Etre et Durer – Plyometric Training in Parkour
Your toes hang off the edge of the last brick as you take in a measured breath and then step out into space. You drop, enjoying the momentary freedom of airtime before bracing yourself for the compression of the precision landing. The uncompromising concrete is met, joint at a time, as ankles, knees and hips absorb the shock, storing up the potential energy like a coiled spring. Fractions of a second later the spring releases and you are launched forward and upwards, your centre of gravity shifting to allow your feet to arrive at the opposite wall fractionally before your hands clutch its rough surface…
Even this somewhat laboured description of a Drop Precision to Cat/Arm Jump does not do justice to the interplay of biomechanical forces at work as a traceur executes his or her discipline.
Without doubt, Parkour demands a high level of functional fitness. The traceur who wants to avoid injury must have flexibility, mobility, aerobic endurance and raw explosive power. These qualities are hard earned and there are no short cuts – as Blane infers in his excellent article ‘Dilution’, the ego-driven desire to emulate the spectacular feats focused upon by the media is perhaps the greatest threat facing the newcomer to our discipline. ‘Further’, ‘higher’, ‘harder’ has a price if ‘sooner’ is also thrown into the mix! The Parkour community is awash with athletes who are well conditioned in parallel interests such as martial arts, team sports or even dance and gymnastics but are unprepared for the unique physical demands of Parkour.
Pick up any decent book on sports physiology and a phrase will jump out at you again and again – ‘adaptive specificity’; the body’s ability to adapt to the specific demands made upon it by any repeated movement or activity. In simple terms, take a seasoned ballet dancer and a wrestler and have them switch places for a day’s training – both may be extremely well-conditioned for their own activities but you can guarantee both will feel like they’ve been hit by the Pain Train the next day! Each physical discipline has its own formula of demands and no matter what you’ve done in the past, a fledgling traceur is just that; vulnerable and not yet capable of flight!
This is not of course to say that there is no transference of attributes; a well-seasoned triathlete is likely to bring a set of core competencies which will certainly make the transition easier but I would argue that his or her experience can also compound the problem. The out-of-shape beginner is likely to be under no illusions regarding their conditioning and each step out of their comfort zone will be taken tentatively. The triathlete on the other hand may have expectations and a work ethic which are in advance of their actual ability to manage the differing demands placed upon their body.
If I seem to be labouring this point I should confess that I am one of those who have fallen at the ‘third hurdle’. I entered the world of Parkour almost a year ago now, confident in my physical foundation as a martial artist and track athlete – hell I even served a spell as a professional trapeze artist! I believed I knew all about flow and was looking forward to making rapid advances in this newfound discipline. I had an intuitive grasp of the skills set needed to make progress and with excellent support and encouragement from the Parkour Generations team, within six months I showed all the signs of becoming a protégé!
Six months later, I have found myself being forced to descend the stairs to my townhouse each morning on my backside, waiting for my Achilles tendons to loosen up! I am nursing several minor sprains and joint pains that have never fully healed and am now patiently waiting for a groin strain to settle down before I can jog again, let alone vault anything! I believed my approach to training was intelligent and incrementally progressive – even though the majority of my training has been alone and unguided due to living far from the instructors in London – but my experience has been at odds with those beliefs and the harsh truth is that I have been weighed, measured and I have been found wanting!
The thing I’d like to stress is that I am not one of the adrenaline-driven thrill seekers with no foundation in physical disciplines. Nor am I one of those misguided souls leaping from tall buildings under the illusion that Parkour is a secret rooftop cult for superhero wannabes! I listened to the voices of experience. I was drilling the basics, paying my dues and still I managed to get it wrong. So what is it specifically about Parkour that exacts such a price? Assuming I am not alone in my experiences so far, how can we avoid the ‘2 steps forward, 1 limp backwards’ approach that I have endured in recent months? These are the two questions I intend to address in what remains of this article.
I believe that the key biomechanical skill set missing from most newcomers’ arsenal is that of Plyometric resilience. The term ‘plyometrics’ was coined in 1975 by Fred Wilt; an innovative track and field Coach in America. The term is used to describe a set of training drills designed to enable a muscle to reach its maximum strength in as short a time as possible. A muscle can of course ‘express’ itself in three different ways – it can lengthen (eccentric contraction), it can hold itself at any given length (isometric contraction) and it can shorten (concentric contraction). The absorption of shock (as described at the start of this article) would involve an eccentric contraction as the muscle seeks to decelerate the body while remaining under tension. The acceleration involved as the muscle moves from a precision landing into a forward leap would then be expressed by a rapid conversion from eccentric to concentric contraction. Between the two, a brief period of isometric contraction would be present as the forces cancel each other out. This spring-like cycle from negative (eccentric) to positive (concentric) work is known as the amortization phase.
The amortization phase can takes place in hundredths of a second for a conditioned athlete and plyometric training is designed to encourage the efficiency of this cycle which in turn yields more potential power and more resilient, elastic movement. A newcomer to Parkour is likely to display exaggerated absorption of impact, having yet to develop this elasticity. The result is staccato movement rather than flow, with extended amortization phases between movements. Along with broken flow comes increased expenditure and risk because there is a less efficient storage of potential energy; the forces involved in each movement must be generated by the traceur rather than through borrowed residual energy from previous effort. In experiential terms the fledgling traceur feels ‘heavy and sluggish’ and it is likely that aching joints and unresponsive muscles will become constant companions.
