I really enjoy shuffling through fallen leaves in autumn. Walking through wet grass on a hot summer day is even better. But both pale before walking a lush moss-covered forest path.
The bed where the sidewalks are going to go near my dad’s new house is this silty sand: An interesting barefoot walking experience.
Recovering the ability to move well after decades spent sitting still is hard. I’ve spent years working on it, making fitful progress—walking more, running (when I managed not to injure myself), riding my bicycle, lifting weights, doing taiji, etc. I feel better than I have since I was much younger, and I move with more flexibility, mobility, power, and control. I am very pleased with my progress, especially these past three years since I went down the rabbit hole of natural movement, but it was a hard trip.
The internet is a help—there are many, many videos of movement gurus demonstrating how to move well, and many pages with advice, corrections, and exercises for getting from here to there. One good place to start is with Katy Bowman, whose eight books and thousands of blog posts provide step-by-step instructions on recovering the ability to move well (and much else besides). But as I say, it’s hard to do without local support, and until the last few weeks my efforts had just one source of local support—my taiji instructor and community of fellow students (now my students).
So I am delighted that we now have one of Katy Bowman’s students teaching here in Champaign-Urbana: Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. I’ve taken several of her classes and can assure you that she knows her stuff and knows how to teach it.
(She also knows how to geek out about it, which is a marvelous delight for someone like me. I learned so much about shank rotation! Learning to get my humeri into neutral position made a world of difference for my rhomboid pushups.)
I gather that her special interests are things like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction (and pelvic function in general), which are potentially issues for everyone, but especially pregnant and postpartum women, but she also teaches the full range: foot function (did you know that your foot contains 26 bones and 33 joints?), squatting, neutral posture, core function, shoulder mobility, etc.
Getting this sort of local support earlier would have helped me a lot. Although most of the work of recovering the ability to move better comes in the form of time spent moving, it’s easy to exacerbate problems rather than improve things when you start to move more. I’ve certainly limited my own progress many times by trying to up the intensity when I should have been becoming more grounded in the basics, or simply by practicing moving incorrectly.
Taiji is an excellent movement practice, being as it is about having an intention to move in a particular way, and then paying attention to whether or not you are executing your intention. But its roots in martial arts give it a particular focus, and it does not serve all areas of movement equally well.
The first time I tweeted something about Katy Bowman, one of her senior students tweeted back, welcoming me to the fold. I said something like, “I’m just working my way through the archives of her old posts,” to which Petra Fisher responded, “That’s how it starts.” I have to admit that she was right.
If you want to learn to move better, and you’re local to the Champaign-Urbana area, I recommend Ashley Price highly.
Lake Michigan isn’t great for swimming—the water is still pretty cold even in August, it’s kind of polluted, it lacks the extra buoyancy that comes from the salt in ocean water, and there’s no coral. But if what you want is a beach, Lake Michigan has a great one.
Eight years ago my brother convinced me to come to St. Croix for a family reunion sort of thing. We stayed at Cottages by the Sea. The meticulously kept grounds invited barefoot walking, and I was surprised to discover that a week walking barefoot in the grass and the sand cured my plantar fasciitis. (I’d been keeping it under control with Birkenstocks, supportive shoes, rationing the amount of standing I did on hard floors, and strictly limiting the amount of barefoot walking I did. Discovering that barefoot walking on natural surfaces helped rather than hurt was a key early step in my move toward natural movement.)
The Lake Michigan beach has some rocks right down in the surf, but they’re not an obstacle to comfortable walking, because they’re resting on sand and push right down when you step on them (unlike the rocky beach in St. Croix, which seems to be exposed bedrock with a little sand on top). And anyway, just a few feet up the beach from the surf, it’s just sand.
Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live, but it is lacking in beach, so I was glad to get a chance to visit the beach while visiting my dad last week. We drove to South Haven, visited a small nature preserve, and then went to the Van Buren State Park just south of the preserve. I did some beach walking both places.
