Barefoot running—with shoes (and a ladybug)

I decided that I wanted to try barefoot running.

Of course, I didn’t want to actually run with bare feet. That seems stupid (although I suppose it’s another capability that might be worth developing, just in case circumstances arise where I might really need to run in bare feet).

No, what I wanted to do—like many people who have read Christopher McDougall‘s book Born to Run—was try running with the stride that one would use if one were barefoot.

The natural running stride, it turns out, is quite different from the walking stride. In walking, you land on your heel, then rock forward and push off with your toes. If you wear cushiony, padded running shoes, you can run like that too, but it’s not the natural way to run.

The natural running stride is easy to experience—just run in place for a few seconds. You’ll land on your forefoot, absorb the impact with the muscles of your calf and thigh, and then launch yourself off again with those same muscles.

I’ve been trying to run with more of a forefoot strike since I started running again this spring, but it’s hard to do if you’re wearing ordinary running shoes. The heel is not only all cushiony, it’s thick. That means that, unless you exaggerate your forefoot strike, you’re still going to land on your heel.

So, I went to the shoe store, meaning to try out one of the many new “minimalist” running shoes with thinner heels and less cushioning that are now on the market.

Happily, we have a great running shoe store in town called Body and Sole. After trying on three pairs of shoes with progressively less padding and structure, I tried on a really minimalist pair, which felt wonderful. I tested them in the concrete parking lot, taking a turn around the outside of the building, and then a second turn, and then a third. I told the salesman, “That first pair was fine, and I would have bought them. But this pair was the pair that made me want to keep running laps around the building.”

So, now I need to adjust to this new stride. It demands a bit more strength and endurance in the calf muscles (and no doubt in the muscles that keep the bones of the foot correctly arranged as well).

The shoes I ended up, a style called the Road Glove, are made by Merrell, which also provides an extensive website on barefoot running. They feel just like you’re barefoot, except that there’s a sole to protect your feet from sharp/hard/abrasive road hazards.

Following their advice, I just ran half a mile yesterday. I certainly feel it in my calves today. They don’t feel bad, though. Just tired and sore like I got a good workout yesterday. And my tendons and joints don’t feel sore at all.

The timing is perfect for doing a few low-mileage days. On Sunday I ran 5.25 miles for my long run (in my old shoes), so Monday and Tuesday would have been light running days anyway.

Plus, on Tuesday we went for a long bike ride. We rode to Philo and met some friends for lunch at the Philo Tavern. That’s a 28-mile round trip, which we did in an even three hours. (I wrote about an earlier bike ride to Philo in my old Clarion journal.)

Here’s us, on the road to Philo:

Cyclists on the side of the road
Me and Jackie on the road to Philo

And here’s a pretty ladybug that I noticed while we were paused to get that picture:

Roadside Ladybug

I’ve already sent that picture to the Lost Ladybug Project, which is trying to gather data on the native ladybugs, whose distribution is changing due to the importation of non-native ladybugs and climate change.

Guns versus cars

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

Thinking about paleo, with bonus anecdote

I have been on-and-off reading about “paleo” diet and exercise programs (also called “primal”).

I think there’s a lot to paleo, on an evolutionary basis. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of post-paleo lifestyles that have proven to be entirely successful, in the sense that generations of people have eaten all manner of particular diets and been healthy. (Native Americans ate corn, beans, and squash. Scots ate oats and kale. Lots of people ate rice and lentils.) Given that, and the fact that paleo diet programs doesn’t match well with what I like to eat, I’ve only paid a bit of attention to them. Basically, I’ve let them reinforce my preconceived notions.

I have a similarly divided appreciation of paleo exercise programs, but there I think I’ve worked out what was bugging me.

The half I agreed with is that very short bursts of very intense activity should be a key part of an exercise program. I’ve only made limited moves to incorporate this insight into my own workouts, but only because those sorts of intense bursts are hard.

I suspect it would be a really good change to compress my current 20-minute lifting workout into 10 minutes, which I could do if I really hustled between machines and counted the first set of the three leg exercises that I do as a warm-up.

To do so would require some additional mental toughness. It’s really hard to jump off the leg extension machine with your quads burning, and then jump on the leg curl machine and make your hamstrings feel the same way, and then hurry on to the leg press. Taking an extra thirty or forty seconds between machines to recover is a lot easier. (Not to mention inevitable, if you’re working out in a fitness center where you have to adjust the seat and set the weights on each machine.)

The half I disagreed with is the half that seems to dismiss endurance exercise.

Now, it may be that my reading of paleo exercise programs has simply been so cursory that I missed the paleo version of endurance exercise. But it sure seems to me like a large fraction of the paleo folks don’t merely dismiss endurance exercise, they actively disdain it.

That puzzled me, because it seems to me that the paleo human was the quintessential endurance machine.

As I say, I think I’ve come to understand the objection, which is that you can’t do high-intensity endurance exercise unless you eat loads of carbs. The paleo folks think you should do endurance exercise, as long as you keep the intensity level at a level where you can perform on a low-carb diet. Further, they seem to think that the appropriate level supports walking or hiking, but doesn’t support endurance running.

