Fitness Refinements 2019

Be a Beast of Burden: Heavy Pack Training
I was stunned while training for our first ultra-light backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in 2019 that I could readily push my pack weight from a usual 12 pounds to 17 but when I nudged it up to 18 pounds, my body crumbled. Comfortably carrying a 20 pound pack was my goal and I was so close, but the cumulative effect the training and then of that extra pound, broke me. Had I been on a backpack trip when that happened, it would have been a crisis. I could hardly carry any weight on my back for about 5 days.

I quickly determined that it was the long, deep psoas muscle on each side of my vertebral column that had caved under the strain of this spinal loading exercise. They attach on the inner thigh bones, snake their way through to the back of the pelvis, and anchor at several points on the front surface of the vertebrae. I felt the pressure of the weight in my ankles, knees, and torso but it was only my core muscles that couldn’t adapt to the pace of training with the increasingly heavier pack.

The psoas muscles are postural muscles, muscles that do their job by being in constant isometric contraction. They will take a tremendous amount of abuse, but when overly strained, they stop you in your tracks, which is what mine did. Power muscles, like in your arms and legs, are adapted to repetitive contraction and release, such as when walking. When the power muscles are stressed, they give you a warning in the form of soreness. If you keep irritating them, they may also prevent further use, but at least they usually give you a chance to modify your behavior before they shut you down.

Through my anguish, I was delighted. I had succeeded in revealing yet another imbalance, a weakness in my overall wellbeing. I now both knew which muscles were the weakest in the link and I knew how to strengthen them. I resolved then and there to continue carrying a heavy pack, eventually 20 pounds or more, weekly, until I felt that I had truly adapted to the strain. I estimated that it would require at least a total of 6 months of incremental conditioning, if not more.
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More fun, though harder, than going to a gym.

I did have to perform deep massage to the psoas muscles after this initial insult and intermittently thereafter to keep them soft and elastic while they became stronger. After about 5 months of conditioning weekly with a 17 - 20 pound pack, a new muscle group became painful. It was the abdominal external obliques, but only on my right side. These abs are core muscles, postural muscles like the poses, but they would complain loudest on the days after a training hike instead of during the hike. Like with the psoas, I needed to massage them and let them rest to recover and then become stronger.

Like almost any strength training program, there was pain along the way but I was very hopeful that I’d discovered a better way to more successfully age well. It seemed that hiking for hours with 20 pounds or more on my back would do more for my sturdiness than doing minutes of planks or crunches. In carrying the heavy loads, I would be doing what our species had always done, I would be using those postural muscles intensely and continuously and in the most favored position: upright.

I was excited by the prospect of having cracked the code on the lore of our desert hiking club, which is that even the top hikers athletically implode around age 75. Horrified and curious, we’d struggled to understand what the fatal flaw could be. The more we listened, the more it seemed systemic, and that it wasn’t wear and tear on the knees or back but something more fundamental.

This deep core weakness that both Bill and I had identified in ourselves looked like a plausible culprit for the fabled failure at 75 years of age. Even though we hiked 2000 miles a year, could knock-out 100 mile weeks, and could do back-to-back 20 mile days with 5,000’ of gain each day, our core muscles were undeniably weak. We were clearly very successfully navigating around that weakness but it was easy to see how it could one day be our demise without us ever identifying the source of our overall system failure.

Ironically, 10 years earlier, we had learned when using the P90X video exercise program that our core muscles were disproportionately weak even after 10 years of cyclotouring. I was chagrined to be learning this basic lesson a second time and intended for it to be the last reminder.

My new theory gained more traction when I began inviting some of the most powerful desert hiking club members to join us in our beasts-of-burden training. I had hoped to recruit 4-6 enthusiasts and perhaps even have us hike with less capable hikers for more social mixing in the club because we’d be slowed down by the spinal loading. But I only had one accept the offer. She, like one other member, still carried 30-33 pound loads on their summer backpack trips.

Neck, shoulder, and back pain were cited by the others as to why they’d “never again” carry heavier packs. I was certain that with the correct self-care, some of those body issues could be remedied but I also felt that I had the answer to the implosion problem: these strong hikers in their middle and late 60’s were systematically inviting their deepest core muscles to atrophy in deference to pain from potentially solvable problems in smaller muscles.

We’ll know in a few more years if sustaining endurance conditioning for these deep core muscles by regularly hiking with heavy packs will allow us to whiz past the fabled implosion at age 75.
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Bill on tilt: System failure at the Grand Canyon.

