cycling · Weekends with Womack

Finding Cycling Strength in Numbers

About a month ago, I wrote a post on Cycling (not) by the numbers in which I made the case for just cycling without measuring anything. No mileage, no miles per hour, no time, no average heart rate, no personal bests, no watts, no nothing. Just me and the bike, headed down the road. Here’s what I said:

It’s been a very work-intensive school year, and I haven’t been able to really relax mentally or physically. Right now, the last thing I want is another set of reporting requirements for leisure time activity.

So what’s a stubborn cyclist to do?

Get out and ride—no expectations, no goals, no numbers. I want to rediscover the fire inside, the motivation, the joy, the pain (yes, that too) and the satisfaction that comes from getting sweaty, gritty, greasy, muddy and happy on a bike.

Yes, I recall writing that. And feeling that. And doing that, too. I added that I’d report back (but with no statistics). So here’s my report.


It seemed like a great idea, just letting myself ride when I wanted, where I wanted, as long as I wanted, without feeling obligated to keep track, do training rides, set up any external expectations or goals. In effect, I was trying to embrace Intuitive Cycling (by the way, I just made up this term).

What could Intuitive Cycling mean? Taking a cue from the notion of Intuitive Eating (which I wrote about last week here and am still working on), maybe something like this modification (from Tracy’s original post):

  1. reject the training mentality
  2. honor your need for various types, intensities and durations of cycling
  3. make peace with your speed, whatever it is at the time
  4. challenge the Strava police
  5. feel your fatigue on the bike (and stop when you want)
  6. discover the satisfaction factor: know when your ride is long enough
  7. cope with your emotions without using your Garmin all the time
  8. respect your body, whether you are in or out of the saddle
  9. exercise: feel the difference between different routes, modes and times for cycling
  10. honor your health with gentle motivation for the cycling you want (and don’t want)

While some of my alterations are a little tongue-in-cheek (#4 is for you, Samantha!), the idea behind this sort of cycling was to take all expectations off the table and just focus on the experience of turning the cranks, looking around at the scenery, and enjoying moving through space.

Well, how did it go?

Honestly, it was kind of a bust.

Not this sort of bust:


Rather this.

Meaning this:


Why? A number of factors contributed to my failure to complete a month of spontaneous intuitive cycling. These included having caught a cold, battling more than usually fierce allergy symptoms, dealing with big work pressures and work travel, and letting life complications sap my enthusiasm for movement. On any given day, my verve for cycling was not very high, and since I didn’t often feel the intuitive urge for movement on two wheels (due to stresses, time crunches, etc.), I didn’t actually ride much.

However, this week I did two 25+ mile rides, and was on the bike a bit in addition. How did that happen? I went to Cape Cod for a mini-break with my good friend and cycling buddy Pata for a little R&R (relaxation and riding). We had a lovely ride together on the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  Here’s a nice water view from the trail, which is flat and very pretty (if rather pollen-y this week).


Pata suggested to me that if I wanted to get in better cycling shape, maybe I should start easy, with say two 20+ mile rides this week, and see how that goes. What a sensible and doable idea, I thought! Of course, this would mean reengaging with numbers on the bike:

  1. Distance traveled during a ride
  2. Number of rides completed during a seven-day period

Yes, I thought, I can do that. I want to do that. I can hold myself accountable to that. So I did, riding 26 miles with Pata, and then 25 miles Saturday. The latter ride wasn’t pretty—it was solitary, sweaty, pollen-y, and I had to stop twice because my saddle kept slipping (despite my repeated efforts to tighten and retighten the seat post bolt. Argh.) Still, I got it done. And I feel great about it.

It’s certainly true that we need to listen to our bodies, our inner voices, our intuitions about how we are feeling. And it’s good to let go of external constraints and expectations and just be in the moment, doing what our feelings dictate. But for me right now, I’m extremely happy to take up some cycling techniques that actively require use of—yes—numbers:

  1. Making training plans
  2. Planning and meeting short-term goals
  3. Planning and preparing for longer-term goals
  4. Committing to some group rides
  5. Committing to riding for X miles at a time, Y times a week
  6. Track my progress on distance, time, even (gulp) speed
  7. Reassessing and increasing those short-term goals as I meet them
  8. Seeking out support from other cyclists when my enthusiasm or energy is flagging

Once again, I’ll report back on how this new strategy goes. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons expressing my new numeric optimism:

numbers-don't lie

cycling · Sat with Nat

Gearing Down

gearing down

My plans are rapidly changing for the cycling season. My lovely sister Anj can’t make the Woodstock Triathlon due to a work commitment that just popped up. I’m cancelling plans to do a week long bicycle tour with Samantha at the end of June because I’m changing jobs and won’t have vacation time. Lots of change, lots of stress and mourning the loss of spending time with my sister and then missing out on a week with lovely people I want to get to know better.

My first reaction to stress is to put my head down and push harder, to try and make it all work with pure application of will and frenetic energy. Right now the thought that keeps going through my head is to gear down, don’t push so hard.