I loved walking in the sand—soft, comfortable, hot (up where the sand is dry), cool (down by the water), and mildly abrasive. My feet enjoyed it even though my plantar fasciitis is long gone, cured by the taiji practice (standing meditation turns out to be a great way to learn how to stand), and by plenty of barefoot walking on natural surfaces.
It only occurred to me recently that my feet being shoe-shaped (rather than foot-shaped) was a bad thing. I’d some years ago started down the path of “barefoot” running (that is, running in minimalist running shoes), but I’d been focusing on improve my running gait, rather than the shape of my foot.
Once I started walking actually barefoot, I quickly developed an odd callus on the pad of my left index toe. And, looking at my feet, you can see why. Just the bit of barefoot walking I’ve done over the past couple of years has almost normalized my right big toe, which now comes out almost straight from my foot. My left big toe is still canted over at an angle so that it presses up against my left index toe. No wonder I use the toe oddly in a way that produces the odd callus.
Well, something to continue working on.
A few months ago, I wrote about my plan to do some strength training to prepare myself for parkour training this summer. As I’m now working on my plan for the summer, I thought I ought to evaluate how my winter’s training had gone.
There were four specific areas I wanted to work on:
- Wall support/wall dip
- Toe flexibility
Although my progress was mixed, I’m reasonably happy with how things have gone.
I’m most pleased with the hanging. I don’t remember for sure how far I had gotten last summer—I think I remember hanging for forty seconds—but I’m sure I beat it this year. (Recent best: one minute fifteen seconds.) In addition, I started adding negative pull-ups to my workout, and can now do four of them. (And do them with pretty good control.) I may be within striking distance of my first pull-up!
I’ve been quite lazy about the wall support and wall dip exercises. In my brain the reason for this is that I don’t have a good wall to practice on, which is crazy, because the window seat is right here about two feet from where I’m sitting, and it’s a perfectly good place to do the exercise. It’s not perfect, though: It’s too low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, and that means that I can’t do the most parkour-like version of the exercise in which my feet can contribute to the effort. Which is no excuse for not doing the upper-body part of the exercise, but that’s brains for you.
I’m not sure I made much headway with the squatting, although I figured out that ankle flexibility is my main limitation. If I prop my heels up a couple of inches, I can squat down, linger there for a while, and stand back up again. Without the heel support, I need some other aid—something to hang onto to keep myself from topping over backward. I’ve been doing a lot of stretching for calf (and hamstring) tightness, and also just spending some time in a squat (with heel support). I’ve also done some bodyweight squats, going as low as I can, and some goblet squats (where the weight allows me to get all the way down without toppling over, and provides some resistance).
I think I did gain some toe flexibility, or perhaps just a better understanding of my limitations. I’m hoping that I improved enough that I’ll be able to do things like quadrupedal motion barefoot without hurting my toes. In any case, I’m pretty sure that even my most minimal shoes will provide adequate protection that I can train while I continue to work on it.
Besides just progress, I thought I’d mention one further insight: For a while in the autumn I’d been just a little restless during the night—I’d wake up and toss and turn, and often end up getting up for a bit before I was able to get back to sleep. I was very surprised to discover that this immediately got better. My theory is that it was due to the stretching I’ve been doing to improve my squatting: My lack of flexibility meant that I’d start getting achy and uncomfortable after a few hours of lying still, and the stretching improved that almost immediately.
As I said up at the top, I’m working on my plan for the summer. I’ll be sharing those thoughts shortly.
I like to have something around which to organize my walking. Training for our big Kalamazoo to South Haven hike worked great, but having completed that I was looking for something new.
Way back in 2003, some clever people got the idea to go through The Fellowship of the Ring (and a handy Atlas of Middle Earth) and note down all the legs of Frodo’s journey from Hobbiton to Rivendell. Then, as they did their own daily walking, they tracked their progress, noting each milestone as they passed it. (Five miles along; crossed the Great Road from the Brandywine Bridge and entered Tookland.)