Posture Matters
“Posture matters, says who?” The bottom line with being attentive to your posture is to look good and be good, as in minimizing pain. I’d been nagging Bill about his poor posture for decades, promising that good posture would help him look more youthful and dodge inevitable pain. But then it was only the pain relief that was on his mind; he had been experiencing sometimes all-consuming back muscle spasm pain for 3 months in the fall of 2019. It grabbed his attention in a way that I and no one else had. He had no choice but to play by his back’s rules.

Bill’s first priority was to be out of pain for more than a few hours at a time and after that, he wanted to hike and to backpack. But it required going back to the ignored basics: standing square on both feet instead of hip-hitching; drawing his head back over his feet and hips instead of curving forward from his waist and dropping his head; sitting upright instead of mimicking a sling chair like a teenager often does. His life long, low-energy positions of comfort were no longer comfortable and he lacked the needed muscle strength to hold his body fully upright for more than a few seconds at a time. Those postural basics would need to be mastered before the spinal loading of backpacking would be a safe or beneficial strategy for him.

Mechanical Interventions
A novel intervention while waiting for the slow process of healing from doing his exercises, receiving massage and acupunture treatments, and icing, was for him to wear a cervical collar, a neck brace. Amazingly, he had had no neck pain, only low back pain. But supporting his head in an upright position with the brace, a position his own muscles were too weak to sustain, took the load off of his low back. He achieved instant and sustained pain relief from his low back muscle spasms even though his lazy upper back muscles were forced to work, which triggered transient overuse pain in them.

A yoga class trick using a strap also lightened the load on his low back and helped him find his upright position as well. The simple strapping technic aided in re-patterning his hunched shoulders into their proper place by inviting his breast bone to lift and his shoulder blades to drop.
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The strap first crosses the back horizontally & then the ends are brought to the front; from there, they are tossed over the shoulders & crossed on the back before being secured in front.

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Tugging on the yoga strap clnch buckle pulls the shoulders down.

More Interventions
In the “Steep Descents” piece on this website, you’ll find many more details for improving your posture in 2 sections: “Balanced Over Your Feet” and “Re-sculpting to Optimize Descending Posture.” These technics were fundamental for Bill to free himself from back pain. For Bill, correcting his posture was a critical step before he could continue using the “Be a Beast of Burden” strategy for increasing his core strength.

Levels of Injury
When working with my body issues, I view injuries as being at one of 3 levels of intensity: outright trauma, repetitive use trauma, or micro-trauma. Outright trauma is an acute, sudden injury, like falling off your bike or dropping a hammer on your foot. In contrast, repetitive use injuries overload the soft tissues, like the muscles and tendons, from doing a motion too many times, such like when running or doing yard work. Micro-trauma is a subset of repetitive use: it’s usually repetitive abuse without movement.

My sacroiliac (SI) joint (the juncture between plate-like bones of the pelvis under the buttock muscles) injury was a combination of repetitive use and micro-trauma and it did not resolve until I eliminated both sources of irritation. Bill has suffered from micro-trauma in his hands and ankles when in stillness from poor choices he made about positioning.

Learning about the concept of micro-trauma 25 years ago from a Portland physical therapist has been a huge factor in our capacity to self-heal. For us, micro-trauma is often the source of low-grade, chronic discomfort which sometimes leads to acute pain. Eliminating micro-trauma is the most accessible way to repair overstretched or strained ligaments, something that is often deemed impossible to do.

Those soft tissues injuries often are irreparable because people don’t understand how it is that they are constantly re-injuring the tissues. It’s not that the tissues can’t heal, it’s that they’re never given a chance to heal. Because the injury is relatively subtle, people don’t know how to care for them. These injuries are painfully slow to resolve, we think in terms of at least 6 months and often 1-2 years, so most people don’t recognize the potential for healing.
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No knee pillow when sleeping overstretches the SI joint ligaments.

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A knee pillow at night interrupts the tugging on the SI ligaments.

My left SI joint showed arthritic changes on x-ray when I was in my 30’s but I had no symptoms. Later, I began doing an intense yoga practice and some of the big standing poses, like the warrior poses, are notorious for causing SI joint injuries from over-stretching the ligaments holding the bones in position. Even though I was supervised by an exacting teacher, my SI joints became painfully injured and their vulnerability persisted long after abandoning the poses.

