I’d heard this, but I’m not sure I really believed it.

I’ve been running in “barefoot” shoes for a good 5 years now. The improvement in my gait was dramatic and immediate. But serious barefoot advocates are very firm about the point that it’s only when you run with actual bare feet that you acquire the huge upside that comes with barefoot running.

Reduced injury rates (due to the improved gait) are one of those upsides. Increased running efficiency (due to the improved gait, but also due to not having to carry the weight of a shoe on each foot) is another upside.

But there are alleged to be further sources of improved efficiency that come from barefoot running. When you’re actually barefoot, you’re going to hit the ground much more gently (because without cushioning it would hurt to hit the ground hard). Your foot is going to hit the ground with zero forward velocity (because if your bare foot slides along the concrete, the friction will cause blisters almost immediately).

In both cases—not slamming your foot into the ground, and not grinding your foot into the ground—the upshot is improved efficiency.

But it’s one thing to hear that “improved efficiency” is a thing, and another to actually see it. Check out this comparison of a run from one month ago, versus a run today.

Here’s the first three-quarters of mile of a run from one month ago, wearing minimalist shoes:

I left off the first few tens of seconds because it took until then for my heart rate monitor to stabilize on my actual heart rate. Then I went on for about three-quarters of a mile (out of a longer run) to match the distance that I ran today.

The things to note are that I ran at a 14:20 min/mil pace (very slow), that my heart rate averaged 117 bpm, and that the majority of my run was spent in zone 3.

Now check out my graph from today’s run, run with actual bare feet:

I’ve matched the distances (the former is the first part of a much longer run, the latter my entire barefoot run today). Today’s run was at a considerably faster pace (37 seconds per mile faster), while at the same time keeping my heart rate considerably lower (averaging 109 bpm, entirely in zone 2).

I have to say, this is very promising for future endeavors. I need to boost my confidence a bit, so I feel comfortable going for longer runs barefoot. I also need to get a bit more familiar with pacing—my MAF heart rate is probably more like 124. I need to figure out what it feels like when I run that pace barefoot. Because: who knows how fast I can run at that heart rate barefoot?

(The shortcode below won’t work until I get an updated version of the plugin for displaying GPX maps.)

I’ve been following a new workout plan by Anthony Arvanitakis (the latest iteration of his Superhero Workout), and one of the points that he makes is the importance of warming up. (“If you don’t have time to warm up, you don’t have time to work out.”)

Warming up is important, but as he’s made clear elsewhere, it’s actually the second step in the pre-workout process.

The first part is checking in.

Checking in

You want to check in with your body, but even before that, you want to check in with the venue.

I don’t have a good history with this step, which is a big part of the reason I’m writing this post: I’m documenting what I think I ought to be doing as part of the “warming up, but first checking in” procedure, in the hope that it’ll help me remember to do it.

Check in with the venue

Look around to see who else is there. Is anybody doing anything that might interfere with your workout?

Yesterday the folks mowing the lawn arrived in the courtyard where I’d set up my rings just as I was just starting my workout, and I ended up needing to take my rings down and move elsewhere. That was okay—but if I’d done a better job of checking in with the venue in advance, maybe I’d have been able to find a spot where I could have finished my workout without having to move.

Is there anybody doing anything that you might interfere with as you do your workout? I would have been in the way of the lawn mowing people. Other times I’ve gone someplace where people were setting up to do a family reunion picnic or something similar, and I’d have been in the way.

Especially in these times, there are other things to think about in terms of other people. Is there any chance that police or security guards might take issue with what you’re doing? Any chance that the people you interact with might themselves be malefactors of some sort? Best to avoid them, if you can.

I tend to do my workouts fairly early in the morning, but long enough after dawn that I don’t tend to have to worry much about such things. That doesn’t mean they can be entirely ignored.

Besides other people, look at the space itself. This is especially important for parkour, where you need to look for all kinds of hazards.

If you’re going to do parkour vaults, but also plyometrics, make sure the thing you’re going to put weight on is strong enough. Make sure it won’t tip over, or collapse under your weight, and also make sure that your planned activity won’t damage it.

