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Parkour - Day 1

I've been looking for an alternative way to stay fit and challenge myself - I tend to get quickly bored with "normal" workouts (weights, treadmills, etc.) and my bad knees limit my ability to run. My biggest pleasures are sprints and full body agility/strength feats (flips, spins, jumps, kickboxing, etc.), as well as mountain biking and hiking. Unfortunately all of those things are incredibly hard to do in the city - there's no privacy for the former, and no terrain for the latter.

Last week I was googling around for a nearby gym that does MMA, capoeira, kickboxing or gymnastics style training. I stumbled across Primal Fitness, an easy 3/4 mile run from my place and saw they did parkour training. I've been a fan of parkour (google it) for around 7-8 years, ever since I first stumbled across David Belle doing some beautiful looking moves through urban terrain.

So, I signed up for a six week "level 1" boot camp - Mon/Wed/Sat (fits perfectly with softball on Tue and kickball on Wed). Reading the site and and a little background info, I expected a conditioning based training class focusing on the basics of running, jumping, and total body control - not something crazy, but building the foundation that would allow me to push myself in other directions by enhancing my agility, speed, and coordination.

Day 1: Exactly what I expected, but somehow cooler

I took a nice easy walk up to the gym, not sure what to expect (didn't want to arrive gassed from a quick run). Primal Fitness is in a converted firehouse, which is very cool - it's basically a wide open room maybe 60 feet by 30 feet with very high ceilings. Lots of wedges and mats stacked on the side, with some pullup bars and a set of uneven parallel bars on the sides as well as random rings hanging from the ceiling and a big stack of kettle bells and dumbells.

At first the inside of the place was INTENSELY hot - I was afraid heat exhaustion might hit before we got very worked up. Luckily they opened up one of the main fire doors and things evened out fairly fast - the temperature was definitely warm but you quickly got used to it.

After the standard signup and everything, our instructors introduced themselves and explained that we were going to do some quick warmups, and that after today the warmups would be done on our own. Warmups were both easy and challenging - we did a quick jog around the block (it was wet/slick out, had to be careful rounding corners), followed by ten pushups (easy), then ten weird full body explosive pullups (the challenging bit)...

Okay, these were weird. I say weird because I can do ~8 normal pullups right now in a row, not great but not bad. With these pullups, instead of using only your upper body you are supposed to swing forward and explode up with your hips. To help as you start, you do "jump pullups" where you actually jump off a box. Watching this I thought it would be much easier than a real pullup - boy was I wrong (hard to control your body momentum during the swing). Lots of fun though. So, ten of those, then ten body-weight squats (easy).

Then repeat - today we only did this circuit twice, but from now on we will do it three times. That's the warmup - basically a total of running 12 blocks, 30 pushups, 30 explosive pullups, and 30 squats. We will be expected to do this in 10min.

After the warmup, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. The trainers then talked a bit about parkour and what we were going to learn and train - as expected, they really focused on body control, power, and agility. Good, this is what I was looking forward to.

The first section of the class was focusing on proper landing technique - using your entire legs, especially the glutes and hamstrings (which I incorrectly identified as the quads and calves at first - haha, I dunno what I was thinking), which is basically your butt and the back of your legs. We spent probably at least ten minutes jumping up into a full tuck (pulling your legs up), then straightening your legs out and absorbing the impact with your full body (landing as quietly as possible in a squat).

Here's where it started to get weird for me... I felt this was very easy at first (perhaps arrogant sounding but having self-trained in agility, gymnastics, and some martial arts combined with my wresting background I understand things like proper way to reduce body momentum on impacts/falls/landings), but I started to find it incredibly hard to do the JUMP part. My legs were getting ripped up by the jumping, especially the bottom of my quads and whatever muscle is at the bottom of my knee.

I don't know if this is due to the damage I did to my quad earlier in the year or if it's just that I've been biking so much that those muscles in my leg are not used to explosive power - but they definitely were having problems pushing off. It was very weird, had to push myself to keep lifting up off the ground and it was affecting my coordination (flailed around a few times heh).

So, then we started moving to broad jumps in the same format, jumping across the gym in rows. Very fun. After we finished with this, we moved into "ankle loosening excersises." Here I found out something else weird - I guess I've always known this, but I've never had it showcased as clearly as here:

My left leg is considerably more powerful and more conditioned than my right.

Why? I don't know - it's my power leg for jumping, but otherwise I don't really favor it. I usually make it a point to alternate my plant foot when doing kickboxing, but I do tend to plant off my left for spin kicks and use it as my plant leg for kickball/etc. I guess it's my power leg for base running too (though this is awkward), but my right-handed batting stance for softball means I don't use it as my power leg batting.

