Walt Whitman wrote a fitness book!

I actually knew this already, having seen an article about the work, originally serialized in the weekly journal the New York Atlas under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, when it was collected and republished as a PDF (Manly Health and Training) in 2016. But I hadn’t read through the whole thing until this month.

I’ve read a lot of fitness books over the years, and one thing I find interesting is how much they are all the same—including Walt Whitman’s. Of course, every fitness book has its own peculiarities—more or less focus on functional fitness, flexibility, muscle size, body fat, strength, quickness, power, control, aerobic capacity, aesthetics, etc. But the levers available to affect these things don’t really change: sleep, diet, resistance exercise, endurance training, and stretching just about cover the gamut. Aside from the details of the diet, it’s primarily a matter of selection, focus, and combining of exercises.

Walt Whitman from about the time his training book was being written and serialized. Photo by J. W. Black of Black and Batchelder / Public domain

Walt Whitman’s fitness manual offers a nice little selection of exercises, none of which would seem out-of-place in any modern fitness book:

  • Rowing: “a noble and manly exercise; it developes the whole of the body.”
  • Toe-touches: “The ordinary exercise of bending forward and touching the toes with the tips of the fingers, keeping the knees straight meanwhile, is a very good one, and may be kept on with, in moderation at a time, for years and years.”
  • Lunges: “The simple exercise of standing on one foot and lowering so as to touch the bent knee of the other leg to the ground, and then rising again on the first foot, is also a good one.”
  • Dancing: “The art of the dancing-master may also be called in play, for the development of the legs, and their graceful and supple movement.”
  • Swimming: “being relieved of all the clothes, and supported in the water, allows of bringing nearly all the muscles of the body into easy and pleasant action.”
  • Walking: “A pretty long walk may also be taken, commencing at an ordinary pace, and increasing the rapidity of the step till it takes the power of locomotion pretty well, and then keeping it up at that gait, as it can be well endured—not to the extent of fatigue, however.”

Walt Whitman wants his readers to be exemplars of manly beauty. In fact, based on how he talks about it, you have to assume that increasing the amount of manly beauty around is really the most important thing he hopes to achieve with his book—but that’s a fair thing to do, because:

As regards human beings, in an important sense, Beauty is simply health and a sound physique. We can hardly conceive of a man, at any age of life, who is in perfect health, and keeps his person clean and neatly attired, who has not some claims to this much-prized attribute.

Related to this, he is clearly keen to normalize men caring about aesthetics:

Nor is there anything to be ashamed of in the ambition of a man to have a handsome physique, a fine body, clear complexion, nimble movements, and be full of manly vigor. Ashamed of! Why, we think it ought to be one of the first lessons taught to the boy, when he begins to be taught at all. It is of quite as much importance as any grammar, geography, or arithmetic— indeed, we should say it was of unrivalled importance.

Of course, some things are desirable for more than just their aesthetic benefits:

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, &c., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.

An aside, because it touches on both dancing and aesthetics: A few years ago I read a fitness book titled something like How to Have a Dancer’s Body, which I read hoping to get some suggestions for improving strength and flexibility, only to be sadly disappointed. Its advice in those areas, after a brief treatment of stretching and posture, was that the student should find a good dance class and workout under a teacher. (Most of the book seemed to be about normalizing having an eating disorder—which, admittedly, is probably essential if you want to have the body of a prima ballerina.)

Dance’s attractiveness comes, I think, from the way it both provides actual (often astonishing) physical capability along with an aesthetic that I and many other people find attractive. Walt agreed on both counts, although seemed to take issue with the dance fashions of the times:

As originally intended, dancing was meant to give harmonious movements to the whole body, from the legs, by keeping time to music. In that sense, it was a beautiful art, and one of the noblest of gymnastic exercises. Modern arrangements have made it something quite different.

We would be glad to see some manly genius arise among the dancing teachers, who, out of such hints as we have hastily written, would assist the objects of the trainer and gymnast.

