Tag Archives: cross-training for runners

Unicycling and improved core strength

Screenshot from 2018-03-19 11-09-37

 

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!

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What I’ve learned from 2 years of unicycling

Screenshot from 2018-02-01 13-03-32

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.

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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

 

 

 

My new 29 inch Nimbus unicycle

Screenshot from 2016-04-17 16:33:14

29″ Nimbus Road unicycle

As many of you already know, I purchased my first unicycle in late 2015 because it seemed like the next logical thing to learn after joggling for so many years. After a few months I was able to ride it for long distances and was satisfactory with most basic skills. Though the Club 24 inch unicycle was a perfect introductory model for someone completely new to the enigmatic world of unicycling, it’s far from ideal for going on long treks.

At most on long rides I could average 5.5 miles per hour on the 24″ unicycle. Little kids on their tiny bicycles in the park were often very impressed when they saw me on my unicycle until they realized they could go much faster than me. One minute they totally admire me, the next minute I get no respect! And so I began my search for a faster unicycle, which means a much larger wheel. Eventually it came down to 2 choices: a 36″ unicycle or a 29″ unicycle.

A 36″ unicycle can travel about 12 mph on a long ride, which is roughly equivalent to the average speed of a weekend bicyclist. The drawbacks of a 36″ unicycle are that it’s more difficult to maneuver, it’s a struggle to go up hills, and it takes up a lot of space and costs a lot more than a 29″. Like just about everything else in life, purchasing a unicycle is about making compromises.

A 29″ unicycle can travel at about 7 mph, it’s easier to maneuver and go up hills than with a 36″. Since I live in a hilly area, a 29″ was the obvious choice. So I recently purchased a Nimbus 29″ road unicycle with 125 mm cranks. So far I am loving it and the transition wasn’t as difficult as I originally thought it would be. Unfortunately, I still struggle a little with free-mounting it since the seat and pedals are a little higher than on the 24″.

On average, my speed is 6.5 mph on long rides, much faster than my 24″, but still not as fast as I had hoped(kids often zoom past me). I figure a little more training will improve my speed and my ability to climb steep hills. I was competent with idling on my 24″, but it seems impossible with the 29″(the larger the wheel, the harder it is to idle). So far, I haven’t tried juggling while riding the 29″ since I don’t feel comfortable enough with it yet.

Overall, the Nimbus 29″ feels much more solid than my 24″. The 24″ feels flimsy by comparison. The ride is also smoother on the 29″, handling certain bumpy areas better than the 24″. An oddity is that for some reason I’ve long struggled with right turns on the 24″, while left turning was always comparatively easy. With the 29″, it’s the opposite, but the issue isn’t as noticeable as with the 24″. I’ve long tried to find a defect with the 24″ and couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with it, so I’ve long considered that this discrepancy may be due to having a favored side. Having a favored side isn’t anything unusual, it’s similar to right or left-handedness. However, I still suspect a defect since it would be unusual for my favored side to change based on the unicycle I’m riding.

Even though this unicycle is primarily for road riding, I’ve found that it performs well enough on trails, so long as it’s mostly flat. It would likely be even easier riding trails if I replaced the tire with an off-road type of tire. Since I do very little trail riding, I don’t think I’ll be doing this any time soon.

So far, I am very pleased with the 29″ Nimbus road unicycle, and hope to do a 20 mile ride on it one of these days. I will still use the 24″ for skill development, but the 29″ will be used from now on for anything longer than a few miles.

 

Unicycling as the ultimate cross-training

Screenshot from 2016-01-18 18:09:42

Unicycling starts to get really interesting when you ride the trails.

Like a lot of athletes, I’m always on the lookout for a cross-training activity that complements my usual regimen. As a joggler, it’s difficult finding something that fits the bill that challenges me in a way that is similar to joggling, but isn’t as strenuous. I’ve sometimes tried simply running, but it often makes me feel like I am regressing from joggling and is otherwise too similar. I also wanted an activity that is easier on the knees. I’ve considered juggling while swimming or “swuggling”, but I don’t have access to a pool.

