Eat and Run: Nutrition for Parkour
For many, the idea of managing one’s diet to maximise physical performance is just that – an idea. There are plenty of people who talk about the need to eat healthily, to keep hydrated, to avoid junk food… and then ignore their own advice as soon as it becomes inconvenient to take it. This is the sign of someone who either does not train properly or is destined for a short and injury-laden career. Not good.
However, if you are beginning to take your training in parkour at all seriously you will soon discover that good nutrition is something you simply cannot do without. The strains and demands parkour practice places on the body are enormous, and without sufficient amounts of the correct fuel the body will start to break down and you will quickly see decreasing returns on your efforts. It is something you will have to give some attention to, and with a little planning it is not overly difficult to get the balance right.
So what, in nutritional terms, should you be doing to maximise your parkour training? These matters can seem confusing, with lots of different viewpoints and approaches being put forward on athletic diets all the time, and the key of course is to find out over time what works best for you. However, the basics of good nutrition are not overly complicated. Let’s take a look at how they apply to parkour training.
Balancing the Diet
There are many theories and methods for organising the ideal carbohydrate/protein/fat split, as all three are needed in the body but having too much of one at the expense of another can be detrimental. Meals should generally contain some protein, some carbohydrate, and sometimes a little fat too.
However, mixing too many carbohydrates and protein in a single meal can make you feel overly full: this is due to the body’s inability to digest both at the same time, so you may want to see how you feel.
A basic rule of thumb is not too eat excessive amounts of anything, follow as natural a diet as is possible, taking in as many raw, unprocessed foodstuffs as possible with plenty of water. Obviously organic is better, and this applies to meat and vegetables, although free range is usually ok for meat (and you never see organic turkey…).
Muscle Development: Protein
Almost all parkour training will put a lot of strain on at least one, and probably several, major muscle groups. The way a muscle develops is, crudely put, that you damage the fibres in the muscle through strenuous use and then these fibres are strengthened during rest periods as the body heals itself. It is protein that the body uses to do this, and so a traceur simply must take in good amounts of protein on a regular basis. Protein is found in many foods, but eating meat is the quickest natural way to get it into the system. Body-builders and power-lifters eat between 1 and 5 grams of protein per kg of body weight (5 being a shocking amount, and bloody hard to eat!). Keep it simple and aim for 1gram of protein per kg of bodyweight. I would suggest turkey – as it is lean and easy to eat cold in salad – chicken and any fish. Beef is excellent for protein, but too much red meat can be bad for your cholesterol; however, taken with garlic this shouldn’t be a problem, and indeed beef fat does contain many of the elements required for healthy joints.
Energy Provision: Carbohydrates, Glycogen and Fat
What you need to know is that glycogen is a carbohydrate that is the storage form of glucose in the body and is found mostly in the liver and muscle tissue. Glucose is what supplies the body with energy during strenuous work or exercise. When glucose is abundant, glycogen is synthesized. When tissues need glucose, glycogen is broken down and used. Having a good store of glycogen in the body, therefore, is vital to maintaining a rigorous training regime. Exercise depletes glycogen and it must be restored adequately before the next training session – and the best time to restore it is immediately after training or when you wake up.
What happens when your glycogen stores become depleted:
- exercise intensity becomes limited
- time to exhaustion decreases
- rating of perceived exhaustion during physical activity increases
In other words, you tire quicker, easier and you feel it! So get enough carbohydrate!
In terms of sources of carbohydrate, pasta is the obvious quickfire and convenient one. Oats and rice are the only two grains that are known to actively remove toxins from the body, so they are both good to have often. Porridge in the morning is a good and quick breakfast… but, given that you have been asleep for eight hours you should have a large glass of water, say, while cooking the porridge as you will be dehydrated. For general health carbohydrates should not be eaten too late, unless you have just been exercised, as they will be converted to sugars and fats (not always the good kind) as you rest.
Carbohydrates are also found in fruits and foods like beans (all kinds, not just baked), pulses and lentils. Many people prefer to get carbohydrates from pulses and beans because they are easier for the body to break down, and generally better for you (no salt, sugar and so on). They are also (fruits and beans/lentils etc) at different ends of the glycemic index, meaning that fruits are good for quick energy boosts, whereas beans/lentils and pulses are far better for long term, sustained energy (so the traceur needs both!).
