This year was obviously strange in all sorts of ways, so I figure it’s not so strange that my movement practice got strange.

One thing that seems very strange to me is that I reverted to doing a lot of exercise, after having made a big deal the past few years of scorning exercise in favor of movement. I wrote a whole post on this recently (Exercise, movement, training), so I won’t repeat all that stuff here, except to say that the pandemic response provided me with a lot of opportunities to exercise, while restricting my opportunities to move and to train.

Exercise

Around the beginning of the year I had a realization that what had held me back from achieving my fitness goals was not (as I had been supposing) a lack of intensity, but rather a lack of consistency. I responded by getting very serious of getting my workouts in, and was pretty pleased about having established a proper workout habit when just a few weeks later the pandemic led to our local fitness room being closed. I found this momentarily daunting.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was around this time I saw this hilarious tweet:

To which my response was “Challenge accepted!”

Resistance exercise

The biggest problem with losing access to the fitness room was losing access to the pull-up bar. I looked around for alternatives, found that gymnastic rings were available and affordable, and I ordered a pair.

Easily the best purchase I made last year.

The addition of gymnastic rings made for a big change in my exercise regimen. I use them for three exercises: pull ups, inverted rows, and dips. I had worked pretty hard on pull ups before, but upon getting the rings I redoubled my efforts. As far as inverted rows and dips, I had played around with both, but now I got serious.

I round out my upper-body exercises with push ups.

For lower-body exercises I experimented with a variety of possibilities: squats of various types, kettlebell swings, burpees, lunges, etc.

One milestone was achieving my first pull-up. Another was the first time I did two pull-ups. Later I manged (a couple of times) to do three pull-ups!

I just wrote about how kettlebell swings taught me something about the value of doing lots of reps. Based on that, for my indoor workouts (where it’s not handy to set up my rings), I’ve started doing more exercises for high reps. Not enough data yet to know how that’s going to work, but it seems like a valuable experiment.

Running

For a long time—at least many months, maybe more than a year—I’d had a sore foot that got worse when I ran. I repeatedly cut back or eliminated runs, had my foot get better, and then had it start hurting again as soon as I started running again. This past summer I finally took a full month off from running, which seems to have been what my foot needed.

I’ve very gradually resumed running. For some weeks I kept my runs down around just one a week and just 2–2.5 miles. Then up to a 3–3.5 miles. I did one 4 mile run, which didn’t seem to cause any problems, but then I did a run of nearly 5 miles, which did make my foot sore the next day. I took a break until the pain was completely gone and eased back to 3–3.5 miles, and all seems well.

I’ve just started doing two runs per week, a “long” run (slightly over 3 miles) and a “fast” run (where I hold the distance down under 3 miles, but include a few 10-second sprints around the mid-point of the run). That felt really good the last time I did it. (My running gait seems to improve when I run fast.)

Kettlebell swings

I’ve talked at some length about my adventures in getting a kettlebell during a pandemic, and about my experience with kettlebell swings producing unexpected hypertrophy, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just say that cold weather—and especially ice on the patio—have kept me from doing much kettlebell swinging in the second half of December. But literally every day I look out on the patio to see if it is clear of ice, and get out and do some swinging when it seems safe.

Jump rope

I added a jump rope to my exercise equipment a while ago, and back in March and April did enough rope skipping to recover the ability to do it. (That is, I could jump rope for 30 or 40 seconds with zero or one misses.) The problem was that jumping rope hurt my sore foot just like running did. I prefer running, so when I had to set limits on those exercises to protect my feet, I ended up mostly running, as long as the weather was nice.

As the weather turned chilly in the fall, and especially when we started having days when there was an occasional short period adequate weather, but not the sort of reliable block of nice weather that makes me think I can fit in a good long run, I started thinking that an occasional bout of jumping rope might be a great way to squeeze in a quick, intense workout during even quite a brief period of nice weather on an otherwise nasty day.

To make full use of such periods, I paid up for a weighted jump rope. I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very much the opposite of my old jump rope, which was just a plastic-coated wire—very light and very fast—marketed to martial artists and cross-fit types. Pretty good for getting lighter on your feet, and adequate for a lower-body workout, but not much for the upper body. The weighted jump rope (even the lightest one, at just ¼ lb) definitely turns the jump rope exercise into an upper-body exercise as well.

