Benefits of the outdoors

This article was posted earlier this year as a guest entry on the DigiGranBiz travel blog. Unfortunately the aforementioned blog no longer exists, so I decided to publish a slightly refreshed version of the original text here on Tommy’s Outdoors website.

 

Taking on outdoor activities is like a cure for the damaging, sedentary lifestyle that most of us are living. Our bodies are fundamentally built for movement. Prolonged hours in the same, often unnatural position, are damaging to our musculoskeletal system. Similarly our minds are built for a challenge, but not for the persistent stress that we receive in microdoses daily.

The solution is not simply a matter of going to the gym and exercising. For proper functioning our bodies and minds also need fresh air, the sounds of nature, and the light that comes from the central star known as the sun. While in nature we can disconnect from our own entangled thoughts. We can start paying attention to our surroundings and how they influence us. We will quickly notice that our minds stabilize and become relaxed. The tension in our muscles goes away. Our mood lifts.

Getting into nature also lets us leave behind most of the pollution generated by civilization. Fossil fuel fumes, chemicals, overwhelming noise, excess of the blue light generated by ubiquitous screens, and electrosmog. The harmful effects of most of these are well known and documented. The effects of others are still unknown.

Staying in a natural environment for a few days offers further benefits. The circadian rhythm, unnaturally distorted by ever-present artificial lighting, resets and begins to work in its natural way. Our eating habits begin to return to their normal pattern of around 15 hours of fasting and 9 hours of feeding.

Finally, our spiritual side gets an enormous boost. Connection with the natural environment that surrounds us, a mountain, the sea, or a forest, is very real and almost palpable. It forces us to ask the timeless questions about our own existence and place on this earth.

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I hope that this short text encouraged you to spend more time in nature and to do so more consciously. The benefits are countless and the drawbacks are none. And if you feel like you are getting the bug, come back and visit this website more often and immerse yourself in the world of the outdoors. Also, subscribe to the podcast on the platform of your choice (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, TuneIn, Podbean and more). See you in the outdoors!

Sportsmen and Ecologists

While recording episodes of the podcast I get to meet and speak with people involved in the outdoors. Most of them are interested in the use and preservation of the natural environment. Among those people two distinct groups stand out the most: sportsmen, most often represented by hunters and anglers, and ecologists as in conservationists and environmentalists. In theory, they should represent one consistent front for protection of the natural environment. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Oftentimes representatives of these groups are involved in a counterproductive confrontation with each other. So, let’s dive into this issue and try to understand some of the reasons why this is happening.

For starters, let’s look at the common ground they share. Genuine ecologists are usually research scientists or employees of governmental or non-governmental bodies involved in the protection and management of natural resources. Of course we all know there are self proclaimed, shouty types, but I’m not going to talk about them here. Whenever I have an opportunity to talk to environmentalists I always ask the question, “Do you see sportsmen as allies in the efforts to protect the environment or as adversaries?” Based on the responses so far, I gather that sportsmen are mostly recognized as important stakeholders. Ecologists also recognize that they are an invaluable source of information about the state of the environment. It is because hunters and anglers spent lots of time in the outdoors and have an opportunity to observe nature and the changes it undergoes over time. They are often referred to as the boots on the ground.

Sportsmen also recognize the important role of ecologists as a source of information about wildlife and the environment. They also recognize that ecologists work to protect the resources they interact with. Wild game and fish. And here is where the tension starts. Ecologists often feel that sportsmen repeatedly engage in practices aimed mainly at their own interest, to the detriment of conservation. For example, when engaging in catch and release, they place more importance on taking a trophy photo with the fish over promptly releasing it back to the water. On the flip side, on many occasions sportsmen consider some of the regulations as limiting their activities unnecessarily.

It is not my intention to judge which side is right. Each case is different and everybody makes mistakes. Unfortunately, as the result of these tensions, the opportunity to create a combined, strong and environmentally minded front is lost. Sportsmen are often reluctant to engage in conservation initiatives worried that their interest won’t be recognized and they will find themselves on the wrong side of the equation. On the other hand, ecologists are reluctant to reach out to sportsmen for support, being afraid of a backlash.

