Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Surplus of Minimalism

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, 
but not simpler.” - Albert Einstein

Running, like life, just has a tendency to get complicated. For anyone who does not take deliberate measures to simplify life, the "noise" and nonsense of the daily grind can easily drown out all the core elements that make existence beautiful. The same is true for one's fitness pursuits. The "Keep it simple, Stupid"- or K.I.S.S. principle - liberally applied, is paying significant dividends by making my fitness pursuits and my life in general much more manageable and therefore enjoyable. This ideology is often referred to as "minimalism," and I have been reflecting on its meaning and utility for a few weeks now. Its application, apparently, touches many different life pursuits and scientific disciplines.

For anybody who knows anything about automotive history, the name Colin Chapman immediately calls to mind meat-and-potatoes sports cars - cars that have a laser-like focus on performance. Chapman was the founder of and engineer/designer for Lotus, the British racing team and eventual automotive manufacturer. He famously coined the expression, "Simplify, then add lightness." This oxymoronic expression is a clear articulation of the philosophy of minimalism: the idea that less truly equates to more, if you prefer to paraphrase poets rather than race engineers (Andrea del Sarto, 1855, to be exact). Of course, Chapman's ideas have been traditionally applied to the production of extremely successful race and sports cars, but the theme is something that runs powerfully through every competitive enterprise. I also believe many people's lives can be much happier and more successful through liberal application of the "added lightness" principle.

This is a Lotus Exige, a near-supercar with a mere four cylinder engine. The curb weight for the Exige is just north of a ton. To put that in perspective, a 2014 C7 Corvette Stingray weighs over 1200 pounds more.
To clarify terms, my working definition of minimalism is "the further perfection of anything through the deliberate removal of the less necessary." Liberal application of the "less is more" principle can lead to a few discernible benefits that are easily observable and simple to duplicate. I will identify first the benefits I have experienced when applying minimalist principles to my running habits:

1. Less to remember
When your whole warm-weather run kit consists of shorts, a shirt, a water bottle, and a watch, it's hard to leave "essentials" behind. Heck, the watch and shirt are even optional (depending on temp and distance). A simple pre and post-run routine can provide comforting consistency and predictability as well. Developing concise, rote rituals gives way for the mind to devote all its power on performance, which leads to improved...

2. Greater focus
Mr. Miyagi knew a thing or two about accomplishing one's goals. Concentrating on very few things means greater ability get them right. A convoluted approach only leads to lack of determinable progress resulting in confusion and ultimately frustration. I have resolved to apply minimalism in goal setting: one specific, achievable target at a time.

Laser-like intensity dedicated solely to fight preparation... along with several hours of free child labor. 
3. Less weight
From a pure performance perspective the sparser one's gear and lighter one's overall load, the greater the potential for faster and more efficient movement. I love the free feeling of running shoeless and shirtless in light-weight (ie. "short") shorts, much to my wife's embarrassment. The reason I enjoy it so much has a lot to do with the clearly perceptible lack of encumbrance. Feels good, Man.

"Hey, where are the cup holders?"
4. Fewer variables
The minimal approach ideally leaves only a small number possibilities to go wrong. An even greater benefit, though, is the ability for runners to assess situations and their performance - or lack thereof - much more accurately when only one or a small number of factors change at a time.

This leaves us with some legitimate questions: How much can one subtract before the positive effects of simplification diminish? What gear is most dispensable? How much, exactly, do clothing and gear weights matter and/or vary between styles, brands, and sizes?

The reality is that the journey to maximum minimalism is one of personal discovery, and each of us are likely comfortable with very different levels of trimming down the excess. In my next few installments, I plan to cover other facets of living with less including the benefits of living minimally, the benefits of running minimally, and cases where minimalism has run amok. Should be just enough fun to keep your interest and share necessary information. Just enough and not a word more.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gear Review: Ensō Muscle Roller

I have a serious love/hate relationship with my foam roller. Having survived a handful of bouts with dreaded iliotibial band syndrome, I can vouch for the effectiveness of a trusty foam roller in the treatment of inflammation and soreness associated with the condition. Rolling cold muscles before a run has also become part of my standard routine because it makes me feel loose and comfortable on my first step out the door. However, rolling inflamed tendons can be seriously unpleasant - even painful - and it has remained so for me from my first go until today.