Most athletes of course are exposed to plyometric activity as part of a broader training regime. A sprinter for example might employ traditional resistance training, track work, cross training alongside any plyometric activity and these different elements will be spaced appropriately across the week with ample recovery time.
For most athletes then, plyometric work is a means to an end and is only incorporated into the training cycle once a platform of muscular resilience has been secured. Indeed, early European writings on the subject recommend that an athlete should be able to perform squats with 2.5 times their body weight before they are able to safely start plyometric activity! While most modern coaches recognise this to be perhaps excessively cautious, it is still widely held that plyometrics should be progressively introduced with low-impact drills and complementary resistance training forming the bulk of training in the first few months. More ambitious plyometric drills including extended lunging and jumping exercises are recommended to be practised infrequently and even then they should be reserved for ‘elite’ athletes due to the stresses involved. If such precautions are taken at face value, it soon becomes clear that the traceur finds him or herself in an environment which immediately places significant emphasis upon plyometric movement. Precisions, cat-leaps, vaults, wall runs – it’s difficult to think of a drill that does not involve some degree of plyometric demand on the traceur. Does this mean then that the fledgling traceur is doomed to a life of injury?
Absolutely not! It was by reflecting upon my training with the Parkour Generations team that I gained a deeper appreciation of the structure inherent in their sessions. A thorough warm up with movement specific to the demands we are to face in the session is one way in which the team ensure that injuries are minimised. Following the warm up, the training proper is divided into a number of distinct sequences of movement which make differing demands upon the body. A grinding set of precisions is followed by a balancing drill. A fluid chain of vaults is followed by punishing sequence of static muscle ups. The considered sequencing of exercises is just one way in which our training can become more intelligent. When training alone, by varying intensity, volume, frequency and recovery time within our sessions, we can further ensure maximum gains with minimum risk.
Volume is understood to be the total work performed in a single session. The number of times a movement is repeated will obviously be dictated by intensity and progression goals. For most traceurs volume can be measured by number of foot falls or distance covered. The key here is to be sensitive to your current ability and energy levels. It is all too easy to seek to model the work load of the Parkour elite and this is indeed a noble goal but to reach too far, too soon is to disrespect the work they had to put in to get to where they are now. You should work as hard as you can for as long as you can until the law of diminishing returns comes into effect. If you feel the quality of your movement deteriorating to the point where you are no longer in control, change your drill or take a rest and return to the activity when refreshed. If you have a spot picked out to drill a Precision that is a 6 on your intensity scale, give that session the respect it and you deserve. Take a bottle of water, a snack, start early and make a day of it! Warm up thoroughly and ensure that the first few sets are below 5 on your intensity scale. Take as long as you need to reach the target number of repetitions safely and skilfully. Time and again we hear the same message, even from the luminaries in our discipline – “I was tired, I should have stopped but I decided to make one more attempt…”
Frequency is a term often used interchangeably with ‘volume’ but in this case it refers to the number of times a movement is repeated during a training cycle. This cycle might be a single week, a month or a season and is intimately linked to our final variable of recovery time. It stands to reason that intensive muscular work will lead to micro tears and haemorrhaging in the soft tissue surrounding the muscle. This is the very premise of ‘bodybuilding’ and I am sure that the gym monkeys amongst you will remember locker room conversations held between flex fetishists about whether they were working their legs or arms that day. Having blasted a body part, they cycle to a new muscle group, allowing repair and growth to take place. Likewise, the plyometric-savvy traceur might work on leg dominant movement one day and then switch to sequences of movement that are upper body dominant the next. A day of vaults could precede a day of balance and traversing drills. In other words the logic that dictates the structure of an individual training session should also shape broader training patterns. It is when our training is more haphazard or imbalanced that the horrors of plyometric mismanagement creep up on us!
So how long should a traceur leave between sessions? Again, I defer to the wisdom of European Coaches who recommend 48 to 72 hours of recovery between plyometric sessions. Studies suggest that if these rest periods are not observed, overall performance is impaired and risk of injury grows exponentially. If you intelligently organise and plan your sessions you can train daily whilst still building in recovery time for specific muscle groups. If this division of movement seems too restrictive or at odds with the spirit of flow and freedom that you find in Parkour, the alternative might be to explore any drills you wish but then leave 2 or 3 days before your next Parkour session. The days in between could be spent doing stretching and lengthening exercise programmes such as Yoga or Pilates which would also facilitate the recovery process. Over time of course, muscular resilience will emerge and you will require less rest between sessions but in the first months, I am convinced that it is this key to injury free training.
And so I am stretching several times a day, eating right and biding my time. In the days since I started writing this article, I have gone for my first pain-free run and managed some railing balance work to boot! I am back on the path and I feel that I am clearer about what Parkour means to me and what I need to do next. Parkour is ultimately a very personal discipline and a hard taskmaster. Our injuries can be interfering tyrants or teachers who have secrets to reveal if only we would listen to them. I am sure there are many lessons still waiting to be learnt but for now, I believe I have earned the right to take one more step forwards, at my own pace and for the right reasons.