So on June 6 instead of doing a sprint distance triathlon I’m going to The Forest Garden Convergence, a day of happy, hippie plant loving people. Instead of a week bicycle tour I’m taking a couple days next week to ride with my sweetie around town. I’m gearing down, conserving my energy, consolidating my fitness gains.

On Thursday I had the afternoon off and I walked to my appointments and home, walking over 15 meandering kilometers in the heat and perfume of blooming Black Locust tress. They are gorgeous, giant trees with these long dangling clusters of blossoms here in London, Ontario.


I’ve got a couple days off between leaving my current job and starting my new one. I’ll fill my time with friends, some exercise and definitely some rest but I’m not feeling pressed to do much else. Change is hard and letting go of fun plans is a bummer so I’m choosing to take it easy.

cycling · Guest Post · nature

Finding Big Country (Guest Post)

Saguaro cacti bloom in front of Catalina Mountains,Tucson
Saguaro cacti bloom in front of Catalina Mountains,Tucson

I ride my bike 28 miles (45 km) to the top of Mt. Lemmon, near Tucson, Arizona. It’s a big climb, starting at an elevation of 2605 feet, ending at 8,077 feet (794 to 2462 meters). But the road isn’t the biggest part of the Catalina Mountains.

On a recent visit to my hometown, I convinced my buddy Lee to join in the Greater Arizona Bicycle Association Mt. Lemmon hill climb with me. For me, the main benefit of being on a supported ride are snacks and drinks at the aid stations. The Mt. Lemmon Highway runs through the Coronado National Forest with no public water sources until about mile 20.

It’s a very popular cycling route. In the winter, professional cyclists and triathletes ride up and down the usually sunny Mt. Lemmon for winter base training miles.

Our ride day dawns cold, unusual for May, and it gets colder as we climb up the mountain. (The next day, snow falls on the upper ridges).

We snake our way up the mountains, first on south slopes overlooking the city, then we follow the road inside the mountains and switch-back along an interior canyon. Beyond the guardrail, the gaping canyon is so deep that we can’t see the stream that created it. Looking west across the canyon, more ridges, more slopes, more canyons ripple the topography. Ridges end at peaks un-named and named: Thimble Peak, The Castle, Finger Rock.

Some folds of this earth are inaccessible by road or trail, even rock climbers cannot reach the cliffs. The Catalina Mountains mark the northern horizon of Tucson, but its many dimensions must be seen from within the range itself—deep and wide. From our bike saddles, we also see the Rincon Mountain range on the eastern horizon of Tucson. In the Rincons, hills roll into multiple ridges topping out at two peaks.

Lee looks and calls it “Big Country.”

We climb higher through several biomes with their unique signature plants. We start in the Sonoran Desert with rocky slopes of Saguaro cacti and agave, then reach the oak woodland at about mile 6, and 5,000 feet. Next we ride through conifer forests and towering Ponderosa pine trees.

Reports of “rain at the next aid station” doesn’t deter us because we have great wind/rain jackets. I rarely put on a jacket after miles of uphill climbing, but this time I do.

I wish I had jackets for my frozen toes.

Clouds block our view of the uppermost peaks, and fog descends onto the road. Fortunately, the rain holds off. Unfortunately, it’s so cold, some cyclists battle hypothermia and crowd into vans to be driven down the mountain.

We ride past giant “hoo-doos,” rock formations sculpted by wind and water. For our sweet and salty fix, we eat pie and peanuts at the final aid station, seeking shelter from the wind behind skinny trees.

Lee keeps talking about chili at the Iron Door Restaurant, located at the Mt. Lemmon’s Ski Valley. We pass aspen groves, descending and climbing again. We stand in our pedals to conquer the final section with its 11 percent grade.

Riding in the mountains makes me dream big. At our fireside lunch (yes it’s cold enough to have a blazing fire in the hearth), I propose a four-peak expedition to Lee. We will bike into the four mountain ranges that surround Tucson, then hike to the highest peak. We discuss various options, the best bikes to use, and different approaches to the peaks.

As we demolish his bowl of chili and and my bowl of  split pea soup, the sun breaks through the clouds. Our descent starts cold, then we warm enough to remove hats and jackets. We scream 28 miles down the beautiful curves of the highway, battling wind gusts, and coast into the Tucson valley and home.

What is your “big country” beyond the lines you run or bike on roads and trails? May you dream big during your next bike ride.

Except when it snows, Mt. Lemmon Highway (also called Catalina Highway or General Hitchcock Highway) is open to cycling all year. Info here: .

Mary Reynolds is a writer who lives in Tucson and Barcelona. She blogs with her partner about adventures in Barcelona and Europe at:


On Comparing #tbt

As we enter the summer months, comparing is a real temptation. But it’s never a good idea and often (in my case anyway) makes us feel worse about ourselves. For Throwback Thursday, here are my thoughts on comparing from a couple of years ago. Enjoy!


