Category Archives: fitness

Interleaving update

 

A few weeks ago I did a post about interleaving and for the most part I’ve been using this innovative learning strategy for learning new unicycle skills since then. In case you’ve forgotten, interleaving is a learning strategy that involves mixing things up instead of focusing on just one skill at a time. So far it appears to be working.

As you can see in the video I figured out how to juggle while idling one-footed(at least that’s how unicyclists would describe it). I even figured how to do the tricky two to one foot transition in only one practice session; I assumed it would take longer to learn the transition. Instead of a long block practice approach, I interleaved learning this skill with the closely related juggling while unicycling backwards. I would focus on one skill for 10 to 15 minutes, then switch to the other skill for 10 to 15 minutes, then back to the first skill, in an ABABA pattern for about 50 minutes to an hour or more. Of course in this heat breaks are very important.

It took a mere few weeks to learn juggling while idling one-footed though I can’t do it that well yet. I think interleaving did give me a learning boost. I also think the fact that it’s just an extension of juggling while idling two-footed, which I can do competently, was also a big help. There’s a lot of overlap, it’s really not that distinct of a skill in other words.

Since juggling while one-footed idling is a more challenging version of juggling while idling, I think it’s helping me polish my juggling while two-footed idling(sometimes the key to mastering something is to practice the more complex variation of what you’re trying to learn— you don’t even have to do the more complex variation that well to benefit from it). It would be interesting to see what happens if I try interleaving with skills that are unrelated.

It also helps that I mixed it up with juggling while unicycling backwards, which I can almost do competently now. Idling and backwards are related skills and if you can do one well it helps with learning the other. Idling is, after all, going forwards and backwards just a little.

So if you’re on a learning plateau with anything, consider experimenting with an interleaving approach or at least trying variations of what you’re trying to learn.

Chris Stratton’s first 100 mile unicycle ride

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Map of Chris Stratton’s 100 mile ride

There’s another unicyclist in town, and his distance riding puts me to shame. Chris Stratton, from Manhattan, who I rode with last year in the Brooklyn portion of the NYC Unicycle fest just completed his first century(100 mile) ride along the Putnam trail from the Bronx up to Brewster and back. What an amazing accomplishment! My longest ride is only 20 miles, also on the Putnam trail. You can read about his epic experience here: My First Unicycle Century

Boost learning with interleaving

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One of the things I love most about unicycling(and joggling) is that it’s a fun way to learn about learning. With all the different skills unicycling entails, and the difficulty of learning many of them, it’s a great opportunity to test some new learning strategies. Let’s face it, we all want to learn faster. One strategy that I recently stumbled upon is called “interleaving”, which involves mixing things up instead of focusing on one skill or area and repeating until competence is achieved. Interleaving appears to provide a boost for both academic and athletic training.

According to Scientific American, in The Interleaving Effect: Mixing It Up Boosts Learning:

We’ve all heard the adage: practice makes perfect! In other words, acquiring skills takes time and effort. But how exactly does one go about learning a complex subject such as tennis, calculus, or even how to play the violin? An age-old answer is: practice one skill at a time. A beginning pianist might rehearse scales before chords. A young tennis player practices the forehand before the backhand. Learning researchers call this “blocking,” and because it is commonsensical and easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings.

However another strategy promises improved results. Enter “interleaving,” a largely unheard-of technique that is capturing the attention of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. Whereas blocking involves practicing one skill at a time before the next (for example, “skill A” before “skill B” and so on, forming the pattern “AAABBBCCC”), in interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills together (forming for example the pattern “ABCABCABC”). For instance, a pianist alternates practice between scales, chords, and arpeggios, while a tennis player alternates practice between forehands, backhands, and volleys.

This sounds very promising. The research suggests it works best if you interleave similar skills. I’ve already been doing something kind of similar by practicing variations of the skill I’m trying to master, but usually on different days. However, interleaving isn’t about varying your practice every few days, it’s about variation within the same practice session.

These days I’m trying to learn how to juggle while idling one-footed on the unicycle(I can already do this with both feet on the pedals). I usually use a block approach, and after practicing this would sometimes do backwards juggling in figure 8’s, which is a similar skill that I’m much better at. This week I’ll experiment with an interleaving strategy and do 5 minute intervals of one-footed idling while juggling then backwards juggling, an ABABAB pattern and see how that goes. I hope 5 minutes is long enough. I wonder what would happen if I did intervals of unrelated skills, but I’ll try that out some other time.

I’ll let you know how it goes. If you’re struggling with learning something, consider the interleaving strategy.

Related articles:

Variation is key to deeper learning

Learn To Study Using…Interleaving

How to ride a unicycle

 

I thought I’d finally do a video on how to unicycle since so many people keep asking me how to do it. It’s really not that difficult if you devote enough time to it every day.

