It’s a bit harder to put this past year in a tidy descriptive box than it has been the past few years. Probably the simplest description would be: The same, but less so.

Last year I did a great job of leaning into exercise as a way to cope with the pandemic. This year started with me feeling like I could imagine that the pandemic would end, and I was focusing of all the new things I could do, once I could spend time with other people—rock climbing, parkour, fencing, historical European martial arts (i.e. sword fighting), etc.

Except then the pandemic didn’t end, and I was left to carry on as best I could with last year’s exercises. I did okay, but not as well as I had done.

In fact, I’m perfectly pleased with the way I maintained my capabilities. Late last year I checked and documented that I’d pretty much accomplished the baseline goals that I’d set for myself (see Five years of parkour strength training). I just checked again, and I’ve not backslid on those.

Last year I didn’t even think about setting new baseline goals, because my plan had been to move on from these solo training goals to training with other actual people. This year I’ve felt like I needed to at least think about it, but so far I’m not feeling it. I do want to recover the ability to do a few pull ups (again!), but that’s about the only physical benchmark of that sort where I feel like I want or need specific improvement.

It’s not that I’m a perfect physical specimen; it’s just that I don’t have much attachment to being able to squat this much weight or deadlift that much. I want to be strong enough to pick up something heavy and carry it a reasonable distance, but I don’t feel much need to put specific numbers on that weight or that distance.

I wrote a day or two ago about how I gradually shifted to more running and less lifting, which has been great. But in the middle of the year I spent some months doing less of everything—I had a minor medical issue in the spring, then we took a vacation, then I went to visit my dad, then Jackie had her hip replacement (meaning that I had to pretty much take over running the household for a few weeks). I did okay in terms of not backsliding too much, but I didn’t make much forward progress, and it has only been in the last six weeks or so that I’m really getting back to doing what I want to do.

So, where to go from here? I guess I want to:

  • Continue to emphasize running, moving from two runs a week to three.
  • Let the lifting sessions settle in at just two a week, but amp up the intensity.
  • Get back to including a HIIT session every week.
  • Take Jackie for a walk or hike every single time she wants to go, even if it means delaying or canceling a workout.

I’ll aim to do something just like that in January and February. Along about March or April I will want to do the Superhero workout that I couldn’t do last year—that’ll be a brief interruption in my shift back to more running and less lifting, but just for eight or nine weeks. In mid-summer we have a plan for a hiking vacation in North Carolina, so in May and June we’ll want to gradually boost the amount and speed of our walks, and be sure to include plenty of hikes on trails, and to get in as much elevation change as possible in Central Illinois. I’ve got a couple more trips planned for late summer (assuming the pandemic allows), including attending WorldCon, but it’s only the hiking trip that will have much influence on my movement strategy.

So, I guess I have a plan.

For years I had trouble running into the winter. I eventually figured out that I’d simply had the wrong idea about how to do it. I’d imagined that if I just continued running through the fall, I’d gradually ease myself into winter running. That never worked—because there are plenty of warm days (or at least warm hours) through early fall, and then in middle or late fall there is (identifiable only in retrospect) a last warm day, and then it’s cold nearly every day until late March or early April. So even if I ran through fall, if I chose to get in my runs during the warm hours, I wouldn’t actually develop tolerance for the cold, the wardrobe for handling it, or the skill at picking the right garments.

A couple of years ago I failed to run through the fall, and then decided to develop a winter running habit anyway. I bought a few pieces of cold-weather gear—plenty, because I was generally only running once or twice a week.

I started with the sweats I wear to teach taiji, and then I added two pairs of tights—one sort of classic running tights, and then another pair of fleece tights, that ought to be good down to colder than I’m every likely to try to run in.

For tops I generally wore a regular sweatshirt over a regular cotton t-shirt. Then I got some short- and long- sleeved merino t-shirts, which are vastly better as a base layer. I also dug out a capilene half-zip top that my dad gave me a few years ago, which was just the thing when it got a little colder.

I also got a washable merino knit hat in high-viz yellow, and two different pairs of gloves in high-viz yellow—first a pair from the dollar store, which were not nearly warm enough, then a pair from Amazon that I think was marketed to people directing traffic, that were dramatically more high-viz, but still not quite warm enough.

Me in winter running gear
Me in my tights, capilene top, high-viz hat, vest, and gloves

Now that I’m in my third year of winter running—and now that I’m running more times per week—I’ve added a few more pieces of winter running garb.

I bought a third pair of high-viz gloves, these from Illinois Glove company, which are finally warm enough, and almost as high-viz as the previous pair.

