The Fundamental Skills of Physical Fitness
We all gotta start somewhere...
YOUR Personal Physical History
I am forced to take a flexible approach to fitness. You should too. Each of us must know our current physical status to know where to begin our fitness program. Each of us has a particular physical history that must be reckoned with as we recover from injury or build a new program.
You must tailor your approach to restoring your fitness if you have to accommodate Bad Feet, Bad Knees, elbow and wrist problems, a Trick shoulder or a Bad Back. None of the above, or all of the above! No matter. You can work through almost anything if you take a careful and sensitive approach.
Each element of your physical history is going to require you take a considered approach to fitness. This is going to require flexibility with your program and the sensitivity to carefully monitor the status of your body as it responds to stretching and your first exercises.
You are going to need to "counter," to respond to each element of your physical history. Back injury requires floor exercises, sit ups, and proper back stretching. A bad knee requires a cycle of rest, range of motion exercises, and careful road work to bring up strength and endurance while controlling pain. Bad feet respond well to massage and proper rest. It is critical that your feet are properly geared up to support your foot structure.
Injuries can be managed and strengthened up to full serviceability sufficient for long distance backpacking on the Sierra Crest between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney. I have completed this hike four times after compiling a substantial laundry list of serious injuries.
Restoring fitness through a storm of injuries requires that you specifically work and maintain your previously injured parts, use great sensitivity to accurately track the status of your previous injuries, and have the flexibility with your fitness program required to tailor your program to suit the current status of your injury.
It's like Willie Nelson says, "Ya gotta know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em."
Our Flexible Response
You must know the difference between a chronic pain that is manageable for exercise, and an acute pain the requires full cessation of exercise, treatment of swelling and inflammation with anti-inflammatory drugs, massage, hot or cold treatments as required, and rest.
You must know when the chronic pain is transforming itself into an acute episode, and have the wisdom to stop exercising.
You must also be able to understand when the acute episode is fading into chronic pain, and respond with increasing exercise and flexibility stretching.
My flexible approach to fitness began when I fractured my kneecap into six pieces when I was 17. The naval surgeons wanted to remove my Left kneecap and replace it with a teflon model.
Though I was just 17, I was very skeptical of removing my kneecap, and I delayed the surgery. During that delay I observed a number of Marines from the fleet and various units undergo the same surgery. They went in with bad knees, they came out of surgery crippled. I refused the surgery, which resulted in a whole lot of hassle.
The Marines who took the surgery got a 30% disability discharge, and I got the run-around.
At around age 28 I could finally get the knee working again.
Since I could not walk, run, or hike-off my energies between ages 17 & 28, I took to road racing great big Jap motorcycles. F1 and Superbikes. First the other riders, then the cops, and finally the clubs. While road racing motorcycles with the American Federation of Motorcycles here on the West Coast, I took repeated high impact injuries over a period of years.
But I never was busted or run over by a car while racing on the track! There were always extra dangers on the streets that caused me to defer speed to safety. Good clean fun.
I once participated in a Superbike Race, and two other races that day, with three broken bones. I think I came in third in the Superbike and F1 Races, second in the Battle of the Twins. It was an unwise decision. The stresses of racing on the improperly set bones seriously hindered healing, and directly contributed to long-term wrist and shoulder problems. I was young and very aggressive.
Between age 17 and 52 I did 7 violent shoulder dislocations, one compound fracture, broke both my lower R arm bones lengthwise from the wrist, herniated a disc, broke bunches of ribs (I have two sternums, on natural and one caused by a broken rib healing funny...) and broke two other bones. Hummm...I also have taken around 90 stitches.
Treating my broken lower Right arm bones at Kaiser was a real challenge. I had broken both lower arm bones lengthwise through the ball joints towards the elbow. The resulting surface roughness on the ball joints deteriorated the wrist joint to the point the ortho surgeon at Kaiser insisted that fusing the wrist was the only solution. I chose cortisone and exercise.
Though I sometimes have to brace-up my R wrist to properly use ski poles, it works fairly well for the insults it has suffered.
Back to the Trail
At age 28 I came to the realization that I could no longer injure my shoulders, elbows and wrists if I wanted to continue to use them in the future. I also understood that the years of acute pain in my knee had finally moderated to a chronic pain level. I could now begin to strengthen the knee and get back on the trail, though with a whole raft of new injuries to deal with.
I traded in my bikes for a backpack. (The pack was in the closet...) I still had the old first-generation aluminum Camp Trails external framed pack from my last trips when I was 17.
The ever changing conditions of my wide range of previous injuries demand that I take a balanced and flexible approach to fitness, to be able to carry the heavy backpack for great distances in all seasons.