I haven’t had the weighted jump rope long enough to form a definite opinion about it, but after just a couple of sessions, I’m pretty pleased, and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to get multiple HIIT jump rope workouts in over the course of the winter.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking, but I’ve done very little this past year. This was half due to the pandemic, and half due to Jackie having a sore hip that makes it hard for her to walk fast or for long distances. (I’ve been taking Jackie to physical therapy, and she’s getting better. We’ve been doing walks in the woods south of the Arboretum, and that’s going very well.)

With fewer and shorter walks with Jackie, and with walking for transportation almost eliminated by the pandemic, my non-exercise walking has dwindled pretty severely.

Ditto for my non-exercise running.

Parkour

I have very much had my eye on parkour as the thing I want to get back to this summer. Since I have made great progress on strength training specifically with an eye toward parkour, I’m very hopeful.

I’ve been doing just a bit of training, even without being able to get together with other traceurs.

The most active member of the campus parkour group turns out to have moved to Colorado. I’ve been in touch with him, and he seems to mean to spend at least some time here this summer, so hopefully I can put together some sort of training with him. In the meantime, I ordered one of his t-shirts, so I’ll have something to wear.

Taiji

Like everything else, the taiji classes I used to teach at the Savoy Rec Center had to be abruptly canceled back in March.

During the spring I led a few group practice sessions via Zoom. They’re better than nothing, and at least keep the group connected.

Once the lock-down restrictions in Illinois eased up a bit in April, my group started meeting in the park, and we continued to meet through the summer. Once the weather turned, I resumed the on-line practice sessions.

Unlike a lot of my students, who don’t feel like they can do the taiji practice without someone to lead them, I can actually do a full practice session entirely on my own. And I occasionally do. But without the group being there, it’s hard to get motivated.

Still, I almost always include some qigong as part of my morning exercises, do the once-a-week group practice session, and occasionally do the full 48-movement form (if only to make sure I don’t forget how to do it).

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, of course, is all about the end to the pandemic, something that I have high hopes for. If I can get vaccinated by June, let’s say, then by July maybe I can resume normal activity (while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course, but actually interacting with people other than just Jackie).

Normal would include hiking in the woods, and maybe visiting some natural areas within a few hours drive. (We’ve pretty much completely avoided going anywhere so far that we couldn’t go, hike, and return without having to use a restroom.)

Normal would include practicing parkour with the campus group.

Normal would include resuming teaching taiji in the fall.

I had scheduled a visit to Urbana Boulders to do some wall climbing right when the lockdown started, so that fell by the wayside. I had actually started taking an aikido class when we had to stop because of the pandemic. Either one of those things might happen, once the pandemic ends.

Basically, I have high hopes for 2021.

Pair of Speed Force shoes on a handsome rug.

I’ve been meaning for a long time to write about the various minimal shoes that I wear these days, and since Xero recently gave me an affiliate link, now seems the perfect time.

First up is the Speed Force, which is Xero’s running shoe.

My experience with the Speed Force shoes is slightly fraught, because my pair arrived right after I aggravated a long-standing foot injury. To recover from the injury I ended up taking a long break from running, so these shoes have only recently started to get the wear-time they deserve.

Despite that unfortunate association, I really like these shoes. They’re the lightest, most minimal shoes I’ve got.

As part of my foot rehab, I’d did some actual barefoot running, which was highly effective: When I was actually barefoot, running didn’t aggravate my sore foot, whereas when I ran in shoes (even minimal ones), the injury would flare up again. That difference prompted me to remember that these shoes had a removable insole to provide just a tiny amount of cushioning. I took the insole out and that was the adjustment that got these shoes close enough to actually barefoot that I could start running again.

I’m sad that I missed almost the whole summer’s running, but I’ll make do with fall and winter running.

For me, these shoes provide exactly just what I want from minimal running shoes: Some puncture resistance and some thermal resistance. (They also provide some abrasion resistance—comfortable, but perhaps part of the reason my foot injury was so persistent. If you run with correct form there shouldn’t be any abrasion; protecting yourself from it just enables bad form, leading—at least in my case—to injury.)

The Speed Force shoes are the maximally minimal shoes I had been looking for. Check them out at my affiliate link. Buy a pair (or any of the other Xero shoes) and earn me a tiny pittance!

There are several other Xero shoes, boots, and sandals that I wear regularly, which I’ll write about over the next little while.

Since spring I’ve been using some workout plans put together by Anthony Arvanitakis. For eight weeks from late May to early July I did his Superhero Bodyweight Workout, and since then I’ve been following along with bodyweight workouts he’s been sharing for the summer.