Make sure that the zone where you’re going to land is free of any slipping or tripping hazards (water, ice, grease, sand). Is there anything that might roll? Is there anything with a point or a sharp edge?

Is there enough room for you to safely execute whatever move you have planned?

Check in with yourself

This can be before your worm-up, or combined with it. The key is to pay attention.

Are your tendons, ligaments, and joints free of pain? Do you have access to your entire normal range of motion? Does anything catch or click or grind as you begin to move? Are your muscles sore from recent workouts?

Are you focused? Are you confident that you know whether you can go all-out, or need to limit yourself in some way to stay safe?

None of these things would necessarily make you abandon a workout, but (depending on the extent to which they ease up as you begin your warm up), they might prompt you to modify your planned workout.

Anthony has a warm-up video here:

As I say, I’m not especially good at this. I tend to arrive at the venue with a workout in mind, and immediately jump into it.

I’ve gotten a bit better at getting my warm-up in. I have too many body parts (wrists and feet especially, but also ankles, shoulders, hips, and knees) that act up if I try to stress them before they’re warmed up. I’ve learned not to skip this part.

My qi gong practice does a very good job of warming up most of these parts. I also go ahead and do Anthony’s warm up routine as well (very similar exercises), and then throw in specific activities that I know I need in particular due to my own movement and injury history. (I use some wrist warm-ups from my long-ago aikido practice, for example. I use a ball to mobilize the joints in my feet.)

As I say, I’ve about gotten the warm-up part under control. It’s the check-in process that I’m particularly prone to skimp on. Hopefully, writing this post will remind me not to forget this part of a workout.

Looking over Anthony’s older videos, I came upon this one, which talks about a procedure for doing a check-in procedure ahead of the warming up:

It’s pretty good.

I actually knew this already, having seen an article about the work, originally serialized in the weekly journal the New York Atlas under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, when it was collected and republished as a PDF (Manly Health and Training) in 2016. But I hadn’t read through the whole thing until this month.

I’ve read a lot of fitness books over the years, and one thing I find interesting is how much they are all the same—including Walt Whitman’s. Of course, every fitness book has its own peculiarities—more or less focus on functional fitness, flexibility, muscle size, body fat, strength, quickness, power, control, aerobic capacity, aesthetics, etc. But the levers available to affect these things don’t really change: sleep, diet, resistance exercise, endurance training, and stretching just about cover the gamut. Aside from the details of the diet, it’s primarily a matter of selection, focus, and combining of exercises.

Walt Whitman from about the time his training book was being written and serialized. Photo by J. W. Black of Black and Batchelder / Public domain

Walt Whitman’s fitness manual offers a nice little selection of exercises, none of which would seem out-of-place in any modern fitness book:

  • Rowing: “a noble and manly exercise; it developes the whole of the body.”
  • Toe-touches: “The ordinary exercise of bending forward and touching the toes with the tips of the fingers, keeping the knees straight meanwhile, is a very good one, and may be kept on with, in moderation at a time, for years and years.”
  • Lunges: “The simple exercise of standing on one foot and lowering so as to touch the bent knee of the other leg to the ground, and then rising again on the first foot, is also a good one.”
  • Dancing: “The art of the dancing-master may also be called in play, for the development of the legs, and their graceful and supple movement.”
  • Swimming: “being relieved of all the clothes, and supported in the water, allows of bringing nearly all the muscles of the body into easy and pleasant action.”
  • Walking: “A pretty long walk may also be taken, commencing at an ordinary pace, and increasing the rapidity of the step till it takes the power of locomotion pretty well, and then keeping it up at that gait, as it can be well endured—not to the extent of fatigue, however.”

Walt Whitman wants his readers to be exemplars of manly beauty. In fact, based on how he talks about it, you have to assume that increasing the amount of manly beauty around is really the most important thing he hopes to achieve with his book—but that’s a fair thing to do, because:

As regards human beings, in an important sense, Beauty is simply health and a sound physique. We can hardly conceive of a man, at any age of life, who is in perfect health, and keeps his person clean and neatly attired, who has not some claims to this much-prized attribute.

