Know when to punt

25 days ago I started a wee challenge: Trying to train every day for 100 days straight. I’d done this challenge in 2017 to mixed results. Physically it was mixed; training every day is too much and I ended up defining some recovery days as “training.” Mentally it was also mixed; I wasn’t trying to build a new habit, so the “daily” part didn’t work towards that, and it became a serious drag forcing myself to train every day.

When I finished the 2017 challenge I knew it sucked and definitely didn’t want to make that a thing I did often, nor even yearly. When 2020 rolled around—my physical activity was exactly as usual, with me outside doing various things just as much as 2019—but I started thinking about doing some more rock climbing (outdoors, on real mountains.) That prompted me to think about getting into better shape. For me, that’s primarily removing fat. For the first couple months I concentrated on diet, which means focusing on when and how much I’m eating.

After I peeled off 10 pounds of blubber, that’s when I had the idea to take on a fresh 100-days-of-training challenge. It was exactly what I remembered it was like: It sucks. In years past I would have just embraced the suck and pushed through the thing. Note that I would have constantly considered myself to be failing. Entirely missing a day here and there, realizing I need a rest day and defining recovery as training, and just generally nagging myself with, “I should go train.” Instead I simply punted on the whole thing and deleted it entirely.

…aaah, yes, the power of “no” when you have a bigger “why” burning inside you.

When’s the last time you punted on something?

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Creating space in the morning for reflection

“The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is…deep-wired.” I think this is absolutely true. Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, in part, to do nothing — to just observe and live deliberately — but he also wrote a first draft of a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, while in his cabin. He then left the pond to move in with Emerson, where he wrote another book, this one about his experience at the pond, then another soon after, Civil Disobedience. Thoreau found peace observing nature; but his real pleasure was in producing enduring work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/04/01/on-productivity-and-the-deep-life/

I’ve long ago lost any real sense of which life changes have had the most benefit. But if I were to pick one, it would be making time to reflect. I’m often making adjustments here and there to my life, and those changes are always based on a period of reflection. What have I been doing that has been making me feel well? What have I been doing that has been making me feel unwell? …and so on.

For a while—three years to be specific—I’ve been trying to begin each day with some basic movement/stretching and then some sort of physical activity. I’m talking about first thing each morning. Get out of bed, deal with necessities (eg, coffee :) and then begin with movement and activity. 3 and 2 years ago, that activity was running. For the past year, the physical activity has been a sort-of-like-Olympic-weight-lifting program called Happy Body.

This is not working for me. Sure, when I manage to start with activity then I’m awake and moving and it’s good for my health and I get lots of what I want done each day. But it’s a struggle every. damn. day. blech! What I really want, first thing in the morning, is to NOT be physically active, but rather to be mentally active.

Starting today, I’m overhauling my first-thing-each-day routine to be:

  1. Reflect on the day’s self-assessment reminder
  2. Reflect on the day’s entry from Holiday’s, The Daily Stoic
  3. Read my previous journal entries and write in my current journal
  4. Spend some time in philosophical reading

I encourage you to build a reflection habit. It can be first-thing each morning or whenever works for you. (Many people allocate time for reflection as the last thing each day before going to sleep.) You should intentionally choose what to do as your reflection practice. I’ll go so far as to suggest you perform a few weeks experimentation with each idea you come up with, until you find a reflection practice that works for you. The more you reflect the more you’ll want to iterate and improve creating a virtuous feedback loop.

That’s the plan anyway. It’s certainly the best plan I’ve come up with for me, so far.

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§24 – Recovery Days

(Part 36 of 37 in series, Study inspired by Pakour & Art du Déplacement by V. Thibault)

In certain circles it is said, “what was once your workout will become your warmup.” In my journey of rediscovering activity and play, there was a long period—20 years now, perhaps—where I was able to focus primarily on growth, forward motion, and transformative change. This made for a very long period where my workouts did gradually became my warmups. Certainly I’ve always had rest days; nearly 10 years ago, when I started parkour, it was all I could manage just to recover over the course of the entire week before heading back to the next hard training session. Rest and recovery were always in the mix, simply because I began my journey of transformative work in my 30s.

