I’m back home! And two days of brisk urban walking have done me a world of good.
This year didn’t have a stunt like last year’s Kal-Haven Trail walk. Instead I tried to spend the year turning my realization that “getting plenty of exercise” is a poor substitute for “moving all day” into something that guided my behavior all the time.
I did not have perfect success. I still spend too many hours sitting at my computer during the day, and then spend too many hours sitting and watching videos in the evening. Neither did I fail. I included movement throughout the day most days of the year, especially through the spring, summer, and fall.
Although movement was my focus I certainly did not give up on exercise. In particular, I used exercise to make progress on developing certain capabilities that I lack.
I had four specific things I was going to work on for 2016: squatting, toe flexibility, hanging, and wall dips. I made good progress on all them except the toe flexibility.
My limitations in squatting turn out to be almost entirely mobility. (My personal test for this is the goblet squat. Using a modest weight—just enough to serve as a counterbalance so I can get down into a deep squat—I can do a dozen reps.)
The other ways (besides a counterbalance) to compensate for squat-limiting mobility issues are heel bolstering, hanging onto something in front of you, and taking a wide-legged sumo stance. I don’t practice the last, but use it when I want to look in my mailbox (which is down low) or into a low cabinet or the bottom of the refrigerator. I don’t much practice hanging onto something while squatting either. Most of my practice has focused on bolstering.
With a modest amount of heel-bolstering I can now get down into a deep squat, and linger there comfortably. Almost every day I do my calf and hamstring stretches and then do some squatting with progressively lower heel bolstering. I haven’t done as much hip flexor stretching as I probably need to. I’ll add that to my daily routine, both for the stretching itself, and also for the motor control practice—I’m kind of wobbly doing a hip flexor stretch, which probably causes all the related muscles to tighten up some.
My hanging is probably where I’ve made the most progress. I can now hang for long enough (90 seconds) that there’s time to do stuff while hanging—things like swinging back-and-forth or side-to-side, pulling my knees up toward my chest, or raising my legs up in front of me.
To just hanging I added negative pull ups. After an ill-advised increase in volume hurt my shoulder in July I eased up just a bit, but still made good progress, working up to 3×5 negative pull ups.
When that turned out not to have enabled even one pull up, I changed the exercise just a bit: Now I’m doing the negative pull ups even slower, trying at each point to see if I can (from that point) lift myself up, or at least stop my descent.
Soon. Soon I will be able to do a pull up.
I thought I was ready to do wall dips a year ago, because I could do wall supports—support myself with my hands on the top of a wall. I could even sort-of do one wall dip—lowering myself and then pushing back up.
I didn’t train that exercise enough in the summer, largely because I didn’t have a good wall to practice on. When I came back to it in the fall, I found that going from one wall dip to two wall dips was quite challenging.
Something that is well-known in the bodyweight exercise community—that I know, but always seem to have trouble applying to myself—is that when an exercise is too hard you should back off to an easier progression.
So, just now that it’s winter, I have finally backed off a bit to an easier dip progression: bench dips (where you have your hands on a bench behind you, with your legs stretched out in front of you, and you lower and raise yourself with your arms while some weight rests on your heels).
I’ve already worked up from 1×8 bench dips to 1×12. Pretty soon I’ll be doing 3×12. Then it’ll probably be time to return to wall dips. I’ll also keep up with my wall supports, when I happen upon a good wall.
The area where I’ve made the least progress is toe dorsiflexion. That’s been kind of frustrating.
This may be one area where what I need is not just more stretching (which hasn’t seemed to do any good at all) but some sort of deeper tissue work to break up adhesions, recover space in the joint capsule, etc.
It just now, while writing this, occurred to me that I probably I need to expand my focus to include my whole foot and not just the toes. So that can be my winter practice: the same, plus extra foot mobility.
I’m adding a fifth area of focus for 2017: Pushups.
They had not been a priority before, because pushing strength in that plane is not particularly important for parkour. And yet, it’s such a basic exercise, it seems silly not to give it a little attention—particularly because I was actually really weak in that area: I could barely do one pushup.
I just decided to add pushups a few weeks ago, about the same time I figured out I should back off from wall dips to bench dips. So when I found I could barely do a pushup, I quickly realized that I should back off to something easier for that move as well. So I’ve just started doing bench pushups (hands on a bench, rather than on the floor). I can do 1×8 of those as well.
Because trying to do a pushup is so easy, I probably won’t wait until I can do 3×12 bench pushups before switching back to regular pushups; I’ll just include an occasional few (as many as I can do) in the mix. Once I can do 5 or 6, I’ll switch back to actual pushups.
