Movement in 2016

This year didn’t have a stunt like last year’s Kal-Haven Trail walk. Instead I tried to spend the year turning my realization that “getting plenty of exercise” is a poor substitute for “moving all day” into something that guided my behavior all the time.

I did not have perfect success. I still spend too many hours sitting at my computer during the day, and then spend too many hours sitting and watching videos in the evening. Neither did I fail. I included movement throughout the day most days of the year, especially through the spring, summer, and fall.

Although movement was my focus I certainly did not give up on exercise. In particular, I used exercise to make progress on developing certain capabilities that I lack.

Exercise

I had four specific things I was going to work on for 2016: squatting, toe flexibility, hanging, and wall dips. I made good progress on all them except the toe flexibility.

Squatting

My limitations in squatting turn out to be almost entirely mobility. (My personal test for this is the goblet squat. Using a modest weight—just enough to serve as a counterbalance so I can get down into a deep squat—I can do a dozen reps.)

The other ways (besides a counterbalance) to compensate for squat-limiting mobility issues are heel bolstering, hanging onto something in front of you, and taking a wide-legged sumo stance. I don’t practice the last, but use it when I want to look in my mailbox (which is down low) or into a low cabinet or the bottom of the refrigerator. I don’t much practice hanging onto something while squatting either. Most of my practice has focused on bolstering.

With a modest amount of heel-bolstering I can now get down into a deep squat, and linger there comfortably. Almost every day I do my calf and hamstring stretches and then do some squatting with progressively lower heel bolstering. I haven’t done as much hip flexor stretching as I probably need to. I’ll add that to my daily routine, both for the stretching itself, and also for the motor control practice—I’m kind of wobbly doing a hip flexor stretch, which probably causes all the related muscles to tighten up some.

Hanging

My hanging is probably where I’ve made the most progress. I can now hang for long enough (90 seconds) that there’s time to do stuff while hanging—things like swinging back-and-forth or side-to-side, pulling my knees up toward my chest, or raising my legs up in front of me.

To just hanging I added negative pull ups. After an ill-advised increase in volume hurt my shoulder in July I eased up just a bit, but still made good progress, working up to 3×5 negative pull ups.

When that turned out not to have enabled even one pull up, I changed the exercise just a bit: Now I’m doing the negative pull ups even slower, trying at each point to see if I can (from that point) lift myself up, or at least stop my descent.

Soon. Soon I will be able to do a pull up.

Wall dip

I thought I was ready to do wall dips a year ago, because I could do wall supports—support myself with my hands on the top of a wall. I could even sort-of do one wall dip—lowering myself and then pushing back up.

I didn’t train that exercise enough in the summer, largely because I didn’t have a good wall to practice on. When I came back to it in the fall, I found that going from one wall dip to two wall dips was quite challenging.

Something that is well-known in the bodyweight exercise community—that I know, but always seem to have trouble applying to myself—is that when an exercise is too hard you should back off to an easier progression.

So, just now that it’s winter, I have finally backed off a bit to an easier dip progression: bench dips (where you have your hands on a bench behind you, with your legs stretched out in front of you, and you lower and raise yourself with your arms while some weight rests on your heels).

I’ve already worked up from 1×8 bench dips to 1×12. Pretty soon I’ll be doing 3×12. Then it’ll probably be time to return to wall dips. I’ll also keep up with my wall supports, when I happen upon a good wall.

Toe stretches

The area where I’ve made the least progress is toe dorsiflexion. That’s been kind of frustrating.

This may be one area where what I need is not just more stretching (which hasn’t seemed to do any good at all) but some sort of deeper tissue work to break up adhesions, recover space in the joint capsule, etc.

It just now, while writing this, occurred to me that I probably I need to expand my focus to include my whole foot and not just the toes. So that can be my winter practice: the same, plus extra foot mobility.

Pushups

I’m adding a fifth area of focus for 2017: Pushups.

They had not been a priority before, because pushing strength in that plane is not particularly important for parkour. And yet, it’s such a basic exercise, it seems silly not to give it a little attention—particularly because I was actually really weak in that area: I could barely do one pushup.

I just decided to add pushups a few weeks ago, about the same time I figured out I should back off from wall dips to bench dips. So when I found I could barely do a pushup, I quickly realized that I should back off to something easier for that move as well. So I’ve just started doing bench pushups (hands on a bench, rather than on the floor). I can do 1×8 of those as well.

