Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003
Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003
Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I remember back in the late 1970s and early 1980s people were speculating that endorphins might be the source of runners high—and I remember how disappointed they were when experiments showed that exercise-induced levels of endorphins were much too low to produce the reported levels of euphoria.

They may simply have been looking for the wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals—it now looks like runners high may be produced not by endorphins but by endocannabinoids. Further, according to a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, there’s reason to believe that this euphoria is important enough in improving reproductive fitness that it is broadly selected for in cursorial mammals (that is, those with bodies suited for running). See Endocannabinoids motivated exercise evolution for an overview. (The paper itself is behind an annoying paywall for people without some sort of university affiliation.)

This could explain a lot of otherwise hard-to-explain behavior:

. . . a neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors.

Sadly, the evolved system does not show much promise for turning couch potatoes into endurance athletes:

. . . couch potatoes are not about to leap suddenly out of their comfy chairs and experience the pleasurable effects of exercise, because they probably cannot produce enough endocannabinoids. . . . Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation.

This is why I’m so pleased at having come up with an exercise regimen that I can persist with over the winter—I enter spring already able to enjoy the euphoric joys of exercise without having to first get in shape.

The local taiji group that I practice with, Community Tai Chi, recently opened up its formerly closed (password protected) Community Tai Chi student blog.

If you’re local, and you’re interested in studying taiji, the site and the blog together give you a very good idea of what you’d be studying if you studied with us. At the top of the blog are a series of posts with links to videos of the various movements in the 8-movement form we teach beginners (reposted so that they appear in order). Further down is a long post with links to videos of the 24-movement form that the more advanced class is working on (the first 24 of the Chen-style 48 movement form). Further down yet are some older posts with links to taiji resources various other places (including a couple that link back here, to some of my taiji posts).

I’m of two minds about running for exercise. Except when I’m running or wishing I was running; then I’m all for it.

I used to have a lot of reasons I ran for exercise, but they’ve been dropping away.

One reason that I run for exercise is that I want to be able to run. (Sometimes I want to get somewhere reasonably close in a hurry, and running is great for that.) I always figured that, if I wanted to be able to run, I needed to run for exercise—to build and maintain the capability.

Except, twice this month I had to run to catch the bus, and I did—even though I haven’t been running for exercise since last year. These impromptu bus-catching runs weren’t long runs, but I did them flat-out, without warmup or stretching, wearing whatever shoes I had on at the time—and both times were fine. I did them without undue effort and without getting hurt.

So, it seems that my regular fitness activities are enough to maintain at least a minimum capability for running.

Another reason I run for exercise is that it’s wonderfully efficient. All winter, the aerobic portion of my fitness regimen has been to walk for an hour on the four days a week that I’m not lifting and doing taiji. In an hour I walk a bit over 3 miles. If I cover the same distance running, I do it a good bit more quickly, meaning that I don’t have to spend as much of the day exercising.

Except that I’ve found myself fitting the hour of walking in very easily, without scheduling any exercise at all. There are several local errands (grocery store, bank, neighborhood restaurants) that are about a 10 minute walk each way. To run my slightly more distant errands, I take the bus. It’s a similar 10 minute walk to the bus stop, but that’s typically followed by 10 minutes of walking at the other end as well, for a total of 20 minutes walking each way.

So, if I go on one outing by bus plus one neighborhood errand, that’s my 60 minutes already. Running is efficient, but it’s not more efficient than that.

Less important than either of those, but still a reason I run, is that it gives me a sense of health and fitness. If I have an irrational sense that there’s something wrong with me, going for a run will usually take care of it. (Surely, I tell myself, if there were something really wrong with me, I wouldn’t be able to run like this.) I always knew that this was the sort of false comfort that’s only appropriate when I’m really quite sure that my sense of unwellness is, in fact, irrational. Going for a run is a fine way of dealing with, let’s say, a  panic attack. It’s a really dumb way to deal with a heart attack. (I don’t have panic attacks, but I am prone to worrying about my health unnecessarily. Those worries don’t prey on my mind as much when I’m running regularly.)

The problem with running is that I get hurt. Almost every runner I know gets hurt. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never had a walking injury more serious than a blister nor a bicycling injury more serious than a sore butt. But I’ve lost months of exercise time due to running injuries.