It is my strong belief that true hunters and anglers are also environmentalists and conservationists. It is in their own interest, after all, that the waters are full of fish and the woods are full of wild game. In fact, there are many people who belong to both groups. It is not unheard of for a game and wildlife officer to also be an avid hunter or angler. These days, the natural environment is under more pressure from human activity than ever before. Only combined efforts to protect it can be successful. Sportsmen, ecologists, environmentalists and anybody else to whom nature is dear, should pull together. They should bury the discord about the way they intend to use it, and work together to protect it. Otherwise there will be nothing left to use anyway.

Cycling 101 – part 3 – Health Concerns

Welcome to part 3 of this blog series dedicated to getting started with cycling. In this instalment we are going to discuss the impact cycling has on health.

Cycling and health

As controversial as this sounds, in my opinion, cycling is not the greatest sport in relation to health benefits. Don’t get me wrong. It is a great way for people of all ages and abilities to be active and to spend time in the outdoors. However, it is also important to be aware of its possible negative effects.

Without a doubt one of the best known health benefits of cycling is the cultivation of cardiovascular capacity. Large muscle groups, like the quadriceps, get activated. That forces the heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to the working muscle tissues. That in turn has a positive impact on metabolism and triggers a series of beneficial hormonal responses. The mechanism described above increases energy expenditure, the burning of calories, which may help you lose weight.

Unfortunately, we often prefer to look only at the positives and not acknowledge the negatives. Cycling is not good for our posture. As a matter of fact, while cycling we are spending a substantial amount of time, often long hours, in a relatively static and unnatural position. While our legs are working hard, our torso and upper body remain almost motionless. In addition, our upper body is leaning forward, especially on road and racing bicycles. This puts a lot of pressure on our vertebrae, from L1 to S1. The more aerodynamically aggressive the position on the bike, the greater the pressure. This means that the condition known as sciatica or lower back pain is quite common among cyclists.

Now let’s talk about the upper body. When cycling hard we often tend to tense our shoulders, neck and jaw. It is known as “hugging the ears with the shoulders”. It is important to pay attention and keep the upper body relaxed. Failure to do so leads to neck and shoulder pain. Also the unnatural pressure on our cervical vertebrae can cause numbness in our hands and arms.

Finally, the saddle. Most cyclists recognize that prolonged time on the bicycle can result in a sore bottom. It’s commonly said that this discomfort is felt only for the first 1000 miles in the season. In reality, however, a saddle is the part of the bicycle that should be carefully chosen to match the cyclist’s body type and spacing between his or her sit bones. Failure to use the correct saddle results in damaging pressure applied to the soft tissue in the perineal area. This can lead to many serious conditions like numbness or erectile dysfunction.

Now let’s look at some simple measures to mitigate the potential problems described above. Firstly, I always say that riding a bicycle is not the best way to get in shape. Actually, you need to train and get in shape to ride a bicycle. While this statement might be an exaggeration there is more than just a grain of truth in it. It is especially important to develop a strong and flexible core. This muscle complex is of paramount importance for anatomical posture and support. A strong core will provide much needed support and stabilization for the spine. This in turn will prevent lower back pain, stabilize the torso and provide a stable platform that will help to relax the upper body.

Another important and often neglected step is to get a bike fit. It is often reduced to just setting the correct saddle height. That is insufficient. In order to enjoy riding your bicycle and to avoid injury you should get a professional bike fit. During the fitting, a professional will measure the position of your torso, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and head, while in motion. Along with your saddle height, he or she will adjust the stem length, the handlebars position, pedal alignment and many other aspects of bicycle geometry to match your body type and fitness level. For example, more flexible riders with a strong core can assume a more aerodynamic but demanding position. Riders with a lower level of fitness should be positioned more upright. Choosing the right saddle is also one of the key steps during the bicycle fit process. Note, that this step might take a few attempts and some kilometers ridden before a suitable saddle will be selected. The bicycle fit should be repeated at least every couple of years as our bodies and fitness levels are changing. A cyclist with a relaxed upright position, after a few years of training, might be able to ride in a more demanding position as their strength and flexibility improves. On the flip side, with age, riders might need to relax their position on the bicycle in order to enjoy cycling for many years to come.

Check back for part 4 of Cycling 101 in a few weeks and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss the next blog post.

Cycling 101 – part 2

Welcome to part 2 of this blog series dedicated to getting started with cycling.