Because trying to do a pushup is so easy, I probably won’t wait until I can do 3×12 bench pushups before switching back to regular pushups; I’ll just include an occasional few (as many as I can do) in the mix. Once I can do 5 or 6, I’ll switch back to actual pushups.

Non-Exercise Movement

Walking

Without a stunt walk to work up to, Jackie and I did not walk as much this year as last, but we did plenty of long walks and at least one very long walk. Some of our walking is exercise, but most of it is either just a way to get places, or else companionable social time together—often both.

Running

I also did a good bit of running, especially before August. As I’ve been doing more and more these past two or three years, I skipped most of the short and medium runs, letting walks stand in for those, and just did the long runs. That worked surprisingly well, and in July I did a 7.25 mile run, my longest run in years. This is probably a slider as to whether it counts as “exercise” or not, but I do it as much because I enjoy it as I do it for fitness, so I think it legitimately goes here.

Parkour

Early in the summer I did some training with the campus parkour group, which was great fun. I found it a bit stressful: I’m not strong enough to do some of the basic moves, and I’m too timid to commit to some of the ones I could do if I’d just go for it. I quit going in July when I hurt my shoulder, and then never got started again. I will go back. Maybe being stronger will help some with the timidity as well.

Taiji

I’ve continued to teach taiji, and to do taiji for myself when I’m not teaching it. The qigong practice that we start each session with provides a pretty good mobility routine (although lacking in the things I mention above: hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and toe dorsiflexion). It builds strength (especially leg strength), balance, and precision (matching movement to intention). It includes a meditation practice—in each class we sit for a few minutes and stand for a few minutes, as well as trying to approach the form itself as moving meditation. It fills so many rolls it goes way beyond exercise (although it’s that too).

Push hands

One new thing I added—perhaps the most fun of all—is push hands. Closely related to taiji and qigong, it’s kind of a transitional step between taiji as a moving meditation and taiji as a martial art. It deserves a post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here, and instead just thank the new friends I’ve been able to push with and say how much I’m looking forward to practicing again now that the holidays are over.

Volunteer stewardship work days

This doesn’t really describe a category of movement at all, which is I guess the way in which this is totally not an exercise.

Jackie’s master naturalist program includes a substantial volunteer commitment. It can be met a lot of different ways, but one is working in the various parks, doing things like clearing invasive plants, planting native species, and so on.

I’ve just done a few of these, but spent a couple of hours each time moving. Some of the movement—in particular, gathering prairie seeds—must have been identical to what our ancestors would have done in gathering seeds. Others were perhaps slightly different—we had saws and pruning clippers that our earliest ancestors would not have had—but once something has been cut, the lifting and dragging is right back to being the exact same movements that humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.

I’m always torn this time of year, between looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again, versus motivating myself to get outdoors anyway (also: finding ways to move more indoors). I’m trying to discipline myself not to just defer my plans to the spring even implicitly such as by saying “I’m looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again.”

I’m pleased with 2016, a year of great progress in my movement practice, and I have every reason to hope that 2017 will be even better.

 

Theory and Practice of Neurogenesis

Even though I’m finding my self-care regimen for seasonal depression pretty adequate these days, I’m always interested in more tools. One thing that caught my attention recently was an interview with Brant Cortright in which he talked about his book The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle.

Cortright has a bunch of interesting things to say, one of which I already knew: that depression is not a disorder of serotonin deficiency. According to him—and this I did not know—the way SSRIs work is by promoting neurogenesis. In the interview he said that depression turns out to be caused by a lack of neurogenesis, as are several other disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s).

I checked the local libraries for copies of his book without success, but in my searches I happened upon this article: Successful brain aging: plasticity, environmental enrichment, and lifestyle by Francisco Mora, which seems to cover pretty much the same ground.

People are looking very hard at drugs besides SSRIs to promote brain plasticity, but the whole idea sounds problematic to me, so I’m interested in the various non-drug interventions suggested by Cortright and Mora. Fortunately, it seems that neurogenesis is easy to increase, by doing the obvious things we already know about:

  • Environmental enrichment
  • Calorie restriction
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Adequate levels of certain nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin E).