Without a stunt walk to work up to, Jackie and I did not walk as much this year as last, but we did plenty of long walks and at least one very long walk. Some of our walking is exercise, but most of it is either just a way to get places, or else companionable social time together—often both.
I also did a good bit of running, especially before August. As I’ve been doing more and more these past two or three years, I skipped most of the short and medium runs, letting walks stand in for those, and just did the long runs. That worked surprisingly well, and in July I did a 7.25 mile run, my longest run in years. This is probably a slider as to whether it counts as “exercise” or not, but I do it as much because I enjoy it as I do it for fitness, so I think it legitimately goes here.
Early in the summer I did some training with the campus parkour group, which was great fun. I found it a bit stressful: I’m not strong enough to do some of the basic moves, and I’m too timid to commit to some of the ones I could do if I’d just go for it. I quit going in July when I hurt my shoulder, and then never got started again. I will go back. Maybe being stronger will help some with the timidity as well.
I’ve continued to teach taiji, and to do taiji for myself when I’m not teaching it. The qigong practice that we start each session with provides a pretty good mobility routine (although lacking in the things I mention above: hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and toe dorsiflexion). It builds strength (especially leg strength), balance, and precision (matching movement to intention). It includes a meditation practice—in each class we sit for a few minutes and stand for a few minutes, as well as trying to approach the form itself as moving meditation. It fills so many rolls it goes way beyond exercise (although it’s that too).
One new thing I added—perhaps the most fun of all—is push hands. Closely related to taiji and qigong, it’s kind of a transitional step between taiji as a moving meditation and taiji as a martial art. It deserves a post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here, and instead just thank the new friends I’ve been able to push with and say how much I’m looking forward to practicing again now that the holidays are over.
Volunteer stewardship work days
This doesn’t really describe a category of movement at all, which is I guess the way in which this is totally not an exercise.
Jackie’s master naturalist program includes a substantial volunteer commitment. It can be met a lot of different ways, but one is working in the various parks, doing things like clearing invasive plants, planting native species, and so on.
I’ve just done a few of these, but spent a couple of hours each time moving. Some of the movement—in particular, gathering prairie seeds—must have been identical to what our ancestors would have done in gathering seeds. Others were perhaps slightly different—we had saws and pruning clippers that our earliest ancestors would not have had—but once something has been cut, the lifting and dragging is right back to being the exact same movements that humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.
I’m always torn this time of year, between looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again, versus motivating myself to get outdoors anyway (also: finding ways to move more indoors). I’m trying to discipline myself not to just defer my plans to the spring even implicitly such as by saying “I’m looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again.”
I’m pleased with 2016, a year of great progress in my movement practice, and I have every reason to hope that 2017 will be even better.
Last night the Urbana Park District hosted a winter solstice night hike at Meadowbrook Park, and Jackie and I had a great time walking with Savannah, the park district guide, and the nearly a dozen people who attended.
The winter solstice is always a hard day for me. The longest night should be the day things finally start to get better, but I have trouble finding solace in that truth. Making a bit of a ceremony of the solstice helps.
In years past—pretty much without even thinking about it—I have always fought against the gathering dark. My reaction to this tweet by Jonathan Mead is a good example.
The more you resist the seasons the more you’ll pay later. Sink into the darkness. There’s no better time than now to fully recharge.
I was having none of it:
“Good advice,” I say, vowing never to give in. I’ll gladly pay more later, when the light has returned. A lot more.
That particular reaction—so automatic, and so strong—prompted some thinking over the past year. Maybe there was something to the idea. Could it be that there’s a way to concede to the dark and cold without sinking into depression?
This winter I will experiment with that idea. I mean, it’s going to be cold and dark whether I rail against it or not. Maybe a bit of acceptance could help?
Savannah read a short text that advocated along these lines—something about “being where you are” on the winter solstice. [Updated 28 December 2016: I had emailed Savannah a link to this post, and she replied with the link to the text she had read from: Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration]
I’ll post more on this as winter progresses.
The night did not fully cooperate. The sky was overcast, which meant that we couldn’t see much in the way of planets or constellations. We didn’t hear any owls, despite Savannah’s best efforts to call to them, nor did we hear any coyotes. It wasn’t even as dark as it might have been—the low clouds caught and reflected the light pollution from Urbana and campus.
