The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Book Review

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)

51fN0mD37nL._AA160_ Anyone on the trail either hiking or running invariably wonders at some point, “How far could I go if I had the time?”. With a subtitle of “How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, Christopher McDougall attempts to answer the question of just how much we can endure, both physically and psychologically, when put to the challenge. And in answering those questions he aims to understand “the art of the hero”, and to explore the “foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”

The book, which follows his 2011 best-seller ‘Born to Run’ about endurance running, retells a war story that occurred in April 1944 during World War II on Nazi occupied Crete, an island known for its isolationism, spirit of rugged individualism and adherence to what resembles a “paleo” diet since they eat mostly home raised meat plus vegetables which were either grown or foraged in the surrounding mountainous forests.

McDougall opens his book with a retelling of how a band of British Special Operations soldiers together with Cretan resistance fighters kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kriepe. The kidnapping occurred near the general’s Nazi headquarters with a daring display of “chutzpah” on the part of the kidnappers. Once the general and his car had been commandeered, the British-led team than spent more than two weeks navigating the very rugged Cretan backcountry on little sleep or food while they transported  the general to a point where he could be conveyed off the island as a prisoner of war.

The journey was arduous and required truly superhuman physical skill and nerves and resolve of steel. And the mission proved fatal for some of the resistance fighters as well as Cretan citizens of the town of Anogia who were massacred by the Nazis as they struggled to re-capture their general. But it is the endurance of the soldiers that McDougall explores in the book and the topic of endurance in general often in a zig zagging manner darting between the main narrative and long diversions into ostensibly related topics.

Weaved between the narrative, McDougall details a history of military survival training and takes a questionable detour to look at the world of Parkour, and finishes with several chapters devoted to a history of nutrition especially as it has been practiced by endurance athletes. McDougall contends that the gods of Greek mythology learned to survive adversity while dealing with human scale challenges even as they inhabited a godly abode. Some of those gods such as Zeus originated on Crete and they created a Grecian zeitgeist of heroism that was embodied in Crete during the war where men, women and children of the Crete countryside embodied paideia, arete and xenia (skill, strength and desire) but understood that “heroes are protectors” but, “your’e only strongest when you have a weakness for other people”, McDougall writes.

And he discusses the ancient Greek military technique of pankration, a type of free form wrestling, which has its roots in Greek mythology and dates to the Olympic games of 648 B.C.  He touches on ancient martial arts and “The Natural Method of Training” published by Edwin Chekly in 1890, among other techniques, after introducing us to suburban English women who have mastered the art of Parkour. Named for the French parcours,  Parkour acolytes learn to turn an urban landscape into a playground in which they have taught themselves to scale brick walls by running up them, balance and jump off of railings, landing in a somersault, only to spring back up and over the next obstacle. Parkour, McDougall posits, proves that humans have an innate ability to overcome physical obstacles tapping the ‘elastic coil’ stored up in our tendons, ligaments and even our fascia. (see a video of these Parkour moms here).

McDougall strains at times to make the case that the British special ops and Cretan resistance fighters were successful because they harnessed the skills and spirit embodied in these ancient techniques that have some Grecian roots. But one of the main focuses of the author’s thesis rests in his theory about the benefit of the Cretan diet, essentially a paleolithic meat and vegetables diet. McDougall interviews and visits with world renowned  South African exercise physiologist  Timothy Noakes Ph.d as well as tracking down the enigmatic chiropractor turned nutritional  consultant both to the stars and to star athletes, Phil Maffetone D.C.

Both Noakes and Maffetone eschew our mainstream carbohydrate laden diet as unnatural, unhealthy and down right dangerous. They both explain that from an evolutionary point of view humans have evolved to eat meat and plants and if those plants contain carbohydrates, then they are at least complex carbs, not the simple sugars that appear in almost all of our processed food, from Ketchup to soda to breakfast cereals and even packaged bread. Our consumption of large amounts of sugar, they explain, stimulates our body to release insulin, which stores the sugars in our bodies as fat and than drives us to consume even more sugar laden food to repeat the cycle.

When you retrain your body to burn fat as fuel, and not carbohydrates, you can increase your endurance and remain more satiated for longer periods of time, the experts explain. When Dr. Noakes adopted the eating lifestyle he professed, he lost weight and cut his time in the famous South African Comrades 56 mile ultra-marathon by two hours and reduced his time to run a 5K race by more than 20%, all that at the age of 56. Even the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team finally cut sugar out of their diet, began eating grass-fed beef, nuts and  kale chips. The exercise and nutritional guru Phil Maffetone went a step further and maintained that not only was the no carb or very low carb diet healthier but combined with some training tips, the eating lifestyle changes would reboot the subject’s metabolism to start burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen and sugars.  And since the body stores much more fat than sugars, endurance will naturally improve. He is even beta testing an app to help make the switch.

