Winter running, maybe

I have never been a winter runner. Most years I start running in the spring, ramp up the length of my long runs during the summer, make a plan to keep running through the fall, and then abandon it at the first sign of cold.

I’d like to run over the winter. Exercise helps as much as anything else I’ve tried to stave off SAD. Besides that, there are any number of spring running events that I’d enjoy participating in that I can never do because I’m not in shape until later in the year.

And so, demonstrating my unwillingness to learn from experience, I’m trying yet again to run over the winter.

Me in my high-viz gear

To help get myself started, I’ve embarked on a consumer binge. First I bought a high-viz hat. (I already had the high-viz running vest and the red buff with reflecty stripes.)

The hat got me out for a run or two.

Another garment that I didn’t really have was running tights. Having a pair of running tights, I figured, would eliminate one more excuse for skipping a run in the cold. Plus I was able to find a pair marked down from $80 to $20.

I wore the tights for a 5-mile Thanksgiving Day run. (See map at top.) That’s my longest run in a couple of years, and I felt great right along—no sore ankles, and no sore knees (the places that tend to hurt when I push the distance up too fast).

I did wake up this morning with sore feet—classic plantar fasciitis pain. My feet only hurt for a few minutes in the morning, which is typical with minor plantar fasciitis. I expect it will resolve itself in just a day or two, but even if it does, it’s a pretty strong indication that 5 miles is as far as I should run for a while. (I’d had no foot pain after my previous long run of 4 miles.)

To give my sore feet a break I didn’t run today, opting instead for a 3.2-mile hike at Homer Lake. The trails there are pretty flat and level, but there are some places with lots of tree roots right at the surface, which make for a nice complex surface to walk over, giving one a chance to mobilize the foot joints, highly beneficial for preventing plantar fasciitis.

I’ll post further winter running updates, if I manage to get the habit established this year.

Walking on the beach

Lake Michigan isn’t great for swimming—the water is still pretty cold even in August, it’s kind of polluted, it lacks the extra buoyancy that comes from the salt in ocean water, and there’s no coral. But if what you want is a beach, Lake Michigan has a great one.

Eight years ago my brother convinced me to come to St. Croix for a family reunion sort of thing. We stayed at Cottages by the Sea. The meticulously kept grounds invited barefoot walking, and I was surprised to discover that a week walking barefoot in the grass and the sand cured my plantar fasciitis. (I’d been keeping it under control with Birkenstocks, supportive shoes, rationing the amount of standing I did on hard floors, and strictly limiting the amount of barefoot walking I did. Discovering that barefoot walking on natural surfaces helped rather than hurt was a key early step in my move toward natural movement.)

lake-michigan-beach-2_29188771842_oThe Lake Michigan beach has some rocks right down in the surf, but they’re not an obstacle to comfortable walking, because they’re resting on sand and push right down when you step on them (unlike the rocky beach in St. Croix, which seems to be exposed bedrock with a little sand on top). And anyway, just a few feet up the beach from the surf, it’s just sand.

looking up a duneRather a lot of sand, actually. Whole dunes of it. It’s beautiful along the lake.

Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live, but it is lacking in beach, so I was glad to get a chance to visit the beach while visiting my dad last week. We drove to South Haven, visited a small nature preserve, and then went to the Van Buren State Park just south of the preserve. I did some beach walking both places.

I loved walking in the sand—soft, comfortable, hot (up where the sand is dry), cool (down by the water), and mildly abrasive. My feet enjoyed it even though my plantar fasciitis is long gone, cured by the taiji practice (standing meditation turns out to be a great way to learn how to stand), and by plenty of barefoot walking on natural surfaces.

feet-in-the-sand_29219114001_oIt only occurred to me recently that my feet being shoe-shaped (rather than foot-shaped) was a bad thing. I’d some years ago started down the path of “barefoot” running (that is, running in minimalist running shoes), but I’d been focusing on improve my running gait, rather than the shape of my foot.

Once I started walking actually barefoot, I quickly developed an odd callus on the pad of my left index toe. And, looking at my feet, you can see why. Just the bit of barefoot walking I’ve done over the past couple of years has almost normalized my right big toe, which now comes out almost straight from my foot. My left big toe is still canted over at an angle so that it presses up against my left index toe. No wonder I use the toe oddly in a way that produces the odd callus.

Well, something to continue working on.

The myth of age-related illnesses of middle age

You know this, right? Age-related diseases—at least, those of middle age—mostly aren’t. Rather, they’re lifestyle diseases that seem age-related because it takes years or decades for the harm done by the lifestyle to start showing up as symptoms.

I’m prompted to write this by something Charles Stross wrote over a year ago, where he talks about the symptoms of aging. I almost didn’t link to that post, because he’s really talking about something else—his post is about the political effects of reasonably foreseeable improvements in medicine—but along the way, he describes his current circumstance:

. . . chronic low-grade pain of the middle-aged body: joints that creak and pop, muscles that need an extra stretch, sore feet.