Jackie doesn’t seem to have the same strange urge I do to organize walks around some arbitrary or fantasy goal, but she has embraced the idea with some enthusiasm, and decided that we should begin at the beginning and follow the path of Bilbo’s journey to Rivendell. It begins with a hurried dash from Bag End to The Green Dragon in Bywater, then down the Great East Road to a camp site a couple of miles past the three farthing stone, for a total of 11 miles.
We won’t match Bilbo’s journey day by day, but we thought we’d at least start with an 11-mile walk to get into the spirit of the thing.
So yesterday we did.
To make the mileage come out right (and to avoid a boring bit of the walk that we do all the time), we took the bus to campus and started our walk there.
From the Research Park (just across the street from my old office) we walked through campus and on to the Urbana Library (where we returned a library book and checked out another), then went across the street to Lincoln Square Village where we had lunch in their little food court. We went back to the library where we split a brownie for desert and lingered over coffee. Then we headed west across the north end of campus, paused briefly in the Engineering Quad so I could play just a bit of Ingress, and proceeded to the water amenities at 2nd street.
We’d had lunch early, so it was at just about this point that the vitamin D window opened. It was preternaturally warm and sunny, so I took off my jacket and put it in my pack and we spent a half hour or so comprehensively walking the paths through both halves of the water amenities (with my arms exposed to the deadly ultraviolet light of the sun) before heading on to downtown Champaign. We walked through West Side Park, near our 2014 summer place, and then turned south and walked past our 2014–2015 winter palace.
Not far south of there, we passed a house where the grassy verge between the sidewalk and the road was filled with these tiny ceramic houses:
Not exactly Rivendell’s last homely house, but I felt they were adequately in the spirit of elven houses anyway.
From there we proceeded to Hessel Park, and thence along familiar paths to home.
I neglected to run Endomondo, but Google Fit claims I walked 11.1 miles.
It was a great walk! Jackie had a sore shoulder and didn’t want to carry a pack, so I carried not only the library book, but also the first aid kit, our lunches, and water for two.
Speaking of water, last year Jackie bought one of these Camelbak water bottles, and was very pleased with it. I was happy enough using bicycle-style water bottles. But—by sheerest happenstance—the kindly admins at Wise Bread gave me (as a thank-you gift for being one of their writers) the exact same water bottle as Jackie’s—except that mine has the Wise Bread logo.
These bottles are a little bigger than the ones I carried last year. That together with the library book made my pack a little heavier—enough to be noticeable, but not too much for a walk to Rivendell.
I wore my minimalist boots, which seemed like a nice compromise between my regular hiking boots and going barefoot like a hobbit. In the summer I plan to get back to barefoot walking in a big way (although it may be a while before I’m taking my long walks barefoot).
A year or more ago, I came upon a pretty good article (linked at the bottom of this post) with some good, basic exercises intended to provide a base for parkour training. I’d had it in my head to do those exercises last winter and be ready to do some serious parkour training in the spring. I even did some. Then spring came, and I realized that I hadn’t done them consistently enough to have done myself much good. I felt like I’d wasted the winter.
I ended up not pursuing parkour the way I’d planned, mainly because I didn’t want to risk even minor injuries during the run-up to our big Kal-Haven Trail walk, but also because I really didn’t have the base to train seriously.
I want to avoid that this year, so I thought I’d sketch out a plan for building my base for parkour—and as long as I was doing that, I figured I might as well document it here for easy reference.
To help me focus, I’m holding the list to just four things (on top of my usual walking, running, taiji, etc.).
My goal here is to get to where I can do a full, deep squat, and then hang out comfortably in that position. I can get down into a deep squat, but to do so I have to curl forward and stretch my arms forward, to get my center of balance over my feet and not topple over backwards. I’m pretty sure this is due to flexibility issues, rather than strength issues.