I’ve found it increasingly challenging to remember the importance of recovery now that I’m no longer shoving the needle of progress ahead day by day. Truth be told, I’m squarely on the mid-life plateau and it is time to take life more freely. Sure, the days of working every day for seven years on the house, climbing mountains, jumping on stuff, and doing things which cause police officers to say, “…and you sir, how old are you? You should know better!” are not over. (As far as I can tell.) But these are also, certainly, the days where spending a couple hours, every day, sitting still reading and writing is truly blissful.

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Did I mention I gave up coffee?

They even offered some decent life strategies: look at everything, pick up anything you can, avoid wizards, and always haggle for jetpacks.

~ Peter Welch, from http://stilldrinking.org/coffee-is-hard

The quote has nothing to do with what I’m writing today. The only relation is the word coffee. That said, you should totally go read Welch’s piece. You should totally go read everything he’s written; it’s generally awesome and often downright alarming. I digress.

On a Sunday morning–June 23, 2019 to be exact–with a congratulatory high-five, I gave up my morning coffee. I’d been thinking about doing so for months. Truth be told, the catalyst that day was to support a particular lady’s efforts wrestling with migraine headaches. With a brave, “huzzah!” my fate was sealed.

There’s a song by Frank Sinatra, “Hallelujah, I lover her so,” which begins with a telling verse:

Let me tell ’bout a gal I know
She’s my baby and she lives next door
Every morning ‘fore the sun comes up
She brings my coffee in my favorite cup
That’s why I know, yes, I know
Hallelujah, I just love her so

Setting aside the completely wacked concept of your girlfriend living next door and bringing you coffee before dawn. (1969 America. amiright?) I want to just draw attention to the coffee being how he knows he loves her. That’s just wrooong.

Over a few decades we had settled into a morning routine that started with the coffee maker. As anyone everywhere will tell you, if you drink coffee every morning it just becomes the neutral baseline, and without it, things aren’t happy-land. Occasionally, obtaining the morning drug hit would be a challenge leading to un-happy-land.

But mostly, it just meant getting out of the freakin’ bed was rough. …and like the addict I was, I went to the drug quickly.

Is it easier to get up now? Absolutely.

Do I spring out of bed like a happy rabbit? Absolutely NOT. But it’s better. I still need a bit of time to wake up fully–which I do via some morning stretching and movement.

Do I still drink it? Absolutely. Anytime I go anywhere, and I find myself near a real coffee shop . . . hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.

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§9 – Twenty Minutes a Day

(Part 9 of 13 in series, Changes and Results)

One of my favorite ideas from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is the idea of a keystone habit. Keystone habits create a chain reaction; Changing and rearranging your other habits as you integrate the habit into your life. According to Duhigg, “keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate”, and they “start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

After self-awareness and self-assessment, my 20 minutes of stretching and recovery work every morning is by far the single most important thing I’ve changed in my journey. (“Every morning” is the goal, not always the reality.) Initially, it was the one critical first little piece of success from which I launched a pile of awesome changes. It continues to be my reliable fallback position when things go off the rails.

Every time I get stuck, fail at sticking to a good habit, or make a mistake with diet, I repeat to myself: Start again tomorrow. Start again tomorrow with one small bit of success first thing in the morning, (and a cup of coffee.)

How my “20 minutes” works:

Declare 20 minutes of “me-time” first thing in the morning. Literally explain to others that you are creating space for yourself to start your day. It’s not leave-me-alone time. If there are others in your household, they are welcome to visit you and interact. You may find they occasionally join you.

Go straight there, as soon as you can. Ok, yes, make a bathroom stop and obtain your beverage of choice on your way to your morning session. But you do not need to arrive at your space awake and ready to exercise. You only need to get there. The stretching and moving will gradually wake you up. It will also wake up your mind; You’re going to have twenty minutes every morning to peacefully review your yesterday, plan your today, or even practice some mindfulness meditation. But only if you want! Your initial goal is to simply get to your space ASAP each morning.

