Parkour and the Fear of Aging

Parkour and the Fear of Aging

What is age? As a wise man once said, a year is merely a man-made device for measuring how the Earth travels once around the sun. Aging does have mental and physical effects on all athletes. Everyone gets older. Most get wiser as well. Do we also get more fearful? Are we less reckless than before? If so, is this due to more responsibility in our daily lives as we grow older? Perhaps a fear of waning muscle strength? Or could it be a lack of confidence in our physical capabilities? We all know that our mind is the most powerful tool we have. We must use it as a tool for motivation, and not let it rule us by fear.

As we age our inner voice that tells us “I cannot do that” seems to get louder when presented with new challenges. Parkour, more than many other activities, constantly presents fresh situations where we must analyze and judge new challenges every time we go out. When we are running on a track, we don’t have many new choices to make. That is, we aren’t often confronted with a new obstacle or barrier that forces us to judge it (such as a foreign object) as well as how we choose to navigate it; assessing our own potential.

In parkour, however, we must make quick assessments and decisions. If something is high, we can do a number of things, and if it is wide or deep, then we have a totally different set of choices facing us. Training for swimming is similar to track, in that there aren’t new obstacles in the water. Ball sports or martial arts present new things – nothing ever happens in the same exact manner twice. That being granted, very infrequently do we have to assess our own capabilities when performing these activities. More often we simply make a choice based on what the opponent does. We look at the offense and the defense, and make choices according to what things we see. Many of these actions are actually reactions based on previous experience. We practice things over and over until they are done by rote. Parkour is similar in that it is reaction-based, but often the situations are singular enough that memories are not involved. Usually we base our decisions on things we have practiced before, but it is not uncommon to do something entirely new during a parkour session.

If we see a wall that we have climbed before, then we know that we can climb it again. If we see a gap that we have precisioned before, then we feel confident about doing it again. It is when we are faced with new obstacles that we are wont to hesitate. Dostoyevsky said that “Taking a new step is what people fear most.” When we are young, we are fearless. As we grow older, we tend to lose some of that. We are slow to take that new step, wondering if we are still physically capable. Is all of this worry founded in truth?

The recent buzzword for age-related loss of muscle mass is ‘sarcopenia.’ Most doctors today agree that lack of use, more than age, is the main factor. The deterioration can start at age 25, and between the ages of 25 and 50 up to 10 percent of muscle mass can be lost, mainly by disuse. Between the ages of 50 and 80, an additional 40 percent can be lost. Scientists have found that sarcopenia can occur with highly active people as well, mainly with runners, people doing aerobics and people using a ‘Stairmaster’ machine. While the aerobic effect is good, it does little to maintain or improve muscle mass. Therefore, a combination of aerobic and strength or resistance training is necessary. Many people will use weights for the strength training aspect, but parkour seems ideally suited for this. Using the body’s weight as a tool for resistance training is a perfect way to counteract sarcopenia.

It is also never too late to start. Scientists have discovered that lean muscle mass can increase at any age if a strength-training program is started and maintained. Scientists point to a routine weight-training regimen to counteract sarcopenia, including squats, dumbbell rowing, lunges and pushups. All of these exercises have suitable counterparts in Parkour. The only dangers are in laziness, in trying to do too much too soon, or perhaps not frequently enough. As people age they tend to exercise less and injuries can occur more frequently. Therefore, good warm-ups, stretching, and dedication (at least three times a week) can help combat this. The problem with fear of loss of physical ability appears not to have any foundation: Rather, the fear is all in our minds. As that perennial wisdom states, the only real thing we have to fear… is fear itself.

When faced with a new obstacle on a training run, do we fear it to be impossible? It is possible that we haven’t maintained our physical abilities, but we probably hesitate due to the fear that our remaining capabilities are insufficient. Certainly fear and insecurity can play a part in on-the-spot evaluations. As we age, we cannot run as fast as we used to, nor jump as high or far. However, we do seem to be able to run as far: we can maintain stamina. It takes longer, but young and old alike compete in marathons and triathlons. If the mind can will it, the body can usually do it. It is a choice. “Do or do not; there is no ‘try’,” as the short green one said.

One of the most important things for aging athletes is discipline: will power; that ‘never give up’ attitude; inner strength. Call it what you will, but that it is necessary is clearly manifest. We all want to think that we have no limits. This is worthy in principle, but in reality awkward. For example, we today cannot run 1500m in three minutes. Impossible. Therefore, knowing our limits can assist us in our training.

More pointedly, a knowledge of our limits and continually (albeit safely) trying to test and extend these limits is what drives many of us. We want to improve, to do more than before, and to do better than the most recent time. This is where the inner strength, the will power, comes into importance: in our daily training. If last week I did 10 sets of 20 chin ups, then this week I want to do 11 sets. Or 10 sets of 21. It is precisely here, at the edge of our limits, that our mind is telling us, pleading with us, to quit. It is saying that your body is hurting, that this is doing more harm than good, that it cannot go on.

Other times this inner voice could be sweet, but nonetheless, urging you to quit now. Perhaps it is congratulating you on all you have accomplished; well done, stop now and try to do the same again next time. It happens to all athletes, we all recognize this. It is at these times that our willpower must surface. We have to search for the tiny defiant voice ordering us to go on.

Often times this tiny defiant voice is entwined with anger. Anger, hate, rage… all these testosterone-filled emotions are powerful allies when testing our physical limits. It is also no secret that our teens and twenties are the years when our lives are most affected by testosterone. Age mellows us in this sense, and therefore transitively can serve to dim the tiny defiant voice that in the past urged us on through pain. Elite athletes find some way to rekindle these emotions, or to channel others as surrogates. It is the challenge of all athletes to find another way to tap into this resource.

Obviously long-time athletes can recognize this need for will power. Years of performing any activity requires a large degree of patience and discipline. For someone attempting to do a prolonged activity, years of practice at tapping into such emotions to prolong a workout is preferred to inexperience. However, it is not a prerequisite – merely being aware, having the knowledge (that you may need to tap into stereotypically testosterone-laden emotions) can be of use. Not all freerunners were athletes in a former life. Some played the piano. Others may have done nothing at all, but are seeking to improve themselves, to try something different and new.

Attempting to improve ourselves is an attitude worthy of respect by all. At a young age it is easy to laugh when seeing older people walking around a track. When we are young we can run so fast, and think it silly, or a waste of time, to go around slowly. It is much harder to realize that these older people are far better off than their friends that are sitting on the couch watching television. This different way of looking at things is central to parkour. We as a group seem very supportive, and applaud not only the results of others, but also the efforts. It is precisely these efforts that we need to embrace as aging individuals. We must remind ourselves that effort is the basis of rewards. We cannot shy away from trying a manoeuvre merely because a voice in our heads fears that we are no longer capable of such a feat.

To the victor go the spoils… but there are no real spoils in parkour. With great risk comes great reward… and therefore with risk comes reward. We must not let fear overcome us. We must find confidence, and act upon it. We must take the risk, and get our own reward, our own satisfaction. We must use our minds, our most powerful ally, in our battle against fear and age.

by Hudson Murrell