Screenshot from 2015-10-21 21:04:57

The 24 inch Club unicycle I purchased. This is a good beginner model.

After exploring countless options, I recently “discovered” unicycling, and won the Nobel prize for my amazing discovery. Granted, I’ve always known about unicycling, but for some silly reason or other I didn’t seriously consider taking it up. I used to think it would take too long to learn how to ride one, or that I wouldn’t have enough time, but in late October of last year I finally purchased a 24 inch wheel unicycle. It took about 3 weeks for me to learn to ride forward 500 feet(while recovering from the Yonkers marathon injury), and I am now capable of riding up to 13 miles on it. I can even go up and down hills, so long as they are not too steep.

It should go without saying that it took a lot of practice and patience to get to where I’m at with unicycling, just like how I progressed with joggling. In fact, I can now juggle while unicycling, though very sloppily. I think my joggling ability helped make the transition to juggling while unicycling a lot easier. I can also “idle”, which means pedaling back and forth to stay in the same position without dismounting(which comes in handy when waiting for a traffic light to change), and do a little hopping. Backwards riding I can barely do. Though I’ve taken a bunch of nasty falls, so far I haven’t suffered any serious injuries.

Unicycling just makes perfect sense to me. Similar to juggling/joggling, it’s an aerobic and acrobatic activity that was long ago appropriated by circus performers to the point that few people see it as a sport. Whereas joggling requires a great deal of coordination, unicycling requires a great deal of balance. There’s something about being in “perfect” balance or coordination that brings about a state of euphoria. Unicycling engages the brain in a manner few exercises can approach. Unlike running or joggling, it’s a low impact activity so it gives your knees a break while still providing your legs a great workout.

Unicycling generally requires more effort than bicycling. You always have to pedal if you want to move since you can’t coast on a typical unicycle. This means you burn more calories on a unicycle than on a bicycle when covering the same distance. It’s not as many calories as a person would burn while running, but it is significantly closer.

A lot of people balk at the idea of unicycling as a sport. The association with the circus is still too strong and some people are too self-conscious about all the attention they would get. Besides this, some people see it as inherently dangerous. However, over the past two decades unicycling has become much more popular as an athletic activity for fitness enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. These days, there are even some gutsy people riding mountain unicycles, which are usually called “municycles”. Some prefer riding long distances on roads or bike paths with large 36 inch wheel unicycles which kind of look like smaller versions of the Victorian era Penny Farthing, except that they lack the tiny rear wheel.

As far as safety goes, as long as you know what you’re doing and wear a helmet and safety gear, it probably isn’t much more dangerous than bicycling. If you are still concerned about safety, keep in mind that unicycles tend to be much slower than bicycles, and if something goes wrong they are easier to bail from since they lack handlebars.

Though I enjoy it for its own sake, I unicycle mainly for cross-training since I still see myself primarily as a joggler. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with making unicycling your main athletic activity. I don’t intend to do a lot of juggling while unicycling, but it’s a good skill set to have since it helps to make your upper and lower body movements more independent of each other.

I am considering doing some cycling events in the future, but haven’t found anything suitable yet. Since I am still a novice, I can’t travel very far on my unicycle yet, but I am getting there. I plan to upgrade to a bigger model soon so I can go much farther. In the mean time, I will enjoy the cross-training benefits of unicycling. Unicycling around the neighborhood after a long joggling run is a great low-impact recovery aid, and is a lot of fun both for me and the local kids(as well as adults) who love all the free entertainment. The mean kids love it when I fall off, of course. On the other hand, the geeky kids enjoy it when I explain the physics of unicycling. Actually, they usually do a better job of explaining it to me. I highly recommend unicycling as a cross-training activity for jogglers and runners alike.

Screenshot from 2016-03-01 10:19:47

My first wheels