And goes on to compare it to his hypothetical world with science-fictional medicine:

Unlike today’s senior citizens, you don’t ache whenever you get out of bed, you’re physically fit, you don’t have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or Alzheimer’s, you aren’t deaf or blind or suffering from anosmia or peripheral neuropathy or other sensory impairments, and you’re physically able to enjoy your sex life.

Of course there are age-related diseases—Alzheimer’s and anosmia probably are. But especially the ones in the first quote—the age-related difficulties of the middle-aged body—aren’t age-related at all. To imagine that they are is to make a category mistake—and a serious one, because the error makes it much more difficult to recover your health.

I’ve hesitated to write this post, because I realize that I’m speaking from a position of privilege—I’m healthy. This is partially a matter of luck, partially a matter of good genes, partially a matter of a lifetime history of good health care, access to adequate nutrition, and so on.

Even so, I’ve got real first-hand experience with exactly the list of middle-aged body problems that Stross lists.

Eight or ten years ago, I was feeling old. Tasks that required strength were more daunting than they had been—especially ones, such as carrying things up or down steps, that added additional weight to my already excessive body weight. My balance wasn’t as good, making slippery tubs and icy sidewalks seem like serious threats. My plantar fasciitis was kept at bay only by being scrupulous about wearing supportive shoes and by limiting the amount of standing I did. I could still get down on the floor and get up again, but it was hard enough that I didn’t do it when I didn’t have to. I had trouble getting a good night’s sleep, because my back would ache when I lay still too long, and when I did sleep through the night I’d need considerable stretching before I could move normally the next morning.

I viewed all this as normal aging. Partially, I think that was because I was actually in pretty good shape. I could walk 5 or 6 miles. I routinely bicycled to work when the weather was nice. I went to the fitness center two or three times a week to use the weight machines and do some stretching. Despite all that, my physical capabilities were declining, and I didn’t see anything I could do about it, except perhaps spend even more time exercising, which didn’t seem practical for someone with a day job.

It wasn’t true, though. Over the past six or seven years, I have felt better each year. It is not a strain to carry things of ordinary weight, even going up and down stairs. My static balance is excellent—I no longer fear slippery tubs, although I do still try to be careful on ice. My feet don’t hurt when I stand a lot, even when I’m barefoot. I make a point of sitting on the floor, just to add some variety to the day. I sleep well, and I wake up able to move.

What did I do? Nothing extraordinary.

Starting to do tai chi was probably the key shift, because it changed so many things at once about my movement practice. Somewhere along the line I ran across parkour, and then even before I had done more than play with that I discovered natural movement as a thing—and that was what gave me a framework for thinking about movement the same way I’d come to think about food.

Trying to figure out the best diet is a waste of time. It’s computationally infeasible, and anyway unnecessary—just eat a wide variety of foods (and limit your consumption of industrially produced food-like substances) and your body takes care of the rest. (See Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for details.)

Similarly, trying to figure out the best exercise regime is a waste of time. You are far better off to get a wide variety of movement (and limit the time spent doing things like sitting in chairs and wearing shoes). Once again, your body will take care of the rest.

What struck me—what prompted me to write this post—was that Stross’s description of what his science-fictional medicine feels like is what I’ve felt like. It’s not exactly aging backwards, but it is a recovery of a feeling of ease and comfort that had slipped away under cover of “normal” aging.

My life feels kind of like a science fiction story, with the science-fictional medicine being just recovering normal patterns of movement.

It makes me want to advocate these lifestyle changes, perhaps more strongly than is advisable. As I say, I recognize that I’m writing from a position of health that isn’t available to just everyone. I can’t say that if you’ll just start walking and running and bicycling and lifting weights and doing taiji and experimenting with parkour and natural movement, you will reverse the aging process and feel young again. There are kinds of impairments that cannot be completely recovered from, and perhaps some that cannot even be improved.

And yet, I do advocate these lifestyle changes. Move better. Move more. Eat food. I bet you’ll feel better—especially if you’re starting to suffer from the symptoms of “normal” aging.

Sore foot

I’ve had a slightly sore foot for a while now.

It hasn’t been a big deal. It doesn’t hurt when I run. It doesn’t hurt when I walk (except sometimes when I walk really fast). It doesn’t hurt when I stand, or when I’m just sitting.

Mostly it hurts when I use my foot as a brace to turn or twist, such as when I brace the side of my foot against the mattress to turn over in bed. Sometimes it hurts when I’m standing on my other foot, and touch just the toe of the sore one down to catch my balance.

It sometimes hurts for the first few minutes right after I get up in the morning, kind of like plantar fasciitis, but a different part of my foot: the medial edge, just posterior to the ball of the foot.

