Sunday, October 14, 2012

Count Your Blessings

There's nothing worse than not being able to walk. 

Well, maybe there is something worse.  Not being able to see would be pretty lousy, and not being able to talk would really put a cramp in my style.  But in all of my fifty years, the times I've felt the most depressed were the times I couldn't go for a walk.

So, on when I'm feeling down and hopeless, I need to remember, at least I can walk now.  And some day, when I can no longer walk, I will still be able to swim, or draw, or sew, or read, or talk, or SOMETHING. 

It's always a good time to count your blessings.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Don't Lose Hope; Follow Your Passions

Sometimes we are motivated by the most unlikely events or people.  Other times we have such a strong intrinsic motivation that outside forces do not easily dissuade us.

This week Sir John Gurdon won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine with Shinya Yamanaka for their work as pioneers in stem cell research.  Mr. Gurdon was not encouraged by his teachers to be a scientist.  On the contrary, his dreams were dismissed as "ridiculous."

 Gurdon school report, aged 15

"I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can't learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him."

View this Sir John Gurdon video.

This story brings to mind my experience with a Spanish professor in college.  I was a Spanish major, and loved speaking Spanish in high school, but had very little success in Dr. Lopez's class.  I was nowhere near ready to discuss literary criticism of the works of Federico García Lorca or Don Quijote.  I decided to take a semester in Bogotá, Colombia to immerse myself in the language and culture.  When I asked Dr. Lopez for a letter of recommendation, he laughed at me. "Susan, you will never learn Spanish."  Rather than be dissuaded by his lack of confidence, I knew I had to prove him wrong.  And I did.  Upon returning to the U.S. after my semester abroad, I approached my old professor and showed him how my Spanish had improved, no thanks to him.

As a patient, I continue to reject the prognosis of my podiatrist.  She examined my sore and swollen feet, and she told me there was no way to prevent the onset of hammertoes.  She asserted that my toes would eventually curl up permanently, my foot pad would move forward and stop protecting the ball of my foot, and I would eventually need surgery.  I am proving her wrong.  My foot strength and flexibility continue to improve through "barefoot walking."  My vibrams continue to be my shoes of choice for walking, hiking, even for work.

As a teacher, this story reminds me to encourage my students in their passions, and to withhold judgement about their future abilities.  For goodness sake, my kids are only 9 and 10 years old.  Their brains and bodies are developing at an astounding rate.  Each one develops his or her academic and social skills at a different rate.  A student may not be successful in a certain area this year, but later may jump ahead of the pack.  Why dissuade them from following their passions?  What I want to do is feed their dreams, encourage their growth, and push them on to higher heights.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Yikes! Taking Risks Leads to Growth

This has been a week of growth for me.  As a bitwordy player.  As a swimmer.  As a teacher.  And my willingness to take risks seems to be key.


Bitwordy is a game I recently discovered on Facebook.  Growth in bitwordy doesn't really count, because it only reflects my ability to procrastinate and waste scads of time.  How many words can you find in three minutes?  How much time can you waste?  How sore can your mouse hand get?  Facebook and games can be such valuable tools for connection and relaxation; they can also be time-sucking cyberdemons.  But growth is growth, right?

I love to swim.  I've been swimming since I was a kid.  Never had a lesson, just learned swimming with my mom and cousins during summer vacations at the family lakeside cabin.  My swimming has improved gradually over the years, first with advice from a roommate in college who gave me a few pointers on my breaststroke, later from reading magazine articles about swimming.  One article in Cooking Light gave tips from a swim coach.  Improved my freestyle arm strokes a great deal by imagining my arms as a windmill, turning and turning.

Last week swimming at the Y, I became frustrated with my slow kick while using a kickboard.  As I crept ever so slowly toward the end of the pool, I mentioned to the lifeguard, "I really need to work on my kick."  His reply: "At least you know you have to."  Yep, awareness, the first step toward getting better.  When I asked about adult swim lessons, the lifeguard said he notice I was kicking wrong.  I was bending my knees too much, and needed to kick from the hip.  So simple.  I felt kind of dumb; I've been kicking wrong for 45 years!