I think of my artist dates in particular as environmental enrichment, but of course time spent in nature counts as well. The parkour I do probably counts double, because there’s learning how to execute the moves, but there’s also learning to see the environment as a place where those moves are useful.

My weight loss practices have been substantially motivated by the science around calorie restriction as a way to improve health generally, with additional neurogenesis just one factor.

My experience over the previous 30 years convinced me that approaching calorie restriction in a numerical, analytical fashion—tracking what I ate, estimating the calorie content, aiming for some target X% below maintenance—would be unsuccessful. Instead, I came at it from the other direction: If I’m losing weight, I must be restricting my calories.

The caloric deficit implied by my weight loss over the past five years is just about 100 calories per day. Maintenance for me is probably around 1800 calories per day, so I’ve averaged about 5.5% below. It would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve averaged about 10% below maintenance for about half that time, as I’ve generally lost weight during the summers while maintaining a stable weight through the winters. Either number is well shy of the “20% to 40%” reduction that’s been shown to decrease the rate of aging of the brain, but I rather suspect that the benefit exists even at these lower levels—with the added bonus of being sustainable over a much longer period of time. (I mean, how long can you maintain a 40% deficit below maintenance before you simply waste away?)

According to Mora, aerobic exercise seems to increase neurogenesis by the same chemical pathways as calorie restriction. According to Cortright, it has to be aerobic activity of substantial duration—some twenty minutes or more. In particular, the sort of HIIT workouts so beloved of the paleo/primal folks don’t seem to produce the same effect. That’s fine with me: Humans are much too well-adapted for endurance running for me to buy into the idea that primitive humans didn’t do marathon-distance runs when they needed to. Besides, I enjoy long runs.

Of course, neurogenesis is reduced by the obvious things:

  • Neurotoxins (mercury, lead, pesticides, etc.)
  • Traumatic brain injuries (concussions, etc.)
  • High blood glucose levels
  • Stress.

My parents made a considerable effort to keep me and my brother free of neurotoxins, and I have managed to avoid concussions so far. I’m sure I subjected myself to excessive blood glucose levels for years, but I think I’ve got that under control now. I also subjected myself to excessive levels of stress for years, due to the vicious circle of my seasonal depression making me unproductive, my lack of productivity making me stress about losing my job, and the stress no doubt worsening my depression. I’ve got that under control now as well.

Really then, this whole neurogenesis thing doesn’t so much give me new strategies for staving off depression, as provide a conceptual framework for organizing the strategies I’m already using.

Even just that seems worthwhile.

(The image at the top is of these great doors at the Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park. The branching trees reminded me of neurons, a little.)

Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

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.

Continuing our very long walks

Since our big Kal-Haven trail walk in June, we’ve continued to walk, but we haven’t gone on many long walks—and in particular, haven’t gone on any very long walks.

What’s the boundary between ordinary long walks and very long walks? I choose to set an arbitrary dividing line of 14 miles. This is because Jackie and I, by merest happenstance, turn out to each remember having walked 14 miles as our “longest hike ever” in the years before we’d met.

It was with all that in mind that I suggested a couple of days ago that we should go for a 15-mile walk today.

I had in mind more than just ticking off the “very long walk” box. With winter coming, I want to be sure I don’t start thinking that ordinary winter weather is a reason not to go for a long walk. It was chilly this weekend, so I thought a good opportunity to ease our way in to walking in the cold. There are also scheduling issues that’ll make it hard to get a very long walk in during the next week, so it seemed today was our big chance.

It was a wonderful day for a walk—beautiful, clear, sunny weather, crisp in the morning, but reaching 60 in afternoon. We walked up First street to the research park, then turned east and walked along the south end of the Arboretum and through Orchard Downs, before turning south again so we could take a turn through Meadowbrook Park. Then we headed back north along Vine as far as downtown Urbana, so we could have lunch at Crane Alley. (Good beer. I had a Deschutes cinder cone red on nitro. Jackie had an ESB, although I forget which one.) From there we headed west toward campus, headed back south to have coffee at Espresso Royale, then meandered through campus, crossed the railroad tracks and Route 45 to head south along the Boulware path, stopping at Schnucks to get some half&half and tomato paste.