Create (or designate) a space. This is really critical. It cannot be a place that you have to setup; It has to be a place that always exists, that you can simply stumble into first thing in the morning. Find a few square feet and make it your own. A light, a little clock, maybe some music setup ready to go, maybe a yoga mat. Having a physical space (as simple or as complex as you choose to make it) will help your mind shift automatically. “I do this sort of stuff in this space,” becomes automatic.

Music? For a long time, I was really into electronica-esque music for this. (Sometimes I still use the music.) I fanatically groomed a Pandora station with electronic music that has absolutely no vocals—but obviously use whatever works for your, including no music if you prefer. When I use music, I want it to help me zone in on what I’m doing and forget the world.

Props, mats, weights, etc. Start simple. As you go along, you’ll discover things—an article on the Internet, a yoga class, a friend’s ideas—and you’ll take in new moves, stretches and exercises as your own. I started without yoga blocks, then one day found a new stretch I wanted to be able to use when I felt I needed it, and bought two simple yoga blocks for the purpose. This way everything you have in your space, has a purpose rather than being something that nags you, “oh, I should be using that.”

Simply stretching and moving is your first activity. What does your body want to do first? Just learning to be able to answer that question honestly each morning is a great lesson. Then what does it need next? Move when you feel like it. Engage muscles when you feel like it. Engage your brain when you feel like it. Twenty minutes goes by in a blink.

Other tips, tricks and resources

Take some yoga classes. Find a Yin yoga class and spend a few months learning.

No. Right. Now. Oliver Emberton has a great article, How to Debug Your Brain. It’s funny and really exactly what’s wrong with our brains. Emberton’s idea of hijacking a “transition” led me to aim for “first thing in the morning.” I hijack the, “I just got out of bed” transition as many mornings as I can. My rationale is: I was literally just ignoring everything when I was unconscious, so I can continue ignoring everything for a little longer while I put me first.

Focus on what you can control. Iterate. Steve Kamb wrote an article talking about each Avenger’s super power, and Tony Stark’s power specifically, What’s Your Avengers Superpower. Stark is not actually a superhero. Stark simply knows the rule: you can’t edit a blank page, and you can’t improve a machine that hasn’t been built yet. Iterate.

When Life Sucks

Exercise Obstacle

How to Create Habits That Stick

How Lego and Minecraft Will Help You Get in Shape

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Deliberate way of living

http://zenhabits.net/deliberate/

Set intentions at the start. When you start your day, or any meaningful activity, check in with yourself and ask what your intentions are for the day or that activity. Do you want to be more present? Do you want to move your mission forward? Do you want to be compassionate with your loved ones? Do you want to practice with discomfort and not run to comfort? Set an intention (or three) and try to hold that intention as you move through the day or that meaningful activity.

~ Leo Babata

Long ago—maybe ten years?—this idea of setting intentions made a huge impact on my life. I’ve talked about first learning the twin skills of self-awareness and self-assessment as the first steps on my journey. Once I began developing those skills, I was able to begin setting intentions and that lead to the long period of growth I’ve recently been experiencing.

But there’s a problem, or at least there’s a problem for me. Once I started down the road of setting intentions I’ve fallen prey to a vicious cycle. Practicing continuous improvement by setting intentions and assessing progress makes me focus forward, treating my intentions at targets before me. I used to think the “focus forward” part of that was a good thing. After all, it clearly has led me on a long journey of improvement.

I set good intentions which force me out into my un-comfort zones and it turns out that I usually don’t quite reach the goals. If I do reach a goal, then I realize I could have set a better goal by stretching for a farther intention. In that way, every assessment ends up reporting that I fell short, didn’t make it, didn’t live up, didn’t achieve, didn’t succeed, didn’t, didn’t, didn’t, didn’t… and that leads to a dark place.

Recently I’ve been more intentional about what intentions I set.

(That’s a red flag right there; I’m still intentions based.)

None the less, I’ve been trying to set easier-to-achieve intentions so that I can check off more wins. I find this very hard to do since it feels like artificially lowering the bar so I can cheer-lead myself away from the dark place. Worse, this is still looking forward and assessing progress made towards goals.