Overall, Chris McDougall presents a compelling argument that anyone could probably push themselves much harder, set higher standards and tap in to inner resources. You hiked 10 miles today? You could definitely push on. You ran a marathon?  Start training for an ultra. The key to ‘mastering the lost secrets of strength and endurance’ then, would be to understand human evolutionary history and make a course correction in one’s nutrition. Assiduous training and having resolute confidence in your abilities like the Parkour moms would also help. And having a tantalizing goal like kidnapping a Nazi general right from under the noses of his hapless soldiers would help as well.

Howard E. Friedman

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One more way to be inactive…

At the front of the check-out line at Modell’s, a large chain of sporting goods stores where I was waiting to pay for my son’s soccer shoes I was surprised to see a stack of ‘Swagway Smart Balance Boards’. While the name could describe some device for improving balance after perhaps a bad ankle sprain, this balance board comes with two wheels, a recharge-able motor and a $400 price tag. And one more thing, it comes with a lot of appeal to teenagers.

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The first time I saw a kid on one of these boards was when a student was coming out of his school where I was parked waiting for my son to walk out of the building. There a teenage boy coasted on the sidewalk, standing on what looked like a horizontal skate board and made his way into the parking lot to continue his near effortless self conveyance to his ride home. He leaned forward to make the board go and leaned back to make it stop. So in all fairness to him he was not entirely inactive.

I understand the gadget appeal of these devices. While not even close to the hover board skateboard popularized by the character Marty McFly in the 1989 movie ‘Back to the Future part 2’ which was set in 2015, these current motorized ‘skate boards’ are still pretty cool and look like fun to zip around on.

But come on. Do our kids need another reason not to exercise-in this case, replacing the gateway exercise of walking? Once kids no longer have a need for the easiest means of transportation, walking, is there any chance they may than decide to take up jogging or riding a bike to school or even self powering themselves on a manual old fashioned skate board?

Indeed, the new boards are becoming so popular that large cities like New York are moving quickly to ban them. If they became pervasive, they would be a public nuisance. Imagine people zipping around the sidewalks zig zagging between the pedestrians. And while these devices are also sold from pop-up kiosks in shopping malls, the malls themselves do not allow the boards to be used inside. But there is no stopping kids from riding them around their neighborhood or even to school if their local town does not have an ordinance forbidding them.

I am not against transportation innovation. A while back while surveying a hiking trail I have maintained for a number of years I was surprised to see two people pass by on unicycles with dirt bike tires! While my trail is expressly for “foot travel” I was pleased to see some innovation even if it was not expressly permitted. But at least the mountain biking unicyclists were embracing the spirit of the trail- enjoying a trip through the woods under human power.

But the new motorized skate boards further erode efforts to get kids active outdoors. I do not fear this newest holiday gadget signals the death knell of pedestrianism as we know it. But it is one more indicator of how we are so allured by technology even when it is not in our best interest. After all, neither kids nor adults today are really in need of another means of mechanized time-saving. What do they need to save time for? The washing machine washes our clothes and the dishwasher our dishes. Planes, trains and automobiles are ubiquitous for ferrying us hither and yon and of course computers have been mega time savers in so many different ways.

You know who could have used these gadgets? The pioneers would have benefitted from a faster way to get around the frontier which would have freed up some more time for fetching water and chopping firewood.

Howard E. Friedman

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50,000 Ways to Spend a Sunday

This past Sunday morning about 50,000 people of all ages and abilities challenged themselves to run the New York City marathon, 26.2 miles through the streets of the city, finishing the last 6 miles in Central Park. The elite runners ran at close to 13 miles an hour, finishing in a bit over 2 hours. About half of the runners finished in less than four hours and fifteen minutes and some, well, let’s just say, they could have walked as fast.

This past Sunday night about 50,000 people sat for more than 3 hours to watch what would be the final game in the 2015 baseball World

Series, where the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets, winning their 4th game out of five. The baseball fans were encouraged to get up and stretch after the completion of the seventh inning and people were free to walk around during the game as well. But watching a baseball game is a spectator sport.

There were most likely some people who ran the marathon in the morning and went to the baseball game at night, for a memorable Sunday participating in two significant annual events. If someone was lucky enough to fill their day with both those events, that would indeed be a day to remember.