My friends had all switched to gore tex in the early '70s, but I had maintained wool and vented windbreakers. Today's "heavyweight" backpacker is yesterday's lightweight backpacker! I don't sweat carrying a heavy Summer backpack because my goal is to be able to easily carry the heavy backpack required for safe Winter snow travel. A heavy Summer backpack makes for easy transitions to Winter backpacking.
I have to work the legs and lungs into aerobic fitness, but without irritating my knees. I have to strengthen my shoulders to carry heavy loads without dislocating or triggering chronic shoulder pain. I have to keep my back and hips flexible enough to carry massive weights for long distances over high altitudes without sciatica and hernia, and without breaking my back.
If I can get my bag of bones on the trail, so can you. But, my injuries are not "bone-to-bone." If you have lost the cartiledge, you are in trouble.
2006: complete L knee failure, serious L hip issues. VA issues Cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), which induced atrial fibrillation. Ibroprofen burned a hole in my stomach. You may see how this injury spiraled out of control. One drug the VA gave me triggered AF, which is a nightmare. Another burned a hole in my stomach. After arriving at the VA with knee and hip problems, I soon added heart and stomach problems to the list.
I started with orthopedic issues, and soon had a full plate of secondary issues triggered by the treatments themselves. Then the VA said I was "crazy" when I reported my serious heart problems, and tried to get me to take anti-anxiety drugs! I refused. Many months later a VA appointment lined up with an AF episode, proving what the VA had called "anxiety" was actually AF.
Thus I recommend that you use extreme caution with all the drugs prescribed and ms-prescribed by the doctors. Check them carefully for side effects before using them, take the drugs according to instructions. Immediately quit taking any drug if weird things begin happening to you.
2007: Popped Ligament in R Knee while trying to exercise-recover from 2006 L knee and hip problems: My lower Right leg swung outward!! The whole year of 2007 was taken up by recovering, treating, and finally beginning to be able to train up both knees and my L hip.
2008: Back on the trail, back to training.
2009: Tahoe to Whitney #4 during the Summer, and the Tahoe to Yosemite during Fall.
2011: Frostbite. Currently in rehab as of September 9, 2011.
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2011: Annus Horribilis
(See: Injury Recovery & Recovery from Frostbite)
Back in the ER. Damn. On Jan 5 2011 the combined medical staff at the VA urgent care clinic in Oakland California concluded that I was going to lose at least the two biggest toes, if not the whole front of my Right foot. I told them that they were wrong.
I had done fine during a four night Winter Backpacking trip in the Northern High Sierra. Problems occurred hitch-hiking out of the Lake Tahoe Basin down the Western flank of the Sierra. I had the proper gear for hiking through deep cold snow. I had the proper gear for standing around in camp during the long nights. But I did not have the gear to stand idle alongside the snow and slush covered Highway 50 roadside hitching out. Damn.
Arriving at the critical care unit of the Oakland VA a few days later the doctors and medical personnel drew a line across the front of my foot, and I washed it off. I told the combined medical staff that they were absolutely wrong, and that I would lose no toes, and that I would fully recover.
They were not convinced, though they hoped I was correct.
Rather than checking into the hospital for an amputation, I went home to begin a long, painful, and tedious set of treatments and therapies I devised to restore circulation, save skin, and restore degraded soft tissues as well as recover bummed-out bones. The medical staff at the VA figured I'd be convinced to amputate when the front of my foot turned black and started to fall off, while I figured they would be convinced when I restored nice fresh pink skin.
June 22, 2011
After 27 weeks of recover, therapy, and exercise the surgeons who insisted that I would lose two toes, and who also said two weeks ago that I should still cut off my big toe, have just now stated that I would recover fully.
I was told that I had been correct in my early analysis, that my treatment program had worked exceptionally well, and that they had all learned much about frostbite from my program.
As of right now the only sign of frostbite is that I have is a small patch of dead skin at the tip of my right big toe. And my toes are in screaming pain. The patch of black dead skin still covers a bit of bone sticking out of the skin, but it is fully surrounded by growing skin. Hey...not a problem.
(Broken off on September 5 2011. Full Frostbite Recovery Page.)
I did not say this worked out perfectly! Other than that one enduring detail, and continual extreme pain, it is getting hard to see the difference between my feet at this point in time, without close inspection. This is a bit deceptive as much of the injury was internal, and not visible to the eye.
I also suffered "structural" damage, meaning the internal damage to the soft tissues in the front of my foot and my toes. I damaged the internal circulation, nerves, as well as starved the ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones in the front of my foot of 02.
This structural damage has healed about 50% from the original injury. and are all parts of my foot are responding well to repeated exercise, and I anticipate the foot will eventually return to full strength.