One limitation that I’ve had all this time is that I haven’t been able to do the hill or stair sprint workouts that he suggests, due to a lingering foot injury. After repeatedly resting my sore foot until it was nearly all better, and then trying to get back into running, only to have my foot start hurting again, I finally took a full month off. That was enough for my foot to finally feel entirely better, so last week I went for a 3-mile run as a test. My foot didn’t hurt during the run, but was sore again that evening and the next day.

I took another week off from running, and then today decided to try a different tack: Those hill-sprint workouts.

Three things about this make it make sense to me:

  1. Hill sprints are lower impact than running on flat ground (because the ground is higher for each next step, so your foot doesn’t fall as far).
  2. The total mileage is much less (today’s workout was just 0.5 miles).
  3. My running gait is better when I’m sprinting.

Putting those things together makes me think that maybe hill sprints will let me run at least a little without aggravating my foot injury.

Another thing I’m doing is extending my warmup quite a bit. I did my full dynamic stretching routine before heading to the workout location. Once I got there I scrupulously followed the prescribed warmup routine, jogging up the hill at 50%, 60%, 70% and 80% intensity (I actually did 5 preliminary jogs up the hill, at gradually increasing intensity). After each of the last two warmup jogs I did a set of 12 straight-elbow push ups (what I call rhomboid pushups) as preparation for the pushup part of the workout.

The main workout then was 4 sets of sprinting up the hill at 90% intensity, walking down, and then doing as many pushups as I could do with perfect form (I did 10, 10, 8 and 8 pushups).

I also did something I’ve always resisted in the past: I drove to my hill. (This being central Illinois, hills are few and far between. My hill is at Colbert Park.) Usually I don’t like to drive somewhere to get exercise—why not walk or run and thereby get more exercise? But with my sore foot, that much extra running would definitely aggravate the injury. Even walking that far might be an issue.

One thing I need to be careful of is to be sure to get in my full wrist warmup. I’m pretty good about that ahead of a rings workout, but perhaps wasn’t as scrupulous as I should have been this time. But the pushups put enough stress on the wrists that it’s good to get them fully warmed up even before the rhomboid pushups.

I’m pretty pleased with my workout. My foot (really my ankle) is a bit tender this evening. We’ll see how it feels tomorrow. On the schedule I’m (tentatively) following, I’ll be doing hill sprints again Monday. If my foot is completely pain-free at least several days ahead of that, I’ll proceed with that plan.

Jackie was fixing blue-corn pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and eating that many carbs first thing in the morning can be a problem for me. However, I have come up with a strategy for dealing with it: Getting in a pre-breakfast fasted workout. My theory is that by doing this I deplete my muscle glycogen, so that my muscles are primed to soak up all the carbs I eat, minimizing the degree to which the glucose spikes my blood sugar.

I have no data to show that this works, but anecdotally I can report that it seems to help.

I’ve been wanting to go for a run. I had planned to go for a run yesterday, but it ended up being rainy enough that I decided to postpone the run for a day. So I might have gone for a run for my pre-breakfast workout, but Jackie was hungry early, and I didn’t want to delay breakfast by an extra hour.

So, I did what’s becoming my standard HIIT workout: I warm up with 3×25 Hindu squats, and then I do 3×25 kettlebell swings with my 53 lb kettlebell. It’s a quick workout—it’s all done in 20 minutes, including some amount of pre-warmup warmup—and it’s of high enough intensity to burn off plenty of glucose.

After breakfast (and a bit of digesting) I went ahead and got out for my planned run. After the persistently sore foot I’ve been dealing with for months now simply refused to get better, I had taken a full month off from running to see if all I needed was plenty of rest to fully recover, and that may have done the trick—I went out for a 3.33-mile run, and I had no foot pain whatsoever.

I don’t wear my Oura ring for the kettlebell workouts (or other workouts where I have to grip something, because handles, bars, and (gymnastic) rings don’t play well with the Oura ring). However, my Polar heart rate monitor will tell Google Fit about my workout, and the phone app for the Oura ring will read that data and give me credit for what I did while the ring was off:

My peak heart rate during the kettlebell swings would have seen me to much higher activity levels than the just-barely “High” levels shown, but that’s because it’s an interval workout. A set of 25 swings takes me just about 50 seconds, and then it takes about 3 minutes for my HR to drop low enough that I can do another set. The software is averaging those periods together. Unless I’m doing sprints (which I didn’t today) a run is just a steady-state effort. I try to keep my HR down in the MAF range, but didn’t manage it today (because of the prior HIIT workout).