Mostly though I suspect there were the runners and there were the watchers. And on this past Sunday they were pretty well balanced, at about 50,000 people apiece.

The runners and the watchers. Or, to think of it another way, the doers and the sitters, neither one inherently superior to the other just markedly different types of activities. On a broader societal scale, we can categorize ourselves, at times, as either consumers or producers, each necessary and invaluable. We all can not be exclusively consumers for than who would produce what we consume? And this past Sunday, the runners benefitted from the cheering crowds who had lined the streets to watch them, not so different from the 50,000 people who sat in Citi Field to cheer on their favorite baseball team.

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

As a city, a community, a country, and even a world, we need both the runners and the watchers, the producers and the consumers. But as individuals, we also need our own varied diet of activity, similar to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Plate, which recommends a variety of types of foods in healthy amounts. Not all carbs and not all proteins. Not all fruits and not all vegetables. Similarly we need to mix up the watching with the running, the consuming with the producing.

“My Feet” Chart

What if in addition to a ‘My Plate’ diagram, we also referred to a ‘My Feet’ diagram, which would suggest where our feet should be throughout an average day. About one quarter to one third of the day would show our feet in bed, a third or so of the clock would show our feet at work, in school, creating and producing or otherwise involved in some type of sedentary activity. A portion of the My Feet pie chart would show our feet under the kitchen table and a miscellaneous slice would allow for personal needs. But a solid slice of the daily pie would show our feet in a pair of sneakers, either indoors or out, getting some exercise.  And there would also be the ‘Weekend My Feet’ chart which would replace a portion of the work/school slice with even more time exercising or otherwise being active.

This past Sunday was an interesting look into how so many people  chose to spend their time in a major metropolitan city. The runners we know also prepared by training for a few months in advance.  And the World Series attendees had to hustle somewhat to get their ticket and the price may even have caused them to break into a sweat although their chosen activity was mostly sedentary with some periods of standing and cheering.

But in a well balanced life, we would all run some and watch some, consume some and produce some, win some and as reality would have it, lose some too.

Howard E. Friedman

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Why I Can’t Stop Thinking About Potter and Hunt

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

It is not just their unusual manner of death, flying near 100 mph headlong into a granite massif, hundreds of feet above the iconic, beautiful and serene Yosemite Valley, the two men each in a silky synthetic wing suit and a parachute folded on their backs, that keeps me thinking about Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. They died a week ago Saturday after a fatal impact with the rock during what was their final wing suit flight from Yosemite’s Taft Point.

Their manner of death is by any definition, extraordinary.

But what will not leave my mind is the fact that how they died is so entwined with how they lived. They died while trying so hard to live.Yet since our Western society places the value of life above all other values, it is difficult for me to fully embrace these men’s life choices. But at the same time I can not diminish their achievements.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about his own life that he went to the woods near Walden Pond so he would “not when I came to die discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau though, was never too far from civilization and his yearning for life was hardly a dangerous proposition. Not so Dean Potter, a pioneer not only in the rock climbing community but in the field of human powered flight, sailing off cliffs wearing a suit that made his arms and legs wing-like, then deploying his parachute to land safely. His most celebrated flight was flying off the Eiger mountain in Switzerland after climbing that mountain unaided, a feat in and of itself heavy with risk.

I am conflicted about Potter’s choice of lifestyle, activities which flirted with death and feel the need to explore his choices since for a reason that may seem irrational, his death is making me think about how best to “suck out all the marrow of life”, as Thoreau wrote.

Let’s assume that Potter felt the need to push the boundaries of the possible to satisfy his own thirst for life and let’s assume that he accepted that the risk was death. He is not the first to take this path. As a kid I remember the thrill of watching the daredevil Evel Knievel sail his motorcycle over more than a dozen cars on one jump and thirteen Greyhound buses on another, sometimes crashing in similar attempts, not dying, but breaking dozens of bones. I remember watching him try to fly his specially made one man rocket over the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho in 1974, crashing into the far side of the canyon, and surviving. And I watched all this on the ABC television network, one of only three major television networks of the time. A man testing himself, coming to the edge of death was public spectacle and entertainment and one that is repeated again and again in many different ways even now: race car driving, free diving, a matador facing a raging bull.