Mid June 2011
As I am writing this during mid-June of 2011 I am trying to restore as much of my aerobic fitness as possible while working on healing the internal structural damage in the front of my foot. Hot water treatments are supplemented by massage and range of motion exercises.
In the meantime as I am working on the structure of my foot I am also waiting for the hole in the end of my big toe to finally heal and seal up.
I have been walking up to 5.5 miles in the hills, pain and after-exercise consequences permitting.
The final healing of the hole in the tip of my toe is dependent upon the very slow rate of speed that skin grows. It is like watching molasses flow on a cold day. Patience is the key.
But the skin is growing over the "exposed" bone of my big toe, and under the cap of dead skin sitting above the bone.
You better believe that this has caused me to come up with a few new twists to my fitness program.
Up to 7 miles of walking-jogging. Exercise-Rehab program under way at fullest speed possible.
My point here is that you start your program from where you are. I have. Again.
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It's real basic: flexibility, endurance, and strength.
As our goal is to restore our ability to backpack long distances in the High Sierra, our program starts with stretching and walking. As our goal is to walk long distances with a heavy pack, we will also eventually require sufficient upper and lower body strength to support the pack. As our backpacking path will take us over a variety of obstacles and terrains while carrying this heavy load, we must have both the flexibility and core strength to bear this load at odd angles.
The basic elements of the program are simple:
1> Stretching and Walking: Injury recovery, and beginning from sedentairy state.
2> Walking into jogging: Slow progress to top levels of fitness.
3> Sit ups and floor exercises: Core strength and flexibility.
4> Weight Lifting: Upper body strength.
Getting your body to respond with increasing flexibility, strength, and endurance is a little more complex.
Over a number of decades I've developed my own personal program with specific standards and goals for endurance, strength, and flexibility. I have come to understand how my body will react to high altitude backpacking when I am at optimal and in less than optimal conditioning.
Over a lifetime of repeated injuries I have come to understand how to assess and restore fitness to my injured parts and counter the damage that inactivity after injury brings. When I am hitting the trail in less than ideal conditions, or I am taking my first walks after re injuring my knee, I understand that I have to start from where my degree of injury and fitness allows. You too must find the proper exercise and stretching to honestly suit your current status.
Let's find It
This program is designed to show you how to assess your injuries, develop a practical program to recover, and finally filling out the program with strength and aerobics exercises to bring yourself back to the highest degree of fitness you are capable of attaining. This approach also suits those of you who are out of conditioning due to simple apathy and living a sedentary lifestyle.
You can start at the beginning of recovering from an injury, or you can pick up the program at higher levels, depending on your current level of fitness.
Those of us recovering from injury and long-term inactivity have a real need to know what level of performance we are capable of, and then how to work up our flexibility, strength and endurance from that point to develop the conditioning necessary for successful long distance High Sierra backpacking.
Along the way towards developing long distance backpacking fitness we will do "starter" trips to check out our physical capabilities capabilities as well as to help us develop the trail and camp skills necessary to successfully deploy our gear.
This fitness section and the related skills sections will allow you to find all the information you will need about yourself and your physical capabilities before you strap on the pack and hit the High Sierra Trails. These exercise sessions will generate the information that will allow you to make realistic plans for realistic trips for your level of fitness. Trust me when I say that gaining this knowledge during training in civilization will save you a lot of pain on the trail.
This means that the goal of this Physical Fitness section is as much to ascertain the status of injury and general fitness as it is to make yourself ready for long distance backpacking along the Sierra Nevada Crest.
My ideal conditioning regime for backpacking is a combination of jogging, weight lifting, some floor exercises, and stretching. Let's look at how this program looks when it's running well, and I'm in top shape.
Top to bottom Fitness
The top, being the goal of my program can be simply quantified. I can perform my four free weight exercises at high weights every other day.
They consist of four sets of ten reps each at the bench press at 185 lbs, the curl at around a 117 lbs, the forearm curl at about 40 lbs, and the fly at 12 lbs.
The forearm curl exercise incorporates the military press and the reverse-forearm curl behind the head. The fly also incorporates a "reverse" fly, crossing the over the body, and then back to the fly position.
I find this combination of upper body exercises ideal for prepping the shoulders, neck, and upper spine for carrying a heavy pack over long distances comfortably.
I consider myself optimally mountain ready when I can run seven miles in hills over 750 feet of elevation gain in not too much longer than an hour, every other day, on the days I am not lifting weights. I will feel little fatigue, and need very little recovery time after the exercise if I am well conditioned. At my top levels of fitness I feel as if I can run the distance again when I'm done.
Though I am training for walking, I find that the stress-loading of jogging in hilly terrain replicates about the same level of heart and lung stress as walking with a heavy pack.