On Sunday I ran in the Rattlesnake Master Run for the Prairie 10k.

Usually I expect that I’ll write a post when I participate in an event like that, but it turns out that I don’t have a lot to say about it. It went fine. I ran very slowly, which I expected because I’d done all of my training very slowly, but I did not come in last, which was nice.

I’d suffered with a nagging sore foot for several weeks leading up to the race. The pain was in the heel of my right foot, which made me figure it was probably plantar fasciitis. I think I’ve figured out though that it’s actually peroneal tendonitis. Understanding that gives me a clue toward recovery. The peroneal tendon, which reaches down the outside of your ankle, through the heel, and then forward across to the inside edge of the front of your foot, is heavily involved in balancing, especially standing on one foot. I do a lot of single-leg standing as part of my taiji practice and teaching, and since figuring this out I’ve been especially careful about being gentle with myself in this part of the practice, and in just a few days I’ve finally seen dramatic improvement.

The realization didn’t help in time for the race though, and my foot was a little sore right along. It wasn’t so sore that I thought I was doing real damage though, so I just ran the race anyway. It did impact my gate a bit, which meant that my opposite-leg knee started hurting about halfway through the race.

Part of the reason for this post is to test the GPX exporting at Polar (which had been broken for a while) and the GPX tracking plug-in that I’ve got here (which has been updated a couple of times since I last successfully got a GPX track exported from Polar). So, here’s the track of my run. The heart rate data doesn’t seem to be working.

[sgpx gpx=”/wp-content/uploads/gpx/Philip_Brewer_2019-11-03_08-55-36.gpx”]

(I didn’t want to fiddle with my phone at the start or finish of the race, so I started tracking my run about 5 minutes before the start of the race, and then I forgot to turn it off until about 5 minutes after I crossed the finish line, so both the time and the distance are a little off.)

My official time was 1:17:13.4 meaning a 12:26/mile pace. That’s as fast as I’ve run in years. (Overall results. Age-group results.)

It was pretty cold at the start—cold enough that I didn’t manage to get my race number in my pre-race selfie:

It had warmed up a lot by the end of the race, when I captured the selfie up at the top with Jackie (who along with a lot of the Master Naturalists had volunteered in the race).

On many of my runs this spring, my ankles have been a little sensitive. I’m not sure why. It may be the last remnants of my ankle injury last summer. It may be that I haven’t been stretching my calves enough. It may be that I’ve been doing too many longish runs and not enough short ones. But whatever the cause, I’ve noticed that it seems much worse when the weather is cold.

Serious runners like to run in cool weather. Running generates a lot of heat. Even someone who runs as slowly as I do generates enough heat to keep warm (even in shorts and a t-shirt) in temps down into the 40s. But my ankles have tended to hurt after any run that I did in temps below the upper 50s. So for the past several weeks, I’ve been holding out for temps in the 60s to go for runs—and there hasn’t been much.

Happily our long, cold spring seems to be finally over. Since the end of winter, there have generally only been a few hours a week that were warm enough for me to run. As of today, it looks like we’re going to have 15 or 16 hours a day that will suit my purposes.

So, today I went out for a medium-ish length run, hoping that the weather and my schedule will let me get out for more runs nearly every day for the next while.

According to Zombies, Run! I went 3.11 miles in 36:18. It went great. No ankle pain (or foot, calf, knee, or hip pain). It was long enough for me to feel like I got in a real run, but short enough that (baring unexpected problems), I hope to be able to run tomorrow as well. And the day after that.

In related news, I’ve become interested in parkour. I’m not really interested in doing anything extreme in the way of climbing or leaping. It’s more that I’m hoping to see places to run differently—to see walls and railings and stairways and rocks as part of the course, rather than as obstacles. I haven’t done much so far, except step up the bodyweight parts of my resistance exercise, but I’ve started to practice jumping and landing where I mean to. (It turns out I have no explosive power at all. It’s really quite sad.) I’m also trying to recover my ability to do shoulder rolls. (Thirty years ago, when I was studying aikido, I could do a perfectly credible shoulder roll, come right to my feet, and then do the same roll on the other shoulder, all the way down the length of the dojo. Now I’m too timid to do a roll from a standing position, and even when I do it from my knee, it’s all clumsy and awkward. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good reason to be timid about doing them at a run.)