Related to this, he is clearly keen to normalize men caring about aesthetics:

Nor is there anything to be ashamed of in the ambition of a man to have a handsome physique, a fine body, clear complexion, nimble movements, and be full of manly vigor. Ashamed of! Why, we think it ought to be one of the first lessons taught to the boy, when he begins to be taught at all. It is of quite as much importance as any grammar, geography, or arithmetic— indeed, we should say it was of unrivalled importance.

Of course, some things are desirable for more than just their aesthetic benefits:

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, &c., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.

An aside, because it touches on both dancing and aesthetics: A few years ago I read a fitness book titled something like How to Have a Dancer’s Body, which I read hoping to get some suggestions for improving strength and flexibility, only to be sadly disappointed. Its advice in those areas, after a brief treatment of stretching and posture, was that the student should find a good dance class and workout under a teacher. (Most of the book seemed to be about normalizing having an eating disorder—which, admittedly, is probably essential if you want to have the body of a prima ballerina.)

Dance’s attractiveness comes, I think, from the way it both provides actual (often astonishing) physical capability along with an aesthetic that I and many other people find attractive. Walt agreed on both counts, although seemed to take issue with the dance fashions of the times:

As originally intended, dancing was meant to give harmonious movements to the whole body, from the legs, by keeping time to music. In that sense, it was a beautiful art, and one of the noblest of gymnastic exercises. Modern arrangements have made it something quite different.

We would be glad to see some manly genius arise among the dancing teachers, who, out of such hints as we have hastily written, would assist the objects of the trainer and gymnast.

As I said, all fitness books are pretty much the same, so I am not really surprised to find things here that read exactly like something I might find in some entirely modern source of fitness advice.

For example, his rant on shoes and feet sounds exactly like what you might expect if Walt Whitman wrote some copy for Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement shoe page or Steven Sashen’s Xero Shoes.

Probably, in civilized life, half the men have more or less deformed feet, from the tight and wretchedly made boots generally worn.

In one of the feet there are thirty-six bones, and the same number of joints, continually playing in locomotion, and needing always a free and loose action. Yet they are always squeezed into boots not modeled from them, nor allowing the play and ease they require. For the modern boot is formed on a dandified idea of beauty, as it is understood at Paris and London, and not as it is exemplified by nature.

If you want to see the feet in their natural and beautiful proportions, you must get a view of the casts of the remains of ancient sculpture, representing the human form, doubtless from the best specimens afforded by the public games and training exercises of the Greek and Roman arenas. They exhibit what the foot is when allowed to grow up, with its free, uncramped, undeformed action. There have been no artificial coverings or compressions; and we know that the gait therefrom must have been firm and elastic. We can understand how the Macedonian phalanx, or the Roman legion, performed its long day’s march. We can see the ten thousand Greeks pursuing their daily wearying course through the destroying climate of Asia, marching firmly, manfully, across the arid sand, the mountain pass, or the flinty plain. It is a truthful lesson we may learn, not for the soldier only, but for the civilian.

Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet. This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health.

Simlarly, his principle workout plan sounds exactly like a MovNat combo:

In truth, however, a man who is disposed to attend to the matter of strengthening and developing his muscular power, will be continually finding some means to further that object, and will do so in the simplest manner, as well as any. To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to push and roll over, a similar length of time, some small rock with the foot, thus developing the strength of the knees and the ankles and muscles of the calf—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists, given with a will—to place the body in position occasionally, for a moment, with all the sinews of the arms and legs strained to their utmost tension—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to stand on a hill or shore and throw stones, sometimes horizontally, sometimes perpendicularly— to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—to climb trees in the woods, or gripe the low branches with your hands and swing backward and forward—to run, or rapidly walk, or skip or leap along—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for every one—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time. Nor let the reader be afraid of these because they are simple, but form the daily habit of some of them, without making himself uneasy “how it will look” to outsiders, or what they will say.