That’s crazy, although it’s understandable. The modern way of training to run is all about prompting the body to mobilize glycogen stores, by depleting those stores and then eating a high-carb diet to replenish and boost them.

That is not the only way to run. You can also engage in endurance activity powered mainly by fat stores.

Begin bonus anecdote:

When I was in high school, I decided to bicycle to Saugatuck, see a play, camp out overnight, and ride home the next day. I didn’t have a cyclometer in those days, and have always claimed that the distance was 75 miles each way. Google Maps tells me that my route (or very close to it) is 69.3 miles. Close enough.

I knew nothing about carb or fat metabolism. I made no plans to get food along the way, and in fact ate very little.

I headed out early in the morning, did just fine for a bit more than the 36 mile I was used to riding, and then bonked at about mile 40. (Bonking is what cyclists call it when you exhaust your body’s glycogen stores. It’s the same thing marathoners call “hitting the wall.”)

I was exhausted. My speed dropped from 14–17 mph down to 7–8 mph. And it stayed there.

That’s the important part of this anecdote. It stayed there. I rode another 30 miles or so that way. I rode it at less than 8 mph, but I rode it. I got up the next morning, still exhausted, got back on my bike, and rode a few miles to a breakfast spot and ate my only proper meal of the whole trip. It didn’t help much. I rode the whole way home at 7–8 mph.

End bonus anecdote.

If you haven’t trained your body to use fat stores for endurance activity, you’ll be pretty slow—as I was on my ride. And you’ll never be fast the way someone who has trained to build up glycogen stores can be. But with a modest amount of training, you can be plenty fast enough to run.

There are times when it is convenient to be able to run for an extended period. If you want to have that capability, you need to run—and not just occasional short sprints during your walks.

We don’t have much direct evidence of what paleolithic humans actually did, but I have no doubt that, in addition to walking a lot, they ran a lot. The human body is just too well adapted for long-distance running for it not to have been a key capability over an evolutionarily long period.

An open-ended run

Yesterday, I went on my first open-ended run of the season.

On earlier runs, I pretty much knew how far I was going to go and what route I’d follow. Occasionally there’d be a bit of room for variation—I might think, “If I’m feeling good, maybe I’ll add a second lap around Kaufman Lake,” or “Maybe I’ll add the leg out to Bradley and back.” But by and large, I knew to within a few tenths of a mile how far I’d run before I took my first step.

The reason was that every run would take me a large fraction of as far as I could run. There was no chance I’d just decide on a whim to go a few miles further, because I couldn’t run a few miles further.

So, it was a great treat yesterday, to head out for a run with only a general idea of where I’d be running, and with no specific plan how far I’d go.

I knew I’d run halfway down O’Malley’s Alley (the short bit of rail trail that I call McNalley’s Alley), and then cut over into the neighborhood south of there. But I’d had only a vague, somewhat aspirational notion that I’d continue on as far as the trail through Robeson Park. But I knew that the trail would cross several different roads, and that I’d be able to head for home on any one of them, if I decided that I’d run as far as made sense.

In the end, I headed home when I got to Crescent. On some future run, I’ll push on as far as Mattis, and maybe continue on down the Simon trail before heading home.

This run, according to my GPS thingy, came to 4.84 miles, which I ran in 54:15, for an average pace of a bit over 11 minutes per mile. And it was a great run. My feet didn’t hurt, nor did my ankles, knees, hips, or any other bits. I did get pretty tired by the end, but not over-tired. In fact, after a bit of a rest and rehydration, I had enough energy to bicycle 9 miles, lift weights, and do an hour of taiji. (The lifting, I must admit, was a rather feeble effort.)

At over 50 minutes, it was definitely a long-enough endurance effort to produce significant levels of endocannabinoids, which I presume is the reason that my memory of the run is mainly just a strong sense that I was having fun and feeling good. There are only a few spots where specific details are sharp and clear—the spot where I had to back up and run on the grass next to the trail, to avoid a muddy patch, the spot where I thought, “There’s a hill here? How did I not know there was a hill here?” and the spot where I slowed to a walk so I could look back over my shoulder and read a street sign, so I’d be able to make a map.

Speaking of which, here’s a map of the run:

The birds think it’s spring

Jackie and I went for our first bike ride of the year. We followed our traditional first-ride route, around Kaufman Lake, past the Olympic Monument, around Parkland College, and then back. This year we went 6.27 miles.

I’d been hearing cardinals for several days, but out on this ride we got definitive expressions of bird spring. The robins are back, as are the red-winged blackbirds. I saw a crow fly up out of Copper Slough with a huge wad of nesting material in its beak.

The ride itself went fine as well. No mechanical problems. No problems with Jackie’s wrist. There had been a couple of previous days when it would have been warm enough to ride, but those days were very windy. It was nice to just wait for today and not have to deal with the headwinds.

I think we’re all set now, to be able to ride whenever we want. In particular, if there’s a day when it’s nice enough to ride first thing in the morning, we could ride to the Fitness Center and then to taiji. (That’s a bit long and complex of a ride to try to combine it with our first “shakedown” ride of the year.)

