Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Art of Powerbocking, and (Re)Learning to Walk

“The art of what?” I hear you say. Well, not actually hear you, but I'm betting something like that is going through your head if you aren't familiar with powerbocking. I know the feeling, because I've only been familiar with it for about a month now.

Powerbocking is...difficult to define. The best definition I can think of is that it is an “extreme sport” along the lines of skate-boarding or roller-skating. It's all about people taking a piece of equipment and seeing what it allows them to do.

Or in this case, two pieces of equipment. Powebocking (or bocking, for short) requires a pair of powerbockers (or bockers, or bocks, or powerstilts, or...they have many names). Powerbockers are basically special boots with large fiberglass leaf springs attached that you strap onto your legs and walk around in about eighteen inches taller.

Or run, jump, or back-flip around in, depending on your preference and skill level. There's no external power involved; they rely entirely on your muscle power to function. They merely allow you to store more of the energy of your muscles in the springs, which basically act as (powerful mechanical) extensions of your Achilles' tendons. The best analogy I can think of would be that it's similar to having a pogo stick strapped to each leg. They tend to make the wearer end up looking like some sort of futuristic chimeric faun with the legs of a robotic gazelle.

Powerbockers were invented by a German aerospace engineer by the name of Alexander Böck back in 2003 and were eagerly adopted in Europe where they were first sold (hence the name “bocking” applied to the sport by practitioners). There are many different powerbocking clubs in Europe whose webpages you can find online. In contrast, adoption in the Americas has been much slower, to the point that I hadn't heard of them, ten years after they came out.

Why am I writing about this topic? Because I myself have now got a pair of bockers and have taken up powerbocking.


The fiberglass springs that make up the most important part of the bockers are seen here covered in the black and yellow alternating duct tape stripes I added to protect them. The black platforms halfway up are where your feet go (seen with the buckles for strapping them in), and the assembly at the top wraps around the leg just below the knee. At the very bottom are the rubber “hooves.”

I got my bocks about three weeks ago now, and have been enjoying them ever since. I quickly realized that despite the ease with which people reportedly pick them up, and my naturally good balance, they aren't just strap-on-and-go; I spent my first two sessions with them taking a few tentative steps and falling over (onto the soft grass of the front lawn, and with full protective gear, so no injury sustained).

At first my brain didn't know what to do. I would try to walk as I would normally, and immediately trip and fall. Powerbockers interfere with your normal muscle memory; your lower legs essentially become eighteen inches longer and end in small surfaces rather than your normal large-support-area feet. Although manufactured as light as possible, they're also still a good couple of pounds' extra weight on each foot. But the amazing thing about brains is, they can take new information, and adapt, even – perhaps especially – unconsciously. Those first two session were essential calibration sessions, my brain taking in every scrap of information about the new weights and moments of inertia of my new mechanically-imbued legs. So when I had my third session, something incredible happened: I was able walk (slowly) around the yard multiple time without falling once.

Ever since that session I've been getting better and better. My first walking was wooden and stiff-legged, which turns out to be surprisingly tiring. Two sessions later I found I had transitioned to a much more natural gait, which was a lot easier. It's been an interesting process of re-learning to walk. (I sympathize with toddlers a lot!) Thankfully, walking is something I do literally every day of my life, so my brain has almost 24 years’ worth of experience to pull from and use when coming up with a new walking model that allows me to walk with such different leg configurations.

The old aphorism that “you have to walk before you can run” certainly applies here, but I've recently begun to tentatively jog short distances. In fact today I spent an hour outside on my bocks, running up and down the road in short bursts. It's a slightly terrifying sensation, since you're vividly aware that you're simultaneously nearly two feet taller, have less balance surface, and move at a pretty good clip for even a small expenditure of energy. However, it's also absolutely thrilling, and I love it. That was really a large part of what made me want to get into bocking in the first place. I'm not exactly into the whole back-flipping, extreme tricks thing – but the idea of running fast with mechanical assistance viscerally appealed to me. (It's commonly reported on various bocking sites that experienced bockers can run up to 20 miles per hour [~32 kilometers per hour], something I'm rather looking forward to trying.)

I also hope to eventually get someone to get some footage of me bocking so I can put it up here, once I've gotten better and can do something more interesting than just walking and jogging around. Anyway, a hui hou!

2 comments:

  1. I like! In the last year I've had both hip joints replaced. I'm still a little wobbly, but as soon as I can I'm checking these out. What a great way to exercise my legs.

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    Replies
    1. They're certainly VERY good exercise! A commonly quoted figure on various sellers' pages is that using them exercises 95% of your body. I thought that was typical advertising hyperbole until I tried them. Now I think it's a lower estimate!

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