I tried the new kick.  It worked.  Now I'm very aware of my kick every time I swim, scissoring from the hip rather than the knee, keeping my legs straight.  I get much more power by pushing water with my entire leg rather than just the lower half.  It also tires me out!  Of course it does.  I'm using my quadriceps and hamstrings, muscles I don't usually use when swimming.

Another benefit of this new kick may be less knee pain.  As a therapy for my patellofemoral pain (poor kneecap tracking, worn out kneecap cartilage), I'm supposed to build up my quads and hamstrings.  This correct kick style could do just that!  As Mr. Lifeguard said, "You'll kill two birds with one kick!"  Today's swim was not as effortless and enjoyable as I'm used to.  I had to rest every two laps or so.  But I know that I'll become a better swimmer, with stronger legs and knees that hurt less.

I'm an elementary school teacher.  Fourth grade.  Been teaching for years, but I know I can always improve.  So I asked my teacher coach for some tips on behavior management.  She and I have been doing an intensive week-long coaching cycle.  She observes me for an hour each day, then we review her notes and my reflections every afternoon.  She makes suggestions.  I get ideas.  We make a plan.  I implement the plan, and she observes me again.

The result: growth!  My students have been more focused, more involved, and better behaved every day.  I've felt better, they've felt better. 

Don't get me wrong: this has been an exhausting week.  It's unnerving to have someone watching me teach every day.  It's scary to let someone see my soft underbelly.  And then to talk about what she sees.  Yikes.  I'm very lucky that my coach is someone I trust implicitly and respect greatly, otherwise this might not work.  Trust is key.  Humility as well.  So I'm exhausted, but inspired.  And optimistic that my teaching will continue to improve.

As my sister says, "That which makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful."  As Maggie Laura McReynolds of Lifeworks Coaching says, "Feel the fear.  Do it anyway."  I look forward to practicing my new strategies.  Thank you Bitwordy opponents!  Thanks, Mr. Lifeguard!  Thanks a million, teacher coach! 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Love My Foam Roller!

I've been pretty good about doing my leg exercises daily.  When I'm consistently building muscle in my thighs and calves, I tend to have less knee pain (patellofemoral and torn menisci).  The last two days, I've been almost pain-free.  And didn't wear my knee bandage or take any meds!

But with muscle-building come muscle knots and soreness, and sometimes less flexibility.   I was reminded by a coworker to use massage on the aching legs.  Enter my magical friend: Rollo the foam roller.

The foam roller lives in my living room, right next to my yoga mat and my exercise ball.  I see it every morning and evening, but I ignore it.  So thank you to that friend for the reminder!  I'm using Rollo again.
On the calves.  Aaaah.
On the quadriceps and hamstrings.  Aaaah.
On the IT band.  Aaaaouchaaaaah.

What's the IT band?  The iliotibial band runs from the outside of the hip down to the knee.
According to Wikipedia, "The iliotibial band is a superficial thickening of tissue on the outside of the knee, extending from the outside of the pelvis, over the hip and knee, and inserting just below the knee. The band is crucial to stabilizing the knee during running, moving from behind the femur to the front while walking."

Here's a short IT Band video from  I also use it on my midback, and even my neck.  I roll over the roller until I find the sore knotted muscle, and stay there for 30 to 60 seconds, breathing through the pain.  A great way to start and end the day.

This Running Times article by Clint Verran explains the importance of massage, and shows several foam roller poses with photos.  Of course, anyone can have muscle knots, not just runners.  We walkers and swimmers get them, too.  Even sedentary types get those knots in their shoulders and back, from poor posture and/or stress.

I like Clint's key points for foam roller exercise:
"1. Roll back and forth across the painful or stiff area for 60 seconds.
2. Spend extra time directly over the
knot or trigger point itself.
3. Roll the injured area two to three time a day. For prevention of injuries, two to three times a week is recommended.
4. Avoid rolling over bony areas.
5. Always stretch the area following
foam rolling."

