Listening To My Body And Then Some

Lately I’ve been in the mood to design my own workout regimen… again. (You may have noticed that I sometimes do this.)

This time around, the theme is listening to my body. If you’ve been following along with my sporadic 2017 posts, you know that I’ve been running a lot and also doing P90X. However, after pulling a calf muscle and then sidelining myself with a lower-back injury of some kind – all within a two-month time frame – I had to do some soul-searching and admit to myself that the fitness regimen I was working with was inadequate for my needs. It’s true that I felt like a super-hero while I was injury-free, but those injuries couldn’t have just come out of nowhere.

Now, the temptation here is to rush to the knee-jerk conclusions: Ryan took on too much, or P90X is “too difficult.” But those kinds of conclusions aren’t any more helpful than stubbornly insisting that my injuries are random and unrelated to my fitness regimen. If I’m going to be smart about this, I’d better approach things with a level head.

Yesterday, I took the liberty of doing just that, and the results were as follows:

Confronting My Reality

It’s time I finally acknowledged some of the shortcomings of my fitness regimen. After all, it seems like every time I try to get serious about training for a race, I pull a muscle. While I don’t think it’s possible to avoid absolutely every injury or physical setback, if there are enough common threads in the onset of setbacks, it’s time to confront your stubborn illusions, overcome them, and learn from the experience.

To wit, the fact that lower back pain and calf injuries have been such a ubiquitous presence in my training life for so many years suggests the presence of a persistent problem that I am not fully addressing. I intend to address that now, so let’s discuss.

I’ll start with the lower back pain. Lower back pain is somewhat common among runners, especially among runners who seldom lift weights. The typical source of the problem is inadequate abdominal strength. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a guy who’s doing “Ab Ripper X” every-other-day, but it is what it is. While herniated discs can happen somewhat “at random,” recurring back pain that gets worse from exercise is not a random event. An ideal-for-Ryan training regimen will include a lot better care for the abdominal muscles.

One smart thing I did while I was injured was scheduling an appointment with a massage therapist. I’m a chiropractic skeptic, but I am a big fan of massage therapy, especially when the therapist is experienced and knowledgeable. After just one 50-minute session, I felt much, much better. My massage therapist helped me identify some tension in my lower leg that had gone unnoticed; namely, in the dorsiflexion of my feet. As per her explanation, insufficient dorsiflexion puts excess pressure on the calf muscle through the connecting tendon. The resulting tension in the calf muscle can cause undue tension in the hamstring, and that hamstring tension can impact the lower back. (The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone, the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone…)

I’ll admit that it sounds a little far-fetched to suggest that insufficient flexibility in my ankle caused my back injury, but the truth is that her explanation mirrored my experience to a T. When I broke my running streak, it was because I suddenly felt my lower calf muscle tear. The next day, I realized that it wasn’t just my calf muscle, but also a region near the top of my glute. Within a few weeks, my lower back was giving me trouble. Logically speaking, it all seems quite connected.

This means that I now have two major weaknesses to work on: abdominal muscle strength and flexibility in the leg and foot.

That covers my recent injuries, but I have more than just those two problems. One problem – which seems to be genetic, as it is visibly apparent in my father, and was visibly apparent in my grandfather as well – is that weak back and shoulder muscles cause my posture to fall forward a bit too much. This can sometimes result in neck and shoulder pain, but even when it does, it looks unhealthy. The right way to deal with this is to strengthen my back and shoulder muscles to help offset it.

With that, I have a list of three primary weaknesses I want to offset with my future fitness regimen: Abdominal strength, upper back and shoulder strength, and overall flexibility.

Designing My Solution

Now that I know what I need, it’s time to think about how best to address my needs.

Thinking first about abdominal strength, let’s consider how best to approach this. Because my lower back a weakness of mine, I’m going to have to consciously avoid abdominal exercises that put excessive strain on the spine – at least until I can build up the necessary strength. So, more planks and fewer sit-ups, and if I choose to do leg raises or hip raises, I should do the versions of those exercises that include support of the spine. Leg-based plyometrics are also out of the question, at least for the time being. (And, believe me, this makes me sad. I love my box jumps!)

Upper back and shoulder strength is an easy thing to address. It just means I need to do a lot more push-ups and pull-ups. In particular, I think pike push-ups are going to be extremely important for me because they put a big emphasis on the stabilizing force of the trapezius muscles, in addition to just the deltoids. But I’m going to have to incorporate the full suite of push-ups in order to build adequate shoulder muscle strength, and a big upshot of this is the fact that you can’t do a push-up without also doing a plank: Push-ups are good for abdominal strength, too. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.