The key things to remember are:

  • Practice in a flat area along a long wall or fence — the longer the better.
  • Lean forward to gain forward momentum.
  • Try to keep most of your weight in the seat though this isn’t absolutely essential early on. With time you’ll likely end up doing this without thinking.
  • When breaking free from the fence or wall use your arms to help you balance.
  • Patience, practice and perseverance.

As far as which size unicycle to learn on, I say choose a 20″ or 24″ inch unicycle(for small children a 16″ may be best). These days most people learn on a 20″ inch unicycle — I learned on a 24″. I chose a 24″ because I wanted something that I could ride around town on, besides doing freestyle tricks. A 20″ inch unicycle is great for freestyle but it’s impractical for riding around the neighborhood. A 24″ also makes a better gateway to the larger size unicycles used for long-distance riding, like 29″, 32″ and 36″ inch unicycles.

Whatever size you choose, get plenty of practice! If you’re a runner, this is a great cross-trainer. Happy riding!

 

 

 

 

 

Juggling while unicycling backwards

Lately I’ve been working a lot on my juggling while unicycling backwards technique, particularly in circles and figure 8’s. It is extremely challenging to say the least, but I am slowly learning to do smoother circles. In essence, it’s the same thing as doing forwards circles and figure 8’s while juggling: leaning in the direction you want to go in, as well as pointing your shoulders toward where you want to go. Your body is just facing the opposite direction from where you’re going.

Beyond this it can be difficult to explain the how of it. This is because so much of the learning when it comes to this difficult skill is subconscious. Repeat the same task over and over again and it gets stored in your muscle memory.

Although I haven’t mastered this skill yet, here are some tips for those who want to know how to do this(this assumes you can already juggle while unicycling forward):

  1. Relax. Breath deeply before and while doing it to calm your muscles and oxygenate your cells. Try to achieve a state of mind that is both focused and relaxed.
  2. Try to find a large, flat, quiet area to practice in. Don’t worry if your circles or figure 8’s are over-large, with practice you’ll slowly make them smaller.
  3. Learn to idle while juggling first or while learning this. Idling and backwards are closely related skills. The better your idling, the better your backwards and vice versa.
  4. You’ll likely make the same mistake over and over again. Learn to fail better, try to do the opposite of what keeps leading to the same mistake. In other words, try making different mistakes.
  5. Don’t worry if you notice an asymmetry with your turning abilities, this is perfectly normal. I find clockwise backwards circles much easier than counter-clockwise. Just work a little more on your weaker side.
  6. Be patient. It takes a while to learn a skill like this. You may experience many learning plateaus or you may even regress before getting better. Take breaks if you get very frustrated.
  7. If you are a very self-conscious kind of person and there are people watching, just ignore them. Try not to care what others think and learn to laugh at your mistakes. Or just learn to get used to having people watch you.

 

The transition from forwards to backwards can be especially tricky when you first start out. Even if you can do it well without juggling it can still be a huge challenge. It’s almost like a separate skill in itself. The key to this is to isolate your lower body and upper body so your unicycling doesn’t interfere with your juggling and vice versa. This is a good approach to juggling while unicycling backwards in general.

With enough practice this should become a second nature. Happy riding!

 

Flying Free — Life Lessons Learned on the Flying Trapeze

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I just finished reading “Flying Free  Life Lessons Learned on the Flying Trapeze” by Lynn Braz(@air_dancer on Instagram), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Lynn Brazz is a Renaissance woman she’s a very talented writer, yogini, trapeze-artist, dancer, vegan and adventurer who tells an inspiring story of overcoming fear to become a trapeze-artist after a series of career setbacks and distressing life events. Her biggest fear for the longest time was a fear of heights and taking up trapeze many years ago helped her overcome this fear. She artfully uses trapeze as a metaphor for overcoming fear and things that limit us from achieving a more fulfilling life.

For as long as Lynn can remember, fear was omnipresent, and not just her fear of heights. Fear of failure was also a constant hindrance. Taking up trapeze was the ultimate way of challenging these deep-seated fears  climbing a ladder to a platform over 20 feet in the air then swinging on a trapeze at 25 mph, that takes some courage! Courage she didn’t know she had in the end, her fears were shown to be an illusion. Her fears are not completely gone; instead of being ruled by fear, she developed a healthy relationship with it.

This book is not a how-to manual on learning trapeze or a recommendation to take up trapeze. Rather, Lynn’s aim is to encourage you to take up enriching, meaningful activities that challenge you physically and/or mentally. In other words, endeavors that take you out of your comfort zone, that involve learning new skills that put you in the “zone” or in a state of “flow”(as described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi). It’s obvious that Lynn is in the “zone” when doing trapeze, or dance or yoga for that matter.