 I bought Rollo at my health care provider for $25, but have found some online for as little as $8.95.

Time to go party with Matty (the yoga mat) and Rollo!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A New Kind of Pain

I've been in denial.  So what else is new?

For the past couple of months I've had a new pain in my feet.  I'm used to getting toe cramps and cramps in the arch of my foot.  I like to think of these as good pain, as in "No pain, no gain."  I'm giving my feet a workout every day, so of course the muscles are going to be cramped and sore sometimes.  Massage and ice usually take care of these.

But this new pain has worried me.  It's a sharper pain, and it's in the top of the foot.  Initially just in the right foot, but now in both.  I thought it might be from overworking my feet, because I wore my minimal shoes all summer, and walked so much on vacation.  I iced my foot a few times, and wore regular shoes(my old Clarks) for a few days.  It seemed to help.

When the pain returned, I became more concerned.  What if I'm doing some permanent harm to my feet?  What if all this barefoot walking stuff is baloney?

I considered going to the doctor.  I should go to the doctor for a pain I'm worried about, right?  But the podiatrist is the one who told me my feet were hopeless, that I was fated to suffer debilitating hammertoes which would someday require surgery.  She's the one who told me there was nothing I could do to stop it.  So what's she going to tell me?  I can just hear it, "Those silly five finger shoes are not supportive enough.  You need to wear custom orthotic inserts.  And get ready for surgery."  Of course, this is just what I imagine, but really, she doesn't know much about barefoot walking.

Susan, you've gone rogue, remember?  You are NOT willing to give up on these feet.  You're on your own.

So I started paying attention to this pain.  I treated it just like my chronic mid-back pain, and my occasional shoulder pain.  To my morning ritual of yoga stretches and leg exercises, I added icing the top of my foot.  I iced it before bed.  And I took 600 mg of ibuprofen 3 times a day to reduce swelling.  I even added a gentle stretch: while standing, I curl the toes of one foot under and hold it for a count of 30.  And guess what?  The pain is greatly diminished.  Not gone, mind you, but manageable.  And at age 50, that's the best I can hope for, right?

Reminds me of a Louis CK shtick about his ankle when he turned 40. 
Louis CK

I'm going to go ice my foot now.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Ha, Ha! You're 50, Silly Woman!"

Aah, summer!  To me, it means fun outdoor exercise, travel, family, and plenty of sleep.  This summer was a family discovery time for me.  It also meant ups and downs with health issues.  Good feet, not-so-good knees.

Sweden's Southernmost Point
Add caption
Inspired by my sister's idea two years ago, my husband, son and I traveled to Denmark and Sweden to meet my cousins.  It was the trip of a lifetime!  My grandmother came over from Sweden when she was 16 years old, and she and my mom visited Sweden in 1959.  One of my sisters lived in Denmark as an exchange student in the 80's, and met some of the cousins.  A few of them have visited us here in the U.S.  But it was high time I got over there to visit them myself!

We received the most wonderful greeting from all the Danes and Swedes.  They hosted us in their homes, drove us all over to see the sites, served tasty and interesting Scandinavian meals, and even had a family reunion!  Young and old, all 45 of us enjoyed sharing stories, hugs, and good food and drink in Trelleborg, Sweden.  The experience gave me such a sense of the history of my grandmother's family, as well as a sense of belonging with a group of loving, generous, and fun people.  I look forward to maintaining these connections, and receiving them in our home some time soon.

The good news on my feet: I've worn my veebs, sandals, and gone barefoot all summer, and my feet feel almost perfectly fine.  We walked a ton, especially in Copenhagen, and my feet did not complain.  My knees were a different story.