Fat is an important part of any diet, and plays an important role in providing slow release energy for sustained periods of exertion. Of course, too much fat very quickly becomes detrimental so it needs to be taken in carefully. You can get fat easily from cheese and milk and many other natural sources (Those that are lactose intolerant cannot access the fat from milk and cheese, and as such must actively look for essential fatty acids in olive oil, seeds, some nuts and soya milk): what you should think about though is the percentage split between fats and carbohydrates. For parkour training it is important to get enough fatty acids for joint mobility, and brain and eye function, and then to avoid them in favour of carbohydrates because of the type of energy (read glycogen) that you will be needing. If your carbohydrates drop too low (around 20g) you will go into a state known as ketosis, widely regarded as a crisis reaction of the body to a lack of glucose in the body, which is not good unless you specifically want to cut weight.
When beginning your training in parkour, your joints will be put under stresses they have probably never encountered before on a regular basis. Hence, when you start it might pay to help them strengthen by taking some supplements. For joints, this means glucosamine chondroitin (usually you can get a combined capsule) and MSM (Methyl Sulphonyl Methane) which is for soft tissue. Standard, simple Cod Liver Oil isn’t a bad idea either.
You might want to use these while you change your diet, and then stick to the simpler, natural supplements once you have a decent diet plan in place.
Typically, the traceur’s life is one on the go. Travelling to and from training sessions or classes, running between favoured practice spots, long sessions of hard work… and all the while this is depleting energy reserves and keeping you away from meals. This means that portable foodstuffs become important, and the right ones will make a huge difference to how you feel during your day.
Good things to carry on you for snacking are: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds (both good for essential fatty acids); dried fruit (obviously this is easy to take around with you, a good carbohydrate booster, and great on porridge); goji berries (an incredible anti-oxidant – you only need around ten to make a big difference); and plenty of fresh fruit too, especially bananas which are superb for slow-release energy during long-training sessions.
This one is simple. Drink water: lots of it. Even better, find a sports drink that works for you as this will overcome our generally inefficient thirst mechanism and encourage you to take on more fluid because it tastes nice. Avoid soft drinks like Coke – the sugar rush is not good long term for both energy and health: it tricks the body into thinking it has lots of energy when, in fact, it does not; it can also produce a sugar low, which makes you feel very bad indeed. And never go near the strong caffeine drinks like Red Bull as these dehydrate you at an incredible rate.
If your lips are dry, you are already dehydrated. Drink more than you feel you need, especially when training. Just a slight drop in your hydration levels can have a massive effect on your capabilities, so take fluid on board as often as possible in the day.
Daily Diet Example
Obviously there are hundreds of ways to get the right amounts of the right stuff into the body, and only time and taste will tell you what works for you. However, as an example that may help you get started, a daily diet might look like this:
Breakfast: One glass of water, porridge with a handful (each) of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, apricots and peanut butter (a spoon, not a handful…), and fruit juice. Or a protein heavy breakfast if you want to build muscle and lose fat, for example bacon, eggs and avocado.
Mid-morning snack: Unsalted nuts (for protein), fresh or dried fruit.
Lunch: Chicken/Turkey/Fish/Beef salad (not all together) with, say, lettuce, tomatoes, olives (you can get jars of these for the fridge, and they are filling) onion, beetroot and whatever else you like – all of these are easily obtainable, and very, very quick to throw together. Water.
Mid-afternoon snack: Again fruit and nuts are fine, but perhaps a little more protein if you are planning on training in the evening at all – another bit of chicken perhaps or something with rice (this meal can often be switched with lunch). Water.
Dinner: After a day of hard exercise it is important to replace your glycogen with some carbohydrates, and get some protein for your body to do the repairs overnight. So maybe a tuna jacket potato, some tuna pasta, or curry and rice etc. Oh, and water! But this shouldn’t be too late in the day as you want to avoid high-glycemic index carbs as you move towards sleep as it will typically be stored as fat overnight. General rule, avoid that stuff after 8pm.
Essentially you need to get the relevant nutrients in the way that is both convenient and appealing, otherwise you will not stick to it… You will know when you can and cannot have hot food in a day and can plan your diet based on this. A little thinking ahead will go a long way, and for anyone who wishes to progress in parkour and have a long, healthy training career, nutrition is an element that simply cannot be ignored.