None of which meant the walk fell short of my hopes. Savannah talked about the history of Meadowbrook Park, and showed us several of their current projects—restoring native plants along Douglas Creek (Jackie helped with that one) and opening up some space along the Hickman Wildflower Walk. She talked about the Barred Owls in the woods to the west and the Great Horned Owls in the woods to the east. She talked about the few local species that hibernate, and compared them to the local species that instead engaged in winter sleeping. She took us to the Freyfogle Prairie Overlook and told us it was the highest point in the park—an amusing notion in a place so flat.
It was wonderful.
It was dark enough that I didn’t want to try to take pictures, so the pictures on this post are from earlier visits to Meadowbrook Park. The rabbit in the picture at the top is one of my favorite sculptures. This picture at the bottom, taken on one of our very long walks leading up to our big Kal-Haven trail hike, is from a spot quite close to the Freyfogle Prairie Overlook.
I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.
Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.
I’m trying to do the same.
It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.
Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”
This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.
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.)
The 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.
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.
It 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.
For going on two years now, I’ve been working on recovering the ability to squat. I’m not talking about the exercise called the squat, although I do that too. I’m talking about the ordinary human resting posture of lowering your butt down near your heels and relaxing there.
The reason I’ve been working on it for two years is that I haven’t been flexible enough to get into a proper squat. My flexibility has been improving pretty slowly, but it has been improving—I can now get down into a pretty good squat if I have a bit of heel support.
The change that’s been driving the improvement, but (as needing heel support shows) the area where I still need to improve, is ankle dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up toward your knees. It’s the opposite of plantarflexion, which is pointing your toes away from your knees.) To improve my ankle dorsiflexion I’ve been doing a variety of calf stretches with both straight and bent knees.
I don’t really have a before picture, but my ankle flexion used to be just about zero. That is, my ankle would bend 90° (as in standing up straight) no problem, but bending it up further simply didn’t happen. I used to think that was normal, and didn’t really try to stretch my calf to go beyond that range.
Now that I’ve been doing my stretches for a while, I can manage a bit of dorsiflexion:
The thing that prompted me to write this post, though, is not that I’m a few degrees closer to being able to squat, but that this added range of motion turns out to be useful for other stuff. In particular, as demonstrated in this picture, walking uphill.
There’s not a lot of call for walking uphill in east-central Illinois, but you can find places where it’s possible to go up a hill. Jackie and I visited one a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself putting my new range of motion to good use.
See, if you can dorsiflex your ankle, then the heel of your back foot can stay on the ground as you stride uphill. This lets you use your glutes to drive yourself forward and upward.
If you can’t dorsiflex your ankle, then your back heel comes off the ground as soon as your front foot goes forward. Now you’re stuck pushing yourself up with your relatively wimpy quads and calf muscles.
I’m not surprised, I just hadn’t though of it. This natural movement stuff turns out to have all kinds of side benefits.
Last summer we were doing lots of very long walks, getting ready for our day hike of the Kal-Haven Trail. This year, without that motivating event, we haven’t done nearly as many.
We’ve done plenty of walking, of course. We’ve even taken some long walks. But since our big hike last summer, we’d only done one very long walk, back in October last year. (A very long walk is one longer than 14 miles. That post includes the explanation of how I picked that distance.)
With this lack of very long walks in mind, a couple of days ago I suggested to Jackie that we should go for a 15-mile hike, and we agreed that Saturday looked like a good day for it.
Jackie has signed up to be a Master Naturalist, and because it’s an endeavor of the Urbana Park District (among other groups), she wanted to visit some Urbana parks. So, we made a point of hitting a few as we walked, including Carle Park, Crystal Lake Park, Busey Woods, and Meadowbrook Park. We’d thought to hit the newish Weaver Park, but to do so we’d have had to go a long way along one of two rather uninspiring, somewhat busy streets. We decided to save it for a day when we were out in the car.
We did some casual route planning, but basically we figured we’d just walk to (and around) parks until we hit our 15 mile goal, and then catch a bus to home. And that would have worked great, except that we really wanted to visit Meadowbrook Park, where we had volunteered in a stewardship work day last week. And that would have been fine, except that the Sunday bus service to Meadowbrook is pretty limited.
Once we’d seen the parts of Meadowbrook that we particularly wanted to see, we’d hit our 15 mile goal (or nearly), and I sat down to check the bus timings. Asked for the best way home by bus, Google Maps suggested that we just walk home—about 3 miles, along Race Street and Curtis Road. I suggested to Google Maps that we might want to walk to First and Gerty, where we could catch the Yellow bus home, but that would be almost as far as just walking home—and end up taking longer, because we’d still have the bus ride ahead of us.
