I started practicing tai chi in 2009 with a beginner course at OLLI (the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute). I’d always been attracted to tai chi. I liked the way it looked—the slow, controlled movement. I was also interested in it as a martial art, and I liked the idea of “moving meditation.” Despite all that interest, I had not anticipated how transformative the practice would turn out to be.

Me doing Lazy about Tying Coat
Lazy about Tying Coat

Before I added the tai chi practice to my life, I was all about figuring out the “right” amount of exercise—and in particular, the minimum amount of running, lifting, walking, bicycling, stretching, etc. to become and remain fit enough to be healthy, comfortable, and capable of doing the things I wanted to be able to do.

Pretty quickly after I took up the practice, I found I was no longer worried about that. I found that my body actually knew what the right amount was, and that all I needed to do was move when I felt like moving—and make sure that my movement was diverse.

Because diversity was the key, I did a lot more than just tai chi. I continued running. I dabbled in parkour. I stepped up my lifting practice (and then shifted to mostly bodyweight training when the pandemic made gyms unavailable, and then continued with it because it seemed to work better). I went down a “natural movement” rabbit hole. I walked a lot.

In about 2012 or 2013 my tai chi instructor asked if anyone wanted to “assistant teach” the beginners class with him. I volunteered, and then did so. After six months or so he asked me to take over the evening class that he was teaching for people who couldn’t come to the early classes. I gradually started filling in for him on other classes as well.

In 2015 I formally took over as the tai chi instructor at the Savoy Rec Center. I really enjoyed teaching tai chi, although I found the constraints (having to show up at every class) a bit. . . constraining.

I did some tweaking around the edges (in particular, combining the Wednesday and Friday classes into a single Thursday class, so I could have a three-day weekend), which helped, but only so much.

Then a few weeks ago, the Rec Center wanted me to sign a new contract which would have required me to buy a new insurance policy, naming the Village of Savoy as an “additional insured.” I’m sure I could have done that—there are companies that sell insurance specifically for martial arts and fitness instructors. But as soon as I got set to research such policies, I realized that I really didn’t want to.

Instead, I wanted to retire.

I’d retired from my regular job years before, in 2007. And of course teaching tai chi four or five hours a week was in no way a career. The first few years I was teaching, I found the money I earned a nice supplement to our other retirement income. But with various improvements to our financial situation over the last few years, the money became pretty irrelevant, and the time constraints more. . . constraining. Especially with my parents facing various health challenges, I want to be able to go visit either one if that seems necessary, which has been difficult if I want to honor my obligation to my students.

So a few weeks ago I told the Rec Center and my students that I was retiring from teaching tai chi. My last classes were yesterday.

I’m sad not to be teaching my students any more, but delighted at losing the set of related constraints.

For years now, my students have been gathering in the park (Morrissey Park in Champaign, Illinois) during nice weather for informal group practice sessions, and I expect we’ll keep doing that. At any rate, I plan to be there, starting in the spring, practicing my tai chi. You are welcome to join us.

My workout was a medium-length run of 3.97 miles which I ran in 1:06:45, but that was not my only activity. Besides that, I also hiked a similar-length trail at Homer Lake with Jackie.

The walk was especially nice, and we’re very pleased that (with her new bionic hip) Jackie is once again able to walk reasonable distances. We walked about 2.72 miles in 1:24. There were some very nice views of Homer Lake, as well as some deer, some blue jays, and a handsome snek that I failed to get a decent picture of.

I did get a decent picture of Jackie:

Besides the pictures from Homer Lake, I also got a picture of a handsome Red-tailed Hawk while I was out running, taken quite close to home. (See at the top of this post.) He was still there as I returned home.

I should mention that the run was actually quite a bit longer than my exercise-tracking app gave me credit for. (Google Fit estimates the distance at 4.46 miles.)

You can get an idea of just how much my exercise-tracking app shorted me from this map, if you know that I ran around the lake at the north end of of my run (and not as the map suggests, through it), and that I generally followed roads and paths (without cutting nearly as many corners as the map suggests).

I want to reassure people that I will not be posting all of my workouts going forward. I just wanted to post a representative strength training session and run, so that I’d have then here as examples.

I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.

This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.

There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).

During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:

  • 3 strength training workouts
  • 2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
  • 1 HIIT workout
  • 2 rest days

That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.

Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).

The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.

Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.

So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)

Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.

His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).

I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.

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.