A fitness goal

Jackie and I hiked at Allerton Park last Saturday. We walked for about two hours, covering about six miles. About midway through the hike, Jackie said, “We should stay in shape so that we can bicycle to Allerton, do a walk like this, and then bicycle back home.”

On the road during one of our 2005 training rides preparing for the Kalamazoo century. Jackie's lost a lot of weight since then. I haven't lost as much, but I am slimmer than here.

Jackie and I hiked at Allerton Park last Saturday. We walked for about two hours, covering about six miles.

About midway through the hike, Jackie said, “We should stay in shape so that we can bicycle to Allerton, do a walk like this, and then bicycle back home.” (For those of you who aren’t local, that’s roughly a fifty mile bike ride.)

Although that seemed like a great idea, I felt compelled to point out that we didn’t have the option to stay in that shape, because we weren’t in that shape.

We have been before. Back in 2005 we got in shape to do a century ride in Kalamazoo. Three of our longer training rides that summer were to Monticello, including one where we went all the way to Allerton Park. We didn’t hike six miles while we were there, but we did go on to do our century ride a few weeks later.

I think we have a shot at that level of fitness this year, mainly because we’re building our fitness over the winter. With a little luck (and plenty of long hikes this winter), we’ll be able to jump right in and do some longer training rides as soon as the weather permits. In that case, we can work up to fifty-mile round trips in just a month or two, meaning that we’ll be able to ride to Allerton as early as April or May.

I’m looking forward to doing long rides all summer, instead of just a few weeks at the end.

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

Storytelling cycling class

Yesterday I heard something unique and fascinating: A group cycling class instructor fashioning a story around the cyclists’ workout.

The group cycling classes at the Fitness Center take place in a room that is reached by walking through the room with mats where I do my ab and back exercises and do my stretching. The arrangement is pretty unsatisfactory, because the cycling class’s music is not only far too loud, it’s also a poor match for my cool-down-and-stretch purposes. Still, it gave me the opportunity to hear this.

I only caught the end. Where I came in, the cyclists were carrying a backpack and were being pursued by someone faster but less nimble. They had to ride really hard for 20 seconds, then ease up and make a sharp turn just ahead of the pursuers, who blew on past and had to regroup. The cyclists got a short respite, then had to ride hard for another two minutes to reach the safe house.

I don’t know who the pursuers were—it sounded more like spies than like zombies (which would have been my choice, but then maybe the instructor had used zombies last week). And the cycling instructor sounded more like a coach than like a storyteller—a real writer could have included rather more telling detail and provided better characterization for the bad guys. But it was still cool.

I’ve seen a few attempts to turn exercise equipment into video games, and of course I build stories around my own workouts all the time. (I assume others who exercise do as well.) But this low-tech application of using old-fashioned storytelling to enhance a workout—using what was essentially a paid storyteller—was new to me.

If it catches on, maybe there’ll be some new job opportunities for writers, at least writers who are very fit.

Jackie broke her wrist

Jackie with book and tea, keeping her broken wrist elevated.

Dismounting her bike as we were arriving at taiji class on Thursday, Jackie got tangled up with the bike, fell, and broke her wrist. (“Are you okay?” I asked. “Evidently not,” Jackie replied, holding up her hand which was visibly displaced from where it was supposed to be.)

Our classmates sprang into action. One ran into the Savoy Rec Center and got an ice pack. Another gave us a ride the emergency room. (Several helped her into the car.)

After getting x-rays and a temporary cast, we saw the trauma surgeon. Because Jackie was not in severe distress, he suggested that we have her scheduled for surgery with the hand and wrist surgeon the following day.

Early Friday morning, the surgeon opened her wrist, attached a plate to her radius, shifted the hand back to where it was supposed to be, and attached the bottom of her hand to the plate as well. Then he put on a smaller cast to support the wrist while it begins to heal. In 10 to 14 days she’s supposed to get that cast off, the stitches removed, some wrist exercises, and a plastic wrist brace to wear for several more weeks (but that can be removed for bathing).

All things considered, Jackie has done really well. She’s not in much pain. (She’s already off the hydrocodone—modest doses of ibuprofen seem to control the pain adequately). The new shorter cast seems quite manageable. (The temporary splint came past her elbow. It was much more inconvenient.) She’s permitted to use her hand, except that she’s not supposed to “push, pull, or lift anything heavier than a coffee cup.”

She’s still coming up with an exercise plan. No bicycling for a while. She won’t be able to lift weights with that arm for a while, although she should still be able to lift with her other limbs. Taiji moves may need to be circumscribed for a while as well. We’ll swap in walking for the bicycling and carry on with the other exercises in modified form.

It’s always a little odd, dealing with health care providers. Except for having a broken wrist, Jackie is in great shape—and that’s unusual these days. They took a medical history from Jackie several times (part of making sure anything that might be an issue for surgery is known in advance). Responding to a long list of potential health problems by saying that she doesn’t have any of them let Jackie feel pretty healthy in spite of her broken wrist.

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.