I came across a pretty good page on diagnosing and addressing squat flexibility issues, which would have me believe that tight calf muscles and tight hip-flexor muscles are likely culprits.
I’m already doing calf stretches, both straight-knee and bent-knee. I’ll try and be a bit more consistent about that.
The suggested exercise for hip flexors is a crescent lunge, which looks pretty good. Based on other stuff I’ve read, I suspect that I also want to work on releasing my psoas, so I’ll include that as well.
In addition to all this prep work, I’ll also spend some time squatting with some sort of support or another. I know three ways to do this. First, elevate the heels, so that calf tightness doesn’t limit the squat. Second, just hang onto something (like a door frame or a tree trunk) so that I can avoid toppling backwards. Third, do goblet squats, where the weight of the dumbbell works to shift my center of gravity forward.
I might also try prisoner squats. I won’t be able to go all the way down, but it’ll give me a chance to keep my back nice and straight, and then see how low I can go with a straight back.
Success will be when I can get all the way down with a straight back, and then use my hands to manipulate things that are nearby.
Last summer, when I started doing some barefoot walking for the first time in years, I was surprised to discover how much a lack of toe flexibility was limiting me. It interfered with quadrupedal movement in particular, but also all sorts of transitions to and from a standing position while barefoot.
I’ve started working on toe flexibility. My main exercise so far is assuming quadruped position, and then—keeping my weight back on the balls of my feet—sinking my knees toward the ground. When I find the spot where my weight shifts forward onto the toes themselves, I ease off.
Along with that, I’m doing other foot mobility exercises: Lifting my toes individually, spreading my toes, relaxing my foot enough that it can conform around objects, etc.
Last summer I did quite a bit of barefoot walking, and was surprised and kind of sad to find that a few decades of wearing shoes seemed to have fused my feet into solid lumps.
Success will be when I can keep my weight back on the balls of my feet and still get into position for things like planks, push-ups, and lunges.
Hanging from a bar or a branch is one of the things I got started on last winter, and then got distracted and wasn’t consistent about.
Longer term, I want to be able to do pull-ups, but hanging is the place to start. I had worked up to hanging for 30 seconds last summer, but I did a bit of hanging yesterday and found that about 15 seconds was as long as I could manage. I’m ahead of where I started—a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to support my weight with my hands; I’d have been afraid to even try, for fear that I’d hurt something. Still, not being able to hang for even 30 seconds is discouraging. (Not to mention life-threatening, if I find myself in an action movie.)
The progression is straightforward: hanging, then negative pull-ups (where you use a step to get up to the top of pull-up position, then lower yourself), then pull-ups. From what I’ve read, once you can do a 10 or 12 negative pull-ups, you can probably do a pull-up. We’ll see.
I don’t have a perfect situation for this: The benches in the fitness room here are too low to get me up to the top of pull-up position. I can probably use one or another of the pieces of playground equipment. I looked yesterday, but the most likely playground had kids playing at it, so I didn’t try.
Being able to do a pull-up is a key capability for various parkour moves, such as wall climbs.
Success will be a single pull-up in good form from a dead hang.
This is where you put your hands on top of a wall and use them to push yourself up—like a push-up, but with your feet unsupported. I can currently do about one rep of this.
The progression for working up to these is just doing a wall support, where you hold yourself up in the top position.
I don’t know of a good wall for doing this exercise anywhere in Savoy, which seems odd. I wonder if architecture and construction fashions have changed—campus is full of low walls that are prefect for this sort of thing.
Happily, the edge of the window seat in my study is an adequate support, so there’s a spot to do this that’s literally less than one step away from where I’m sitting as I type this. It’s not a perfect spot, because it’s kind of low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, which means that I can’t use my feet against the wall to help. That’s fine for practice wall supports and wall dips, but it means that I don’t have a good place to transition my practice to more specific parkour skills like wall climbs.
Success will be when I can do a dozen or so wall dips with good form.
So, that’s my winter parkour-prep program. With some consistency, I should come into the spring with enough strength and flexibility to jump right into serious training on parkour-specific moves.