Last winter I picked up a pair of Janji Mercury Track Pants, which are wonderful. Size medium fits me perfectly, they’re warm enough down to well below freezing (and I rarely run when it’s below freezing, because of slipping hazards). I liked them so much I picked up a second pair last year, and just now got a third pair (because a couple of weeks ago I wanted to go for a run and both of the first two were already in the laundry).

Last year I added another quarter-zip pullover in some high-tech fabric that I picked up cheap at Amazon, and just now today another fancy Patagonia capilene base-layer top that I can wear either by itself, over one of my merino T-shirts, or under a wind-proof or water-proof layer.

I’ve gone running five or six times in the last couple of weeks, at temperatures ranging from right at freezing up to maybe 50℉, and so far I’ve managed to nail it each time as far as matching the warmth of the clothing to the conditions outside.

I have one more piece of running gear that I’ve ordered, but that hasn’t arrived: a headlight. Normally I just don’t run when it’s dark. (Since I don’t work a regular job, I have the freedom to choose to run only during daylight.) But a couple of times in the last few weeks, I wanted to go for a run that would start in the daylight, but might not finish until after dark. I figured that a headlight might be very useful as a just-in-case piece of safety equipment, even if I didn’t plan on doing much nighttime running. I ordered this Spriak Wide-Beam headlight, which seems like it would serve my purpose as emergency safety gear. If I end up running in the dark on purpose, rather than by accident, I’ll be tempted to step up to this Petzl Headlamp that offers 3x to 15x the battery life, and what looks like a rather better system for fitting the whole thing on your head, but costs 10 times as much ($200 vs. $20).

(FYI: Those Amazon links are affiliate links. The non-Amazon links are not.)

If circumstances develop in any sort of interesting direction—if it turns out that the gear I’ve got doesn’t cut it for this or that sort of conditions, or if I decide that I need some other bit of fancy running kit, or if one of the things I’ve got turns out to be even more suitable than I’ve already described, I’ll go ahead to write another post.

If you’ve got great winter running gear, I’d be very interested to hear about it! Comment below or reach out on social media or by email (see my contact page for ways to connect to me).

My workout was a medium-length run of 3.97 miles which I ran in 1:06:45, but that was not my only activity. Besides that, I also hiked a similar-length trail at Homer Lake with Jackie.

The walk was especially nice, and we’re very pleased that (with her new bionic hip) Jackie is once again able to walk reasonable distances. We walked about 2.72 miles in 1:24. There were some very nice views of Homer Lake, as well as some deer, some blue jays, and a handsome snek that I failed to get a decent picture of.

I did get a decent picture of Jackie:

Besides the pictures from Homer Lake, I also got a picture of a handsome Red-tailed Hawk while I was out running, taken quite close to home. (See at the top of this post.) He was still there as I returned home.

I should mention that the run was actually quite a bit longer than my exercise-tracking app gave me credit for. (Google Fit estimates the distance at 4.46 miles.)

You can get an idea of just how much my exercise-tracking app shorted me from this map, if you know that I ran around the lake at the north end of of my run (and not as the map suggests, through it), and that I generally followed roads and paths (without cutting nearly as many corners as the map suggests).

I want to reassure people that I will not be posting all of my workouts going forward. I just wanted to post a representative strength training session and run, so that I’d have then here as examples.

Rings on a pull up bar, weights, yoga mat, etc.

I originally got gymnastic rings 18 months ago, when Winfield Village closed its fitness room due to the pandemic.

It’s a great fitness room, and I’d really enjoyed using it for workouts over the previous six years or so, but once I started doing my workouts outdoors with gymnastic rings, I found that I liked that even better, so I carried on with my outdoor workouts even after the fitness room reopened this spring.

These last couple of weeks, the weather is no longer as nice as it has been since early April, so I’ve started experimenting with ways to move my workouts back indoors, without losing the extra fun I’ve been having with gymnastic rings.

Last week I did an indoor workout that was very similar to what I’d been doing a couple of years ago. Today I tried to something more like my outdoor workouts—specifically, by bringing my rings along, and putting them up on the chin-up bar.

I did my usual morning exercises before heading over. Once I was in the fitness room, I put my rings up at the right height for dips or inverted rows, and did just a bit of additional warming up, doing some straight-elbow rows and straight-elbow push ups.

That done, I proceeded into my circuit, which consisted of the following for three rounds:

  • Skater hops x 35
  • Dips x 3 full dips + 4 negative dips
  • Goblet squats 35 lbs x 12
  • Inverted rows x 12
  • Hollowbody holds 60″ first two rounds, then 30″ for last round
  • Prone angels 2.2 lbs x 12

I still had a little energy after three rounds of that, so I did two rounds of a little mini-circuit to hit my deltoids, biceps, triceps, and forearms:

  • Zottman curls 15 lbs x 12
  • Dumbbell runners 15 lbs x 12 each side with one foot forward, then x 12 each side with the other foot forward

The whole workout took just over one hour, and left me feeling pleasantly tired, without making me feel so worn out as to imperil the run I have planned for tomorrow.