Good News! A Women’s Day Is Coming for Ironman 70.3 World Championships

Photo credit: from the TriEqual website
Photo credit: from the TriEqual website

Lots of people know only of only one triathlon event by name: Ironman. But the Ironman 70.3 — half the distance of the more familiar, grueling Ironman’s 140.6 miles — is gaining popularity.  And exciting new changes are afoot. Starting in 2017, the World Championships will split into an event held over two days.  See this report and this report.

Day one will be the women’s race, day two will be the men’s.

The reason for this change is to accommodate more athletes and, in particular, to enable gender parity with respect to the number of athletes who can compete. Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman, said:

With the global explosion of Ironman 70.3 races, we expect approximately 4,500 athletes from around the world to qualify for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, which is too many for a single day of racing. We are focused on providing more opportunities for women to race with us globally and, after consulting with members of our Women For Tri Board, felt that having a separate race for female professional and age group athletes would be a strong step forward for our sport.

The move has been well-received by professional triathletes. Heather Wurtele, 6-time Ironman Champion and 11-time 70.3 champion, likes the way the change will highlight the women’s event. She and her husband, Trevor, have both dedicated themselves to Ironman competition, and she says, “I’m sure that plenty of triathlon couples will be stoked to be able to cheer each other on too.”

Sarah Gross is a professional triathlete and president of TriEqual, an independent group seeking equality in triathlon. She too comments on the virtue of this plan for showcasing the women’s event. She also thinks it’s an opportunity for Ironman to offer an equal number of professional spots to women as to men (something that hasn’t happened in the past).

“I love this initiative because it creates an opportunity to showcase the women’s race in its own right, at both the age group and professional level. I hope that Messick and the Women for Tri Board will also see this as an opportunity to offer equal slots for men and women, since the venue will allow for that [Ironman currently offers 50 slots for men and 35 slots for women at the 70.3 World Championships]. This could be great news for women in triathlon.

It’ll be interesting to see whether this move has the positive impact on women in the sport that everyone is hoping for. I feel like it’s a good news story.  Too often, women’s sports are not as valued as men’s sports. But with a special day dedicated to the women’s event, the 70.3 world championship in 2017 will be able to accommodate more women competitors and will allow the women to shine brightly on the day of their race.

Not only that, it will provide the professional women with the same “clean” course–fair and unobstructed–that professional men have the privilege of competing on.  This is one of the issues TriEqual has taken on, advocating for changes to the start of races. They suggest a 10-minute gap between the professional men and the professional women, then a 25-minute gap before the age-group competitors (based on full distance IRONMAN–gap times are adjusted for the 70.3).

Splitting the event into two days, with women on one day and men on the other, will address this issue completely.

ergonomics · health

Most bodies are built to move!

If you’re like me you’re probably ready to scream if you see another “sitting is bad for you” article.

I think that even though I know my frustration doesn’t make the news any less true. I think that even though I’m currently drafting a chapter of our book on everyday exercise which talks a lot about the dangers of sedentary living. Study after study after study shows that sitting is bad for most people no matter how much we exercise. See Sit yourself down? : The latest news about sitting.  My most recent post on this theme The Chair Conspiracy  talks about the possibility of active sitting–like cross legged sitting or squatting–and shifts the focus from sitting to the ways in which we sit.

I also think that we need to think about movement in as diverse a way as possible, recognizing that standing and walking aren’t options for everyone. See my recent post on crawling and mainstream discomfort with alternative ways of moving.

I like this TED talk though. I like it better than this video, the damage sitting does to your body explained in 60 seconds.

Along with the usual suspects of weight gain and back pain, the animation explains how, as soon as you sit down, the enzymes that break down fat drop by 90 percent, and your insulin effectiveness and good cholesterol levels drops. Sitting also makes blood clots more likely to form in your brain, and people with desk jobs are twice as likely to suffer from heart disease than those with active jobs.

We could go on, but the take-home message here is pretty simple – maybe it’s time to stand up, watch the video and then get outside and go for a walk. Seriously.

What’s the difference? Why is the TED talk better? It explains how most human bodies function best with almost constant movement.  Although there’s range of what bodies can and can’t do, the typical human body is not built to keep still.

blogging · cycling · Guest Post

A feminist fitness bloggers’ century ride to Port Stanley!


Sam: I love cycling, I love riding with friends, I love introducing people to road cycling, and I love the trip out to Port Stanley. Win, win, win, and win! So when Susan suggested that we get in some rides together before the Friends for Life Bike Rally which we’re doing together (by the way, I still haven’t even reached the halfway point for my fundraising goal and it would be very lovely and much appreciated if you could sponsor me here) I thought immediately of that destination. I also invited a bunch of other Fit is a Feminist Issue bloggers along for the ride. Nat and Cheryl couldn’t come so in the end it was Kim, Susan, our friend Sarah (who’s promised to write a blog post in the future) and me. It reminded me of last year’s group ride,Four Feminist Philosophers and the Welland Canal.

