Adventure Prep, Uncategorized

Upright Sleeping

When my sister lived in a Buddhist retreat, she slept in a box.

This is not the first thing that comes up when you ask what it’s like to spend three years completely sealed in retreat. And as she prepares to take her ordination as a nun, it may not seem like the most important part of her spiritual practice. But for 1600 nights in a row, if she was closing her eyes to sleep it was in the confines of about a 3′ × 3′ wooden container.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. The point is, essentially, that lamas should sleep sitting upright. This way they can do their nighttime practices in the full lotus posture, sleep right where they are in front of their shrine, and wake up to start their morning practices without moving. Or something like that.

But to most people it has no appeal. It’s hard to explain that the box is not a crate, or that it’s quite comfy when you add some pillows. Before her retreat I suggested she stop mentioning this particular part of what she’d be doing. It makes it sound like some kind of extremist cult.

The past few weeks she’s regaled me with the reality of sleeping upright. Several times I watched her peacefully drift off to sleep in improbable places. Her back is board-straight and she moves with grace. It has its perks.

Then I began to think about the applications of sitting upright to sleep. I have no intention of sleeping in a box, but I have this whole “walk 7,000 miles” thing. It will include a lot of nights sleeping outside—probably about 1600—and I’m open to anything to make that easier. Some of the benefits of upright sleep:

  • You stay warmer. The vertical orientation of your body is far more efficient heat-wise.
  • Warmer means no sleeping bag. One lap blanket is all you need. When backpacking, that means less weight to carry.
  • If you wear glasses you can leave them on while you sleep, handy if you need to get up suddenly at night.
  • You can use a smaller tarp over your head and less mosquito netting (no tents here).
  • You develop strong neck and back muscles.
  • When you wake up you’re completely lucid, never groggy. Zangmo and I can’t figure out why this works, but it does.

These are powerful incentives to see if I can acclimate myself to upright sleeping before I start the Adventure. But that’s just two months away! Challenge accepted.

My kid sister Zangmo in her box.

Zangmo told me that when she first started it took her about three months to get used to, and involved intolerable pain and stiffness. However, we don’t believe that’s necessary to learn to do it right: she resisted upright sleeping for a long time, and had bad posture at first.

So I set a piece of particle board against one wall of my room, culled through the pillows and cushions in the house, and fanaggled about an hour of consultation with my resident lama. I’m going to try it for myself.

How will it go? Expect an update next week. In the meantime, has anyone else ever slept sitting up (by choice or out of necessity)? Do you have any other unusual sleep methods that might be of use to fellow adventurers? Hit the comments and speak up. I’d love to learn.

Adventure, Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoes or Barefoot: The 7000 Mile Question

Last summer while camping with philosophers I read the book Born to Run. This book has sparked quite a buzz among adventure types. It looks at super-marathons—runs of fifty miles or more in a single go—and suggests that running barefoot is healthier and safer than wearing shoes.

Alternately, foot condoms.

That’s actually not the main point of the book, which is more about how humans evolved to run long distances, and the search for the people who still do it (safely) today. During that quest, author Christopher McDougall found evidence that modern athletic shoes increase running injuries by weakening the foot. The solution he suggested—citing a number of sports doctors and coaches—is to wear thin-soled, unsupported shoes or no shoes at all.

People have fixated on this.

Barefoot running has become quite a trend. Before you sprint out and try it, let me warn you: suddenly switching your running routine to barefoot will lead to a stress fracture. Try downgrading to thinner shoes first. Start with a short jog. Slowly build your way up.

But the real issue is, is it worth it?

The Theory

The reasoning offered by McDougall and others is simple. Padded, supportive running shoes with thick heels are relatively new. Even 30 years ago they didn’t exist. But we’ve been running marathon+ distances safely for tens of thousands of years.

So what do these shoes do?

According to the theory, they over-cushion and support our feet. The muscles don’t have to work as hard because the shoe restricts them. The foot muscles weaken and injury results.

That makes logical sense, but where’s–

The Evidence

To support this, McDougall mainly relies on time trend analysis. Padded shoes are supposed to prevent injuries, but do they? He compares the injury rate of professional athletes before the modern running shoe, to professional athletes today. If the best modern running shoes help prevent injury, we should see a decline in injuries over time.

But injuries haven’t declined.

The implication is that athletic shoes don’t do anything to help prevent injuries. Barefoot enthusiasts point to this as proof.

They’re wrong.

A time trend is an interesting reason to look into something, but it’s not proof. Many factors could affect running injuries over forty years. The evidence McDougall gathered is an interesting starting point, but that’s all.

This is a hot issue, so surely more studies must have been done, right? I decided to…

Ask An Actual Doctor

This issue matters to me because I’m going to be walking, say, 7000 miles or so. And, oh yeah, I have a busted ankle.