Anyway, did a bunch of toe-jumps, first with both feet. Up and down, then forward and back, then right to left. I could tell fairly quickly that my right foot was tiring faster, the arch was hurting. Then we started doing the same on one leg - after 15 hops on my right foot, my leg was burning. Switch to the left foot and it's nothing. Then forward/back, same - my right leg is dying but my left is totally fine. Repeat for side to side - at this point I could barely jump on my right leg but my left leg was all good. I will need to work on this - probably focus on my right leg more on my "days off."

After this we grabbed what was basically a set of two-by-fours nailed together in a H style, with the middle bar being longest. We then practiced jumping into this and landing with the balls of our feet in a proper landing crouch, controlling momentum and not falling off. A lot of people had problems with falling backwards but I seemed to be falling forwards the few times I had problems - Travis (one of the trainers) quickly pointed out that I was not keeping my back straight and head up, which remedied the problem. This quickly became very easy for me (next time I'll do this from further away), except again the jumping was starting to tire my legs out and I started having real problems with my coordination on landing because I had to push so hard to jump.

One cool point here - at first I was like "so what if I lean slightly forward and tuck my momentum - this makes sense for long landings because I will tuck into a forward roll anyway." Rob explained this before I could ask though - in parkour you may often need to land on a small target that might be many feet off the ground. So, if you are jumping from a wall to a railing or just another wall, if you lean forward to absorb momentum you could end up falling many feet onto your face. "Oh" says the voice in my head.

At this point we were almost done, and started what Rob (the other trainer) called the Class Challenge - every single person in the class (about ten of us total) had to land five consecutive landings on their training H. If any person in the class failed, the entire class would have to do as many burpees as there were attempts remaining.

Burpees. Okay, I'll be honest - I have known about these for a long time but somehow have avoided ever doing one in real life. I learned tonight they are quite hard. :| Not so much from a physical cardio perspective (they do rip you up if you do a bunch of them tho), but I had a really hard time fluidly combining what seemed like radically different body moves into one. Squat, throw out your legs, do a pushup, get your legs under you, jump straight up, repeat. Ugly. I will need to practice these to get better.

The very first attempt at the class challenge, someone fell off. YAY BURPEES! shouts the entire class (the official Primal Fitness response to being "punished" with burpees). Everyone does five burpees. We try again.

The second attempt fails at the first jump again. YAY BURPEES! Five burpees for everyone. Oddly I am not frustrated at this - I don't even feel the need to turn around to see who fell off. This is unexpected, I thought I would resent the people who fall off but I find instead I welcome the challenge.

The third attempt goes much better - the class lands three consecutive jumps before someone falls off on the fourth. YAY BURPEES! Two sets of burpees later and the trainers have decided we've had enough - no more class challenge, everyone needs to land five jumps on their own that they feel good with.

At this point I landed about 10-12 jumps on my own rapidly, but I kept having issues with the coordination due to the weakness in my quads and they weren't very perfect. I kept trying until I got five I liked, but it was hard (especially since everyone else seemed to finish up much faster and I was not landing a solid fifth). I want to keep this attitude through the class though - I'm not just in it to learn some skills, but to push myself.

That was pretty much it, end of the class. We did about ten minutes of static stretching where I was reminded that even though I feel horribly inflexible compared to the Days of Yore, my body is still apparently more flexible than most - I could barely feel anything doing most of the stretching they led us through, so I sorta started doing my own thing a little bit to make sure I actually stretched appropriately. I did learn some cool new stretching stuff though (or rather, was reminded of stuff I haven't done since high school).

After thanking the trainers for the class, we all disbanded pretty quick. I decided to run the 3/4 mile home, and... lol. I was amazing to find that even though I felt fine physically I could barely run, the muscles around my knees were really having a hard time holding my legs, they wanted to give out. I ran about 4-5 blocks at half intensity (a solid run but low speed) and decided it was just too dangerous in the wet. Walked the rest of the way home, then ran up the stairs all 12 floors to the roof to chill out.

It was a very good day - I'm obviously excited about it, as you can tell by the length of this post. I have a strange mix of pride and expectation, as you can also tell. I am definitely proud of my fitness level compared to a few years ago - it might not be as high as it was at peak last summer before I broke my toe, but that class would have completely wrecked me in January '08 and I probably would've hit my physical limit well before my mental limit.

Instead today I hit my mental limit first (my mind telling me to take it easy and not worry about landing that fifth perfect landing at the end of the class) and I pushed right through it - but safely, thank god. (last time I "pushed through it" I ended up with a torn quad, the time before that I torched my knee and couldn't run for a month... somehow it's easier for me to push through true pain than just weakness, I tend to give up at the latter)

At the same time however, I can clearly see how this class is going to massively improve and push my physical and mental limits. My knee strength definitely needs to improve. My core is solid but can improve as well - I could feel it in my core the entire hour. On top of that, I'm going to be pushed repeatedly to the point where my body wants to stop and will be forced to go past it - even if it will be fine thirty seconds later, continuing to push through that instead of just stopping like I normally do will be awesome.

I'm excited. :)

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