People take many roads to make peace with their lives and find success. But even the most seemingly successful men and women of our day often crash and burn despite great objective success, actors and musicians taking their own lives, successful politicians making stupid and illegal choices, ruining their careers. So, can Potter be faulted for living his life to what for him was the life he needed to feel fulfilled, even if that life carried the price tag of death? What’s a person to do if the only way he feels alive is by staring death full in the face, “to slip the surly bonds of Earth…to touch the face of God”. words written by English test pilot John Gillespie McGee Jr. after flying to 30,000 feet during a test flight in 1941. McGee died in a plane crash months later at the age of 19.

Pilot McGee was serving his country in war time. We mourn his death but accept it as the inevitable cost of war. But how do we respond to Dean Potter’s death, and similar deaths that have come before and those that will surely follow? Should we as a society openly tolerate activities that are a clear and present danger to their practitioners. Should we stand in the way of those who’s struggle to feel alive takes them so close to the edge? Should we support companies, like Red Bull and GroPro, that sponsor adventurers taking possibly fatal risks, like Jeb Corliss, another wing suit flyer, or Felix Baumgartner, who sky dived from 126,100 feet high falling faster than the speed of sound during a live-streamed event in 2014. We watch knowing they can die and they jump knowing the same and their sponsors who enable their efforts stand to profit the most. Even Corliss conceded after his successful wingsuit flight through a keyhole formation in Tianmen Cave that “my time on earth is limited but what I do with that time is not”. Like Knievel, Corliss has also returned to his sport after suffering serious injury.

We regulate other activities that are deemed injurious such as alcohol and drug use. We have an ongoing robust debate about about assisted suicide and the right to die. So, as a society, we do cherish life. Yet, we do not prohibit people from taking great risks with their lives. We do not outlaw cave diving, a notoriously dangerous activity, nor BASE jumping, although jumping off of public buildings and in National Parks is usually prohibited. Should we outlaw these activities because they have a high mortality rate? Should we ban flying in a wingsuit?

Or are these men and few women who takes these great risks really our own proxies for living life on the edge? Do their successful wing suit flights and leaps from space give us a unique moment of satiety about all that life can be, and than when they die, their death coaxes a hushed sigh of relief from deep in our throats that, “yes” we were right to avoid risk, to continue in our quotidien lives, lest we end up in pieces on the valley floor?

Unlike Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, who have now passed on, and others like them still alive (the free climber Alex Honnold comes to mind) and many others out of the public view, few among us have a passion we are willing to die for. I am envious of the person who has a passion so fierce he will follow it at all costs. But even if I had such a calling I would deem it unfair to heap that cost on family and loved ones who ultimately and for the duration of their lives will pay a big part of the price. It certainly seems unfair, selfish actually, to bequest that burden on one’s young children.  But at the same time, it is not in the purview of society to forbid people from exploring their limits as long as they are not actively doing harm to others.

But Potter’s life and death at the very least should cause us each to seek out passions in our lives, be they great or small.  And hopefully they are passions we are willing to live for and passions which ennoble the spirit and soothe the soul.

Howard E. Friedman

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Off the Trail: California – Paradise Burning – The New Yorker

This is my second re-post from The New Yorker in one month, a practice I hope  not to rely on. But, the following video, by Sky Dylan-Robbins of The New Yorker illustrating a piece written by Dana Goodyear in the current issue, about the effect of the severe drought on California’s food basket farm lands, delivers a real jolt, especially if you live in a verdant part of the world, shielded from dire water scarcity. For United States citizens who consume a lot of food from California, this drought will likely have real implications: food prices going up is the best case scenario. Food scarcity is the other real possible outcome.

It’s interesting to hear the seasoned California sheepherder Martin Etchamendy who is interviewed, an older man with sunburned chiseled facial features, the lines in his face shaded just a bit by his large straw cowboy hat. “Water, we need water. Water, water, water,” he says gesturing emphatically toward the opening of the 7 minute long video. “Sometimes,”, he continues later in the piece, ” it is easy to forget who produces the food”.

As the Jewish people gather to mark the new year this week, may “Who Produces the Food” shower His countenance favorably upon us and the entire world.

California: Paradise Burning – The New Yorker.

On the Trail: One Dose of The Escarpment Trail

Sunny Morning on the Hudson, Thomas Cole, c. 1820 (explorethomascole.org)

On the last Sunday and Monday of May I was fortunate to backpack 19 miles of the Escarpment Trail, a footpath dating back in parts to the early 1800s, which climbs up, and down, and up and down as it traverses the eastern most ridge of the Catskill mountains, providing a commanding view towering 2,000 feet above the Hudson River valley and the self-same river seven miles in the distance. The escarpment, a rocky buttress which extends for more than 30 miles in all, inspired many American painters in the nineteenth century who carried their easels from the southern section of the trail up onto the rocks overlooking nearby North-South Lake and river and valley below, garnering the name for themselves, Hudson River School painters.