The total distance came in at 14.62 miles, comfortably over the line into “very long walk” territory by my standards.

I didn’t take many pictures, but I did get this one of Jackie in front of the Alpha Sig frat house, Chuck McCaffrey’s old fraternity. This would have been along about mile 10 of our walk.

Jackie in front of the Alpha Sig frat house (Chuck's fraternity).
Jackie in front of the Alpha Sig frat house (Chuck’s fraternity).

Oh, and I wanted to mention that I wore my new boots! I bought a pair of Lems Boulder Boots, minimalist-style boots that I got with an eye to being my main winter boot this season. I got them five or six weeks ago, and have worn them as my everyday boot for most of that time, but this was their first try on a very long walk. Fortunately, they worked great.

New research on endocannabinoids as source of runner’s high

In line with what I’ve been saying for years now, today The Well has a report of new research supporting the hypothesis that endocannabinoids are much more likely to be the source of runner’s high than endorphins. (See my endocannabinoids tag for previous posts.)

The gist of the experiment was to give mice running wheels, and then measure both mood (anxiety levels, as shown by a willingness to linger in light areas, as opposed to staying in the dark) and blood levels of endocannabinoids and endorphins. Then they used drugs to selectively block receptors for cannabinoids. Doing so eliminated any observable anxiety-reduction effects from running. Blocking receptors for endorphins had no such effect.

The study itself: A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice.

In keeping with earlier research on this effect, the amount of running it takes to see a strong endocannabinoid effect was substantial—the mice were running more than 3 miles a day. I don’t know how far three mouse miles is in human miles. Earlier research suggested that 50 minutes of running was sufficient in humans.

So the subtle upshot of the new study may be that we should run. And if we don’t feel a high, perhaps try running more, until eventually a gentle euphoria may settle in and we can turn to our running companion and say, “Ah, my endocannabinoids are kicking in at last!”

I should probably find some running companions to share this with. I almost always run alone, and it seems like my endocannabinoids kick in just about exactly when I no longer feel any urge to wonder about whether they’re going to kick in or not.

Here’s one of the paths through the prairie where I run:

Prairie Path
Prairie Path

Dayhiking the Kal-Haven Trail

Two years we trained for this particular very long hike, without getting it together to make the trip to Kalamazoo during the few summer weeks when the days are long enough to through-hike the Kal-Haven Trail in a day. This year we made it happen.

Two years we trained for this particular very long walk, without getting it together to make the trip to Kalamazoo during the few summer weeks when the days are long enough to through-hike the Kal-Haven Trail in a day. This year we made it happen.

At the trailheadWe meant to be at the trailhead by dawn which was 6:05 AM, but breakfast and final checking of gear took a little longer than we’d hoped. It was almost one hour later when we posed for pictures in front of the sign. We were walking just a few minutes later. Jackie started Endomondo at 7:06.

My brother, Steven Brewer, had offered to drive support, and did a great job. He drove us to the trailhead, met us at four or five points along the way to provide fresh, cold bottles of water, laid out a sumptuous, bounteous feast for lunch, and took pictures along the way. (He has written his own account of the walk.)

We made excellent time through the morning, clocking out a whole series of sub-18-minute miles, and reached Gobles a few minutes before noon.

The crushed limestone surface was great—smooth, level, hard enough for efficient walking, gentler than concrete. (There was one stretch in Bloomingdale that had been resurfaced with asphalt, which was much harder on the feet.)

photo_18363558004_oThere was one downside to the surface, though. Almost as it it were designed that way, my tread caught the limestone and pitched it forwards into my boots. I had to stop every few miles and shake a teaspoon of limestone grit out of my boots.

Still great for walking on, and kinda pretty.

I had made sandwiches, and Steven had gotten all sorts of stuff to go with them—german potato salad, red bananas, hummus, flat bread, raspberries, raw veggies, and brownies for desert.

Trailside FeastBehold our awesome lunch, served trailside, complete with cloth napkins.

It took some minutes to loosen up after we got started going again, but we were almost matching our pace, carrying on with sub-20-minute miles right along until we hit mile 25.

I was still feeling pretty good then. We had slowed down a bit, but as we passed mile 27, I tweeted, “Has blown through marathon distance and is pressing for 33.5 miles. South Haven here we come!”