Other equipment

Once you have your ideal bicycle there are a few things you need to buy to fully enjoy it. I would argue, that first and foremost you need to buy a helmet. In some parts of the world bicycle helmets are mandatory. Regardless of your local legislation, it is a good idea to wear one just for your own safety. The same goes for bicycle lights. Front and rear. With increased traffic and increasingly distracted drivers, bicycle lights are not only for nighttime. There are plenty of available day running lights that will make you visible to drivers from a distance of up to 2 miles.

You will also need a few things to maintain your bicycle, whether you are on the roadside or at home. First and foremost, you will need a pump and spare inner-tubes. Ideally you would have two pumps. A small one, that you can fit into the pocket of your cycling jersey, and a bigger one for convenient use at home. It is also a good idea to have tyre levers to help you change tubes. When out cycling, make sure you always have two spare inner-tubes, a pump, and tyre levers. If you are running tubeless tyres, you should buy a special pump capable of releasing an instant burst of air for tubeless tyre seating.

The final piece of must-have equipment is a multitool. Ideally it would have basic allen keys, a screwdriver, and a chain-tool. Sometimes you have to buy the chain tool separately. I learned the hard way how important it is to have one, when my chain broke while I was still 50 miles from home.

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Now let’s take a look at the rider. That’s you. In endurance sports, like cycling, hydration is one of the most important factors that determine performance. Even if you are not planning to push your limits, staying hydrated is important for your health. To be able to hydrate while on the bike, you will need a pair of water-bottles and two cages fixed to the bicycle frame to hold them. Initially you might get away with only one, but as soon as you start to embark on longer spins, a second water-bottle becomes very handy. And, don’t buy cheap bottles. Spend extra money on quality bottles made from BPA free plastic. They will not only last longer but will benefit your health and the environment.

Finally, get yourself a set of dedicated cycling clothes. Being a typical male, I will leave the discussion about fashion to someone more qualified. I just want to point out that quality, technical clothes, dedicated to the cycling discipline of your choice, will make you more comfortable and hence perform better. The benefits include things like moisture wicking, improved aerodynamics and better visibility on the road. Cycling shorts with chamois, for example, will help to massively reduce saddle soreness. If you are cycling off-road, you should consider getting additional body protectors for your knees or elbows. And, if you are riding those gnarly off-road trails I recommend getting full body armour to protect your spine and chest.

Check back for part 3 of Cycling 101 in two weeks and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss the next blog post.

Cycling 101 – part 1

When we first get into cycling it seems quite easy, as long as we already know how to ride a bicycle. After a while however, we discover that there is more to cycling than meets the eye. There are questions about safety, maintenance and other issues. Thankfully, experienced road men have already figured them out.

Choosing a bicycle

This seemingly simple task might quickly become overwhelming once we dig in to the variety of types of bicycles on the market. In general we can divide bicycles into the following categories:

Time trial bicycles – highly specialized bicycles used for racing against the clock. They are built to be as aerodynamic as possible often at the cost of adding more weight. Definitely not a bicycle you want to start with. The riding position is very demanding and use of the bicycle quite limited due to the way it is built. Outside of time trials they are also used in triathlons where the cycling leg is effectively nothing more than a time trial.

Aero bikes – road racing bicycles where the emphasis is once again put on low aerodynamic drag. They look more like your regular road bike and are much more versatile than time trial bikes. Their aerodynamic shape however, again, comes at the price of increased weight.

Climbing bikes – lightweight racing bicycles with the primary purpose of conquering those long and steep climbs. They are usable everyday bicycles and quite nice to ride due to their low weight. The gearing is adapted to climbing, so this type of bicycle might be a disadvantage in flat-road racing scenarios.

Endurance bicycles – The geometry of these bicycles is more relaxed, making them more comfortable to ride and easier to handle. The rider’s position is not as demanding, which allows for longer rides on roads with poor surfaces, without feeling tired after a mere 60 miles.

Gravel bikes – Here the geometry is becoming even more relaxed and the bicycle is even easier to handle. This type of bicycle is usually equipped with wider tyres. The build of these bicycles is sturdy and robust, so they can handle unpaved roads and trails. All that comes, of course, at the price of increased weight.

Cyclocross bikes – These bicycles have the qualities of gravel bikes taken up a notch with added handling capabilities for tight and twisty cyclocross courses. They are stiffer, which makes them less comfortable than gravel bikes. Also, their frame has a shape that makes it easier to shoulder the bicycle while running over obstacles.