To prepare for the trip, I did lots of leg exercises, hikes and swims.  I was hoping to get my patella calmed down (or lined up) enough to bicycle in Copenhagen, the bicycle capital of the world.  Two days before our flight to Denmark, I was doing some gentle squats.  Feeling strong, I tried doing them one leg at a time.  Pop!  Pop!  I knew something was wrong, so I iced them right away.  After a half hour, I went for a walk, and they felt fine.  But 3 hours later when I went to the grocery store, there was a stiffness.  They just felt wrong.  Then the pain started.  "Ha, ha," said my knees, "You think you're so tough?  You're 50, silly woman!"

All I can say about our flight two days later is, Lufthansa and Frankfurt airport are super.  When I asked for seats with extra leg room, the stewardess gave us bulkhead seats.  She must have seen my knee braces and cane.  Ibuprofen and ice were key.  I brought ziploc bags and asked for ice on the plane.  For our connecting flight out on the tarmac, they ordered me a special shuttle, and an elevator truck that lifted us up to the airplane door!  What service!

Passing on the Swedish Family History in Skåne

With cousins in Lund, Sweden

Hiking in Stenshuvud Park, Skåne, Sweden

Walking in the Gardens

A Copenhagen Plaza
Walking Over Canals

Taking the Train

Watching the Changing of the Guard

Taking a Rest

The Ubiquitous Copenhagen Bikes

A Tivoli Ride
I took it easy the next week or so, but had no problem driving, and was ok walking a bit.  The main activity was sitting and talking, eating and drinking with family.  That was a pleasure!   For the last part of our two-week trip, we went to Copenhagen on our own.  Every day we walked all over the place, sometimes taking the train downtown closer to the museums and palaces.  Walking down three flights from the apartment was the only big challenge.  The extensive walking actually seemed to help my knees.  Besides, we were having so much fun.  Palaces, gardens, museums, cafes, cobblestone streets, even a Tivoli ride.  I skipped climbing up the towers, but was content taking photos and hitting coffeehouses down below. 

Danish Design Museum

As my summer vacation draws to a close, I am not without pain.  The knees don't feel better, but nor do they feel any worse.  And I'm still able to walk, swim, and climb stairs.  My feet are still happy, too.  I have a stronger connection with my Scandinavian cousins, and promise myself to keep it going despite the distance.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Barefoot Walking Video

For the walkers out there, here's a video for you.  I got tired of watching barefoot running videos, and decided to make my own walking vid. 

How to stretch your feet, massage, and walk barefoot (or almost barefoot) without hurting yourself.
Start slow!

Let me know what you think!
I appreciate all comments.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Walk Like the Tarahumara

I am no runner. I've tried running, ran track in high school, ran with friends in college, but I didn't like it much, and running didn't seem to like me.

So why am I reading about barefoot running? Well, there's precious little information out there on barefoot walking, while barefoot running is all the rage. The physics of both are very similar. And so are the benefits.

 I'm reading about my new shoes, my huaraches, and found this fascinating video about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, the people who run hundreds of miles barefoot or in huarache sandals. If you're not a runner, bear with it. The information about wearing less supportive shoes is useful for all of us who want to avoid knee and foot injuries.

Video: The Tarahumara

So what do you think of barefoot walking?
Already tried it and love it? 
Hate it?

Think it sounds ridiculous?

Have an experience or advice to share?

Leave a comment and let me know. 


Saturday, June 16, 2012

New Shoes » New Hems

 My new huaraches, from Invisible Shoes.
Inexpensive, and so comfy.
I ordered the soles to my foot length, then trimmed to fit my narrow feet.

These should protect my tender soles without restricting my toes, and without flopping around like my flip-flops do. 

(Once again, inspired by my sister Lisa!)
With the thin soles on all my new shoes, now some of my pants are too short!
Tonight is hemming night.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Real Barefoot Walk

Tying up the cherry tomato
Dirt washes off!


Cool grass

My first barefoot day!  I gardened barefoot.  When the concrete got too hot, I stepped on the soft, cool grass or the dirt.  I finally had to stop because it became too hot to work outside. 94ºF.