London to Port Stanley is one of my favourite rides. When I ride 100 km, I feel like there ought to be a destination and Port Stanley feels like a reward at the end of 50 km. There’s Lake Erie and there’s coffee and a few places to eat. The ride just has a few rolling hills, nothing too serious, and you stay on quiet country roads for almost the entire trip. You can see our route here. I’ve been wanting to introduce someone to the virtues and charms of this ride after having failed in epic proportions with Tracy last year. (Don’t worry, our friendship survived.) See her account of the saga, Epic Ride and Some Reflections on Learning to Like the Bike. I think that if you don’t like that ride, you probably don’t like road cycling and so I was a bit vindicated by her more recent blog post Road Biking and I: Not a Good Match.

Anyway, we had a great ride. Aside from taking on the role of navigator and keeper of the map (not my usual thing) and getting us lost and adding an extra 10 km to our trip, I’d be keen to do it again. Our clue ought to have been that headwind! We had a headwind all the way there and then about a 1/3 of the way home, it came back. Headwind, no more tailwind. That should have let us know we had gone left instead of right and were headed back to the lake.

We ended the day in the hot tub and that felt pretty good too.


Susan: 100km is a lesson for me in energy management. I am what one may call rather inefficient with my energy intake. While this advantages me in the patriarchy in ways that I’ll critique at some later date, it’s difficult for me when prepping and recovering from endurance activities. I had a spectacular time winding down to Port Stanley and back. I learned tonnes about group riding and started to grasp all I still have to learn skill-wise. I felt pretty good considering and I thought I was eating enough. But the next morning I felt like road kill. Flat and motionless. I have come to understand this is what happens when I create a profound calorie deficit over a one day period. Bottom line…I can’t be doing that. It’s brutal. Need more fooooood!!!!!


Kim: This was the weekend of competing cycle invites: Sam and our feminist bloggers’ group were heading out to Port Stanley, the lakeside resort town south of London, while my and Sam’s formal cycling club, the London Centennial Wheelers, were ALSO heading for Port Stanley (though using a slightly different route). I had to decide which group to ride with, knowing each would be a very different experience. The club ride would be quick; I ride with the “B” group at LCW, which averages around 30kph on many tours, sometimes a bit less. There would also be a bit of ego involved in that ride; the male/female ratio in LCW is uneven, and I knew that, especially on the return journey, some of the guys in the group (and a few of the women too!) would more or less be racing each other home. (I wasn’t sure I was up for that on a Saturday morning.) On the flip side, I knew the bloggers would be a more social group, meaning a relatively steady but much slower pace; at the same time, that ride would be a chance to catch up with friends, share tips and best practices, and enjoy a lovely day in the countryside. Weighing my own competing needs (a fitness ride; a ride that felt good in body but also in soul), I opted for a hybrid: I would ride down to Port Stanley with Sam and co, then ride home alone at a quicker pace that fit my own training regime.

This plan worked perfectly. On the way out we held 20.5kph, partly because Susan and Sarah are a bit less experienced than Sam and I, and partly because we were heading straight into the wind most of the time. Sam and I took the lead, helping Sarah and Susan develop their drafting technique; this also allowed us to get our heart rates up and our bodies warm as we fended off the breeze. While riding in pairs, Sam and I chatted about life, work, and riding; I made her share some sprint tips with me, too. By the time we got to the Port, Sam and I had had two solid hours in heart rate zones 2 and 3, and we’d all had some great conversations and enjoyed some beautiful scenery. Then, we ate some yummy baked goods, drank some proper coffee, and I headed off home, retracing our steps and taking advantage of a nice tailwind. On the homeward journey I tried to keep my heart rate up around zones 3-4 as much as possible, and I managed a very respectable 31.5kph average. A perfect day, then: a long, slow ride that was also enormous fun, followed by a quick, pacy trip home that ticked one of my training boxes. Thanks, ladies!


Sarah: I’m not the kind of athlete that has training goals and a regular schedule of activities to keep me in top condition. I’m an inveterate “weekend warrior” more inspired by camaraderie … and challenges. So when Sam put out the call for a 100+km feminist fitness bloggers’ ride, I couldn’t resist – even if it meant promising to actually (gasp) write something to join in the fun.

Aside from foolishness, the other thing a successful weekend warrior needs is enablers. Fortunately Susan lives close enough that I was able to squeeze in a couple of training rides chasing her, since a 5km commute to work is not enough to build the endurance (and what I fondly call “butt calluses”) needed for a whole day on the bike.

The 120 km round trip to Port Stanley was a ride of a lifetime for many reasons – perfect weather, smooth flat roads devoid of cars – but none more awesome than drafting behind cyclists who could easily outpace me, but instead patiently paused at the top of each hill to wait for my sorry out-of-shape self to catch up. I’ve never ridden so far or fast in my life – it felt a lot like flying (except the aforementioned hill climbs).

