (lifting the other and moving it close to the foot we’re standing on). We usually start with the former and then go on to the latter after a few repetitions.

In a class last week, though, one of the instructors called out the switch differently, prompting an interesting insight into weight shifting.

The instructor just said something like, “Now shift all your weight to that foot.”

I initially thought that this was some new, intermediate version of the exercise, so I was shifting all my weight, but without actually lifting the other foot.

Right away, I noticed that the instructors weren’t doing some new version, they had just described it differently, so I went ahead and lifted my foot—but only after having shifted all my weight to the foot I was going to be standing on. What a difference! This was obviously what I should have been doing all along.

Comparing the experiences, it was clear that I hadn’t been getting the weight shift properly established before trying to lift the other foot. Of course, once you pick up one foot all your weight is on the other foot, so the result (assuming you don’t fall down) ends up being the same. But the process is much easier and more comfortable if I make a point of getting the weight shifting completed and then raising the foot only after it is no longer supporting any weight.

It’s giving me some interesting insights into intention. I’m comparing the weight shifts I do in other activities, such as walking and climbing stairs. I’m sure there’s more to learn here.