As both a joggler and unicyclist I can relate very well to Lynn Brazz’s story. In a way her book is a celebration of circus arts and how they can lead to a more fulfilling life. There are many sentences in this book where you could substitute “trapeze” with “unicycling” or “joggling” and it would make perfect sense. Unicycling also helped me overcome some of my fear, though that wasn’t the original reason I took up unicycling and joggling. There’s a kind of magic in circus arts, whether it’s trapeze, unicycling or juggling that’s difficult to find elsewhere.

It’s an understatement to say that trapeze is a great way to exercise. It goes far beyond that and Lynn Braz explains in her book how learning trapeze has influenced many other areas of her life for the better. After deciding she wasn’t going to be ruled by fear, she eventually traveled alone to Kashmir, then and now a volatile region that’s contested by India and Pakistan. I’ll definitely reread parts of this book whenever I struggle with learning new unicycling or juggling skills since her advice has relevance for doing anything challenging. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for inspiration to overcome their fears or discover hidden talents.

 

 

 

 

 

Unicycling and improved core strength

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As I often say, even if unicycling didn’t have any unique benefits beyond improved balance, I’d still do it because of how much fun it is. Us unicyclists often like to tout unicycling as a great way to strengthen the core, though there hasn’t been a lot of hard scientific data to support this.

Until now. Last year in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, they did a study on the effect of unicycling on the trunk strength of children. They concluded:

Unicycling proved to be an effective and funny tool to develop proximal stability and strength, which prevents low back pain and improves the efficiency of energy transfer between body segments.

This is just one study, but it is terrific news. Hurray for unicycling! I admit I am very biased. Better core strength is often associated with better athletic performance in many sports, including running. Though this study was done on children, I can’t think of any reason this wouldn’t apply to adults, and it’s too bad they didn’t study juggling while unicycling. So if you want to strengthen your core, consider taking up unicycling!

What I’ve learned from 2 years of unicycling

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Me juggling while idling on a unicycle, a very difficult skill to master

I’ve been unicycling now for over 2 years, and what an adventure it has been! Here are some things I’ve learned over these 2 years:

 

Most learning is subconscious

When learning a new skill(going backwards, idling, juggling while idling, etc), it’s critical to use the right technique or in the very least not do things that will impede your progress. While we all may use a different learning method, we should observe some general guidelines, especially early on.

As important as these guidelines are, they are not written in stone. Through trial and error we may occasionally find it helpful to ignore certain guidelines. It can be frustrating when we hit upon a technique variation that seems to work but later on doesn’t. If we’re persistent enough we improve, though we’re often not sure why. This is because so much of the learning is happening at a subconscious level, to the extent that it’s very difficult to describe or replicate what we are doing that is leading to success instead of failure. This is largely due to muscle memory and that practicing the same thing over and over again forces our body to do it more efficiently.

This isn’t all that unique to unicycling since it happens when learning just about anything. However, it’s because learning new unicycling skills is so bewilderingly difficult and complicated at first that every little improvement is celebrated as a victory. While we all have an innate sense of proprioception(the sense of where we are in space which helps with balance), unicycling will lead to a quantum leap improvement in this ability to the extent that we feel like we have acquired super-powers. This is why unicycling is so uniquely enjoyable.

Taking breaks can help you improve

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was going to be rusty after a break but instead got better. I am not saying you shouldn’t be persistent, but rather that after practicing on a consistent basis, a break of a few days to a week may be helpful, besides taking off one day a week(or whatever works for you).

Finding the magic formula to ensuring breaks will be helpful is interrelated with figuring out what is the ideal of amount of practice time. It varies from person to person, and more isn’t necessarily better. We probably all notice that there are diminishing returns to going beyond a certain amount of practice time, and that excessive practice can lead to burnout or extreme frustration.

This is why one day off a week from unicycling may be better than doing it 7 days a week, and anything more than a few hours of practice a day is unlikely to be helpful.

Besides providing rest, a day or a week off may help your brain and muscles properly assimilate what it has learned, and practicing excessively may interfere with this assimilation. This is why occasionally taking time off may be more helpful than detrimental to getting better at unicycling, or anything for that matter.

Variation is the key to improving

You practice the same thing every day, with the same unicycle at the same place at the same time and you’re noticing very little to no improvement. We all know the cliche that “practice makes perfect”, but some of us(myself included) get stuck on a learning plateau and we’re not sure why. Again, this is not unique to unicycling. Besides taking the occasional break, practicing subtle variations may help us improve.