Even then, it doesn’t hurt much.

However, it has been persistently hurting occasionally, just a little, for a long time now. Months.

I had been doing basic, conservative care. I was wearing supportive shoes, avoiding things that hurt it as best I could, and figuring it would eventually get better. But it hasn’t.

So, a couple days ago, I decided to step it up a notch: I decided to treat it with a placebo. (The effectiveness of placebos is well-established. They’re effective even when people know that the treatment is a placebo.)

My initial plan had been to add in some sort of cream or ointment. I thought of something like Aspercreme, but it doesn’t hurt enough to justify the use of even a mild analgesic, so I thought I’d get something like Bengay or IcyHot: just some sort of counter-irritant that would make it clear that I was “doing something” to treat my foot. Then I saw Walter Jon Williams’s recent post on Tiger Balm, and knew that I’d found the right stuff.

Jackie discovered Tiger Balm several decades ago, during her travels in Asia, and it has long been a staple item in our medicine cabinet, but we’d let ourselves run out in the run-up to our several moves, so we didn’t have any. Fortunately, the closest store to our townhouse is a CVS, and they had two varieties of Tiger Balm in stock. They seemed almost identical (a one-percentage point difference in menthol), but the one they were marketing as their “ultra strength” “sports rub” was $1 cheaper, so we got that one.

I’ve been using it for two days now, and I’m imaging that my foot is feeling better.

Perhaps because I’m finally doing something about my foot, I also remembered something else. For years now I’ve been wearing a pair of slip-on Birkinstocks as slippers. I started wearing them when I first got plantar fasciitis, and found that it was crucial to never go barefoot on our hardwood floors. Along with other supportive footwear, they solved the problem.

Usually I only wore them indoors, but very occasionally I’d wear them outdoors for very short trips—if I was only going as far as the mailbox, for instance. One or two summers ago, I tried to wear them for a walk around the block, and found that they really hurt the joint at the base of my big toe. I couldn’t make it even as far as around the block—I had to turn back and hobble home.

They never hurt my foot when I just wore them around the house, which I continued to do.

But now that I was thinking about it, it occurred to me that maybe they were hurting my foot, just not enough to notice unless I did something out of the ordinary.

Since the plantar fasciitis hasn’t bothered me since I started doing taiji, I decided to retire the slip-on Birkinstocks.

I’m also adding some calf-stretching, as well as some calf and shin strengthening activities.

I suspect some combination of those activities will do the trick. But just in case, I’m also rubbing some Tiger Balm two or three times a day into the side of that foot, from ball back almost to the heel.

I’ll keep you posted.

Oh, and by the way—the main reason I haven’t been posting much here is that I’ve been posting most of my exercise-related stuff on my Esperanto language blog, mostly as a way to improve my grasp of the exercise-related vocabulary (which is surprisingly poorly developed in Esperanto). I have a sense that most of my friends and relations have heard about all they want to about my exercise and fitness. And what better way to make sure almost nobody is bothered by my yammering on about it than to do so in a language almost nobody speaks?

Physical benefits of standing meditation

Standing meditation is just like sitting meditation, except you do it standing up. (It almost seems topical right now, when so many people are talking about working at standing desks, which is similarly just like working at a regular desk, except standing up.)

I’ve been doing at least a little meditation pretty regularly for three years now, as my taiji instructor spends some time in each class meditating. I have yet to perceive any of the mental benefits that are supposed to flow from meditating. Perhaps I’m just doing it wrong.

The physical benefits, on the other hand, have been remarkable.

Before I started doing standing meditation, I’d gotten a little wary of excessive standing. I’d struggled a bit with plantar fasciitis, and had eventually come up with a multi-pronged approach that included a pair of slip-on birkenstocks that I used as slippers, supportive shoes in general, and limiting the amount of time I spent standing. Together, those tactics had served to keep the plantar fasciitis at bay, without quite curing it.

In the past three years, since I started doing taiji, something has completely cured the plantar fasciitis. Maybe it was the taiji, rather than the standing. Maybe it was the running, walking, and other exercise I’ve gotten. I’ve lost some weight, and that’s bound to have helped. But I’m inclined to credit the standing with a good bit of it.

I think this is true, even though I think I was also right to be careful about excessive standing, because standing meditation is not just standing. Standing meditation is standing with focus. Our instructor emphasizes that we’re not thinking about anything in particular, nor are we doing anything in particular (except standing), but we’re ready. We’re actively ready for whatever happens.

Standing with this sort of intention is very different from standing while doing something else. While we’re standing, we making an explicit effort to identify and relax any muscles that we’re using beyond the minimum set needed to keep us upright. I doubt if a cashier who has to stand for an eight-hour shift would get similar benefits.

Maybe I’ll eventually get some of the other supposed benefits of meditation. In the meantime, I’m happy to settle for just this one.