I wonder what would happen if I could manage to turn around, make progress towards the goals, (they now being behind me,) while staring back at the INSANE MOUNTAIN OF AMAZING THINGS I HAVE ACCOMPLISHED?

Maybe I should try that for a while?

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Mistakes in thinking about the future

One of the most liberating discoveries I ever had was that thinking has an insidious snowball effect. Thoughts trigger other thoughts, and if your initial thought carries even a hint of insecurity or worry, subsequent thoughts can explore it and magnify it until you’re profoundly agitated. You can end up pulling your hair out and dreading the rest of your life, just from idle thinking.

~ David Cain from, http://www.raptitude.com/2010/07/three-typical-mistakes-in-thinking-about-the-future/

The snowball effect is probably my biggest problem. Small things—now that I think about it, it’s always small set-backs—kick off these long trains of thinking.

Have you ever heard a freight train start to move? It’s called “stretching out” because every rail car adds a few inches of slop… space in the couplers, etc. If you’re at the front, you hear the engine throttle up, and this crashing sound starts at the engine and moves away along the train.

If you’re not at the front, if you’re just somewhere randomly along the train, what you hear is this eerie, rolling-crashing invisible monster that comes tearing along at high speed and goes past you, but nothing is moving. Yet.

This reminds me of my trains of thought. They start with the first nudge of negative thought which sets this terrible monster running along the train. At first, nothing appears to be moving. But slowly that nightmare train begins to move, and if it gets up to speed it can take me days to recover from the ensuing disaster.

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Gymnastic Strength Training

https://tim.blog/2016/05/09/the-secrets-of-gymnastic-strength-training/

This is an insane, 3-hour-long interview. Which I listened to twice. (So far.) Christopher Sommer ( https://www.gymnasticbodies.com/blog/ ) is an Olympic Gymnastics coach and this interview has broadened my horizons– about training, about strength, about recovery, about success, about goals, about gymnastics… I could not even decide what to pull-quote.

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Back pain

(Part 66 of 74 in series, My Journey)

Somewhere in my 30’s, slowly, year by year, the frequency of my back problems increased. I’m not talking about, I helped a friend move over the weekend, or, I did climb-ups for an hour at Parkour class, and now my back is “out.” I’m talking about,

I sat down to put socks on — because I cannot hold my foot up to reach it standing — and my lower back “just” gave out.

or,

I was just standing at the sink washing dishes.

For me, these incidents where I was clearly not doing anything amazing and was still somehow injured, became a clear sign that I needed to change something. In hindsight, this is the article I wish I had found first and so I hope it helps someone.

Elsewhere, in my Changes and Results series, I’m laying out all the big things I’ve changed, project by project. But there was never any one thing that I worked on specifically to fix my back. It simply turned out that many of the things I did contributed to — knock on wood — resolving my back problems. Of course my back still gives me trouble when I deserve it. But these days, I know when it’s going to be a problem. I can feel when my back is getting tired, and if I listen to that quiet signal I can avoid the worst of the problems.

My spine and me

Although I had been doing some intentional, general improvement efforts, such as losing weight and getting better sleep, my back-focused improvement journey really began when I heard Ido Portal say something to the effect of:

Your legs are for moving you through your environment. Your arms are for manipulating your environment. Your spine is for orienting yourself within the environment. So your spine should be this incredibly mobile and powerful system with a huge range of dynamic movement.

(That’s not an exact quote because I don’t feel like going through the entire “Rewild Yourself Podcast” episode where Daniel Vitalis interviewed Ido Portal. It’s episode number 8: Ido Portal on the Movement Diet which you should probably go listen to.)

When I heard that, I realized that my spine was nothing at all like Ido’s vision of a human spine. Mine barely moved at all, and when it did, I often felt nervous about impending disaster. After hearing Ido’s way of describing the spine, I had this new perspective where each time I’d do some movement, I could see how much my spine was right at its limit of ability. I realized that my spine should be an incredibly varied mover, and that my spine’s flexibility (the total movement possible) and range of motion (the smaller space of movement where my back is usable, comfortable and strong) are critical, foundational elements to all of my health and movement.