Still, despite the problems with running, and despite the loss of some of my rationalizations for running, I’ve started running again. But I’m doing it a little differently, now that I recognize that my reasons for running aren’t as strong as I’d thought they were.

Now I recognize that I run mainly for fun. I run because I really enjoy it. I enjoy the runs themselves. I enjoy the feeling of tiredness in my legs after a run. I enjoy knowing that I can run further and faster than I’m likely to need to.

If my enjoyment is the main reason I do it, that suggests that I should only do the fun part. So, I’ll abandon any effort to make a plan or set a schedule. I used to carefully structure my runs around an idea of stress followed by recovery. (I’ll still include both stress and recovery, but I’ll just decide each day which is appropriate, based on how I feel.) I used to aim to be able to run a particular distance on a particular date, so I could run in a race. I won’t do that any more. (Although I might run a race on a whim, if I feel like it.)

I went on my second run of the year today. It felt great. My first run, a couple of days ago—merely a good run—moved me to haiku. In the original Esperanto, it’s:

spiro laboras, genuoj doloretas… jara ekkuro.

Which in English might be rendered as:

Breathing hard,
Knees a little tender…
Year’s first run.

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.)

I first started lifting at a gym that used Nautilus equipment, where the staff promoted a Nautilus-style system of doing one set to failure. (That is, where you pick a weight that you can lift at least 8 times, but that you can’t lift more than 12 times.)

I understood right from the start that the system’s big attraction is for the gym owner: If everybody just did one set, the gym could sell two or three times as many memberships. However, I also found the physiology compelling: lifting as much as you can, and then attempting to lift a little more, is a powerful signal to your muscles that they need to become stronger.

I’ve generally stuck with single-set-to-failure workouts, because I’m lazy and find lifting boring: I want to get my workouts over with as quickly as possible and get on to something else.

Just lately, I’ve been experimenting with multiple sets. The reason is that, in the winter, my knees aren’t warmed up enough to lift a weight heavy enough to produce muscle failure in just 12 reps. If I try to push a weight that heavy, my knees hurt.

So, I’ve rearranged my lower-body workout. I’m now doing a first set of leg extension, leg curl, and leg press with a weight about one notch lower than my target weight, and then do a second set of all three with my target weight.

It’s working great. The first set serves as an excellent warm-up for my knees, getting the synovial fluid warmed up and flowing. The second set works the muscles to failure without knee pain. (On the leg press, I often do a third short set with an even higher weight, but that’s probably just because I’ve long been using too low of a weight, because it was all my knees could handle without a better warm-up.)

It’s working so well, I’m inclined to experiment with multiple sets for my upper body as well. I’m not sure it’s really a parallel situation, because I don’t have a joint issue that’s keeping me from reaching muscle failure, but doing the heavy workout with properly warmed-up joints just feels better, aside from not hurting.

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.

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.

I don’t hate shopping. I sometimes say I do, but it’s an inaccurate shorthand. What I hate are a cluster of things inextricably intertwined with shopping. I hate driving from store to store. I hate the mall. I hate agonizing about the tradeoffs between choice A and choice B, especially under time pressure, and especially under conditions of imperfect information.

I’m a lot happier buying stuff on-line. But not boots. I never buy shoes or boots without trying them on.

I also dislike spending money, especially spending largish sums of money, such as the $168 (including tax) that I just spent for a pair of boots.

I think I like the boots. I wanted a pair of waterproof, lightly insulated, hiking boots. This pair is all those things, plus they fit well and feel good on my feet. I’d had in my mind that I’d get GoreTex waterproofing and that the degree of insulation I wanted would probably be 200 gm Thinsulate, and I didn’t end up getting either of those. These are just “waterproof,” which probably means that the leather was treated with some sort of sealant—probably adequate for my purposes. And they’re insulated with 200 gm Primaloft, which is also probably at least as good as Thinsulate.

I decided that I needed these boots, because last year I found myself staying indoors too much during the winter, because I didn’t have adequate footwear for cold and wet. (We get a lot of cold and wet in Central Illinois—slush, snow, rain changing to snow, melting snow, cold rain falling on snow or ice, freezing rain, freezing mist. If you can think of weather that’s cold and wet, we have it here.)

With the right boots, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get myself out to walk, even in inclement conditions. Plus, there’s the slight extra boost that comes from the novelty factor of new boots.

And, with that in mind, I’m heading out now to walk a mile or two, to start breaking them in.

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.

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.