The book especially addresses people who are in school, telling them to be “also a student of the body,” but wants to be sure that the reader knows that not only students are the intended audience:

To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning! Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months. Early rising, early to bed, exercise, plain food, thorough and persevering continuance in gently-commenced training, the cultivation with resolute will of a cheerful temper, the society of friends and a certain number of hours spent every day in regular employment.

I am pleased to find myself so particularly represented! I’m really not a clerk, but I will claim to be a literary man, and will own up to being also a sedentary person, an idler, and arguably even a man of fortune.

There are many reasons to read a good fitness book, but very few reasons to read another after that. Walt Whitman’s fitness book isn’t really an exception. Still, if you are, like me, a connoisseur of fitness books, it’s worth including this one—for his unique prose style, for his place in American literary history, and for his perspective on manly beauty.

A year ago I could do 3 pushups. (Except that when I tried there was a pretty good chance I’d hurt my shoulders or my wrists.)

Last summer, focusing mostly on running rather than lifting, I made no progress on strength gains at all. (Admittedly, my data isn’t directly comparable: To reduce injuries, I switched to bench pushups.)

I did various amounts of bench pushups all summer and fall. When I manged to put together a week or two of consistent lifting I could briefly work up to 3×8 bench pushups. (That is, 3 sets of 8 bench pushups.) I did that a couple of times.

By the time the stay-at-home order went into effect, and I lost access to our little fitness room, I’d finally gotten pretty consistent with my workouts, and had just recently graduated to real pushups, doing as many as 4×5.

Yesterday, probably for the first time in my life, I did 4×10 pushups. (And they were good pushups too: no sagging hips, no thrusting my hips up, no chicken-winging my arms out.)

I don’t think I’ve ever done that many before, not when I was taking a self-defense class in college and we worked up to 10 pushups, nor when I was in elementary school and we pretty often did 1×10 pushups in PhysEd class, and I may well have done as mush as 1×20 as part of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

I’ve made some progress with my squats and my rows as well, but not to the same extent.

The squats are hard because I don’t have an appropriately heavy weight. I’m doing goblet squats with my 15 lb kettlebell, because it’s the only kettlebell I’ve got, but even 4×15 isn’t really enough to see much gains. Maybe 4×20? Hopefully I’ll be able to get a heavier kettlebell one of these days.

I was doing okay with the rows while I could put my rings up at the basketball court (I could do 3×6 or thereabouts), but since the kids were refusing to respect social distancing rules, Winfield Village closed the basketball courts. Without the rings I’m reduced to doing bent rows with that same 15 lb kettlebell, and even 4×20 isn’t really enough to challenge my back muscles. Maybe 4×25?

It sounds like we’re on track to significantly reduce the lockdown restrictions as early as two weeks from now. Maybe I’ll be able to get my rings back up, and maybe it will someday be possible to buy a kettlebell!

In any case, I can’t really complain: I did 40 pushups yesterday!

For a couple of years now I’ve been experimenting with time-restricted eating.

I guess I really started about a year and a half ago, after I got my Oura ring. One of the first things I noticed was that the early hours of my sleep were disrupted unless I had finished dinner at least 4 hours before bedtime. (This in contrast to the “common wisdom” that you want at least three hours between the last thing you eat and bedtime.)

Once I notice that I started pushing Jackie to arrange things so that we could finish supper at least 4 hours before we went to bed. The issue here was that while working at the bakery Jackie had gotten into the habit of getting up at 4:00 AM—because that’s when she needed to get up if she was going to be able to have coffee, breakfast, dress for work, and then spend most of an hour walking to work. As she has been so far unable to break herself of that habit, she finds herself very sleepy starting at about 8:00 PM. If you work out the math, you can see that we need to finish supper no later than 4:00 PM.

Jackie found herself somewhat daunted by the prospect of having to prepare lunch at mid-day, clean up the kitchen, and then prepare supper to serve at 3:00 PM so we could be done by 4:00 PM.