I realized that for years I had tried to “stabilize” and strengthen my spine as a defense against movement causing injury to my back. But I now see that this is an erroneous reaction to weakness. If instead of being immobilized as a defense, my spine is strong, then it can be mobile, able to make all the movements I need, and not be injured.

Awareness and honesty

The first step was to learn to avoid injury. This sounds trivial, but it was not at all obvious to me at the time. When I was so fat and inflexible that putting my socks on regularly endangered my back, it was a terrible, humbling experience to admit that I had to change how I put my on socks.

I had to identify all the landmines, and own up to them. I had to learn that stretching — really just moving around — was mandatory each morning. I had to stop automatically rushing to help everyone move heavy objects. I had to stop trying to be “the strong guy,” and generally dial down all my activities to a level my back could handle. I had to acknowledge those random days when my back felt “off”, and learn to take a rest day for recovery.

All of which forced me to face that I was no longer indestructible and to own up to the deteriorated state of my body. Awareness and honesty were the only way that I could stop taking frequent steps backwards. They were the only way that I could begin to make glacial forward progress.

(I’ve written more about the Philosophy of the changes I’ve made in my Changes and Results series.)

Weight loss

Losing weight is obviously not easy. But every pound that I peeled off paid dividends to my back. It turns out that weight around your middle drastically increases the load on your lower back. “Lost weight” is a woefully inadequate summary for this element of fixing my back, but hopefully I’ll get around to writing out everything I did to lose weight.

Recovery work

What began as endless massage work by my spouse, slowly morphed into self-massage and then into mobility work; Basically, I learned to lay on the floor moving in all the ways my spine was meant to move. I mastered the use of a foam roller and Lacrosse ball for myofascial release and self-massage. As my back got stronger, I was able expand this recovery practice to a more general, whole-body movement, stretching and — much later — general strengthening.

(I’m writing a separate post on my “20 minutes of morning stretching” which is one of the cornerstones upon which I have built the whole new me. It’s not yet published, but will eventually be part of my Changes and Results.)

Finally, chiropractic has saved me countless times. I know many people who believe chiropractic is quackery. But for me, it doesn’t matter how or why, it simply yields results.

Posture

Years of sitting, and progressive weakening of my back, took their toll. Worse, the hunched back, rolled shoulders posture was so common in my environment, that it seemed normal. So I didn’t even realize what was happening to me.

The first baby step to improving my posture was when I learned how to understand, and control, the orientation of my pelvis through learning to sit as part of martial arts training. The traditional Japanese seated posture, seiza where you sit with folded-under knees and pointed toes is great for learning posture. Of course, this type of sitting initially rewards you with agony from the knees and ankles. But once your legs adapt, there is a delightful feeling of peace and centralized weight when you learn to center your pelvis and to balance and align your entire spine. But maintaining this alignment, even in a statically balanced seated position, required a certain muscle tone. A tone which I had lost through endless sitting in a poor posture.

I soon realized that the orientation of the hands as they hang at your sides is indicative of your upper back posture. Palms turned to the back, (the shoulders being in interior rotation,) with that “knuckle-dragger” appearance is a sign of a week upper back and poor scapular position. I began incorporating various exercises, (the ‘Sphinx’ pose from yoga, ‘shoulder dislocations’, and thoracic extension in supine position, etc.) into my daily recovery work. (For a great introduction, read De-Quasimodo Yourself.)

As I’d gained weight, I hadn’t realized that I had also, slowly transitioned to a “dumped” lower abdomen: guts hanging out the front, pelvis tipped forward, and lumbar spine pulled forward into a maximum arch. This led me to lower back agony whenever I spent time on my feet, especially if I over-worked my lower back by strolling and slowly shift my weight from one leg to the other. But as I’ve lost fat from my typical abdominal male pattern, and as running and jumping in the context of parkour have strengthened my glutes, it has become easier to maintain a neutral pelvic position and a neutral curve of my lumbar spine.

