The mode of locomotion should be slow, the slower the better, and be often interrupted by leisurely halts to sit on vantage points and stop at question marks.~ Carl Sauer
The mode of locomotion should be slow, the slower the better, and be often interrupted by leisurely halts to sit on vantage points and stop at question marks.~ Carl Sauer
As autumn settles in where I am, I’ve been looking ahead to winter with longer nights, brisk days, etc.. I also looked back at the shape I’ve been in in years past. I’m not lamenting, “if only I had my youth back.” Rather, just thinking about health, movement, and what would be the minimum effective dosage of some exercise to move me in the direction I want. (That DuckDuckGo link should make you wonder why a medical-sounding phrase is used most relating to exercise not medicine, and strength training in particular.)
Sometimes—by which I mean any time running comes up—I say that running is both the best thing for me, and the form of activity I hate most. Both of which are untrue. What’s actually best for me is zone-2 aerobic exercise and that’s sometimes what I get when I run. It’s best for me, because that is the main driver of base fitness until you get well up into being a competent athlete. But usually, being quite over-weight at the moment, any running drives my heart-rate above the surprisingly low/slow zone-2. The second part about hating it is also untrue. It turns out that one time—the one single day apparently—that I was ever in shape, I enjoyed running. I was walking, the weather was beautiful, and I had an irresistible urge to run, (and so I did.) But, literally, that happened once.
Anyway. It’ll suffice to say: I spent a few weeks recently thinking about going full-on nerd with zone-2 training. To do it right requires planning, scheduling, and—sources vary—between 150 to 180 minutes exercising each week. And warm-up and cool-down time are not included in those weekly times. Honestly, the deal-breaker was I’m seriously pissed at FitBit, (and their watches are useless without a FitBit account,) and I refuse to spend many-hundreds on an Apple watch. Also, my $30 Timex is nicer, for my definition of “nicer.”
My thinking continued, and eventually I thought: I should just walk back from Mordor.
…except this time I’m not going to bother trying to track the actual mileage. Just walk as many days as I can. Listen to some podcasts some of the time. And basically just stroll along thinking, “If this isn’t nice…“
A few years ago, I read an article, Walking, by Steve Kamb about walking to Mordor and I set out to walk the round-trip 3,871 miles.
It’s 1,779 miles to get from Hobbiton to Mt. Doom. Then riding the eagles back to Minas Tirith cuts the return walk to Bag End down to 1625 miles. Plus 467 more miles, roundtrip to Grey Havens. Brings my total goal to 3,871 miles. This is roughly the entire length of the Nile river, or the distance from the surface to the center of the Earth. (Mid 2019 I’m a few hundred miles from Mt. Doom.)https://constantine.name/2019/06/23/§10-walking-to-mordor/
As best I can tell, in 2014, I had already started walking the ~4-mile round-trip to my office, and I was using walking in general to improve my fitness for some specific parkour events I was planning to attend. When I found this challenge, I looked back through all my journals and estimated how far I’d already walked. In November 2016, when I took up the Mordor challenge, I noted that I had already walked 124 times for a total of 496 miles.
As I mentioned, walk number 500 turned out to be just 8 miles short of Mt Doom. But really, I’ve only been estimating my mileage based on measuring some common walking routes and counting the walks. So this is an amazing confluence of walk-number and mileage. So at this point, I’m going to stop keeping track of the mileage. (I do still keep track of general activity each day, so I still note “walk” when I do so.)
Well, I think it’s amazing how far you can get—figuratively and literally—with small daily progress. Also, I think it’s very good for me mentally, given where I am at the end of 2019, to stop tracking this goal. It makes for one less thing on my mind.
I’m hoping that walking is now a way of life. I will note that I think absolutely nothing of walking a few miles. I’ve walked miles with a 40-pound backpack, (in minimalist sneakers.) I’ve walked 2 miles carrying 20 pounds of vegetables farmer-carry-style. I’ve fixed my back. I’ve fixed my feet.
A few years ago, I started walking to Mordor. Based on my counting and tracking, I’m at walk number 499 and I think I can finish the mileage in the final walk.
…but I’ll cover the details when I’m done. Today I want to linger on the feeling of knowing that the end is nigh.
My motto for 2019 was, “no.” It wasn’t intended as a sour-puss negativity sprint, but rather an attempt to get myself to be mindful about what I commit to. As the year closes, and my walking goal nears completion, I want to think very carefully about what I expect to feel and experience. Where did I first hear of the goal? Why did the goal call to me? What did I want to accomplish by setting out on the journey? What will change when I finish the goal? How am I different?
Most importantly, I want to not replace the goal—and the work, and the time investment, and the mental energy—with another thing. Am I able to have a little less daily work? Am I able to have one less project in the works? Am I amble to have one less thing on my mind?
…or am I going to scurry back to the comfort of “busy” and add something?
(Part 10 of 13 in series, Changes and Results)
Many moons ago I had frequent back problems. There were many things which provided me temporary relief, but this is not an article about temporary relief. This is an article about one of the things which actually fixed my back: Walking.
(Losing weight and fixing my feet are the other two things.)
I recall Ido Portal saying in a podcast with Daniel Vitalis, something to the effect of: Your spine is for orienting yourself in your environment. Your spine’s myriad of joints should be flexible and powerful. At that point in my journey, I wasn’t even really thinking of my spine as joints; It was simply something with an upper and lower portion, both of which were frequently in significant pain. That was the exact moment when I became convinced my spine was weak.
…and then I read _Walking Found to Provide Significant Relief from Back Pain. At the time, I was preparing for a parkour trip to Québec for an event they where having with the Yamakasi. So I was already focused on finding my weaknesses—my back!—and trying to fill them in.
…and then I read Walking, an article by Steve Kamb about walking to Mordor. Yes, that Mordor. It’s a challenge to walk 1,779 miles (but see below.) I took my exercise tracker out on a few of the common walks I like, and noted the mileage. I’ve been keeping track of the total ever since.
It’s 1,779 miles to get from Hobbiton to Mt. Doom. Then riding the eagles back to Minas Tirith cuts the return walk to Bag End down to 1625 miles. Plus 467 more miles, roundtrip to Grey Havens. Brings my total goal to 3,871 miles. This is roughly the entire length of the Nile river, or the distance from the surface to the center of the Earth. (Mid 2019 I’m a few hundred miles from Mt. Doom.)
There’s so much that can be said about walking. But rather than read more about walking, why not go for a walk?
(Part 64 of 73 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. :)
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.