Pretty much just about then, though, I started dragging a bit. We had walked farther than we’ve ever walked before, and the last few miles were tough.

We pressed on, walking at perhaps a 22-minute pace. Jackie held up better than I did, as you can perhaps tell from this picture, taken very close to the end of the trail. Steven had suggested that we smile, and both Jackie and I did our best:

Approaching South HavenAt that point it was merely a matter of trudging on. We wrapped up at 33.41 miles as measured by Endomondo, and Steven popped us into the car and drove us to the restaurant for a celebratory feast.

At about that point, my body seemed to have lost the ability to thermoregulate—I was shivering so hard my teeth were chattering in the slightly cool air of the South Haven evening.

Jackie wrapped her arms around me to keep me warm, and Steven got this picture as well:

18964591362_299df20f06_oAfter a good night’s sleep, a big breakfast, and a nap after lunch, I think we’re all largely recovered. I stiffen up a bit if I sit still, but am not really even very sore. In the morning we got out to play Ingress, and I was able to walk around pretty much as usual. I’ll take at least one more day off before I go for a run, but basically I feel fine.

We have no plans for even longer walks, but we’ll certainly keep walking, perhaps expanding to multi-day through-hikes of the sort where your gear is schlepped for you from B&B to B&B.

It was a great experience!

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.

Human movement capabilities

I’ve started thinking of my fitness practice more as movement practice. This post is about that shift in my thinking, and if that’s not going to be interesting to you, you’ll probably want to just skip this one.

I have always wanted to be fit, for what I think are mostly ordinary reasons: to be healthy, to look good, to be capable of doing the things that need to be done. For most of my life, my fitness practice fell short of what I thought it ought to be, again for mostly ordinary reasons: I was busy, the weather was bad, I found exercise boring or unpleasant.

I would get my aerobic exercise running and cycling in the summer, and walking year round. When the weather cooperated with a mild spring, I could get in pretty good shape by mid-summer. A couple of years, I even preserved some level of running capability over the winter; one of those years, I ran the Lake Mingo Trail Race, which at 7.1 miles was usually beyond my capability in mid-June when it takes place. But, given the realities of working a regular job (with hours when I needed to be sitting at a computer, rather than out for a run), winter (when I just about don’t cycle or run) and injuries (as my brother likes to say “Running is great exercise, between injuries”), my fitness practice never made me fit for the long term, just fit for a while.

This changed a few years ago, for a couple of reasons.

The less important reason was that my employer closed the site down, and I decided I could get by without a regular job. It means our financial circumstances are a bit straitened, but my hours are my own.

More important, I started practicing taiji.

Taiji gave me balance and control, but much more important, it taught me mindfulness—to be present in my body during my exercise. (I was prompted to write this post at this time because I’ve been reading a blog by Johnathan Mead called Move Heroically, that nicely hits the sweet spot in my evolving interest in fitness. The latest post in particular is on exactly this topic: Embodiment is a Performance Enhancing Drug.)

I like to think of my exercise as building capabilities. I go for long walks because I want to be able to go for long walks. I run because I want to be able to run.

That’s an oversimplification in at least two ways.

For one thing, honesty requires me to admit that I engage in endurance exercise because I like it (perhaps because of the endocannabinoids it generates). A long run at a brisk pace makes me feel good.

More important it’s an oversimplification because specificity of training means that my exercise practice was only building a very narrow slice of the capabilities I imagined. Yes, if I go for a long run every week or two, I do create and maintain the capability to run a long way, but that capability is only barely transferable to other activities. When Jackie and I wanted to go on a century ride, we spent many weeks building up our stamina for long rides. Given how long it’s been since my last long ride, I would not want to stake my life on my capability to bicycle 100 miles without a good bit of training. Maybe fewer weeks because we’re fitter now, but I’d still want weeks of training before attempting another century ride.

It was this realization, in conjunction with my taiji practice teaching me to move more mindfully, that brought me initially to parkour, and more recently to natural movement generally.

Running wasn’t just for fun (although it was fun), and it wasn’t just to be more healthy (although I expect I am). I was explicitly building the capability to run if I needed too. I used that capability sometimes—to catch a bus, to get to an appointment on time—and I imagined that I could use it under other circumstances as well: running away from some danger, running toward someone who needed my help.