As I said, all fitness books are pretty much the same, so I am not really surprised to find things here that read exactly like something I might find in some entirely modern source of fitness advice.

For example, his rant on shoes and feet sounds exactly like what you might expect if Walt Whitman wrote some copy for Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement shoe page or Steven Sashen’s Xero Shoes.

Probably, in civilized life, half the men have more or less deformed feet, from the tight and wretchedly made boots generally worn.

In one of the feet there are thirty-six bones, and the same number of joints, continually playing in locomotion, and needing always a free and loose action. Yet they are always squeezed into boots not modeled from them, nor allowing the play and ease they require. For the modern boot is formed on a dandified idea of beauty, as it is understood at Paris and London, and not as it is exemplified by nature.

If you want to see the feet in their natural and beautiful proportions, you must get a view of the casts of the remains of ancient sculpture, representing the human form, doubtless from the best specimens afforded by the public games and training exercises of the Greek and Roman arenas. They exhibit what the foot is when allowed to grow up, with its free, uncramped, undeformed action. There have been no artificial coverings or compressions; and we know that the gait therefrom must have been firm and elastic. We can understand how the Macedonian phalanx, or the Roman legion, performed its long day’s march. We can see the ten thousand Greeks pursuing their daily wearying course through the destroying climate of Asia, marching firmly, manfully, across the arid sand, the mountain pass, or the flinty plain. It is a truthful lesson we may learn, not for the soldier only, but for the civilian.

Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet. This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health.

Simlarly, his principle workout plan sounds exactly like a MovNat combo:

In truth, however, a man who is disposed to attend to the matter of strengthening and developing his muscular power, will be continually finding some means to further that object, and will do so in the simplest manner, as well as any. To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to push and roll over, a similar length of time, some small rock with the foot, thus developing the strength of the knees and the ankles and muscles of the calf—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists, given with a will—to place the body in position occasionally, for a moment, with all the sinews of the arms and legs strained to their utmost tension—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to stand on a hill or shore and throw stones, sometimes horizontally, sometimes perpendicularly— to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—to climb trees in the woods, or gripe the low branches with your hands and swing backward and forward—to run, or rapidly walk, or skip or leap along—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for every one—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time. Nor let the reader be afraid of these because they are simple, but form the daily habit of some of them, without making himself uneasy “how it will look” to outsiders, or what they will say.

The book especially addresses people who are in school, telling them to be “also a student of the body,” but wants to be sure that the reader knows that not only students are the intended audience:

To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning! Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months. Early rising, early to bed, exercise, plain food, thorough and persevering continuance in gently-commenced training, the cultivation with resolute will of a cheerful temper, the society of friends and a certain number of hours spent every day in regular employment.

I am pleased to find myself so particularly represented! I’m really not a clerk, but I will claim to be a literary man, and will own up to being also a sedentary person, an idler, and arguably even a man of fortune.

There are many reasons to read a good fitness book, but very few reasons to read another after that. Walt Whitman’s fitness book isn’t really an exception. Still, if you are, like me, a connoisseur of fitness books, it’s worth including this one—for his unique prose style, for his place in American literary history, and for his perspective on manly beauty.

Heart rate training and this morning’s run

Another quick experiment with WP-GPX-Maps, but also a quick report of using my heart rate in my running training.

First, here’s this morning’s run:

[sgpx gpx=”/wp-content/uploads/gpx/Philip_Brewer_2017-07-06_07-13-23.gpx”]

Roughly the same route as last time, except that instead of running back past the woods the same way I ran out I ran back on a path through the woods itself, and then I added another out-and-back through the prairie, out on the path we call the Low Road and then back on the Middle Way, adding a half mile or so.

(By the way, my heart rate ought to be showing up and isn’t. Part of the reason it’s not there is that it’s not being included in the GPX file that I’m getting from Polar. I was able to get a GPX file that included the heart rate, by exporting a TCX file from Polar and then converting it using TCX Converter, but that still didn’t work. The result was actually worse, in that it lost the altitude data as well. The map above is generated from the straight GPX file from Polar.)