That’s just the shoulders, though. I’ll need pull-ups to address the weaknesses in my upper back, and lots of them. I’ve been doing pull-ups for a long time now, but the truth is that, like most people, I always slack off when it comes to pull-ups. I can do three times as many push-ups as I can do pull-ups, and that is just demonstrative of the underlying imbalance that causes my posture issues and neck pain. My goal here is in fact to be able to do as many good-quality pull-ups as I can do push-ups. It’s the only way I’ll ever really fix my problems.

Finally, there’s the matter of flexibility. I stretch a little bit before I go running, and I have been stretching a little bit before each P90X workout recently, but it’s not good enough. I have identified a particular set of leg stretches that tend to make my legs and back feel much better. What I’m going to do from now on is give myself at least 10 or 15 minutes of flexibility training every morning, stretching my tightest, most problematic muscles as far as I possibly can: hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendons, hip flexors, and shoulders. I intend to go through the same stretch routine at night, before bed, and also before I run. That will give me three good stretches per day, and hopefully in time these muscles will start to loosen up.


Now that I know what my weaknesses are, and how I want to address them, it’s time to actually put in the work. In future posts, I’ll be outlining my workouts. I admit that these aren’t always the most thrilling blog posts here at Stationary Waves, but it’s part of what I do here. I’ll try to offset the ensuing boredom with some more interesting blog content, for those who aren’t quite so interested in what workouts I’m doing on a daily basis.


Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Salting Earth

Richie Kotzen's new album, Salting Earth, opens with the sound of a guitar string being tuned. Or is it the sound of multiple Richies singing drone pitches in an almost Indian mantra sort of way? Or is it the prelude to a crushing hard rock track?

Well, it's all of the above. And from the moment we hear the first tones, we know two things about the new album: We're in for something a little different this time, and it's going to rock pretty damn hard.

If you've been following Kotzen for a while and are familiar with his solo albums, you'll immediately notice that this one has a different overall feel and sound to it. It's still the Richie Kotzen we all know and love, but the album has a sound and spirit all its own.

A lot of that sound has to do with the way the drums and vocals were produced. Compared to other Kotzen records, the drums on this album have a much bigger sound. They're coated with a thick, warm reverb that simply makes them sound huge, and it's a marked departure from the typically quite dry and crisp drum sounds of his earlier records. Could this larger sound be the unwitting influence of having put out two records with the King of Bombast himself, Mike Portnoy, or was it simply a direction Kotzen wanted to take himself for personal reasons?

Then again, with the vocal tracks: that same nice, warm, smooth reverb. But, where it makes the drums sound bigger, the effect on the vocals simply sounds more soulful; maybe more soulful than perhaps he's ever sounded before. In fact, the interplay of the drum sounds and the vocals cast a delicious, old-school warmth across the record. At times it really feels that Salting Earth would have been at home in the late-60s/early-70s golden age of rock and soul. If someone told me that this album had been recorded in Sun Studios, I'd believe them. That's the sound Kotzen was going for here, and that's the sound he achieved. Lordy, it's beautiful.

But there's something else on this album, too, and it's hard to put my finger on. The Richie Kotzen oeuvre is a compelling artistic world that fuses hard rock and vintage R&B, but which often presents stories from the darker side of the human spirit. I don't mean that in a bad way, of course, but the fact is that Kotzen's lyrics have more Robert Johnson in them than, say, Daryl Hall. Kotzen's lyrics are often filled with references to drugs, loss, infidelity, pain, retribution. When Richie Kotzen plays the blues, he plays the blues.

That's just part of the canvas he's painting on. It always comes out in his music, but on Salting Earth, with its heavy-sounding drums, big booming bass notes, growling vocals, and aggressive guitars, and vinyl warmth, he really manages to draw the listener into his world in a way he never has before - at least not in my opinion. Turn the lights off and the volume up, and listen to sounds swirl around you like they do in one of those old, vintage music halls. That's what this album sounds like, and it seems like a poignant example of everything Kotzen does best. Perhaps after the success of working in the more collaborative environment of the Winery Dogs, Kotzen had been thinking about what it is that he does, and who he is as an artist. Or perhaps sometimes the magic just comes together in all the right ways at the right times.

It is both impossible and pointless to choose a "favorite" Richie Kotzen album, but this one has all the best he has to offer, and I wouldn't be surprised if you ask me years from now which is my favorite, and I say Salting Earth.


Freedom, Responsibility, And Lessons From Technology

The Linux world, as people who have been involved with it for years already know, has some amazing advantages. Older systems run very well. Newer systems run even better. Updates are more frequent. Almost all software is free. The user interface (at least with Ubuntu) is really nice. There is nothing you can't do with Linux than you can do with other operating systems, and there are things you can do with Linux that you cannot do with other operating systems. It's better on virtually every level.

So, why don't more people use Linux?