Whether I’m trying to “get enough exercise” (as I tried to do for years), or trying to “fill my days with movement” (which I’ve realized is a much better way to think about my physical activity), training has been a constant. As someone who has only rarely trained as part of a group, or had a teacher or coach, a lot of my training has been solo training.

Often my focus was on endurance training: preparing for very long walks, foot races, or a 100-mile bike ride. I also did strength training. And my training often included skill training—Tai Chi, parkour, tennis (long ago), even fencing (one brief term in college).

Training by yourself is hard. It’s hard to motivate yourself to go out and do it, and it’s hard to push yourself enough to make good progress (and if you’re good at pushing yourself, it’s hard to know when to take time to recover instead). For skills-based training, it’s hard to learn those skills without a teacher or coach. And for activities with any sort of competitive element, such as tennis or fencing, it’s especially hard to train without a partner. This has been particularly acute during the pandemic, but really it’s always true.

And here is where Guy Windor’s new book The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training comes in.

A lot of the specific information in the book is stuff I’ve figured out myself over the years: Some training is just about impossible to do without a teacher (learning your first Tai Chi form) or a partner (practicing return of serve in tennis). But for most activities, that fraction of the training will be much less than half of your training. Much of the rest of your training is either easy to do by yourself (strength and endurance training), or at least possible to do by yourself once you’ve learned the skill well enough to be able to evaluate your own performance (practicing a Tai Chi form, for example).

The key is to spend some time figuring out the entire scope of your training activities, and then think deeply about what category each activity falls into.

To the extent that your access to a teacher, coach, or partner is limited (as during a pandemic), emphasize the things that are easy to train solo (such as strength training and endurance training), then judiciously add those parts of the training that are advantaged by (or require) a teacher or partner as they are available.

What Guy Windsor adds to this sort of intuitive structuring of training is, as the title suggests, a method. He has systematized the structure in a way that makes the decision-making parts of the activity easier to do and easier to get right.

Perhaps even more important than that, he has taken a step back to talk about all the parts of training that aren’t just skills training for your particular activity. That other stuff—sleep, healthy eating, breathing, mobility, flexibility, strength training, endurance training, etc.—are actually more important than this or that skill, while at the same time being the bits that are easiest to train solo. If you’re stuck for a year with no partner, no teacher, and no coach, but you spend that year focusing on health and general physical preparedness, you’ll scarcely fall behind at all, and make yourself ready to jump into your skills training with both feet once that’s possible again.

I should mention that Guy Windsor’s book was written with practitioners of historical European martial arts especially in mind, but that scarcely matters. It is entirely applicable not only to practitioners of any other martial art, it is entirely relevant to literally anyone who trains in anything.

And, since many of my readers are fiction writers, I should also mention another of Guy Windsor’s books Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists. When I signed up for his email list, he offered it as a free download for people who did so.

Being forced into purely solo training for 18 months has made me keenly aware of the many opportunities for non-solo training available here locally. There’s a local fencing club that I’ve had my eye on for some time, and our financial situation is such that now we could afford for me to join and buy fencing gear. Just today I searched for and found a local historical European martial arts club on campus—I’ve asked to be added to their Facebook group and joined their Discord. One of my Tai Chi students teaches an Aikido class with the Urbana Park District—I had started studying with him right as the pandemic began and got in two classes before everything was canceled. And, not sword-related, but cool and great training, is indoor rock climbing at Urbana Boulders.

Just as soon as the pandemic lets up for real, I’ll be doing some of those things.

In the meantime, I’m going over my solo training regimen, taking advantage of the insights that Guy Windsor provides in The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training to figure out what adjustments I should make.

Jackie is scheduled for a hip replacement next month. To prepare for that, her surgeon wants her to target a fairly high level of protein consumption. To be sure she’s hitting it, Jackie has been tracking her protein consumption, and as long as Jackie was doing so, it was easy for me to do so as well. The results have been kind of interesting.

I did a bit of quick research, and determined that 0.7 g of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.54 g per kg of bodyweight) was a reasonable target. I got that figure from How to Build Strong & Lean Bodyweight Muscle by Anthony Arvanitakis, but I cross-checked that with the latest scientific, evidence-based recommendations, which say:

For building muscle mass and for maintaining muscle mass through a positive muscle protein balance, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most exercising individuals, a value that falls in line within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range published by the Institute of Medicine for protein.