What I didn’t understand at the time, was that it was now micro trauma that was perpetuating the injury, for decades. Something as fundamental and mindless as my sleeping position was straining my SI joints for 1/3 of every day. Compound movements like bending while twisting was another source of subtle, lifestyle damage to those joints when awake.

Bad positioning choices are also a classic source of micro trauma. Bill caused significant chronic pain and loss of function in his hands from “hanging on his ligaments” when ramming the bike handlebar between his thumbs and forefingers. He also set himself up for lower leg injuries by choosing a resting position while sitting that continuously overstretched his left ankle. To recover, he had to be vigilant indoors to plant his feet on the floor instead of over-twisting his ankle; when outdoors, he used tape or splints to protect against accidentally over-stretching his ankle ligaments.
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Bill's favorite foot position when sitting overstretched the outer ligaments of his left ankle.

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Taping to limit ankle rotation on the trail.

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Splints to support his ankles.

We both spent years breaking ourselves of these problematic positioning habits and practices and we are both now pain-free in each of these joints. Doing so required 2 things. The first issue was recognizing the destructive movement patterns, which usually required help from an observer. Sometimes it wasn’t so subtle, like when I asked Bill “What are you doing with your hand there? That’s weird. I can’t even get mine in that position!” His reply was “It’s comfortable.” Actually, it had been a comfortable position until the persistent, damaging forces took their toll and the injured tissues became a source of constant pain, day and night. The same was true with my side-sleeping position that a chiropractor identified as self-destructive for my SI joints. Next up for both of us was the difficult task of becoming 100% compliant in no longer doing the tissue-destructive maneuvers and waiting months or years for the soft tissues, particularly the ligaments, to heal.

Identifying your own sources of destructive micro-trauma isn’t easy, which is why I believe it’s rarely discussed. But it is possible to change what seems like an irreversible, painful future by teasing out these subtle, easily overlooked habits and patterns of micro-trauma and then giving your body the consistent and sustained reprieve from the insults that it needs to heal itself.

Crawling, Squatting & Walking
“Getting Low” Exercises
Perhaps to my detriment, I have a strong bias against isolated strength training, except to rehab after a specific injury. I instead prefer to use complex, real-world movements to develop and maintain my strength. Here are my new favorite compound moves that involve some upper body and core work but emphasize lower body strength, flexibility, and mobility. I can do them all in our trailer, though I’m limited to about a dozen steps in each direction. I started with 2 laps of each: going forward then returning by putting it in reverse and then doing a second round trip.

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Bear Crawl or Walk
A simple concept: be on all 4’s and advance by stepping with an opposing hand and foot. This cross-crawl movement was more of a challenge for my brain than my body, but I got it. Start with your left hand and right foot advancing together, set them down, and continue moving forward with your right hand and left foot. You can begin with your buttocks high in the air and as you gain more ease with the movement, lower them down. I go forward and backwards instead of turning around for a little extra challenge.
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Duck Walk
In the fullest squat you can tolerate, with the knees pointing out to the sides in line with your feet, lift one foot and then set it down a bit in front of you. If the foot won’t budge, put a hand on the same calf and give it a nudge. Give it a little hop-up quality to get moving. You will likely quickly become more able to do this and be able to deepen your squat.
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Under the Fence
Partially squat while bending over so your torso is approximately parallel to the floor, like you were needing to walk under a fence. Scuttle forward in this face-down position, then return to your starting point by walking backwards, still maintaining this partial squat with your legs.

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Skiers Squat
Perform a deep squat, to the point of eventually having your thighs parallel to the floor, and rotate at the ankles so that the knees travel together to the right and then the left in an arc, like a skier carving curves. Vary the move by keeping the knees relatively still and instead moving the hips from side to side while staying low.

Knee joints are designed to primarily operate like a hinge, swinging forward and backward. This move introduces a bit of real-world, side-to-side mobility of the knee joints in a controlled way. Start by supporting a bit of your weight with your hands on a counter top or wall while you learn how these moves feel in your knees.
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Crab Walk
A retired gymnast shared the crab walk with us as a safe and reassuring way to approach a cliff edge when on slick or smooth rock. (Gloves are helpful when outdoors.) Plant your hands and feet while siting on the floor, lift your buttocks up as high as you can, and walk forward, then backwards. That’s it. If you have a room, try a bit of racing, making circles, or figure 8’s for variety. Use the cross-crawl movement like with the bear walk, advancing with opposite hands and feet.

By all means, remember to laugh or at least smile, when doing these playful mobility moves.