Later in the day, I took my first really barefoot walk around the neighborhood.  I've been walking in "barefoot shoes" for several months, so I'm used to the different gait, but this was a completely different experience.

When walking barefoot, it's very important to walk softly.  You very quickly learn to avoid heelstrike, which is landing heel first.  With cushioned shoes, we normally do land heel first, so it takes awhile to relearn how to walk.  I've searched for good barefoot walking videos, and have found none that were helpful.  Lots of barefoot running videos, but I'm not a runner.  It helps to watch barefoot running, though, because you see the idea.  As my dad, the track coach, says, "Your heels just kiss the ground."

•shorter strides
•your foot lands under your body, not in front
•you land first on the ball of your foot, then the rest of the foot comes down
•your foot acts as a shock absorber

(from, originally from
One really helpful description was found on  They liken barefoot walking to walking like a native american tracker.  This is called fox walking.

By far the best barefoot walking site I've found is by Jessica Lee and Michael Sandler.  They explain better than I ever could the benefits of going barefoot.  And their site gave me the push I needed to start REALLY going barefoot.

Smooth concrete
The most challenging element yesterday was the ground surface.  I have always been a tenderfoot.  I remember as a kid trying to walk barefoot across the gravel driveway, "Ouch, ouch! Ouch! ouch!"  I found that walking on the sidewalk was fairly easy.  I just had to look out for sticks and other sharp objects.

Smooth concrete squares felt so much nicer than rough concrete.  Who knew?
Regular concrete

Ouchie asphalt street

The trouble was the asphalt.  It has those big chunks of gravel mixed in, for a very rough surface.  So every time I had to cross the street, "Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!"  Sometimes a little particle of sand or gravel would stick to the bottom of my foot and irritate it, and I'd have to brush off the particle on the grass or stones.

The most amusing moment: when two little kids on bicycles exclaimed, "She's going barefoot!"

Here's hoping my feet get tougher fast!

Sunday, June 10, 2012


 So here's your foot.  Unadulterated, in it's birthday suit.
 We know we're not supposed to wear high heeled shoes.  They're obviously bad for our feet.  It always makes me cringe to see grown women wearing what I call Barbie shoes.  Those shoes that squish up your toes and twist up your ankles.

But how about those walking shoes and running shoes that everyone seems to be wearing, the ones our doctors most often recommend, the ones that are supposed to give our feet the support and stability they need?  When my feet have been sore after work, I have generally tossed the silly shoes aside and slipped my tootsies into a pair of comfy running shoes.  I even keep a pair under my desk at school.  You know, the sensible shoes.

Well, look at how high the foot is when we're wearing those shoes.  I've talked to several people who've actually injured themselves falling OFF of their running shoes.  And two years ago, after the physical therapists told me to wear orthotic inserts for even more arch support, my feet began to hurt more.  Until I was diagnosed with hammertoes, and began to search for alternatives to surgery.

So it's back to nature for me.  Good old bare feet!  But the problem comes when you want to enter a place of business, or a school, or a library, or an airport.  Of course, they make you take off your shoes, but certainly expect you to put them back on after you pass through security.  So what kind of shoes should a person wear?

Kinds of Minimalist Shoes

There are all kinds of cool shoes out there for people who want to sport the cool, new low-rider shoe look.

There are the strange shoes with little fingers for your toes.


 These were my first minimal shoes, initally very difficult to put on, as my little curled-up baby toes didn't want to go into their individual fingers.  Now they're my faves.  And when they get dusty from the trail, I throw them in the washing machine.

 These get plenty of odd stares and comments, and also pleasant compliments from cool young people on the street, as in "Nice veebs!"

There are shoes for those who don't want to have their feet stared at.


See, everybody's jumping on the minimal shoe bandwagon.
New Balance

I hear these are nice, too.

 These are my second pair of low-rider shoes.  They are just as comfy as my Veebs, but don't get the stares.

And then there are shoes that are even more minimal, even less shoe:


You can buy them.