As one might expect for a weekend warrior, I did come out the other side a little worse for wear – bloodstained socks from a tumble after forgetting to unclip, nasty foot cramps in the last few km, but thanks to Sam’s unparalleled recovery regime (hot tub and ice cream) I did manage to complete a weekend warrior double-header by doing the Urban Land Institute’s Tour de Toronto ( on Sunday. It took us almost as long to do a mere 40km, but there were a lot of stops for coffee, pastries, beer, and stories from industry experts about planning, developing and building some awesome new spaces.

I may have finished up the weekend with a long and impromptu nap. I blame the beer. And the enablers. Thank you all!


chi running · fitness · running

Chi Running Workshop Report

Diagram of upright running and its stress on the body versus chi running, working with gravity.A week before my marathon debut in Mississauga (read the gripping three part series here (1), here (2), and here (3)). I went to Toronto to do a level one Chi Running workshop with John and Hyongok, who are certified instructors from Montreal. I had originally considered going to Ohio to do one with Danny Dreyer, author of the book and inventor of the style. But when Sam pointed out I could do a workshop in Toronto, which is so much closer to home, that seemed like a good option and I took it.

I successfully tempted two friends into spending the last Saturday morning of April with me at the half-day workshop: Anita (who I train with a lot and I ran the Scotiabank Waterfront Half with, and who’s also signed up for the Niagara Women’s Half and the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon) and Violetta (a great friend who lives in another town and who I’ve never run with before).

Anita and I stayed over in the same hotel the night before and met in the lobby at 8:15 to run the 3K to the workshop location in a school gym. It was a beautiful day, if a little on the cool side, and the workshop took place mostly inside.

There were ten or so students and the two instructors–John, a proper British man and Hyongok, a no-nonsense Asian woman with few qualms about pointing out what might be wrong with the way people run.  She did most of the hands-on instruction, with John stepping in once in awhile or whispering something to her that she may have overlooked.

Hyongok wore extremely minimalist shoes with no support and hardly anything to them. When she demonstrated running, she almost appeared to float, so lightly did her feet touch the ground. Violette whispered to me, “yes but she’s so tiny!” As if reading our minds, John pointed out that the lightness of Hyongok’s step “has nothing to do with her weight.”

The were quick to point out that most people have too much going on with their footwear and often have their laces tied too tightly.  I like foot support, but I also like loose laces because otherwise my feet fall asleep.

We went around the room doing introductions, each explaining where she or he was in her running “journey.” Almost everyone had been injured or was there to avoid injury. Chi Running purports to offer a pain-free technique that will enable people to run without injury for the rest of their lives.

John the gave an overview of what would be the three focal points of the day: the column (body position), the foot placement, and the lean. Above all, he said, running should be relaxing and relaxed. You should feel like you can run forever.  This strikes me as an awfully optimistic view of running. I love it, yes I do, but I rarely (if ever) feel like I can run forever.

The column is the name for the postural alignment recommended for chi running. In this posture, your upper body is balanced over and supported by your lower body in a straight line. Your hips aren’t pressed forward out of alignment, but rather are stacked over your legs so that when you look down you can see your shoe laces.

Here’s description from an article on Chi Running by ultra runner, Nick Mead, after he did a chi running workshop:

Chi running sets out four steps to a good posture:

1) Stand with your feet pointing straight ahead, a hip-width apart.

2) Lengthen your spine so you’re feeling tall – raising your hands in the air above your head and allowing them to fall back can help, especially for corrections as you run.

3) Level your pelvis, which is generally tilted forwards. To do this, place one hand face down on your tummy with the thumb in your belly button and the other hand face up on your back directly opposite, then gently tip your pelvis back to a level position. You should feel your core muscles engage – but don’t go so far that your core becomes tense or that your glutes tighten.

4) Place both thumbs on the prominent front hip bone at the top of your legs and pivot forwards from there until you are balanced over your centre of gravity.

We spent a lot of time getting settled into this posture, looking down at our shoe laces.  Westerners tend to hang out in the lower backs when they’re standing, hips protruding forward.  So it’s not a natural posture for everyone, though people who have practiced yoga (tadasana or mountain pose) or tai chi (on which chi running principles are based) may be more familiar with the instructions. Some people struggled with the very basics, unable to stand with their feet pointing straight ahead.

As is the case with these types of things, a lot of the workshop involved attempts to explain what a physical posture or movement “feels like” and then asking us if we feel it.  I realize that there’s often no other way, but it’s not always possible to tell if you “feel it.” It’s also not clear to me that everyone feels “it” the same way.  I’m fairly naturally given to walking and running with my feet pointing straight ahead rather than outwards or inwards, but not everyone is like that. It seemed to me that some of the workshop attendees might have needed surgical re-alignment to get their feet to point straight ahead.

We worked in pairs with the column, pushing down on each other’s shoulders when properly stacked and when not. With the posture in place, you didn’t budge when your friend pushed down squarely on your shoulders. But when we hung into our low back and pressed our hips forward, pushing down on our shoulders made us wobbly and unstable.