Hybrid bikes / fitness bikes –  This is a general category of bicycles with quite relaxed geometry and typically straight handlebars (as opposed to drop handlebars) and wider tyres. They are not meant for racing or long demanding rides, but rather for casual, relaxing spins. They also make for good commuter bikes although the previously discussed types of bicycles would do just fine in that role (with the exception of TT bikes).

Touring bikes – These are the bicycle equivalent of camper vans. They are meant for long days and sometimes weeks of cycling. They are heavy but extremely robust. They have mounts for racks and panniers so you can take your camping equipment and other luggage with you.

Cross country bikes – Now we are entering the realm of mountain bikes. The cross country (XC) bike is the most versatile. This type of bike usually has a shorter suspension travel compared to other mountain bikes. XC bikes are lighter and suitable for climbing those steep mountain trails. They are also quite acceptable on the road, so if you need to commute before you hit that local trail, the XC bike is a great choice.

Trail bikes – These are heavier than XC bikes with longer suspension travel and slacker geometry, meaning the rider is positioned further back in relation to the center of the bike and the front wheel is further out in front. Still, they are suitable for some climbing but are most at home on long singletracks in the countryside.

Freeride / All mountain bikes – I lumped both of these types of bikes together as they represent a progression from the trail bike. The suspension travel increases, the geometry is even more slack, and they are less suitable for climbing. The emphasis is on the ability to perform big jumps and tricks while going mostly downhill.

Downhill bikes – a specialized machine for going downhill. That’s it. It is reflected in a very long suspension travel and lack of gearing for any type of climbing. Instead these bikes are equipped with large brake rotors to be able to stop effectively. The cool factor is high but stay away from this type of bicycle unless you want to take part in serious downhill racing.

That concludes my short breakdown of the types of bicycles available on the market. It is up to you, dear reader, to decide which would suit you best. Remember that nothing beats getting on a particular bicycle and trying it for yourself. If you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below.

Check back for part 2 in two weeks and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss the next blog post.

Catch and Release

The practice of catching a fish for sport, with rod and line, and then releasing it back to the water is known as Catch and Release. It has been discussed countless times in books, magazines, face to face conversations and on the Internet. Before writing this piece, I asked myself a question, “Does the world need another blog post about Catch and Release?”. My own approach to the practice has changed over time. That change has been due to personal experiences and to opinions expressed by respectable outdoorsmen. As a result, I decided to write about that change and hopefully challenge a few ossified opinions.

On many occasions, Catch and Release (C&R) is discussed from the perspective of an “ethical angler”. Proponents of the practice, quite often, unrelentingly criticize fellow anglers who take fish for the table. While I was certainly guilty of the latter, it was always my strong opinion, that C&R cannot stand on the grounds of ethics or morality. After all, we are sticking sharp hooks into a living creature and putting it through a torturous fight. Then, we remove the fish from the water and, while it is in a state of agony, we take photos of our grinning selves next to it. All that for our own enjoyment. Claiming moral high-ground for not killing it at the end is a bit hypocritical. C&R is purely a conservation measure, designed to protect fish as a renewable resource, while not completely denying anglers an opportunity to pursue their passion.

From the beginning of my journey as an angler, I could have been described as a hard-core C&R practicioner. It was because I realized that fish can be removed from the wild faster than they can reproduce. The evidence is easy to find. C&R was to me more of a matter of self interest than of ethics. I wanted to be sure that the fish would be there for my children and grandchildren. At that point in time, I refused to even consider killing a fish for any reason. And then… I was introduced to sea fishing.

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Any discussion about sea fishing, commercial sea fishing in particular, and conservation measures can quickly get political. Since this article is aimed at recreational anglers I will skim over issues of overfishing and commercial exploitation of fish stocks. Let’s just say, that the number of fish removed from the sea by recreational anglers is miniscule compared to the amount taken by the commercial fleets of the economic powers of the world. Therefore, releasing a fish into the sea, from the perspective of conservation, is meaningless. In addition, many species of marine fish suffer from barotrauma, the injury caused by being pulled up to the surface from the depth of the ocean. This makes successful recovery of the fish, after it is released, doubtful. Given both facts, the responsible sea angler can either stop fishing altogether or keep the fish for consumption.

It is important to mention, that there are species of saltwater fish, like the european sea bass, which are particularly vulnerable even though they are not targeted by commercial fishermen. In such cases C&R still makes sense as a conservation measure.