International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise

I had not been tracking my protein previously. Instead, after I started lifting pretty seriously 18 months ago, I had simply added a protein shake with around 25 g of protein after my workouts. My thinking was something along the lines of, “I’m healthy, so I must be eating enough protein, so adding 25 g after each workout will surely add up to enough protein to build some muscle.”

I’ve been kind of frustrated for pretty much that whole 18 months that, although I increased my strength a good bit, I did not actually build any muscle to speak of. And yet, until Jackie’s surgeon suggested that she increase her protein consumption, I hadn’t gone to the trouble of tracking my own. So, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t getting as much protein as I’d assumed.

By the formula, I ought to aim to consume right around 100 g of protein.

The first day I actually did the tracking, I only ate 88 g, even though I included a 25 g protein shake and 10 g of essential amino acids from another workout beverage, a discovery that was kind of daunting. It meant that on non-workout days I was probably only consuming 55–60 g of protein. Enough for basic health (almost exactly the RDA for protein for a sedentary person of my weight), but clearly not enough to build muscle.

So, I stepped up my protein consumption.

Hitting my target generally required:

  1. A somewhat more protein rich breakfast—either adding some meat to my usual 2-egg-plus-cheese omelet, or else eating a couple of big bowls of Magic Spoon cereal (not an affiliate link—I don’t eat nearly enough cereal to qualify for their affiliates program),
  2. My protein shake,
  3. A main meal of the day with lots of meat or lots of salmon,
  4. And then some extra peanut butter or cottage cheese, or something.

Doing that I found it easy enough to hit about 96–97 g of protein per day, although I actually only hit my 100 g target when my main meal included a larger-than-usual serving of meat or salmon.

That much food—enough to get close to 100 g of protein from actual food—ends up being really, really filling. I was probably only getting 55–60 g of protein per day from actual food. Now that I’m adding some extra peanut butter and cottage cheese, I’m probably hitting 75–80 g, but I can’t see hitting 100 without including that protein shake.

Getting a quarter of my protein from industrially produced edible substances (aka my protein shake) rather goes against my dietary rule number 1 (eat food), but I’m willing to let that rule slide with regard to a quarter of my protein as an experiment.

And as an experiment, as I say, it’s been kind of interesting.

The first interesting thing, as I’ve just described was how much I was falling short of my target, even adding a protein supplement.

The second interesting thing is how much better I’ve felt since upping my protein consumption by 15% or so. (That is, by 15% on days that I workout, when I was already drinking my protein shake. On days that I didn’t workout, and hence didn’t drink a protein shake, I wasn’t getting much more than 55–60 g of protein, so hitting 100 g on those days amounts to a 60–70% increase.)

After just a few days I noticed that I was feeling better, that I was recovering better from workouts (requiring fewer rest days), and that I seemed to be mentally sharper. Of course any of those things could be just the placebo effect, and in any case this is just an anecdotal report. But, since it is my anecdotal report, I’m taking it seriously, and am continuing to try to hit my 100 g per day.

All of which brings me to the title of this post.

If you’re familiar with bodybuilding, you’re aware that bodybuilders go through alternate phases of “bulking,” where they eat a caloric surplus to support building muscle, followed by “cutting,” where they eat a caloric deficit to lose fat and reveal the muscle they’ve built. This has always seemed unwise to me. Given my history of excess weight, I’m never going to do this on purpose. But getting 100 g of protein has proven to be quite difficult to do without eating a caloric surplus.

Because I track my weight as well, I’m able to look back over the past 19 days and see that my weight gain implies a daily surplus of 302 calories. That’s not untenable in the short term, but it’s not something I’m going to be willing to tolerate for long. It is, however, right in line with the bro-science recommendations for how to do a “clean bulk” (where you aim for just barely enough extra calories to build muscle.)

Still, it does give me an opportunity for some other experiments. My LDL cholesterol was a bit high at my recent physical, and I’m sure I could get it down by eating less fat. But since I was already limiting my carbs for other reasons, cutting fat as well would have put me into a caloric deficit. But now, with all this extra protein, maybe I can make modest cuts to my fat consumption, and bring my total calories into balance with neither excess carbs nor excess fat. In fact, I’m sure I could do that; the question is whether I can do that and still eat food (rather than industrially produced food-like edible substances).

I’m something of a tracker by nature, always interested in tracking and optimizing everything that I do. But even for me this seems rather a lot. I don’t think I can face actually trying to get the math right, to hit my protein target, keep my carbs low, and cut my fat enough to bring my calorie consumption in at a level that maintains my weight where I want it to be, all while eating food.

Currently I’m hoping that, if I keep eating lots of protein, and then try to limit my fats just a bit, I’ll get lucky and it’ll all just work out.

I’ll keep you posted.