We experimented with various lunch/supper timings with limited success. But back in December, when Steven brought Lucy and his boys to visit, we fell into the habit of just having two meals a day. I went to his hotel for the breakfast that the hotel served to guests (Jackie made her usual breakfast at home), and then one of us (often, but not always, Jackie) prepared our main meal of the day sometime in the afternoon.

This turned out to work great, and Jackie and I have continued the practice since Steven and family departed. Jackie gets up at 4:00 AM as usual. (I tend to sleep until closer to 6:00 AM.) We linger over coffee, then have breakfast at 7:00 AM or so. Whatever we hope to get done in the day happens between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM, at which point we have “dinner” consisting of our main meal of the day. We finish it by 3:00 PM or so.

(In these pandemic days we follow that up with a virtual happy hour with Steven and Lucy via Zoom, so we’re still consuming cocktails until 4:30 PM or so, but I try to make sure to limit both the carbs and the calories that late in the day. I’m hoping that eventually we’ll be able to arrange things such that happy hour doesn’t extended until so close to bedtime.)

Jackie and I usually enjoy some video entertainment in the evening, and then retire to read for a bit before 8:00 PM and time to go to sleep.

I’m sure that’s way more detail than a stranger could be interested in, but the gist is that our eating window is compressed to just 9 hours a day or so (from 7:00 AM until 4:00 PM), putting us within striking distance of a 16:8 time-restricted eating window.

And I have to say, it’s working pretty well. Jackie especially appreciates not having to prepare both lunch and dinner every day. Keeping my weight stable has been especially easy—if I’m hungry in the morning I fix a bigger omelette, if I’m hungry at mid-day I take a bigger serving of whatever Jackie is fixing, or just have something more (peanut butter, cottage cheese, jerky, protein powder, whatever). And if I’m not extra hungry, I just eat a regular breakfast and a regular mid-day meal.

The result has been that I easily get enough food, don’t overeat, get done eating four hours before bedtime, and spend nearly 16 hours per day in a fasted state, with all the attendant benefits described in the post linked just above. And as a bonus, Jackie doesn’t have to prepare two meals after breakfast.

Time-restricted eating: Highly recommended.

When I first taught myself how to jump rope, back in 8th grade or so, I initially assumed that you’d just swing the rope around at whatever rate you chose, and then hop over it each time it would otherwise hit you in the feet.

That’s not wrong exactly, but I found it really hard to get the timing right. In particular, I found myself going faster and faster until I couldn’t really keep up. Then I discovered a trick that made it much easier: between each jump over the rope I’d add a little token hop. All of a sudden the timing was much easier. That was how I jumped rope for years (although I mostly didn’t jump rope during those years).

A couple of times in the past few decades I’ve briefly jumped rope again, but at some point I was reading about jumping rope, and learned that this “double-hop” technique is considered poor form. (Because it makes it hard to add any of the fancy stuff you can do with a jump rope, like crisscross or double-under.)

So, I’ve been trying to break myself of this habit. It hasn’t been so hard, since I’m decades away from having formed it with little reinforcement in between.

What I’ve learned though is that I had it backwards right from the start.

The reason the double-hops seemed to help has to do with the natural resonant frequency of the foot/ankle/leg system. Basically, there’s a natural rate of hopping, where the natural “springiness” of your feet and lower leg syncs up, minimizing the amount of energy it takes to hop up into the air again. Hopping at any other frequency is harder. The double-hop method lets you stick with the natural resonate frequency, while allowing you to swing the rope only half as fast.

Understanding that, it turns out to be very easy to fix: Just hop in place a few times, and you’ll quickly find that natural frequency. Then, just swing the jump rope at that rate.

Easy to fix, of course, doesn’t mean easy. Swinging the rope at twice the rate doesn’t double the intensity of the workout, but it does increase it significantly. I’ve had to back off on the length and number of my jump-roping intervals, although I’m already building back up.

My hope is that finding this resonate frequency, and getting myself synced back up with it, will help my running. (That is, I’m pretty sure that matching my foot turnover rate to the same resonate frequency will give me the most efficient running gait.)

We’ll see.