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.

Like it was written just for me

If you made a short list of the things I’ve taken an interest in just lately, and then added knife-throwing to the list, you’d pretty much have the table of contents for Christopher McDougall’s new book Natural Born Heroes. It’s like he’s been following me around to see what I’ve been researching, asking about, and talking about. But, you know, not in a creepy way.

The book isn’t out for another six weeks or so, but he’s got a fascinating series of little articles and videos over at Outside Magazine’s website that hits some of the high points—parkour, lifting, standing, foraging (most of which are already tags here on my blog)—with the bonus addition of the knife throwing, which is now a tag for this post, and will get some more attention in the very near future (because how cool is that?).

The book itself is coming out in mid-April, and is available for pre-order at Amazon: Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance.

Arrow, superheros, and gamifying exercise

We’ve enjoyed the TV series “Arrow” right from the start, and I’ve been particularly amused this season, when it appears that everyone (except the police captain, and maybe poor Felicity) is now a superhero (or supervillian): All of the Arrow’s team have what amounts to superpowers, Merlin has long had them, and now Thea is all trained up, and her sister Laurel is working on it.

In fact, in the Arrowverse, it seems that anybody can develop superpowers with a fairly short period of intense workouts.

Since back in season one, where one could already see this principle at work with Oliver, I was trying to convince Jackie that we ought to become superheros. She expressed a willingness, although I suspect she was just humoring me. I can’t speak for Jackie, but I so far do not seem to have superpowers. Probably my workouts have not been intense enough.

Anyway, the upshot is that I was an easy sell for Six to Start’s new Superhero Workout game, which was just released for Android. Like their “Zombies, Run!” game that I’ve mentioned several times, it gamifies exercise, and I’m a sucker for that. (Not to mention being a sucker for fictional characters getting into shape.)

So far I’ve just done the tutorial and part of the first storyline workout. But even in that little bit, I was already exercising more intensely than I have been. A few more weeks of this, and I’ll no doubt be besting multiple ninja warriors both unarmed and with swords.

Squats, dumbbells, and the Winfield Village fitness room

Winfield Village has a little fitness room. From our townhouse it’s very handy—right across the parking lot.

It has an odd selection of equipment. There are perhaps 8 pieces of aerobic equipment—more than half treadmills, but also an elliptical machine and a couple of cycle-type machines. There are a pair of leg machines—leg extension and leg curl. There’s a fancy configurable machine with a pair of weight stacks hooked up to a pair of pulleys with interchangeable handles that can be set at any desired height, so you can adjust it for various kinds of rows, presses, swings, etc. And there’s a huge selection of dumbbells.

After two decades of doing my lifting with machines, I’d already been gradually switching away, so this new facility is nicely in line with what I was already headed towards.

My inclination to change away from machines started when I wanted to start doing squats (instead of doing the leg press machine). Maybe it would be more accurate to say it started when I wanted to be able to squat.

Being able to squat had always seemed like one of those basic capabilities a person ought to have (like being able to stand or walk), but like most westerners—like most people who own chairs—I lacked both the strength and the flexibility to squat properly. When I had to squat down—to look at something on a bottom shelf, let’s say—I could do it, but my heels would come up off the floor and I’d end up squatting with my knees way forward and my weight up on the balls of my feet. (Don’t do this—it’s dangerous for your knees.)

Primarily because of my taiji practice, I’d gained both a lot of control over my body and a lot of insight into how it ought to move, and some months back it occurred to me that I was probably at a point where I could do a proper squat.

I did some preliminary practice squatting, and found that doing it correctly wasn’t hard. (Keeping your heels down on the ground is only possible if you bend at the hips, stick your butt back, and lean your upper body forward. If you keep your head up, the result is a squat that looks just like the pictures of proper squat form.)

I experimented with squatting in the Smith machine at the Fitness Center, and did some squatting with a bar over my shoulders, but ended up deciding that bodyweight squats did the job just fine.