The main reason is that Linux operating systems, by their DIY and open-source nature, require users to be a little more technical savvy. You have to be able to troubleshoot your own problems. You have to be able to pull open a command line interface and interact directly with the kernel. This is enough to scare most people away.

When my father bought our family's first personal computer, way back in the late 80s or early 90s, graphical interfaces and "shells" were not widely used, at least not in the DOS world. Consequently, my first introduction to computers was not through Windows, but through MS-DOS. I had to learn the basic commands for changing directories, running executable files, copying, deleting, writing simple .bat files, and so on. There was a lot to learn, and I was only a grade-schooler, but it wasn't more than a little kid could keep track of on a cheat sheet. It was harder than it is today, but it wasn't daunting. If I had any questions, there were DOS manuals that could help. Self-education closed the gap.

As the years progressed, Windows also progressed. Eventually, the only interface I ever ended up seeing was Windows 95 and beyond. My modest knowledge of MS-DOS commands faded from memory because, let's face it, I didn't need them anymore. Anything I needed to do on a computer I could do from the much easier and more user-friendly Windows interface. I gained some ease-of-use, some security, but I lost the ability to provide for myself.

Running Ubuntu on my home computer has given me back a lot of the freedom I once had. I no longer have to keep running proprietary software (and background processes) from Windows or HP if I don't use those services. I no longer have to have any software at all that I don't actually want or use. If there's anything that I do want - anything at all - it's really just an apt-get command away from me. If I can find a way to make it work, it will work.

The cost of this freedom is having to take ownership of my computing experience. Some people don't want to do that, and I empathize with them, but at the same time they'd feel a lot more comfortable with their home computers if they didn't shy away from that knowledge.

Analogously, I know people who live in big cities and cannot drive. If they need to get somewhere, they are dependent on other people to take them: friends, family members, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, or public transportation. Thus, they must rely on the availability of the providers of driving services. If they can't make arrangements to get somewhere, then they can't get somewhere.

These folks often tell me that they don't need to drive. But it's not just about what's necessary, it's about the freedom to just pick up and go anywhere you want to, whenever you want to, however you want to do it. They don't always appreciate the freedom they're missing because they're afraid of the responsibility involved.

And another analogy: Many young people are reluctant to move out of their parents' home for similar reasons. Suddenly, they'd be responsible for their own bills, food, self-care, etc. It's a lot of responsibilities to take on when they don't "need to." But if they did it, they'd gain a lot of freedom.

You can just imagine what other aspect of our lives this notion touches. There is always a trade-off between the freedom we want and the responsibility involved in obtaining that freedom. The old trope is that freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of civic duty, but that's not really accurate. Freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of having to solve problems (like muh roads) without the apparatus of government. That might take some self-motivation. It might require that you do a little self-directed research and make some phone calls to coordinate with your fellow citizens.

Some people are scared of this kind of responsibility. They're certain it will ruin the world. But, if you want to have the kind of freedom that libertarians crave, that's the kind of responsibility that is required.


In Which Ubuntu Leaves A Good Impression On Me

I am only tech savvy in that I understand very well how to be a user of technology. As for creating or hacking technology, you can count me among the other Luddites.

So, you can imagine my dismay when I powered-up my laptop last weekend only to discover that it wouldn't fully boot. It would go through all of the normal booting protocol, and then when it reached my home screen, it spun and spun, never fully loading all the various applications and services that constitute a home computing experience.

I had experienced this before, but only once. In that previous time, my system became unusably slow in response to the fact that I had deactivated Norton software. It couldn't have been a coincidence, I thought, so I uninstalled the software entirely, rebooted, and voila! My computer was up-and-running again.

This time, I didn't have any Norton utilities to worry about, but I searched my mind for recent experiences that seemed similar. The thought occurred to me that perhaps this problem was being caused by Windows. I'm not entirely sure what made me think so, it just seemed to... click.

Well, the laptop was useless. I couldn't boot up, I couldn't back-up my files, I couldn't do anything other than use it as a coaster. So, after some internet research, I started wondering what might happen if I were to load Ubuntu Linux onto a USB drive and boot up from there. If it worked, and my computer was fully functional, then I had proof-positive that Windows was the culprit. And maybe then I'd at least be able to back up my files from within Ubuntu before buying a new laptop.

Best case scenario: Ubuntu might prove so effective that I ditch Windows entirely.

Long story short: It worked. Ubuntu loaded up flawlessly and I was soon surfing the web to learn how to use the graphical interface to solve all my problems. I quickly learned that the Ubuntu world looks a little different from what I was used to. In order to gain access to my files, I first must "mount" the corresponding hard drive partition onto the Linux file system.

Well, I haven't done that yet. That's what the weekend's for. But isn't it encouraging to know that I can salvage all my old files simply by loading a new operating system onto a flash drive and poking around a while?

These Ubuntu folks may have made a Linux man out of me.