Just for completeness, here’s the article I mentioned at the beginning, with a set of basic exercises for building strength for parkour training. I almost didn’t link to it because I don’t like the title, but it’s really pretty good.
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.
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:
I was generally pleased with the Merrill Road Glove shoes that I bought last summer, but they didn’t offer quite enough protection for running on gravel. Because of that, I largely quit running on the gravel road around Kaufman Lake, which had been my standard short run.
To expand my trail-running options for this year, I bought a pair of Trail Glove shoes. Today was my first chance to give them a try, and of course I did my old 1.5 mile Kaufman Lake loop.
It was a good run. I felt comfortable all the way through—no ankle or knee pain. I finished with some energy left, enough that I’m sure I’ll have no trouble running the 2.2 mile Centennial Park loop that served as my standard short run for the second half of last summer. I managed a 11:26 pace, solidly in the mainstream of last year’s runs.
I’m not quite where I hoped I’d be, because I just couldn’t bring myself to put in the miles on the treadmill. I did okay in the first half of the winter, but in the second half, I barely ran at all. Because of that, I’ll have to be somewhat cautious ramping up the distance. I have no doubts about 2.2 miles, but I’ll run that a couple of times before attempting longer distances. I ran almost 6 miles as recently as December, so expect I can recover the capability of running that distance again pretty quickly, but I don’t want to injure myself. Hence: caution.
Still, a good start.
The Trail Glove shoes worked fine—provided adequate protection against hard/sharp rocks while keeping most of the “barefoot” feel of the Road Glove shoes.
One risk: The forecast is for 6 straight days of nice running weather. I’ll need to take a couple of those days as rest days, which may be hard to do.
I knew I’d have to run some low-mileage days, after switching to minimalist shoes and changing my gait (to land on my forefoot instead of my heel). As it turns out, the changes have been more drastic than I’d expected.
With one exception, the changes have all been good. My new running gait feels good and it’s more gentle on my feet, ankles, and Achilles tendons. It’s also faster. I’m not sure yet, but I think it may well turn out to be a lot faster.
The one exception is that running this way instantly destroyed my old running gait.
As I said, I had to cut my mileage quite a bit, and I’d hoped to ameliorate that by doing one long run in my old shoes with the old gait. And I did, sort of: on Sunday I ran 3.1 miles in my old shoes. It was a terrible run. I felt awkward and sluggish and uncomfortable the whole way.
The reason for the reduced mileage is that the new gait really works my calves. They get sore, and I need to take a rest day to recover. After doing 1.5 miles on Thursday last week, I had to take two days off to recover. Then I ran 2.15 miles on Monday, and had to take Tuesday off.
But I discovered something toward the end of Monday’s run: this new gait feels better—and is gentler on my calves—when I run faster.
Much the same was true of my old gait. Each new running season I’d look forward to the day when I could stretch out and run at a more natural pace that was gentler on my legs than the cramped stride I’d resort to early in the season when I could barely run for 20 minutes.
The same seemed to be true of barefoot running. I picked up the pace for the last block or so on Monday, and when I ran faster, it felt a lot better.
So, I made today a tempo run. Basically, I ran my ordinary 1.5-mile short loop, but I ran pretty hard.
Six weeks ago, I did a tempo run where I was hoping to break 17 minutes for my 1.5 run, and was delighted to clobber 17 minutes, finishing in 16:16.
With six more weeks of training, I was not surprised to break 16 minutes. But I was surprised that once again I clobbered it: I did my 1.5-mile short loop in 15:08.
That is, by 49 seconds, the fastest I’ve every run this route. I’ve run faster (this was a 10:06 pace), but only on a track, and only over 1 mile.
Of course, now my calves are sore. I’ll probably have to take a rest day tomorrow—maybe two—and stick with shortish runs for a while longer. But I’ll be doing long runs soon. And I’ll be doing them a lot faster.