So I’m not really missing the bar or the squat frame. I can imagine wanting to add weight to my squats, but so far I’m happy just adding reps. When that’s not enough, I can add weight with dumbbells.

Since I have all those dumbbells at my disposal, I thought I’d look for some workouts that made use of them, and found an excellent dumbbell workout page over at Art of Manliness.

I’ve started doing something closely modeled on that page’s upper-body workout, with the addition of some qigong exercises from my taiji practice, and some exercises intended to help me work up to being able to do pullups.

I’d not had much success with the assisted pullup machine at the Fitness Center, so I was ready to do something different even if we hadn’t let our membership expire when we decided to move here. The replacement that I’m experimenting with at the moment is negative pullups: I use a bench to climb up to the top of pullup position, then lower myself down to hanging.

As I was writing this post I read a bit about working up to pullups. It looks like before I go all-out with the negatives, I should practice my dead hangs.

I’ll come up with a lower-body workout shortly. It’ll include squats.

With the fitness room right across the parking lot, I’m hoping to get a lot more regular with my lifting. If I succeed, I expect I’ll be posting about it here. If not, I suppose I’ll quietly start posting about something else.

Novel update

I’m having pretty good success with my new daily routine.

Things haven’t gone perfectly. One day last week I was coming down with a virus and took a sick day—no fiction writing got done. Yesterday’s bitter cold kept me from getting out to exercise—no walking, no lifting, and no taiji.

Today, things went pretty much according to plan. I had breakfast at 6:30, got to work at 7:00, and wrote until 8:30. Then I bundled up (still pretty darned cold) and walked to the Fitness Center, where I did my usual lifting and stretching, followed by about 25 minutes of qigong and taiji. I deviated from my schedule a bit, having an early lunch before getting back to fiction writing, but I did do two 90-minute sessions, which were both reasonably productive.

The novel’s word count has actually been soaring, because I’ve been slotting back in bits and pieces that I’d pulled out in a previous restructuring effort, now that I’ve got a better idea where they go. I’ve just about finished that phase, and it is almost time to settle in for the next major phase of writing new prose. (Which I’m all excited about, because that’s the fun part.)

Another attempt at a daily schedule

One reason I haven’t been more productive these past two years is that I’ve let my fitness activities consume the morning hours that are my prime writing time. I know that, and I want to free that time up for writing, but I’m loath to give up my taiji, because of the way it has been almost miraculous in changing my body for the better.

Five years ago I was starting to feel old. I could still do all the ordinary stuff I needed to do every day, but my spare capacity was shrinking. My balance and flexibility and strength and endurance were all less than they had been—and only just barely good enough. Any unusual stress, such as carrying something heavy up or down stairs, or moving across rough or shifting terrain, seemed dangerous. I had trouble getting a full night’s sleep, because my back would ache after lying still for a few hours.

Taiji (together with lifting) turned that completely around. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I really don’t want to give that up.

The problem is, I’ve been devoting a huge chunk of each morning to the lifting and the taiji class, and morning is by far my most productive time to write.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out a way to deal with that. The key—and I’ve known this for a long time—is to start my writing first. Once I’ve had a solid writing session, taking a break for some exercise is perfect. After that, I can get back to writing. (Whereas I’ve found it very hard to start writing after a long morning of exercise.)

The way we’d been doing it, we’d do our lifting before taiji. We briefly experimented with doing the lifting after taiji, but I found that hurt my knees. (My theory is that the taiji tired out the small muscles that stabilize my knees, making them just a little too wobbly for heavy lifting.) This has been great for actually doing the lifting, but has meant an awfully early start to the day—too early to fit in writing first.

So, during the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, while the taiji class is on break, I’m experimenting with a new daily routine. I’m still tweaking it, but as currently sketched out, it looks like this:

  • At 7:00, right after breakfast, I sit down to write fiction, and work for 90 minutes.
  • At 8:30 I take a break and spend the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 engaging in some fitness activity: lifting or taiji. (Once the class resumes, I’ll do the class on days that it meets, and lift on the other days.)
  • Back home by 10:30, I write fiction for another 90 minutes, then break for lunch at noon.
  • After lunch I get back outside and walk again. Lately I’ve been using this time to play Ingress, but in the summer I may just walk, go for a run, or whatever.
  • In the mid-to-late afternoon, I may do a bit more work on some writing-related activity: Writing non-fiction (such as a Wise Bread post), revising stories, submitting stuff to editors, critiquing work for the Incognitos, etc.

I’m trying to be a bit more careful about social media, because of how easy it is to fritter away a whole morning reading stuff my friends have found interesting, without abandoning it. Right now I’m checking social media briefly before breakfast, then staying away from it until after lunch, then pretty much allowing unlimited checking in the afternoons.

I’ve been doing this for more than a week now (with the modification that on Saturday and Sunday I just do one fiction-writing session, rather than two). It’s going great so far—I’ve gotten several thousand words written on my novel.

I’ll keep you posted.

[The core of this post was originally written as part of my year-end summary of my writing. However, not being about my writing in 2013, it didn’t belong there, so I’ve pulled it out and made it a post of its own.]

Enough exercise (and a calf update)

I recently came upon an old livejournal post about my struggles to get enough exercise.

It had been written in April 2008, some seven or eight months after I’d quit working a regular job, and was about how I’d always blamed the job for keeping me from getting enough exercise, and how I was unhappy that I hadn’t seized the opportunity that came from my new regular-job-free lifestyle to get into better shape. Here’s an excerpt:

The big advantage of not working a regular job ought to be that I can exercise anytime I want.  In the spring, I can run in the afternoon when it’s warm.  In the summer I can run in the morning when it’s cool.  I can pick the nicest day of the week for my long ride (minimize the chance of being caught miles from home in a thunderstorm) and then organize the rest of the week’s workouts around that.

I say “ought to,” because I haven’t taken full advantage so far.  Last summer I was still working until the end of August, and then I was trying to focus on my novel while still cranking out four or five Wise Bread posts a week.  I tried to get the running habit set up in the fall so that I could continue it through the winter, but didn’t really manage it.

Now, though, it’s spring, and I’ve decided to make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.

Reading that post, I realized that I have, finally, succeeded. I now get enough exercise.

Brief aside: Except, of course, that I’ve scarcely run in a month, because of my injured calf.

I’ve tried three times to go out for a short run, and each time the result has been re-injury. After the third time, I realized that I was doing more harm than good, trying to get back to running as quickly as possible. I decided to wait until the symptoms were completely gone, and then give it at least a full week for further rest and recovery, before trying to run again. On that schedule, my first run would be roughly Saturday. In fact, it’ll be delayed at least two days further, because Saturday Jackie and I will go to Forest Glen and squeeze in a long hike in the morning, ahead of a spinning and weaving event there. (And not taking a day to recover from a long hike before a short run is how I hurt my calf in the first place.)

Basically, though, my calf is fine. It doesn’t limit either my walking (we walked 10 miles yesterday) or my taiji (I’ve taught my class on schedule every day). It has been completely pain-free, except when I re-injure it—then it hurts for a couple of days.

I wrote two years ago about my winter fitness regimen. (Three times a week I lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days I try to walk for an hour.) It proves to be satisfactory to maintain my weight and maintain a base level of fitness.

In the summers, I’ve been doing more. I preserve the lifting and the taiji (and much of the walking, which is mostly incidental to getting other things done) and augment it with running—before my injury, I had been running 7–9 miles most weeks—and have also added a weekly very long walk.