Invisible Shoes 

 Or make your own. 

homemade huaraches

My sister has been doing this.  She runs miles and miles in them!  You can buy materials that costs about $5, and make your own custom huaraches. 

Whatever you choose, it's important to pick shoes that
#1 are comfortable
#2 are low to the ground
#3 have a ample room for your toes, or a wide toe box
#4 are flexible
#5 let the arch move up and down, like a natural shock absorber.

The Foot Bone's Connected to the...

The Anatomy of the Foot 

I recently read that the knee is quite complex, because it has so many tendons and ligaments, and allows us to move in so many different ways.  Many human joints are intricate, but the foot is by far the most complex.  If you don't believe me, consider this: the foot contains 26 bones, 106 ligaments, 19 or 20 muscles, and 38 to 40 tendons.  Wow.

This video by Dr. Nabil A. Ebraheim illustrates well the complexity of the foot:

No wonder it's hard to design shoes to support our feet! 

So I'm not supposed to wear shoes?  That's not what my doctor told me!

As it turns out, wearing shoes may have helped to cause my foot and knee problems.  And many doctors, physical therapists, and podiatrists may not know about options other than orthotics and surgery.

The shoe paradox, according to Adam Sternbergh's article "You Walk Wrong" in New York Magazine, is that "wearing shoes simply creates the need for wearing shoes."  Or, as my sister once told me, our feet started to atrophy the moment we started wearing shoes.

Schierlitz, Tom. You Walk Wrong. By Adam Sternbergh.  New York Magazine April 21, 2008. Makeup John Maurad and Jenai Chin. 

In a study conducted at Rush University Medical Center, walking barefoot or with minimalist shoes could be healthier for more than just our feet. Dr. Najia Shakoor, the principal author of the study, says, "Our study demonstrated that flat, flexible footwear significantly reduces the load on the knee joints compared with supportive, stable shoes with less flexible soles."  So there's scientific evidence to support the knee/foot/shoe connection.

Next blog entry: What Shoes to Buy

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New shoes

Can't wait to try these on the trails!
The vivobarefoot "Breatho Trail."  They're from England, as far as I can tell.  Started in 2003, so they've been around.
Just as minimal a base as my Five Fingers, but these are a bit more attractive.  And comfy!  Wore them all day at school yesterday, got several nice comments, and my feet felt great.  Now I have a spare pair for when one pair gets dusty or muddy from hiking. 

My honey encouraged me to go to our local REI store and pick up another pair of barefoot shoes, and I was pleasantly surprised at the large selection.  A number of shoe companies have joined the barefoot movement.

Vivobarefoot has a good barefoot running video.  
I have yet to find a good barefoot walking video for those of us who don't run.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Gone Rogue

It's a bit scary going off in a different direction like this.  I mean, on a day or week when I have more knee pain than before, I would normally talk to my doctor.  Or my physical therapist.  But now that I've gone rogue, completely disregarded the advice of the physical therapists and the podiatrist, who do I talk to? 

I guess I've taken a leap of faith.

The thing I've learned is that, even when I get knee or foot pain with my vibrams, some massage and stretching usually does the trick.  I'm not giving up.  I can feel my feet getting stronger by the day.  I'm now up to wearing the vibrams every other day for an entire 10-hour day.  And I seem to be having less knee pain than I used to before going "barefoot," even though I've not been consistently doing my leg and hip exercises that I'm supposed to do daily.  My theory is that I'm working more calf and knee muscles by wearing these alternative shoes, just in my daily activities.  I do spend most of my day standing or walking around at school.  And the first few weeks, my calves were really sore.  I discovered muscles on the outside of my calves that I didn't know I had!

Ok, enough sitting.  Time to massage these tired puppies!

If you're trying out vibrams, or other minimalist shoes, or just have toe or foot cramps, here's a massage and exercise link for Sole Training.  And a vibram foot health link for massages.  These are massages and exercises I do every day now.  Helps a lot!