Our path began in the town of Windham, NY with a three mile climb to Windham peak at just over 3,500 feet elevation. Our trail followed due south, cresting Blackhead Mountain, 3,950 feet elevation before dipping back to lower elevations. We camped along the ridge top after completing 11 miles, setting out early the next morning to continue our journey, stopping to refill water at a piped spring gushing water from a sandstone massif. The trail transects several types of flora along its course, from Northern hardwood forests of birch, beech, maple and pine trees to Alpine type forests of primarily Balsalm Fir, which fill the air with the smell of Spring itself. The forest than changes to large stands of primarily birch trees along the way. Splashing the trail with colors on either side of the single track footpath were abundant amounts of Purple Trillium flowers (also called Wake Robin) along with Canada Violet, Spring Beauty and Wild Columbine.

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

My mind was still playing back scenes from the Escarpment Trail days later when I read about new research that found that modest exercise in senior citizens can help them maintain their mobility. These findings were reported on May 27th, 2014 at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference and published in the recent Journal of the American Medical Association . Researchers found that a daily walk of only 400 meters, or once around a high school running track, was sufficient to keep older, primarily sedentary people mobile. Of course, everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But, we don’t really know how much is needed to get results.  This study establishes that for this group of 1,635 sedentary people, ages 70-89, walking only four hundred meters could be considered one “dose” of exercise. And according to Wendy Kort Ph.d. from the University of Colorado, who reviewed the study, this research begins to refine the notion of what is an appropriate “dose” of exercise.

Our backpacking trip was necessarily short to accommodate work and family responsibilities. We left at 8:30 Sunday morning and returned home around 5 p.m. Monday but, with travel, our time on the trail really extended for just a bit over 24 hours to cover the 19 steep, rocky miles and allow time for eating and sleeping.

Black-and-white warbler, photo by John McKean (www.allaboutbirds.org)

While the trip was short we did manage to traverse most of a well established hiking path, packed with beauty on the trail including not only wildflowers and shifting forest types, but vistas of the horizon, including the Hudson River, views of other Catskill peaks and even an unexpected close-up view of a black and white warbler only several feet away, perched on a spruce branch. The trail does include one macabre reminder of the power of windy downdrafts along a 2,000 foot escarpment: the well preserved fuselage of a Cessna plane that rests feet from the trail, exactly where it crashed in this mountainous area decades ago, killing its pilot.

This trek into the woods I would say, was one dose, or perhaps a double dose, of immersion into nature untamed. Time will tell how long it will last before I will needs prescribe myself another dose.

Howard E. Friedman

The Evolution of Walking: From Laetoli to the Exodus to the Appalachian Trail

hiking in Chamonix

Ambulating on two legs dates back  3.6 million years ago according to anthropologists who have studied human like foot prints preserved in the volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania. Those foot prints were discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey in 1978.

http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/10_1/laetoli.html

The Laetoli footprints, from http://www.getty.edu, photo-Martha Demas, 1995.

The human like Austrolapithicenes who left those foot prints were quite possibly walking for a utilitarian purpose, like searching for food or shelter, or returning to their shelter. As our human society has evolved, however, walking has evolved right along with it. In fact, one could suggest that as a species, we have evolved to no longer need walking for distance travel.

We walk now to thrive, not survive. Evening strolls, weekend hikes, backpacking trips, laps around the high school track. Humans continue to find new but non-essential ways to exploit the simple, elegant act of placing one foot in front the other. And that act, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be human.

Today, walking for long distance travel,  on the other hand, has become rare. And this might explain why last month, when the Tougas family of New Richmond, Canada, announced their plans to walk more than two thousand miles, together, on the Appalachian Trail,  they saw it as a viable marketing opportunity to raise money for their project.

The Tougas family announced their planned family through-hike of the AT on Kickstarter.com.  They  received pledges of $19,109 (Canadian), surpassing their goal of $16,000. The family spokesperson and father, Damien Tougas, explains on his KickStarter site that the monies raised will go to fund production of a video series that sponsors will receive in installments, once a month. The money raised, he said, will not be used to pay for the hike itself. The family has already put aside funds for their 6 month sojourn, he explains.