But I came to realize that, because of exercise specificity, my capability was a very narrow one indeed. I could run, but I could only barely jump or climb. If I came to a place where I needed to step down I was fine, as long as the drop was only a step or two. But if I needed to jump down by, let’s say, three steps, things got much more problematic. I could climb up a steep path, but am quite daunted if I need to climb up a tree, or cliff, or a wall, or a rope.

That was what brought me to parkour.

Even before I made much progress in the skills of parkour, however, I happened upon natural movement. It shares the roots of parkour, but is less about the specific skills of parkour (vaults and such), and more about basic human movement. Yes, walking and running. Also climbing and jumping and crawling. Balancing. Throwing and catching. Lifting and carrying. Swimming and diving.

So, this is where I’ve come to. I’m very pleased with my walking, and adequately pleased with my running. My climbing skills need considerable broadening. Thanks to taiji, my static balance is okay, but I’m still a beginner when it comes to more dynamic balance. My throwing and catching were never great, and have declined enormously due to a lack of practice since I was a boy. My lifting and carrying skills are deficient, due to too many years lifting weights primarily with machines. If you dropped me in water over my head I could avoid drowning for a while, but unless shallow water or rescue were reasonably close, I would be hard pressed to reach it.

There is a great deal I want to learn (and re-learn) this summer, and I have started in small ways.

weir-behind-winfield-villageThis weir crosses a ditch that runs behind Winfield Village. It’s concrete, a good 12 inches wide, but curved on top, making it a pretty good imitation of a log put across a river to serve as a bridge. I’ve been including it as part of my running route, initially with some difficulty (needing to use the concrete blocks as additional stepping stones), but now crossing on just the weir, and beginning to pick up the pace.

I’m being very careful—Jackie would be quite peeved with me if I injured myself right before our Kal-Haven Trail walk—so I’m not doing much with jumps or vaults yet. But my concept of fitness has broadened greatly, and I’m no longer satisfied with merely a strong heart and strong muscles. I want the full range of human movement capabilities.

Achievement unlocked: Marathon distance

Over the past three years, Jackie and I have done a lot of walks where the distance came in at around 20 miles, but we’d never actually reached 26.2. Yesterday we did.

In many ways, this was just another training walk for our planned Kal-Haven trail walk—which is why we hadn’t hit this distance before: We’re much more concerned with not hurting ourselves before the big walk than we are with hitting any arbitrary distance in advance.

Still, I’m glad to have finally walked 26.2 miles, because now I don’t have to feel like an imposter when I wear my rain jacket:

me-in-marathon-rain-jacket
Me in my marathon rain jacket. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I got this jacket long ago—at least 15 years ago, maybe longer. I remember finding a gore tex rain jacket in the Sierra Trading Post catalog at about an 80% discount. I think it was so cheap mostly because it doesn’t have a hood, which is a deficiency for a rain jacket, but the large marathon graphic on the back may also have put off some people who were not marathoners.

I snapped one up immediately. Only after I had secured mine did I share the catalog with a friend at work who I thought would also be pleased with a cheap gore tex jacket. (He bought one too. For years we were occasional twinsies on warm rainy days.)

All these years it has been my main rain jacket, and all that time I’ve been just a little uncomfortable wearing a jacket so prominently marked as being for marathoners. Now, finally, I can quit worrying about it.

We were walking rather than running, so we were on the road a long time—almost ten and a half hours. (The people who win marathons run them in a little over 2 hours; middle-of-the-pack runners tend to finish in 3–4 hours.)

It was a great walk, although we were feeling pretty tired the last few miles. We went up to our old neighborhood and walked around our old apartment complex. (It looks a bit more empty than when we were there.) We walked up the Greenbelt Bikeway, then headed east to our summer place. (It looks exactly the same as it did when we lived there last year.) Then we walked through the water amenities at Second Street, and onward to Busey Woods. Then down Race Street to Orchard Downs and across through the arboretum and the research park. We went north to Florida to cross the railroad tracks, then headed south along the Boulware Trail and on into Savoy. We went west just a bit to take the path along Prospect down to Curtis and thence to home, taking a slightly long route through Winfield Village (with a tiny diversion into our prairie) to be sure we hit the target mileage.

In the end we went 26.4 miles. Here’s the Endomondo data: