Hill repeats, wall traverse, brachiating

I ran 7.73 miles a few days ago. As best I can tell from my fragmented records, that’s my second-longest run ever, after an 8-mile run I did in 2004 while getting in shape to do the Lake Mingo Trail run that year.

In an email discussion, my friend Chuck lamented that he wasn’t currently in shape to match my feat, blaming part of his circumstance on trying to add mileage too quickly, leading to hurting himself. Looking at my running log, I was surprised to see how few runs I’ve taken this summer—I’m really just averaging about one run a week. I knew in theory that long walks would replace runs to a certain extent, in building and maintaining the fitness needed to go for long runs, but am surprised it replaces them to this extent.

One thing I don’t get enough of around here is hill climbing—it’s just too flat. However, there is one reasonably large hill close to me, in Colbert Park.

The hill at Colbert Park
The hill at Colbert Park

I’ve long wanted to do hill repeats here—run up the hill hard, recover while jogging back down, and repeat. But it’s just far enough from home that on my previous runs to the park, I didn’t manage to do repeats—just up the hill, back down, and then home again.

Today, though, I did five runs up the hill.

Both to and from, I pass Prairie Fields Park, which has a pretty good playground, including a climbing wall.

Playground climbing wall and Prairie Fields Park
Playground climbing wall and Prairie Fields Park

On the way to the park, I paused to do a short wall-traverse, just working my way around the corner there. After I did it, though, I realized that I’d cheated—I’d climbed up to where I could use the top of the wall as a handhold, which made it too easy. So, after my hill repeats, I returned here and did it again, this time avoiding using the top of the wall. I worked my way around the corner okay, but found myself stymied when I wanted to traverse the next segment, where there’s a gap in the bottom. I’ll have to try that again next time.

Back in Winfield Village, I visited one of our playgrounds, where there’s some bars set up for brachiating.

Bars for brachiating at Winfield Village playground
Bars for brachiating at Winfield Village playground

I’ve been working up to being able to swing from bar to bar, but had imagined that I’d need to be able to hang from one hand to be able to do it. Turns out, to swing from one hand to the next you only need to be able to hang from one hand for a moment, and I can already do that. I went from the ladder to the platform, turned around and went back about two bars, but didn’t make it all the way to the ladder. Next time, or maybe the time after.

From a different playground, the one right behind our townhouse, I practiced jumping down, first from a lowish level, about two steps up, and then from slightly higher, about three steps up.

All in all a very satisfactory morning of movement. Plus, in the afternoon, we got in a bit of a walk with Jackie’s mom in downtown Champaign.

Here’s the view from the top of the hill at Colbert Park. It looks like there’s yet another playground going in there as well!

Looking back down the hill
Looking back down the hill

Almost a full squat

Along with all the other natural movement stuff I’ve been working on, I’ve been trying to recover the ability to do a full squat—heels down, butt just above the ground. I’ve made enough progress to feel like bragging about it.

This was almost a surprise to me. I’d been practicing with support—hanging onto a door frame or tree trunk, because I’m not quite strong enough and not quite flexible enough to keep my balance without some help. But a few days ago, while out for a run, I paused to retie shoe, and decided to squat to do it, and found that I could very nearly do a full squat—presumably because the running had gotten me warmed up enough to boost my flexibility.

I do want to criticize my form here: my back is way too round. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to load myself up with weights on a bar and try to push it up with my back like this. But I’m not lifting a bar, just my body weight. As a step toward developing the strength, balance, and flexibility to do a full squat, I’m pretty pleased with this.

I captured a little video. It’s kind of slanty, because I did it by leaning my phone against the base of a tree, but I think it accurately captures my current capability.

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still not new news.

Some human movement books

I mentioned a while back that it looked like Christopher McDougall’s new book had been written just for me. Now that I’ve read it, I can say it was just what I was hoping for.

Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall.

It’s a book written in three layers. First, it’s the true story of a group of resistance fighters on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general and undertook to smuggle him off the island into the hands of the British. Second, it uses that story to explore the ancient Greek ideal of heroism, and to talk about how the ancient Greeks had figured out how to make people into heroes. Third, it talks about the author’s own efforts to develop those same traits—strength, skill, compassion—in himself, and to use those capabilities in his travels across Crete in the footsteps of the resistance fighters.

It appealed to me for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that McDougall has followed much the same path I have—running, barefoot running, parkour, then natural movement.

It’s a meaty book. There’s the adventurous war story, there’s the history of the Greek traditions of fitness and martial prowess (and their martial art, pankration), and there’s the personal anecdotes. But even the anecdotes are more than just “I tried these things and they seemed to work.” McDougall does his research, talks to experts, provides his references, and then tries stuff out and reports on his successes and failures.

The stuff on blending endurance exercise with a low-carb diet was fascinating—and new to me, even though the primary work dates from back in the 1980s. Other stuff, such as the work being done on the importance of fascia for strength, power, and speed is genuinely new.

Highly recommended.

While I was waiting for Natural Born Heroes to come out, I was casting around for something to tide me over—something to fill the space of wanting to read about natural movement—and happened upon a book by Mariel Hemingway from a couple of years ago.

Running with Nature: Stepping Into the Life You Were Meant to Live by Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams.

This is not a meaty book. Comparing it to McDougall’s book, it’s as if someone left out both of the first two layers, and wrote a book that was just the personal anecdotes. Some of the “information” in it is just wrong and some of the rest is pretty dubious, but I found it easy to read past the nonsense, because much of the rest of the book made so much sense.

Mariel Hemingway—a pretty girl (now about my age) from a family of celebrities—grew up without a good model for how to live a happy life. Prone to depression, and viscerally aware of the malady’s dangers (a frighteningly high fraction of her relatives either committed suicide or ended up in mental institutions), she had to invent her own self-care regimen.

The regimen she came up with has much in common with my own (and this probably has a lot to do with why I like it). It’s pretty obvious stuff: exercise as play, ample rest, healthy food, plenty of sunlight and fresh air—with some very specific notions that I haven’t implemented yet, but that are probably great ideas, such as making your sleeping area really dark.

I recommend it, but I’m glad I checked it out of the library rather than buying a copy.

After finishing the McDougall book, I was again bereft of a compelling book on human movement. Into that empty space came a book by Jonathan Gottschall.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch by Jonathan Gottschall.

Gottschall was an adjunct professor of English who came to realized that his career had peaked. All he could expect was years of teaching English Composition to kids who didn’t want to learn until he eventually annoyed a critical mass of administrators who would then quit renewing his contract, leaving him unemployed. At about the point where this realization became something that he could no longer ignore, he noticed that the vacant former hardware store visible from his cubicle had reopened as a mixed martial arts gym.

Looking out the window, he gets the idea that he’ll start working out at the gym, and then gets the idea that he could fight an MMA-style cage match and write a book about it: The Professor in the Cage!

I happened upon this book in an author interview with the Art of Manliness. It sounded like it might be an informative exploration of the intersection of human movement arts generally with the fraction that are martial arts, as well as being a fun story about taking on a challenge.

Part of the reason that it’s fun is that the author is quite open about the genre that he’s writing in. It’s a stunt book, a type of book which has a certain structure—the author gets in over his head, and writes self-deprecatingly of his struggles. He doesn’t try to disguise the fact that he’s doing that: He knows it, and he knows that you know it.

But it’s also very interesting when the author isn’t getting beat up, because it’s not just personal anecdotes; it’s also a scholarly exploration of ritual violence. He talks a lot about why men engage it in, why women mostly do not, how dueling cultures came to develop, and why they die out. Those aspects of the book are well-researched, with extensive notes, and strike a pretty good balance between the evolutionary and sociobiological basis of the difference between male and female choices and the sociological and anthropological ones.

He also looks at the question that the modern “cage match” fights were supposed to answer: which martial art is the best? (Answer: It turns out that wrestling/grappling styles beat punching/kicking/boxing styles. A grappling-focused style of ju-jitsu totally dominated the MMA cage match fights, until all the fighters learned enough wrestling to hold their own.)

It was especially interesting to read after having read the McDougall book. Both look at the Greek tradition of fitness and both talk about pankration, the ancient Greek martial art, which turns out (unsurprisingly, because it’s both a striking and a grappling art) to look a whole lot like modern mixed martial arts.

I recommend it. Very interesting.

Now I am again between books about human movement, and am having to make do with fiction.

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.

Jock or geek

Jackie recently expressed a concern related to my expanding interest in fitness: “We were both nerds together at Motorola, but now you seem to be turning into a jock.”

I assured her that she was mistaken, pointing out that I have no new interest in team sports, nor in spectator sports—two key markers for jocks in my mind.

But I did see how she might be concerned. I was putting a lot of time, effort, and attention into this fitness stuff. I was also writing about it and taking about it a lot. (Enough that I felt I had to move some of the writing to my Esperanto-language blog, where it would bore fewer people.)

Most recently, I’ve been looking at some Natural Movement stuff, in particular at MovNat. They have roots in the same source as parkour, but without the urban bias. They also have a broader perspective—parkour is all about getting from point A to point B, dealing with obstacles as efficiently as possible. MovNat is about rediscovering a broader range of human movement skills—not just running, jumping, climbing and balancing, but also throwing and catching and swimming and diving and fighting.

Aware of the fact that I’m in that brief phase where some new thing is all shiny and interesting, I try not to spend all my time talking about it, but I still talk about it enough to bore any ordinary person. (Jackie recently let me go in for some minutes about one of these things and then said, “You should write something about this on your Esperanto blog!”)

Yesterday, while we were out on our long walk, I was once again going on about this or that aspect of movement skills. Jackie listened patiently, then said, “I take it back. You’re not turning into a jock. You’re becoming a geek about parkour.”

We were both reassured.