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.

This is the first decision point on my runs. If it’s going to be a short run, I go right. Today was a long run, so I went left.

Less than a mile further along. I’m always a little surprised by the people who would rather see a blank wall than a wonderful footpath.

About the mid-point of today’s run, my longest of the season.

The immature Bald Eagles I’ve been seeing occasionally the last couple of years are all grown up!

Depending on how far I want to run, I can choose any of several routes through or past Burwash Park. Whichever I take, by the time I get here I’m about 1 mile from home.

For some time now I’ve been aiming to do my endurance training at my MAF heart rate. MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function, and it’s the heart rate where you’re producing the maximum output without having to use anaerobic systems. Although the MAF formula just produces an estimate, there’s quite a bit of data to back it up.

If you do almost all your training at MAF, you’ll get better (run faster) at that heart rate. The idea is that you first do that, and only when your performance plateaus do you need to start doing any sort of speed work (and then not much of it).

As I say, for some time I’ve been aiming to train at my MAF heart rate, but it’s a low enough level of intensity that I’ve persistently had trouble not running too fast. I have a heart rate monitor, but it’s not very useful during a run, because my heart rate is displayed on my phone, and I don’t want to run around carrying my phone where I can see the screen. The upshot has been that I’ve inadvertently done a great deal of my training somewhat above my MAF heart rate, which rather defeats the purpose.

To get a better grip on my MAF training, I finally broke down and bought another heart rate monitor, which displays my heart rate on my wrist so I can check it while I’m running. It also has an alert function, so I can set it to vibrate if my heart rate goes above some value. After looking around a bit, I settled on the Mi Band 4 (which is available for cheap because the Mi Band 5 is now out). It does the thing I want well enough. (It also does a bunch of other stuff that I don’t care about, and some things that I do care about (sleep tracking), but that I do some other way, such as with my Oura ring.)

After a shakedown run a few days ago, where I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to use the device the way I wanted, today I went out for a run where I tried to use it for some proper MAF training, and I think I was very successful. I probably only spent two or three minutes (out of a 51-minute run) with my heart rate above my target.

This very easy run was nice and gentle. Sitting here at my computer maybe an hour after I got home, my heart rate is already back down to just 64 bpm, which amounts to a surprisingly complete recover. After a run only a little bit faster, I’d expect to see my heart rate stuck in the 70s for several hours.

Now to see if regular training this way produces the speed gains it is reputed to.

Went out a little fast at the start, partially because it’s chilly and I was cold, but mostly because it felt so good to run a little fast. 🏃🏻‍♂️ Photo from about the mid-point, where I managed to ease it back down a little.

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).