What do I mean by variation? By playing around with tire pressure, or putting in different size cranks, or simply practicing with a different unicycle altogether. I’ve experimented with different tire pressures while learning to go backwards and would often notice significant improvements after a few days of variations. I’ve also tried carrying(not juggling) heavy balls to increase the challenge. Also changing locations can sometimes be helpful.

The reason this probably works is because these variations force our brains to discover the essence of a skill by feeding it unique data points it otherwise wouldn’t have access to if we practiced the same exact way every day. In this sense it is kind of related to cross-training.

Think of all the ways you can vary your routine. It doesn’t have to make learning much more difficult, but it should be different enough so that it feels new or a little awkward at first. One approach I’ve often found helpful is to warm up with a variation or something different, then I practice what I usually practice. Sometimes it’s a short trail ride with the municycle, then a long practice session juggling while idling with my freestyle unicycle.

*  *  *

Unicycling is not just a lot of fun, it offers so many different fitness benefits without breaking the bank. Like I’ve said before it’s great cross-training for runners and offers similar fitness benefits. It also forces you to pay close attention to your body and all its asymmetries and quirks, like yoga or dance. Besides this, taking up unicycling is a great way to learn about learning.

Related:

The Attraction of Unicycles: A Lesson for Learning Complex Skills

How to Unicycle Backwards

 

 

 

Brooklyn Marathon Race Report

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On November 20th I completed the Brooklyn Marathon, my second time joggling this race and fifth marathon overall. I had a decent race experience overall, even if I finished slower than the first time. My training and just about everything leading up to the big day were pretty much flawless, except that I may have over-trained. This time I ran as part of Team Humane, to help raise money for the Humane League. I admit it feels a little different joggling as part of a team. I felt like I wasn’t just doing it for me anymore, and that my first 4 marathons were warm-ups for this race.

Part of me is surprised I’ve completed 5 marathons; it wasn’t so long ago that I thought I would never be able to complete 1 marathon as a runner. Yes, while just running, not joggling! The pre-marathon me seems like a different person. I’m not sure who he was, but he disappeared when I crossed the finish line of my first marathon. Now let’s explore marathon #5.

Race day was cold, cloudy and brutally windy. The weather forecast said there was a chance of rain, but I increasingly find weather forecasters about as reliable as astrologers or worse yet, political pollsters. So I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t rain at all. It was about 40 when I first arrived at Prospect Park at 8 AM, but the fierce, howling wind made it feel like the low 30s. I was conspicuously under-dressed(only shorts, and 2 shirts on), so before the race I was shivering and trying to warm myself up by juggling, which only helped a little.

I simply wanted to complete in less than 4 hours and I wasn’t optimistic about not dropping the balls due to the cold and wind. Last year at the Yonkers marathon I started out a little too fast and that may be why I injured myself. So when the race started I took it very slow for the first 2 miles; I didn’t mind looking like a juggling slug. After mile 2, channeling my inner vegan cheetah, I started picking up the pace, doing sub-8 minute miles until I got to mile 9. By then it was also a little warmer; I had no trouble with the cold air during this race except when the wind picked up.

The Brooklyn marathon isn’t especially hilly. The marathon is a series of loops around Prospect Park, and some parts are hilly, particularly the approach to the northern section. At first the hills didn’t slow me down that much, but after several miles of this my legs started to feel fatigued. I drank Gatorade for the first time at mile 7, and did this about every 2.5 miles. My pace after mile 10 gradually slowed down. After mile 20 I was doing 10, then 12 minute miles.

The crowd support was tremendous. Thank you so much people of Brooklyn, especially my fellow vegan Brooklynites! A lot of laughs, lots of cheering, and some people were very supportive of me because of the cause I represent. I finished in 4:16, which means my average pace was 9:47. This was my slowest marathon ever. My fastest marathon was in 3:40. At least I didn’t injure myself like I did last year(in spite of injuring myself I was faster then). This was my 3rd dropless marathon in a row. This means the majority of the marathons I’ve joggled have been dropless. Even I am astonished. Here’s the proof! Here I am at what I think may be mile 16. Thank you Denise! Ok, that’s less than 1% of the race, but it’s still something!

So why was I so slow? I think the cold weather and wind were partly responsible. And I also suspect I may have been overdoing it with the unicycling during training. Riding on a unicycle, especially backwards, isn’t a good way to improve marathon performance. Not that I was expecting it would help, but I shouldn’t have done so much backwards unicycling in the weeks leading up to this event. Though it wasn’t helpful, it sure is fun!

A big thank you to everyone who has contributed to the Humane League and also those who’ve provided encouragement and training tips. Wishing everyone luck with their training, fund-raiding or whatever you’re doing.

So what’s next? Stay tuned!

My Segment on Plant-Based by Nafsika

In case you missed my segment on Plant-Based by Nafsika: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1NHYHNfloQ