After experience with offshore fishing and analysis of its place and impact my non-negotiable position on C&R was somewhat relaxed. A few years later, I put my hands on the book by a famous hunter, outdoorsman and environmentalist Steven Rinella. Although the book is a collection of hunting stories, it has a chapter dedicated to Catch and Release. To my surprise, this conservation minded author was not fond of C&R. That initially surprised me or maybe even made me a little bit angry. I even recorded an episode of the podcast reviewing the book. Spoiler alert: the review is largely very positive. After reflecting on what I read, I came to the conclusion that Steven might have a point. In his opinion, angling like hunting, was primarily a way to get food. As human hunter-gatherers became less dependant on hunting thanks to the invention of agriculture, the role of hunting and fishing started to shift. It is somewhat bizarre, according to him, that we still practice fishing but somehow try to distance ourselves from its original purpose. It has even become unacceptable to fish for certain species in certain ways!

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Photo credit to TPE from Sea Bass Hunting

Hunters, unlike anglers, don’t have an opportunity to “shoot and resurrect”. Every animal has to be dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible and the meat taken care of. Conservation measures are implemented by means of closed and open seasons. The number of animals that can be harvested, as well as the time and duration of open seasons for particular species of game, are decided based on scientific data. Factors like the carrying capacity of an area, the breeding capacity of particular species, food availability, the harshness of winters and the presence of predators are all taken into account. Application of these conservation principles to angling makes more sense to me. Especially because the mortality rate of fish caught and released can be significant.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that Catch and Release has its place in modern sport fishing. It is a useful conservation tool but it’s significance shouldn’t be overestimated. If the numbers of fish are dwindling, before we impose C&R we should first look at habitat issues and commercial exploitation. If an angler engages in C&R he must take extremely good care of the fish that he releases. Yes, that means no trophy photos, unhooking the fish while still in the water and using barbless hooks.

As an angler, I have arrived at the point where I am okay to stop fishing when I have reached my bag limit. If conservation of the fishery is a priority, there are better ways to tackle that problem. For example, working with authorities to establish sustainable bag limits and closed seasons based on scientific evidence. This will be much more beneficial for protecting fish stocks and ensuring that we can still enjoy the taste of a just caught, fresh fish.

Safety in the outdoors

Taking on outdoor activities alone can offer a unique experience. Being able to focus on fishing, hunting, cycling or trail running without distractions provides an opportunity to enter a meditative state of mind and deeply connect with nature For that reason, many sportsmen prefer to spend time outdoors in solitude. But before you go out to hunt in the woods or fly fish from the rocks, all by yourself, you should take some basic safety precautions.

My friends and I spend countless hours in the outdoors, doing our thing, on our own. That often resulted in some hairy situations. This allowed us not only to better understand the dangers, but also to develop some basic practices. They could lower the risk or save our lives if things were to go sideways. In this short article, I would like to discuss some of those practices.

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Whenever you are cycling, running or swimming, there is a wide variety of GPS-enabled electronic devices at your disposal. These days, most of them can connect to your phone and transmit your location. Some of them even offer functions like crash-detection or fall-detection. In theory, they will trigger a notification to the phone number of your choice, about the emergency that has likely just occurred.

It might be a good idea to use this this type of technology. However, I would advise you to keep in mind a few things. These are usually simple consumer electronic devices, so they are not built or tested to be trusted with your life. They should be considered as bonus gizmos and not as the primary means of ensuring your safety. You will quickly find evidence of that while examining the user’s manuals. Nothing beats the old and still best method: tell someone trustworthy, a family member or a true friend, where you are going and what time you intend to come back. Make sure to inform them if you decide to change your plans. You can also agree up-front to an action they should take in case you do not make contact by the agreed time. Trust is a key factor here.

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Another good practice is to wear a bracelet or a tag with your name, blood type and emergency contact number. This simple item might be invaluable, in the event that something bad happens to you while you are with your friends. The likelihood that they will know your blood type is slim. Remember that having an ID with you is not the same. Reaching into your pockets might not be your friend’s first instinct while dealing with a likely stressful situation. Also, make sure that the information is well protected from the elements, eg. engraved or written with a waterproof pen.

I hope these simple tips will make you think about safety. I also hope you will never be in the situation that someone will have to make use of your tag or trigger an emergency procedure. Stay safe and I will see you in the outdoors!