I hurt my ankle last month, and had to quit running.

There was no injury event. In late September I had two weeks of very modest running and fairly modest walking—and then one night (after a rest day!) turning over in bed made my ankle hurt bad enough that it woke me up.

It didn’t seem bad. I quit running and waited for it to get better. Except it turned out to be easily reinjured. (It seemed especially prone to reinjury related to bus riding. Three different times I hurt it that way—once running to catch a bus, once stepping down from the bus and landing hard on that foot, and once just stepping up into the bus pushing off with that foot.)

After about three weeks, I began to think that maybe it was a stress fraction or some other injury that might need more than just rest to get better. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t, and it didn’t.)

I went to see my doctor, who ordered x-rays and a podiatry consult. The podiatrist I saw was an orthopedic surgeon, who had quit doing surgery to do this instead.

According to my orthopedic surgeon/podiatrist, there was no sign of a stress fracture—but it almost didn’t matter anyway, because stress fractures of the ankle and leg (except at the head of the femur) very rarely dislocate. The treatment for almost any injury of this sort is just to rest it until it gets better.

My formal diagnosis was peroneal tendonitis.

My ankle seems to finally be about all better. Yesterday I (once again) carelessly ran for the bus—and this time it didn’t hurt! However, Jackie has several tasks for me to accomplish over the next few days, and doesn’t want me to be unable to accomplish them because I’m hobbling around. So I’ve agreed to hold off on running for one more week.

My orthopedic surgeon/podiatrist is also a runner, and he sounds just like a runner. Jackie asked if my having switched to minimalist shoes the previous summer might have put me at more risk for injury. The doctor didn’t seem to think so, and mentioned that he had started wearing five-finger shoes for his short training runs. He had liked them well enough, that when it came time for his half-marathon, he’d abruptly decided to wear them for the race, even though he hadn’t been wearing them for his long training runs. Said it worked out fine for him.

I expect the same will be true of me. I’ll resolve to be more careful about adding distance next year, but I doubt if my resolution will make much difference. Long runs feel too good.

As Steven says, “Running is great exercise between injures.”

My only real hope is to do a better job of maintaining a base level of fitness over the winter, and I have a plan for doing so.

Last week I was perhaps a mile into a short run when I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my right calf. It hurt quite a bit, and hurt more on each of the two steps it took me to come to a stop without falling down.

My brother likes to say, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”

I’ve had pretty good luck with injuries. I did get hurt the first time I took up running, back in 1992. When I pushed my long run up to 6 miles, so I could run in the Allerton Park Trail Run, I upped the distance too quickly, irritating my Achilles tendon. It took over a year to heal completely, and by then I was no longer a runner.

I’ve taken up running several times since then, without injuring myself. When I gave up running those times it was simply because winter came and I couldn’t make myself spend enough time on the treadmill to stay in shape. Spring would come and I was no longer a runner. Some years I managed to get back into running shape. Other years I didn’t.

After I hobbled back home, I did a good bit of internet reading about strained calf muscles. The injury is most often caused by sudden changes in direction, such as in racket sports. My scenario is the second most common: even a very easy run, when the muscle is tired—I had walked 16 miles the day before.

I rested and iced the calf, and it got a lot better right away. By the second day after the injury it didn’t hurt to walk, I was able to lift weights (skipping calf raises), and I was able to teach my tai chi class without pain. After another couple of days, I was able to walk five miles without discomfort. Once the initial pain and swelling had passed, I’d been doing some massage of the injured spot, trying to minimize the adhesions that seem to be a problem for some runners with recurring calf injuries, and that had reached the point of being pain-free as well.

That all misled me into thinking it was more healed than it turned out to be.

On the fifth day after the injury I tried to go for a very short run, just to see if it was going to be okay. And it was. I ran a few blocks—maybe a quarter of a mile—and then back again, all without pain. Then, when I tried to turn onto my street: ouch.

That reinjury seems to be even more minor. A day of rest and icing and I think I’m back to normal as far a non-running activity goes.

Today I’ll try a mediumish walk, going 2 or 3 miles to lunch, with the option to switch to the bus if my calf hurts along the way. If it’s not sore at all after lunch, maybe I’ll walk home as well.

One of the web pages I read about calf muscle injuries said that after 10 days, scar tissue is as strong as muscle tissue. I’ll hold off on more attempts at running until 10 days after the original injury, and I’ll make sure there’s a day of rest after any other strenuous activity before my next run.

Then we’ll see.