I do 150 sit ups every day, and execute my stretching program at maximum length for a long time in each position. This is more important than it may seem at first glance. Especially the first time you lean back a bit too far while climbing up over a downed tree blocking the trail.
The stress leveraged by the weight of the pack pulling you backwards while you are hanging off the tree will center in your abdomen, and if your core strength is not up to snuff, you will have a hernia.
On the other side of the coin is getting started again from scratch, either after an extended period of injury or inactivity or both. Sometimes one leads to the other, such as the inactivity following an injury, or inactivity leading to an injury. It goes both ways...
The key is knowing when your injury can be exercised at all without risking re-injury. I identify this as the point when acute pain shifts down to a chronic pain from acute pain levels, and the injured parts can be stretched and exercised without re sparking acute pain.
The approach is the same for injuries to different parts of the body: rest, recover, then gently and gradually rehab the injury, though the specific techniques will be different for each injury. These are the bottom levels of restarting my fitness program after injury.
After re injuring my shoulders (I have experienced a total of 7 "severe" shoulder dislocations and one compound fracture of the R collarbone.) By a "severe" dislocation I mean a violent dislocation in a high speed or heavy impact accident. I can't count the number of times my shoulders have fallen out of their sockets. I don't even count those as dislocations. They are merely part of recovering from sever dislocations. Eventually you can restore the shoulder muscles, ligaments, and tendons abilities' to hold the shoulder in socket.
At this sad level of conditioning I have to start my bench presses by just going through the motions with an empty bar. After recovering the range of motion without risk of further "slip out" dislocations (as opposed to a "severe" dislocation during an accident, a "slip-out" dislocation will happen when you mover your shoulder across the damaged area of the ball & socket. The ball joint will just fall out of socket.) I begin my sets at 117 pounds.
All of my stretching exercises, even the lower body stretches, incorporate shoulder and arm movements that are good for stretching out the shoulders.
I must constantly monitor my shoulders to prevent the acute pains that indicate I've overworked the critical muscles, tendons, and ligaments holding my shoulders in place. When this happens I must stop lifting until the acute shoulder pains cease.
On the endurance front, as it was for strength too, the first thing we must do after injury or inactivity is to stretch the injured parts to restore flexibility, reduce stress, and improve circulation.
As my thing is walking and running, a good part of my stretching program is dedicated to getting the lower body and hips ready to run for miles.
Check out the stretching videos on the Building your Recovery Program page.
Our fist goal is to determine the proper warm-up so we can begin walking with minimum pain. The next goal is to find the maximum distance we can walk without re injuring or triggering acute pain and inflammation, either during the exercise period, or afterward.
Then we have to start bumping up the walking miles and angles of climb and descent as the injury responds to exercise. As we inure our joints to the stresses of impact, and after we have strengthened our injured parts, we can start throwing in little sections of jogging along our walking route.
Soon we will be jogging our whole route, and slowly lengthening it out...
first steps: set you goal
To get ourselves in the minimal shape required for basic backpacking we must get ourselves into the condition necessary to be able to easily walk the daily distance we plan on hiking each day with our pack. Say it is five miles. That comes out to 26,400 feet. The average person covers three feet per stride.
This means that our feet, ankles, knees and hips must be able to take 8800 steps without risking re-injury, tightening up from overwork on the trail, or getting so sore afterward that you cannot walk the next day. Once you can easily walk five miles then you can bump it up.
Walking five miles is good, but not good enough. The extra weight of carrying your pack on the trail will make five miles on the backpacking trail equal to at least 7.5 miles on the trail without a pack.
Each time you reach a distance goal in your walking program, you can either consolidate your gains, or start working towards the next goal. To consolidate your gains I mean that once you reach the goal of repeatedly walking a mile without too much soreness or strain, you can begin to jog sections of the mile walk, until you have jogged the whole mile. Or you can lengthen the distance of your walk as you begin to jog sections of the increased distance.
Heading for the top
From this first mile you can start building up to longer distances bit by bit. Once you hit two or three miles, you should start looking for some hills, elevation changes, and challenging terrain that will put stress on your carriage from a variety of angles, just as you will experience the stresses from a variety of angles on the trail.
My personal goal is to jog 7 miles in hilly terrain without too much strain, lift heavy weights without too much pain, have good core strength when I bend over, and have all my injuries well adjusted to a high degree of stress at high-angle elevations with no more than moderate chronic strains and pains.
This is how I make sense of it all:
1. Walking for Walking's sake
2. Stretching for shape and out of shape
3. Endurance to replicate mountain conditions: jogging and backpacking
4. Weight training for upper body "strap strength"
5. Backpacking fits right in like the key to the lock
6. Achieve and maintain field conditioning
Next page: The Fitness Recovery Section