Foot placement in chi running is all about the midfoot strike.  They didn’t call it this exactly. They spent a lot of time talking about the outer edge of the foot and trying to help us gain an awareness of its connection to the ground.  Most people don’t connect all areas of the tripod of their foot to the ground. And runners who connect with the heel first are just asking for trouble.

The foot placement is the main thing I internalized from working with the book. I’d been experiencing shin pain and I’d read that it was the result of heel striking.  As soon as I started to work with a midfoot strike, the pain evaporated.

chi running diagram explaining how it works with forces of nature.The next thing we worked on was the lean. The whole idea behind chi running is that you work with gravity not effort. Doesn’t that sound so easy? We don’t even have to fight against gravity, we just go with it. That’s where the lean comes in. You lean forward with the column all nicely aligned. At a certain point–gravity is so amazing!–you will fall down if you don’t put your foot forward.

We stood in front of the wall leaning forward and pushing ourselves off for quite awhile to try to get the feel of the lean.

Another lean drill we did was to lean until we had to put a foot forward, then push back into the original stance and do it again.

The lean is not the same as bending from the waist or hips. Not at all. The column stays straight.

When the one foot goes forward, you don’t push off of it for momentum. You keep leaning and peel that foot off the ground (I like the book’s description “like peeling a self-adhesive stamp off of its backing”) while placing the other down.

The other thing we did was to run with a very small resistance band loop around our feet to teach us to take very short steps. According to Hyongok, people almost universally overstride. But in chi running you don’t want your foot to go forward of your knee.  The stride goes to the rear.

The resistance band exercise shocked me because of just how short the stride was. I always thought I had a short-ish stride. When I see people running in the park, they always seem to have gazelle-like legs taking long, powerful, graceful strides forward. But with the band around my ankles I felt as if I could hardly take a step.

The short stride goes with a quick recommended cadence of 180 steps per minute.  Hyongok and John talked about different settings for the running metronome (every stride, every other stride, or every third stride). They favor every third step because 180 beats of the metronome per minute is just a bit too much noise. Every second step makes you naturally put emphasis on the same foot all the time. Every third is just right. Their metronome didn’t want to work that day so Hyongok mimicked the beats with clapping, explaining that she had internalized the 180 steps per minute.

Here’s what I have to say about that: it’s fast. Faster than I’m used to. And it requires shorter steps. They explained that regardless of speed, you keep the cadence at 180. When you want to go faster, lean more sharply. The stride will lengthen itself. Here’s a great little post by Danny Dreyer about short stride and fast cadence.

At that point I realized I was ravenous and hadn’t brought a single thing to eat. Hyongok did a demo with a banana, something to do with the way it peeled. I just wanted to eat the banana. Then John said that if we practiced up and down the gym with the resistance band a few more times, we could have a snack.  But the practice seemed to go on and on. So much so that Anita actually asked at one point, with a hint of desperation in her tone, “when do we get our snack?”

Since I was the first to try the resistance band thing, I made an executive decision that I would be the first to take a snack: chocolate energy bars — not vegan but delicious — and a banana.

We also learned about arms swinging to the back instead of the front and never crossing the body. For some of these things, I’m not sure if the movement is actually like that or if it’s just something we’re supposed to visualize. For example, in yoga you sometimes get instructions to do things that are impossible, like reach for the ceiling or the opposite wall.  You’re never going to get there, but by visualizing that you get where you need to be.  I felt a bit like this with the arm instructions. Do they actually swing to the back or is that just what you think about, like a difference in emphasis?

Finally, at the end of the day we went outside and did a few laps around a short track, practicing our “gears.” Gears come from the lean. This is one of the concepts that I’ve never really gotten a good grip on. I lean forward more sharply but I don’t actually feel as if I’m going faster. I’ve got my swimming gears and my biking gears all figured out. But in running, I’m terrible at gears. I just go. And then my pace slows because I get tired.

We took turns running up and back in groups, with the other group providing “critiques.” I got some feedback that I didn’t fully understand, something about my legs swinging up too far behind me (which, frankly, I have no sense of at all — when I run I often feel as if I’m hardly even picking up my feet).

By then, almost four hours into with just ten or so minutes to go, my feet felt really tired, the way they might if you spent a lot of time standing in one place, which we kind of had.  But we still hadn’t run up and down hills, so we proceeded to the parking garage ramp.

There, we ran down — short steps, minimal lean (so as not to do a face plant), arms swinging to the back.  Then we ran up — shorts steps, forward lean, arms punching up (like an upper cut), and it should feel “effortless, like you’re not going up a hill at all.”  I’ve been practicing that one on hills ever since and I’m not convinced that it feels as if I’m running on a flat. Maybe it’s easier. I’m just not “feeling it” yet.

We got a hand-out and did a little go-around where everyone said what they got out of the workshop. I can’t even remember what I said.

I was more excited about the workshop than Anita and Violetta because I’ve been dabbling with the principles of chi running for almost three years now, ever since I read the book.  See here and here for my previous posts on it. I thought a workshop might help solidify some of the teachings for me.  But the “do you feel that?” approach didn’t help me as much as I’d hoped.

