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Parkour, Breathing, and Ice Cold Baths

From left to right: Josh, Martin, and me.

My shoulders ache. My legs ache. Everything aches. It's awesome. It's the signal that I've been outside my comfort zone doing something different. Last weekend I attended a beginners' Parkour seminar combined with a Wim Hof method seminar, at the extraordinary Chainstore Gym run by Parkour Generations in London. What a place that is. I wanted to stay and play all day. And I did!

This all came about because I met Dan Edwardes at the Hero Round Table event I attended last year; the one where I ended up doing burpees with Joe de Sena. Parkour is one of those ‘that looks amazing but way way too dangerous' activities, and as always with such things, I stay away unless I find a teacher whose approach suits me. Such as Dan. Chatting safety with Dan is like looking in a mirror. The things that look dangerous usually aren't, it's all about preparation, and you can always leave the spectacular and risky stuff out. That's right folks; you don't have to walk along the parapet of a skyscraper and leap to the next building. You can start on the floor. It's hard to fall badly when you're already on the ground.

The seminar was organised as a gentle intro to Parkour, followed by a gentle intro to the Wim Hof breathing (taught by Martin Petrus), followed by a short lecture on the physiology of the method, followed by a more advanced Parkour class, and then back to Martin for some breathing and the immersion in icy water. I mean water that's full of ice-cubes, so the temperature is close to zero. This is not a cold shower.

My regular readers of this blog (and of my book The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts) will know that I've been doing the Wim Hof Method and cold exposure for a while, but even so it was very interesting to see Martin's take on it. He's a qualified WHM instructor, and a very good teacher, and his approach is much softer than daredevil Wim's. It has given me a lot of ideas for furthering my own practice, and also someone to ask if I get stuck with something.

Dan's approach to teaching Parkour is exactly like mine for teaching swordsmanship. Minimal technical instruction, maximum practical experience, focus on one thing, and mindful practice. He even cited one of my favourite books on coaching, The Inner Game of Tennis. I was the only complete beginner in the class; many of the 9 other students had been training for years, and oh my it showed. Another great feature: the absolute best training situation is when everyone around you is more experienced than you are. It's uncomfortable, of course, because you can feel like you're holding the class back, or getting in people's way, but that's also a useful exercise in itself.

The warm-up was focused on what we were going to do (and I have a few nifty squat variations to add to my regular training and torture my students), and the most Parkour-ey thing we did was walking along scaffolding beams, set about a foot or 18 inches off the ground, and jumping from a low box onto a low wall (there were four different set-ups, from very low and close, to really quite high and far away. I managed to do the first two, but stayed away from the others. I also got a proper Parkour experience: on my first jump, I stalled: my subconscious took over completely and I had this weird experience of my body not doing what I was telling it, and I stopped dead on the edge of the jump. This was really useful, because so much of the process is about doing the things you find scary. I was prepared for the possibility of balking on the second attempt, and so headed it off, and jumped with no problem. But it was terrifying; I was convinced I'd end up splatting my face into the wall. This is the best kind of practice (and one I've experienced before on the trapeze). Half a dozen jumps later and it was no issue, and I moved up to the next stage.

The second round of Parkour started with us playing on their indoor set-up, with all sorts of scaffolding rigs for leaping about on like a particularly extraverted ninja (or staggering about like a drunken hippo if you're me). Their play area changes regularly, so it's not set up exactly like in this video from their youtube channel, but you can get the general idea:

I don't like experiencing seminars from behind a phone, so I left mine in my bag and took no photos for you, sorry. But the whole event was videoed, and Parkour Generations will be publishing the video soon. Let's hope they don't show the bits where I could be mistaken for that hippo.

The Wim Hof breathing was a little different to how I usually do it. For a start, we were lying down, and really focussing on breathing deeply in, and passively exhaling, and it lead to a pretty intense experience which I don't quite want to describe yet. Good stuff, but it felt kind of private.

The final experience was the ice bath. We poured bags of ice cubes into a half-full immersion pool, and left it for a short while (which brings the temperature of the water down) while we prepared with three more rounds of the breathing. We entered the pool in pairs, and stayed in for two minutes under Martin's close attention. I think this was the part that showed Martin's depth as a teacher; he was extraordinarily good at talking us gently through the hard parts. Ice baths hurt. Most of us went in twice though, so it's not just me that's mad. One of the many odd things about the experience was I got these strange blue marks on my knees and left shin, which went away when I warmed up again. I think they are bruises under the skin, and as the blood leaves the skin becomes translucent, showing the damage underneath. The science behind the benefits of this kind of cold exposure is pretty solid, but it is not for the faint hearted! I've only done properly icy water immersion after a sauna before, which is very different (not least because you can get straight back into the sauna if you want to).

All in all, this was a great day of dangerous things approached safely, good training, interesting experiences, and nice people. The real measure of a training space is the atmosphere, I think. The acid test is would I be happy sending my kids there? And I absolutely would. I hope to be back soon whether they want to come with me or not!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

2 Responses

  1. Next time you come to NZ it sounds like you might like to visit the crusaders rugby sports physio team. Not sure if they do after the earthquakes. But before the earthquakes they had hot and cold baths, and they knew exactly when to use each for each person on the team. (Of course they know everything from warm up, flexibility and endurance to explosive acceleration training. And from day one in the professional era they forced blokey ruby players to sign very strict contracts that they would do what they were told, ice baths and all, and no drinking to excess in season, arrive to pre-season training already fit,) But most of all from day one the coach, medical, management, sports psychologists and team were committed to the one approach. And they won every season for several years before anyone caught up. Even the Australians with their massive high performance sports center.

    The all blacks would be similar.

    Of course it is nice to see that the University of Otago and physios have been doing research into many aspects of different sports. Breathing is a big focus. But they are also developing sports specific stretching. They have found that many stretches do nothing for many sports because the stresses of the sport are totally different to the stretch, so new ones need to be developed.

    1. I would, I should! and yes, stretching is sport specific. I usually do mine to maintain ranges of motion that my swordsmanship does *not* require though.

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