That livejournal post has a chart with the amount of time I had been devoting to exercise the last time I’d been in really good shape. Here’s a similar chart for what I’d been doing until a few weeks ago when I had to quit running:

Activity Minutes per workout Workouts per week Minutes per week
Lifting 30 3 90
Taiji 60 3 180
Short walks 60 4 240
Long walks 240 1 240
Short runs 22 2 44
Long runs 60 1 60
Total 854

The first thing that strikes me is just how similar this is to what I was doing in the past when I’ve been fit. I’ve replaced the bike rides with walking a very similar number of minutes per week. I’ve added the taiji, which adds 3 hours a week, and I’ve reduced the number and length of my short runs, to gain back maybe 50 minutes of that time. But the bottom line is that I’m now spending about 120 minutes a day on fitness-related activities.

Now, that’s great. Certainly it feels great—I feel great when I’m getting this much exercise. And having gotten here, I believe I’m prepared to declare victory, and say that getting and staying in shape is a solved problem.

But how could anyone with a regular job manage such a thing? And yet, much less exercise than this would not build and maintain the capabilities I want. If I want to be able to run for an hour, I need to run for an hour pretty regularly. If I want to be able to walk for four or six hours, then every week or two I need to walk for four or six hours.

I don’t really have an answer here for people who find that making a living limits their ability to be fit. I managed it temporarily a couple of times, but only by letting things slide temporarily—things that I couldn’t let slide permanently.

Still, just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good. Thanks to the taiji, I move with more ease and control than I’ve ever had before. Thanks to the lifting and the endurance exercise, I have more power and stamina than ever before. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s long hike. And I’m looking forward (after a day or two to recover from that) to trying to run again. (Because, as Steven says, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”)

Three miles on the dread mill

I hate running on treadmills. I also dislike running outdoors in the cold. The result has been that, while I may get into pretty good shape in the summer, I always lose that fitness over the winter, because I don’t run.

This year, I’m trying again to run on the treadmill. This year, I’m trying with podcasts.

I don’t listen to my iPod when I run outdoors. Running outdoors is wonderful, and I want to experience it full. Running on a treadmill is awful, and I want to pretend it isn’t happening.

I’ve had to make a second change to make this work: I’m going to the fitness center by myself.

Before, I tried to fit my workouts into the joint visit to the fitness center that I make with Jackie to do our lifting. That didn’t work. Jackie was willing to walk on her treadmill while I ran on mine, but she wanted us to be walking together. Since I was trying to pretend that I had slipped into some sort of lacuna in the space-time continuum, I was an unsatisfactory companion. Jackie was also willing to carry on with her workout while I ran, but there’s no reasonable way for her to stretch her workout to last 20 minutes longer, which is only barely enough time for me to get a reasonable run in.

So far, the scheme is working okay. For three weeks now, at least twice a week, we’ve gone to the fitness center for our lifting, then gone to taiji, after which I’ve gone back to the fitness center to run on the treadmill. The first couple of runs were kind of shaky, but I’d gotten them up over 2 miles last week, and today I ran 3 miles.

That’s long enough, I think. My long runs outdoors had gotten up over 5 miles, but my plan for the winter isn’t to boost my endurance, it’s just to preserve it. If I can run 5–7 miles a week, I think I can accomplish that. A single 3-mile run each week, combined with one or two 2-mile runs, will do the trick.

The podcast thing is working. My plan had been fiction, and I’ve listened to an Escape Pod story and to one on the Small Beer Press podcast. The problem with fiction is that it takes a while to get wrapped up in the story, and every instant that I’m not immersed in the story is an eternity of actually experiencing the fact that I’m running on a treadmill. Music works okay. News podcasts are okay, too.

Once, when Jackie and I were heading into the fitness center, back before we’d given up on treadmill exercise together, I asked her on our way in the door, “Are you ready to face the satanic mills?”

“At least they aren’t dark,” Jackie replied.

“It’s true,” I admitted. “They are well-lit.”

They’re still well-lit. They’re still satanic. But they’re pretty tolerable, if you’ve got a story to listen to.

An open-ended run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifting: a personal experiment with multiple sets

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.