Since the workshop, I’ve had some check-ins from John, who is quite willing to answer questions. I told him the truth, which is that I practiced a few things and found them awkward. My lean feels unnatural and when I relax I slow down so much that I’m hardly moving.  I tried a cadence metronome app and I had a world of trouble trying to do the three steps per beat thing that they recommended. Then I tried 90 beats per minute, two steps per beat, and got all tangled up and frustrated.

I get that these things take practice, and to be fair, they recommend that you spend a lot of time doing practice drills that are extremely focused on one particular thing at a time. And that you set the Garmin aside, stop worrying about speed for awhile and just get a feel for it.  I suppose as with all things, the repeated attention to detail will eventually (we hope) yield an epiphany. I had that experience in yoga once: I’d been in Iyengar classes for about five years when one day I did a make-up class that was a lower level. My shoulder stand was pretty good already, but then the instructor said something that made me experience it in a whole new way. I became stronger and more stable on the spot, my shoulder stand forever improved.

Chi running might be like that. Let’s hope.

To find a Chi Running workshop check out the list of upcoming sessions with certified instructors all over (mostly in the US) here.

accessibility · disability · fitness · SamanthaWalsh

Movement and disability: Does mainstream discomfort keep those who crawl immobile?

I’ve been thinking a lot about disability and movement in light of Tracy’s worry that the language of “sitting is the new smoking” and “sitting kills” is ableist. I agree that there are problems with our public health messaging around improving our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. (Note my use of “our” in the previous sentence. Who is included? Who isn’t?)

On my recent post on modern chair design and the role chairs play in our sedentary lifestyle Tracy commented,

“I think this point about chair design is interesting and I like the change in emphasis, away from sitting and more oriented towards the way chairs would have us sit. I contacted Shelley Tremain (philosophy of disability scholar and disability activist; see her new series on the Discrimination and Disadvantage website: this morning about to about it — I’ve learned a lot from her about ableist language around the “sitting is the new smoking” slogan which I for one will never ever use. She pointed out something that’s really important to note. The shift from sitting itself to the chair is an interesting shift, but it’s worth noting also that sometimes chairs (even those with fairly traditional designs, i.e. wheelchairs) actually increase mobility and make it possible for people who might otherwise not be able to get around or be active to do so. So the chair may have its limitations for some people, but for others they are a far cry from evil and in fact enable movement and activity and facilitate access to resources. Thank you, Shelley!”

You can certainly see ableist versions of the “move more, sit less” campaigns. As I’ve become more aware of ableist language in efforts meant to encourage everyday movement, I see the problems with phrases such as “sitting is the new smoking.”

First, there’s the issue of healthism.  See our blog post which talks about healthism and respectability here. Caring about your health is your choice. Smoking is wrong, in part, because it harms others. (This is a bit complicated in a country with publicly funded healthcare. Presumably this gives the government some scope to encourage people to make healthier choices.) But second, and more importantly, sitting isn’t bad for everyone. For some people it’s the best choice. Think about a wheelchair user for whom sitting in a chair opens up a world of mobility and choices. That’s not unhealthy. It’s liberating.

I’ve watched how this plays out in campaigns about using the stairs.

See this poster which many friends shared with the comment, “Real super heroes don’t make ableist assumptions.” After all, not everyone can take the stairs. Indeed, when my knees are bothering me sometimes I’m not able to use the stairs even though I can bike hundreds of kilometers.


It’s certainly true that wheelchairs can be wonderfully liberating things. See the other Samantha’s post about the Warrior Dash. That wouldn’t have been possible for Samantha without her wheelchair.

The team at the end of the race, muddy and smiling!

But I also worry that mainstream discomfort with non standard modes of movement can keep wheelchair users inactive. The message seems to be if you can’t walk, you use a wheelchair, even if that’s not the option you’d prefer.

One of my favorite characters in the documentary Fixed, which by the way, you must watch, it’s a wonderful film, is Gregor Wolbring a professor at the University of Calgary. He uses a wheelchair but it’s not his only way of getting around.

I love the scenes of him at home, getting in and out of his car, and boarding a plane crawling up the steps and down the aisle to his seat. At home he quickly sheds the wheelchair and gets about his house under his own steam. His movement is graceful and speedy but it challenges our stereotypes of how the human body moves. Watching him board the the plane I wasn’t sure if it was the air line staff who were uncomfortable with the way he climbed the stairs into the plane or if it was me.

I’ve watched the film a few times now because I use it in class and I’ve wondered about my unease. Partly it’s fear of Gregor Wolbring falling but that’s clearly ridiculous. We’ve both been getting about using our preferred modes of mobility for some number of decades. I hope no one worries about me falling when I climb stairs.

Is it undignified? That’s clearly an ableist thought. How do standing and walking come to signify “dignity”?

It seems we have two acceptable modes of being, walking and wheeling. But wheeling isn’t the only option for those who can’t walk. Our discomfort with crawling shouldn’t be the thing that keeps people still when independent motion is the option they’d prefer.