So as long as I’m hanging around a straight-talkin’ ankle/foot specialist, I thought I’d ask about barefoot running (or hiking).

“Wear some fucking shoes,” my surgeon told me. “I don’t mean those five-fingers. The best athletic shoes you can afford.”

I worried he was biased. “So have studies been done that actually show that? More padded shoes lead to less injuries?”

He sighed. Shit was getting serious.

“No. It’s a big debate with smart people in both camps. So far, no research has shown us a clear answer either way.”


The Seven Thousand Mile Question

I always prefer to make my decisions based on science. Science is hands-down the best tool we have, followed closely by rational philosophy, then instinct, then personal experience, and somewhere way down at the bottom of the dredge, hope and faith.

But in this case, science fails to answer my question. So I have to make a judgment call.

Do I wear thick, supportive athletic shoes? Or thin canvas shoes and sandals? 

(I’m not literally going barefoot so those are your options.)

This is the seven thousand mile question. Choosing correctly could make my journey safer and more comfortable. Choose wrong, and I might be crippled when I’m 40—or laid up and suffering halfway to Brazil.

What do you think? If you knew you have arthritis in your ankle, and will be walking across two continents, what footwear would you equip for the journey?

I have some thoughts of my own on what to choose, but I’m eager to hear your opinion first. What do you say?

Update: You can see the shoes I finally chose—and why—in 1400 Mile Shoes

The Great Adventure

A Frank Assessment of My Busted Ankle

It has been over two years since I broke my ankle, and 18 months since surgery.

I broke it doing incorrect parkour, without proper training or supervision. Parkour is wonderful; training too aggressively is not.

So how is this ankle doing? And can I walk across two continents on it?

This is not actually my ankle… this may not even be what was wrong with my ankle.

Quite a Doctor

I knew from the beginning I’d go on the Great Adventure whether I broke my ankle or not. But other people have mixed reactions. Most don’t realize I injured my ankle at all: after all, I walk normally. When I remind someone I am still fighting an ankle injury they look horrified and tell me not to go.

My surgeon has a different opinion.

“You’re going to have arthritis for life,” he told me. “It will get worse. Eventually, if the pain is too great, we can fuse the joint. I recommend you beat the hell out of it until then.

He knew about Plan Walk-to-South-America when he gave this advice. His reasoning is that the joint will get worn out anyway, so enjoy physical activities while I can. Avoiding my favorite things for decades isn’t worth it. I like that reasoning and I agree with it.

Plus walking can actually improve my ankle. It’s a low-impact way to keep it in constant use, strengthen it, and get that joint flexing again.

So I have the full approval of the orthopedic surgeon who knows my ankle best. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Learning to Walk

After my surgery there were three main long-term factors I had to deal with. They are:

  • Recovery from the injury itself and the surgery
  • Atrophied, stiffened joint from over a year in a “boot”
  • Immense scar tissue limiting flexibility in the joint

Additionally there is the arthritis, but there isn’t much I can do about that.

The immediate effects of the surgery included swelling, soreness, and months of staying off my feet. 18 months later the swelling still  isn’t completely gone—I found out recently it might be swollen forever.

Atrophied, stiffened muscles are nothing to play with. My Achilles tendon literally got shorter during a year of immobility. It became impossible to stretch my injured foot as far as the good one. All the other muscles were weaker, too.

Are weak foot muscles a big deal? Well, aside from holding you up, the muscles around the ankle play a crucial role in balance. Post-surgery I could balance on my good foot for 60 seconds easily. With my recovering foot, it capped at 1.5 seconds.

I started daily stretching, as well as ankle lifts to strengthen the muscles. I did a balance routine and when that got easy, I started doing it on a bosu. Because of muscle stiffness, it was hard to absorb impact when landing from even a small jump, so I worked my way up to dismounting from the bosu aerially.

I can now balance on one leg on a bosu, then spring up in the air and land on the ground.


Scar tissue remains pretty serious. Recently I began to have a new kind of pain near my heel. As I break up scar tissue and regain flexibility, it turns out I’m starting to use muscles I still wasn’t using before. Which means… they’re still atrophied. Those muscles weren’t needed for my limited range of motion, so they never got worked out at the gym. Till now.

For My Next Trick

This is an ongoing process, and one of the most difficult things in my life. A month ago, walking for a few hours left me with an inflamed, aching ankle and I could barely limp the next morning. Now I can hike 5+ hours up a mountain and still get up tomorrow.

I’ve learned to manage the arthritis and swelling through stretching, regular activity, and continual conditioning to handle longer and longer walks.

The Great Adventure will be the ultimate test of this conditioning. I have 6 months left till I start, and I need to train daily. The uneven streets of Chiang Mai have proven a good setting for that.