In the end, we just walked home. It was okay, even though there aren’t any sidewalks along Race or Curtis. A good bit of the way we had wide swaths of recently mowed grass along the side of the road, which gave us a nice place to walk well away from the traffic. Other places we had to walk right on the edge of the road, but the drivers were all good about steering clear of us (and we had a ditch we could have bailed out into if necessary).
Some of the stretches were pretty weedy, which made for some harder walking, and some places the weeds hid uneven bits in the ground. Those might have been a problem last year, when nearly every long walk we took was further than we’d ever walked before, meaning that our feet and ankles tended to be tired and sore for the last few miles, which is no good for walking over uneven ground.
This year, it turned out to be no big deal. Despite this being our first very long walk since October, our feet and ankles were totally up to it. We were glad to get out boots off and sit down at the end of it, but we could have walked several more miles if that had been necessary.
The total walk came in at 17.78 miles, rather longer than I’d intended, but comfortably over the threshold for a very long walk. And we got to see some very nice parks.
I neglected to get any pictures along the walk, with one exception: I took a picture of the house where Chuck used to live in Urbana so I could send it to him. And, since that’s the only picture I took on this walk, it’s all I’ve got to illustrate this post.
Here you go:
Jackie and I attended a tree identification workshop at Allerton Park yesterday.
Both my parents are naturalists, and my brother took some botany classes as part getting his PhD in science education, so they all know all the trees we’re likely to see in any of the places where we’ve ever lived. They routinely identify the trees for me when we’re walking. If I’d had any sense, I’d have learned all that stuff myself long ago.
Sadly, I have a lazy brain—the sort that figures that if other people will identify the trees for me, there’s no need for me to learn how to do it myself. So, I had to subject myself to this workshop to try and catch up.
It was a very well done workshop. We spent about half an hour going over basic terminology of tree characteristics—alternate versus opposite, simple versus compound, pinnate versus palmate, petioles versus petiolules—then we spent about three hours hiking through Allerton Park on the south side of the Sangamon River, before breaking for lunch. After lunch we spent another three hours hiking on the north side of the river, looking at the trees found over there.
We learned to identify maybe 30 species, with enough repetition of the more common species that we might actually be able to remember them.
It was good.
With all the time and effort I’ve been putting into fitness of late, I’ve been feeling just a little smug—I’m in so much better shape than I was nine or ten years ago. But this outing showed me that any such smugness is unjustified—everybody in our group of 20 or so, including some people older than Jackie and me, held up just fine to the rigors of five or six hours on our feet in the woods, some of it hiking off-trail. Jackie and I held up just fine too, but I was pretty tired at the end. (And managed to jam my ankle at some point, which wasn’t a problem during the event, but got sore in the night.)
It was a good reminder that endurance is a very complicated thing. Being in shape to walk briskly for 10 or 15 miles is not the same as being in shape to alternate walking and standing for the same number of hours. Adding effort in a mental dimension—trying to learn the trees, keeping an eye out for things like poison ivy, nettle, and tripping hazards—also makes things more taxing, something that’s easy to forget.
Now we need to get back to Allerton reasonably soon—before we forget everything—and see how many of those trees we can still identify.
I think Champaign-Urbana is great. The university gives it cultural and scientific amenities far beyond its size. It’s a cheap place to live, which not only enables my lifestyle, it enables the lifestyle of any number of clever creative people who choose to live where they can make enough from their art to support themselves.
Just about the only thing that CU really lacks is relief—that is, a variation in height from one place to another.
What I mean to say is: it’s really, really flat. Take for example, this image:
That’s the hilly direction. I’m looking toward Yankee Ridge, which is about three miles away from where I’m standing. It may not look like much, but that hill in the distance is a big deal when you’re on a bicycle. At least, it is if you’re used to riding in Central Illinois.
Given the terrain, we don’t get enough hiking on hills, unless we make an effort to go to the hills. So, that’s what we did yesterday. We drove to Fox Ridge, a nearby state park which has some hills.
I remember hiking in Fox Ridge last summer, shortly before our big Kal-Haven trail hike, and finding that we were in pretty good shape for dealing with the hills, despite our very limited practice. That was less true this spring. I was a bit tired from my unexpectedly fast run the previous day, and we were both a bit out of shape from a lack of hills over the winter.
Still, we did okay. We saw some spring wildflowers, like these dutchman’s breeches:
And this solomon’s seal:
So, that’s another bonus of Champaign-Urbana: We’ve got Fox Ridge State Park just 50 miles away.
There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.
From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.
A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.
I was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.
The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.
Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.
We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.
Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.
I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)