Fixed makes the point that there is incredible variation in human abilities. We should delight in variety, not shy away from it. It urges us to resist the urge to pick one standard and “fix” everyone who doesn’t meet it.

I think this about size. So too with mobility.

Finally, there’s the worry that things that are wonderful for some people–moving sidewalks in airports, elevators in private homes, even second floor laundry–aren’t wonderful for others. How do we celebrate increased accessibility without turning into a country where we all use moving sidewalks and elevators? Yes, let people choose. That’s obviously right. But we need to encourage a culture of movement in its many forms and varieties.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time with some amazing disabled cyclists. In Australia I rode with Michael Milton, a one legged cyclist. I’ve raced crits with him, he’s not slow. He doesn’t generally use an artificial leg which surprises people and I’ve never seen him in a wheelchair. Mostly he uses his bike for transportation.

Who is Michael Milton?

Michael John Milton OAM is an Australian Paralympic skier, Paralympic cyclist and paratriathlete with one leg. With 6 Gold, 3 Silver and 2 Bronze he is the most successful Australian Paralympic Athlete in the Winter Games.


Let’s move, yes. But let’s celebrate human diversity too. It’s not all a matter of sitting or standing, taking the stairs or taking the elevator. Let’s embrace all the options.


Is intuitive eating enough? Inner capacities vs. outer food cues

This week I was at a conference at the University of Texas at Dallas on Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology. One of the many nice things about academia is that there’s a group for just about any subtopic of interest, and an annual conference to go along with it. Going to one of these types of small, specialty conferences is kind of like dropping in on someone else’s party, already in progress. However, the host Matthew Brown was very welcoming, and the partygoers were interesting and fun. I knew a few of them already (hi Shari and Dan!), and made some new friends (one of whom may be blogging here soon!)

My reason for being there was to give a talk on public health and Health at Every Size (HAES) approaches to body weight. HAES endorses a view of health that includes three key parts:

  • weight acceptance (instead of weight loss and maintenance)
  • intuitive eating
  • physical activity

Anyone reading this blog is probably already familiar with all of these ideas. I recently joined the Facebook groups Fit Fatties and Athena Triathletes, both of which emphasize and support all kinds of physical activity for all kinds of bodies.

It’s intuitive eating, however, that I’m thinking about more these days. Tracy has blogged extensively about her research and experiences around intuitive eating.  Here’s one of many of her great posts about it. In that post, discussing the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works,  she talks about the authors’ ten principles; here they are:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

In my conference presentation, I talked about some worries I have about principles 2, 5 and 6- basically the ones about eating in accordance with hunger and fullness cues coming from our own bodies. But first, let’s hear from Tracy again about them:

Feeling your fullness (Principle 5) is the one that challenges me the most and that I have worked with most closely since I started this approach back in early January. The authors claim that “the ability to stop eating because you have had enough to eat biologically hinges critically on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat” (Principle 3: Make peace with food).

In order to feel your fullness, the authors recommend conscious eating. Instead of moving into autopilot, they suggest paying attention, eating without distraction, pausing part way through a meal to register whether the food still tastes good and whether you’re still hungry. Samantha is doing the same thing with her recent attention to mindful eating. They introduce the idea of comfortable satiety, where you’ve had enough to eat but are not overstuffed.  Respecting your fullness means stopping at comfortable satiety. In order to achieve this, you need to eat engage in mindful or conscious eating.

This approach sounds sensible, powerful, and yes, intuitive. Of course I should listen to my body, not all those external messages like this one:

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 10.07.31 AM

But a big problem comes to mind.

It’s really hard to dodge and weave enough to avoid being caught up in environmental cues to eat when a) we’re not actually hungry; and b) when the food presented is not actually food we want.

Tracy points out in her post that the authors cite evidence in support of their intuitive eating program (which I look forward to checking out). However, there’s also loads of evidence about the strong influence of our environments on our eating. The presence of candy dishes, Danish pastries or doughnuts at a morning work meeting, larger portion sizes at restaurants—all of these (and many more) factors regularly shift us into modes of mindless eating  (also the name of a book by this guy  Brian Wansink).  Wansink and others recommend a host of remedies for this set of problems, ranging from downsizing our plates and cups to reconfiguring school cafeterias to place the salad bar more strategically.

My point here is that, as an individual, there are a lot of forces out there, many of which are designed to short-circuit my hunger and fullness cues. And evidence shows that they work incredibly well against us. This isn’t an argument against intuitive eating, but instead to say that I think the tools of intuitive eating are not enough on their own for constructing satisfying eating patterns. We need some outside help from a bunch of sources, ranging from tips for rearranging our pantries and fridges to put the foods we want to eat front and center, to lobbying government to redesign school cafeterias in ways that don’t make it harder to purchase and eat fruits and vegetables.

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I’ll be blogging some more about it. I also welcome comments from readers about their experiences with outside forces that try to block intuitive eating.