Walking has always been a sure mode of human transportation. Early humans of course had no alternative. Hunting and gathering required walking and beasts of burden had presumably not yet become part of daily life.  Even Americans, thousands of years following hunter-gatherers, still walked alongside their covered wagons,  for upwards of six months.  400,000 or so people migrated, on foot, westward to  Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and California, between 1840 to almost 1870. Their wagons were so full of family belongings and food there was precious little room left for riders. But these hearty pioneers were perhaps among the last of the long-distance migratory walkers, at least in North America.

Human beings have slowly, but persistently, sought out alternatives to walking. Even several thousand years ago, Egyptian soldiers used horses to pull their chariots. Some Greek warriors rode into battle on the backs of elephants and trade routes in the Middle East have domesticated the camel.  In more recent times horses have either carried riders or pulled wagons and carriages.  The horseless carriage morphed into the car, and now motorized transportation has become ubiquitous.  Walking as a daily means of transportation has become a rarity, at least in western civilization.

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

And while the Tougas’ get great credit for their planned family adventure, we are left with the question, why is watching another family walk intrinsically interesting? Certainly there are challenges and risks with a long distance hike and even more so for the younger Tougas children.  The AT however,  is well marked, well traveled and fairly close to civilization along most of the route. Although  a 2,100 mile trek is big undertaking, and the trail is quite strenuous at times and weather is always a variable.

Nonetheless, I suggest that our societal de-evolution of long distance walking is the key to family Tougas’ ability to raise close to twenty thousand dollars from 267 people who are willing to pay to see that family walk. Almost like paying to watch an IMAX movie about rock climbers, or cliff divers or base jumpers. In 2014, traveling a long distance on foot is a novelty and considered an adventure, only for the intrepid among us. And I suspect that even if family Tougas said they were going to walk strictly along back-country roads from Georgia to Maine and stay in bed and breakfasts along the way, and not pitch their tent in the woods, they still would have been able to raise money for their trip.

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

In one week the Jewish people mark the exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt, when they began their forty year sojourn toward the Promised Land. After hundreds of years of bitter enslavement the Israelites walked out of Egypt, away from their life of servitude, to follow Moses, a leader appointed by God. During four decades the Hebrew tribe walked from encampment to encampment in the Sinai peninsula, until they finally crossed the Jordan River to enter the city of Jericho in the land of Israel.

Next week, when Jewish families gather to commemorate that night about four thousand years ago when the Israelite  begin their long walk toward freedom, let us also remember that one of the most basic human functions, walking, is so simple and elegant. The long walk should not be considered a novelty,  since  the process of walking can transport us, physically and figuratively, toward a new beginning.

Howard E. Friedman

 

 

 

 

On the Trail: Really Smart Socks

published in Trail Walker Spring 2014, official publication of New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, nynjtc.org

By Howard E. Friedman DPM  Image

High tech companies keep trying to push their products onto the trail either in your backpack or on your wrist. Mapping apps for smart phones and ipads. Solar powered recharging stations so you can recharge your ipad and smart phone. But many hikers, backpackers and trail runners continue to eschew the idea of letting technology get between them and the trail. But this spring the newest high tech product for hikers will actually come between you and the trail – as long as you are wearing socks. Really smart socks.

 This spring a new high-tech sock will be available to runners and hikers that will record and project an image of exactly how your feet are striking the ground. Are you a heel striker, forefoot striker or mid-foot striker? Do you put all your pressure under your great toe but no pressure under your smallest toe? Understanding how the foot strikes the ground can be an important distinction especially for runners since many researchers suggest that mid-foot and forefoot strikers are less prone to injuries than heel strikers. (Walkers and hikers are normally heel strikers). The socks can also detect if the wearer’s gait has changed during a hike or run.

ImageCalled Sensoria, these socks will also record distance traveled, cadence (number of foot strikes per minute), number of steps taken, calories burned, as well as other metrics. A number of existing products can also tell you similar information, such as the Nike+Sportswatch. But no other device on the market geared for the athletic consumer can generate data and images of the pressure generated under your feet.

The Sensoria sock made of a washable, synthetic wicking fabric will be available this spring from Heapsylon LLC, a  Redmond, WA based technology company, Ceo Davide Vigiano said in a telephone interview. The company also manufactures a shirt and sports bra that use a sensor to record heart rate.