This is the primary configuration with which I use the Ensō when rolling my back and hamstrings. 
Enter the Ensō Muscle Roller by EvoFit.  The Ensō is a new take on the traditional foam roller, and it takes the already versatile accessory in an entirely new direction... several new directions, actually. The Ensō differs from the field of other options primarily in that it is both segmented into individual disks and that those disks are adjustable into a number of positions on an aluminum shaft. The disks are plastic at their center and encircled by a high-density foam outer "tire." Each disk mounts snugly onto the aluminum cylindrical tube and is held in place by a spring-loaded ball detent. For those with experience in the garage, think the same kind of mechanism that a ratchet uses to hold a socket. It is pretty ingenious in its design, and I have had no problems whatsoever with the disks moving around on the shaft. They are very secure. Configuring and using the roller is simple: just set the rollers up in the position you desire and go at it. It's incredibly intuitive, and it works.

This is the configuration I use for rolling my ITB (iliotibial band). This setup focuses a great deal of pressure squarely on the tendon, but it also keeps the leg "bumpered" so it doesn't wander off-center."
Using the Ensō is much the same as using any other foam roller, but the ability to target specific areas - or avoid specific bones and tendons - is what makes it a truly incredible piece. That ability in and of itself makes the Ensō worth owning, but there are additional ways to use the Ensō that traditional rollers cannot even touch. Placing two rollers together in the center of the shaft makes it operate in much the same way as a trigger point ball. The roller can also be configured with a single or small number of single disks centered on the shaft allowing users to turn the shaft itself into dual handles (think "rolling pin"). So an Ensō roller can do the work of a standard foam roller, a trigger point ball, and other massage stick-type devices - all three. Pretty ingenious.

For all the really cool features of the Ensō, there are a few drawbacks. First, and probably most importantly, the Ensō is expensive: $89.00. That is likely to cause a lot of potential buyers to gasp, but you are getting a lot of use in one device. Another issue is that there is a bit of a learning curve to the Ensō. You aren't likely to get the most out of the Ensō without putting some time in actually using it and fooling around with the various configurations. This won't be a problem for the hardcore athletes, but the average user may be discouraged without the immediate gratification out of their new $90 purchase. The final issue I encountered with the Ensō was its overall intensity vs. what I became accustomed to with my cheapie roller. It can be super hardcore on the ol' ITB, intentionally or otherwise. As a general rule, expect the Ensō to double the amount of pressure on any given point that is targeted (completely unscientific "gut" measurement, by the way).

So, to recap, the breakdown looks like this:

Targets muscles
Super intense
Extremely adjustable
Versatile - replaces several pieces of equipment

Cost - $90!
Learning curve
Super intense

The Verdict: The Ensō is an effective - if not essential - tool in the gear bin of any serious athlete looking to pare their collection of rolling, muscular therapy, and massage devices down to one hard-working, supremely versatile device.

For more info, check out the EvoFit website. More pics below:

Down the center: If you were packing the Ensō in a travel bag, you can store your socks and some gel in the tube. I'm also fairly certain my Ka-Bar combat knife will fit in there, but don't try to get that through airport security.

Detail of the differences in depth between the individual rollers.
Detail of the aluminum "axle" tube and the adjustment radiuses.
This is the Ensō fully dismantled. The larger disks are on the right. 
The blue foam roller is a cheapie from J-fit (who?) that I picked up from Amazon for a song a few years back. I included it for a size comparison. The J-fit is 6" in diameter and 18" long.

All the Ensō roller components laid out.
The Ensō aluminum center section. Notice the notches for the various disk positions. 
Size comparison vs. 18" J-fit. 

Ensō vs. 18" cheapie foam roller.

Next up on gear reviews: I try out some HumanX gear by Harbinger and get my first double-under. Stay tuned!