I’m trying to train at my MAF heart rate, which I calculate at 127.

The theory here is that training at this intensity is best for improving your ability burn fat (rather than glucose) for energy. At higher heart rates you end up using a great deal of glucose, so you end up glycogen depleted and then have to eat carbs to replenish your stores. At this lower intensity your consumption of glucose is modest and easily replenished with even a low-carb diet.

With regular training, you gradually get faster at this low intensity (for a while, anyway), which means that you’re automatically training for both speed and endurance at the same time.

I have a heart rate monitor from Polar which works great, except that (incomprehensibly) the Polar app doesn’t have alerts to let you know when you go outside your target range. I’ve been trying to learn through trial and error to feel the intensity level that gets me to the target HR.

This time I got it just about exactly right.

Polar has its own idea of target range, and the closest they have to the zone I want (which is 117 to 127 according to MAF) is what Polar calls Zone 3 and pegs (for me) at 115 to 131. I did 92% of this run in that zone. And, judging from eyeballing the graph, a lot of it was just under 127, right where I want it.

I also squeezed in a 20 minute lifting session after my run. The HR data from that is also kind of interesting, but also doesn’t display with the WP-GPX-Maps plugin.

Non-weekly training schedules

I got a great comment on my previous post (thanks Ilana!), and started to reply in a comment there, but realized that I was straying into something that I wanted to talk in a post—training cycles that aren’t a multiple of 7 days.

Rereading my post, I see that it does look like my only runs are my long run and my fast run. That’s not the case, though. I try to include two or three easy runs each week as well.

In years past, my training schedule was pretty ordinary. Each week would include a long run and a fast run, each followed by a rest day. The other three days would each be a chance for an easy run. I found that I could just about maintain my fitness if I ran three times a week, but that I had to run four or five times a week if I wanted to improve either my speed or my endurance.

This summer my training routine has been complexificated by these very long walks I’ve been doing. It turns out that I need about two days to recover from a walk that pushes beyond the farthest I’ve ever walked before. Adding a long walk and one or two recovery days to my usual schedule pushes it out to a 9 or 10 day cycle, instead of a 7-day cycle.

The obvious thing to do would be to create a 9-day cycle—something like this: long walk, rest day, easy run, easy run, long run, rest day, easy run, fast run, rest day. One obstacle to that is that the various tracking tools I’m aware of all provide summaries for weekly periods, not for 9-dayly periods. (If you know of an exercise tracking tool that can produce useful summaries for training cycles of arbitrary length, let me know.)

So, I’m just winging it as far as a training schedule goes. Since it became clear that we wouldn’t get to Kalamazoo for the Kal-Haven trail walk this summer (we’re now hoping to do it next summer), we’ve eased up a bit on lengthening our very long walks, although we’re still planning to do 17 miles shortly. At these distances, it seems like doing each “even longer” walk ought to happen only every other week (with the long walk on the alternate weeks being comfortably within our established capability).

Running injury (minor, I think)

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.

Resting heart rate

I’ve been tracking my resting heart rate. As you become more fit, your heart becomes able to pump more blood with each beat, so most people will see their resting heart rate decline with training. Fitness books suggest that there are other insights to be gleaned as well—an unexpected jump in resting heart rate may be a sign of overtraining, for example.

It’s only true in general; it doesn’t mean anything to compare resting heart rates across individuals. But I’m one of those who does see a strong effect, so it’s been fun to watch my resting heart rate decline. It’s up in the low 70s when I’m out of shape, drops into the 60s pretty quickly after I start getting some regular aerobic exercise, then gradually declines into the low 50s.

Yesterday, though, my resting heart rate was 49. Since my resting heart rate tends to get stuck in the low 50s, that was fun to see. It’s also a pretty good indication that I’m recovered from Monday’s long run.

Just two weeks to the winter solstice, so just four weeks until the days are again as long as they are now. Then things start getting better. That provides a ray of hope as I stick with the treadmill running.