The sock incorporates three sensors, one each under the heel, near the big toe and near the small toe, which are less than 1 mm thick. To activate the sensors, the hiker or runner attaches an anklet to the sock via snaps. The  battery powered anklet contains an accelerometer and other technology which allow it to capture data from the sensors in the sock. The user can then see the data as it is being collected on his or her smart  phone or even Google glasses, with pressure reflected as either green, the lowest reading, or yellow or red, a high reading. Or the user could download the data from the anklet via Blue Tooth technology  or using a USB connection, after the hike to see a video strip of their foot strike history and other data, like distance traveled. Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman Ph.D, who has authored many studies on barefoot running and is the author of The Story of the Human Body (2013 Pantheon) is collaborating on the mobile application, according to Mr. Vigiano. The sock sensors do not have a GPS but can be paired with existing GPS units, Vigiano said.

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These smart socks are ideal for trail or road runners who not only want to know how far and fast they have traveled but also want to modify their gait, be notified if they have started suddenly pronating or supinating and want to try and minimize injury. Moreover, the sock could give a before and after look at exactly how an arch support or foot orthotic changes the pressure under the foot.

Howard E. Friedman

Achilles Tendon Treatment Review

Protect Your Achilles Tendon

published in Trail Walker (NY/NJ Trail Conference) Winter 2014

Achilles, wounded. Depicted by Ernst Herter

Achilles, wounded. Depicted by Ernst Herter

By Howard E. Friedman DPM

Problems of the achilles tendon are often associated with runners but hikers are at risk for problems with this tendon too.  Hiking uphill for long periods of time is one risk factor for developing this condition.  And Achilles tendon disorders is one hikers should try hard to avoid. A painful achilles often requires three or more months of rehabilitation to heal enough to allow a hiker to resume hiking free of pain.

The achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the human body. A tendon connects a muscle to bone and the achilles tendon connects the powerful gastrocnemius muscle and smaller soleus muscle located in the calf behind the knee joint  to the back of the calcaneus, or heel bone. The tendon is several inches in length and is critical in lifting the heel   off of the ground when walking or running.

Achilles tendon problems are common among runners and  estimated to occur in 10-30% of male runners and even  5-8% in even well trained elite runners. No statistics exist for how many hikers develop this condition. Nonetheless, problems of the achilles often ail non athletes and often occur in people with one of many risk factors including having very flat feet or very high arch feet, or a diagnosis of obesity, diabetes or hypertension. In addition, a course of antibiotics in the Quinolone family, including Ciprofloxacin and Levaquin, can also cause tendon disorders. Overall achilles tendon issues occur in men more frequently than in women.

Hikers are at particular risk since walking up a steep incline especially with the extra weight of a back pack can cause excessive strain on the tendon. The tendon consists of millions of fibrils of the biochemical molecule collagen in addition to millions of tenocytes, or, tendon producing cells. Unlike other tissues in the human body which react to injury by producing inflammation, an influx of tissue repairing cells,  a damaged tendon degenerates with injury. No robust repair mechanism is programmed into the cells. Thus an injury to a tendon can be devastating.

For years doctors referred to achilles tendon injuries as “tendonitis”, meaning an inflammation. Now however, health professionals treating this injury call it a “tendinopathy” meaning a damaged tendon. This distinction is not very important because it has guided new and more effective treatments. The treatment used for an inflammation, “rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE)”, can augment the treatment for a damaged achilles tendon but is not sufficient to repair the tendon.

Achilles tendinopathy can include damage to the lining of the tendon, called the paratenon, damage to the tendon itself via stretching or tearing of the tendon fibers, or in the worst case, result in a complete tear, or rupture, of the tendon. A complete rupture is usually the result of a hard landing on one foot, say, jumping down from a rocky ledge and landing on one foot. The injury creates immediate pain, often creates a popping or snapping sound and will result in significant difficulty walking. A complete tear is usually considered a surgical emergency.

But the less serious injuries are the more common types. Repetitive uphill walking and over stretching of the achilles tendon will stretch the fibers and result in a swollen section of tendon which is painful if squeezed in addition to painful when walking uphill or running. This type of injury which has a slow onset can result in a partial tear of the tendon. A partial tear has similar symptoms to a simple over stretching but the degree of swelling and pain are increased. A diagnostic ultrasound or more commonly an MRI can discern the extent of the injury.

May different treatments have been advocated over the years ranging from cortisone injections to general physical therapy to ankle braces and arch supports. But the past few years have validated one treatment as most effective: a program of eccentric stretching. This type of stretching can be done while standing on a step with the heels dangling off the step’s edge and slowly dropping the heels to stretch the tendon, holding that position and repeating. The exercise however is part of a multi week program which includes gradually increasing the force of the stretching. If done incorrectly the can condition can be exacerbated and therefore is best supervised by a health professional knowledgeable in the technique. In addition, using a lift in the heel portion of the shoe is often helpful as well.