Walking

Solvitur Ambulando ~ It is solved by walking

Today, I have a ton of stuff here on my site about walking.

But it all started, long ago, when I read a blog post by Steve Kamb, about Walking to Mordor. “One does not simply walk into Mordor!” Except, that is exactly what Sam and Frodo did. Elsewhere I’m writing an entire post about my efforts and progress related solely to walking; But all of my walking was kick-started by Steve’s Nerd Fitness blog post.

Shoes

This was the least obvious thing which improved my back: The closer I get to living barefoot, the better my back feels.

Long ago, I was wearing “normal” shoes, and then I started taking some parkour classes. Turns out that I want to wear the lightest weight, and thinnest soled, shoes I can; because I want to use my feet and toes. Anyway, roll with me here when I say: I wanted to wear minimal footwear for parkour. So, I started wearing Feiyue shoes to class — not the fancy French brand of shoes, but the el’cheapo, crépe sole, martial arts shoe. They have no structure, no arch, and just some padding and protection from most (not all) things you might step on.

I started to run in Feiyue. I ran 10 feet and my calves cramped up. I kept at it. For years. I relearned how to run. Then I relearned how to walk. Then I relearned how to use my knees. Then I realized that to get things working again, I needed to stop wearing “normal” shoes entirely. So I started wearing Feiyue everywhere.

I went on reading about feet. …and about minimal shoes. …and about barefoot training. Then I learned about the amount of nerves in our feet, (the same as in your hands,) and I had some discussions about sensory input through your feet. …and balance. …and acupressure points.

It is not an exaggeration to say that learning about my feet has changed my life.

Today, I exclusively wear an old-school track running shoe called Bullets, made by Saucony. I remove the insoles, so that from the midsole to the toes there is ZERO padding; just a few millimeters of hard rubber sole between my foot and the world. I wear these same shoes for everything. All surfaces, all activities — everything.

The ah-ha moment

It was at this point — after all of the above changes, and after I had spent about two years full-time in minimalist shoes — that I realized my back was fundamentally different.

Then I set out to write this, over the course of 18 months. :)

Recommended reading

Despite all that I’ve written here, this is still only scratching the surface of information about the back and spine. Take a look at the Human Back and Spine topic over on Hilbert’s Library.

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§10 – Undershoot Overshoot

(Part 22 of 37 in series, Study inspired by Pakour & Art du Déplacement by V. Thibault)

Thibault uses the phrase, “mindful resource management,” which resonates with one of my frequent avenues of thought.

Today, I can easily take one thousand steps without risk of injury, and I could take one thousand steps every day without developing chronic injury. In fact, such regular walking is improving my general health. (Although I expect that at some point it will simply be maintaining my general health.) Clearly then, these resources are well-spent on walking. But what about some specific running precision? How many can I do well? How many can I do before I’m tearing down my tomorrow-self more than will benefit my next-week-self? What about some other challenge? Where is the tipping point where I go from, “sustainable growth,” to “acute or chronic injury?”

To answer my own questions I must apply mindful resource management and calibrate my efforts. These concepts are important, explicit and obvious in Parkour. With movement, success or failure is usually obvious, and I can continuously calibrate my movements as I over-/undershoot. Initially I “throw myself at it” with flat trajectories and smash-crash-bang landings, but eventually I learn to “float in” with higher trajectories, more power, and more control.

In a larger sense, this applies not only to my Parkour efforts, but to my everyday life. Much of what I do could be calibrated: Food consumption; Listening skills; Speaking skills; Time spent interacting with others versus time spent alone; Self-reflective thought versus philosophical discussion; Mindful meditation and recovery work versus high-intensity physical training.

In the largest sense, this calibration tracks a life-span.
Beginning with the frenetic activity of youth, actively trying to carve my life through the universe: Overshooting. Then comes the inevitable, timorous, mid-life reversal to a hyper-aware, hyper-reflective approach: Undershooting. And then finally — hopefully! — a calibrated, broad, world-view.

A balance of give and take.
Power and control.
Life and death.
Yin and yang.

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