What can the hiker or trail runner do to avoid this condition? When traveling uphill, reduce stride length to reduce the strain on the achilles tendon. Take smaller more frequent steps. And, use hiking poles for any sustained climb. And respond to any discomfort in the achilles tendon promptly. Icing the area can help reduce some of the accompanying soft tissue inflammation and local massage may help reduce the pain as well. Most important, however, is to correctly diagnose the extent of the injury and than, if appropriate, begin a program of eccentric stretching.

Racing the Antelope…

Racing the Antelope cover

 

Racing the antelope seems to be a pure folly. Why even try to outrun an animal that can eclipse even the fastest human being alive. No contest. Yet, in suggesting this impossibility in the title of his 2001 book, professor of biology and ultra marathon runner Bernd Heinrich suggests that most people could indeed do what they think is impossible. Not to outrun an Antelope in a sprint, but to have the stamina to outrun most animals over a long distance. For Heinrich maintains, humans are designed to run. And we would do well to learn from many different species in the animal kingdom to help us understand the physiology needed to run fast and to run long.

 

Racing the Antelope concludes its final chapter remembering the author’s record setting 100 Km ultra marathon race which took place in Chicago in 1981 which he ran in 6:38:21, setting the official world record for that distance. And his success is all the more remarkable since Heinrich was already an accomplished biologist busy doing field work and publishing scientific papers. Yet specifically because of his analytic mind and intimate familiarity with the animal kingdom, Dr. Heinrich was in a position to bring a keen understanding of the science of running to bear on his own training. And train he did, running more than 100 miles a week in the lead up to his historic race.

 

The author takes us on a tour of animals familiar to us yet he dissects their lives in a way which should bring fascinating appreciation to anyone and especially someone who knows the physical pangs of exhaustion from a long run or hike. He begins describing how the hawk-moth cools its body despite almost non-stop activity during flight and feeding. The author than goes on to describe the problem of overheating among human athletes. Fortunately, Heinrich explains, humans have a superb method of cooling via sweating.

Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich (Photo credit: Sterling College)

The author goes on to describe the mind-boggling migratory routes of various bird species, including the white-rumped sandpiper which flies 2,900 miles non-stop during its migration. Heinrich uses these amazing feats to deconstruct just how a species endures a physically exhausting activity. He discusses caloric needs, the anatomy of muscle placement to maximize flight and a unique avian mechanism for delivering as much oxygen as possible with each breath.

 

Subsequent chapters peer into the world of frogs whose explosive strength in their hind legs shed light on the benefit of fast twitch muscle fibers over slow twitch. Unless of course you want to run for a long distance, like say, a 50 km race. In that case, a greater percentage of slow twitch fibers are beneficial. Remarkably, one can influence to some extent their own ratio of slow to fast twitch muscle fibers by the type of training one does he explains.  Shorter but quicker sprints will favor more fast twitch fibers. The author goes on to write about camels as well as running among early hominids. But the central chapter of the book is about the antelope.

 

Dr. Heinrich cites a scientific article from Nature magazine which declared the pronghorn antelope “the world’s premier ultra-running animal”. Indeed, the pronghorn has been timed at running 61 miles an hour. And while a cheetah can also reach high speeds, the pronghorn can sustain that rate far longer covering 7 miles in 10 minutes. What does the pronghorn have that we don’t? A combination of a high VO2 max, the ability to get the most work for the amount of oxygen available. Ultimately though the antelope couples this VO2 max with other unique adaptations, including a larger heart, lungs and windpipe, increased muscle mass and a higher concentration of hemoglobin in the muscle tissue to take up the available oxygen. “Pronghorns are just better at everything that affects sustained running speed”, Heinrich writes.

 

He goes on to explain aspects of the endurance of camels including their unique methods of dealing with intense heat despite often limited access to water. And the author touches on the basilisk lizard and even differences in running between dogs and cats before diving into his own preparation for his record setting ultra. Anyone training for or thinking about training for a race or hike or backpacking trip that will take him or her out of their comfort zone should be inspired by just how hard Professor Heinrich trained. Yet he neither romanticizes his training nor describes his feat as superhuman.

 

And that is the point of the book. We are, all of us, runners in our core. And we can run and, if properly motivated, run far. “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare”, a quote Heinrich shares from Tanzanian marathon runner Juma Ikangaa, seems to aptly represent his core philosophy for all who dream to run farther than they have run before.