Max Bell is a New Zealand Parkour Association (NZPA) instructor and is one of the founders of Movement Unleashed, an organisation promoting health and wellbeing through fitness (including Parkour classes). Max is also an award winning writer, scooping a “best feature” prize at the 2012 Aotearoa Student Press Awards, and regularly contributes educational articles to the Movement Unleashed website. I got in touch with Max after reading an excellent article on shin splints he wrote for the NZPA blog, and we met up in the central library café to talk about Parkour, training, and problem shins.
What got you interested in taking up Parkour?
I was in high school at the time. One of my friends in high school was a really small guy, really tiny, and he got into Parkour. I saw him go from being really tiny to being incredibly ripped and in shape. That just inspired me. Then I watched a few videos that he lent to me and saw a few websites. You see guys doing superhuman stuff and I thought that was cool. It was seeing that transformation of him getting in shape that really inspired me. He’s more into breakdancing now. Still into the physical stuff, but more on the breakdancing side.
Were you doing sports before you took up Parkour?
No, I was really out of shape, really unfit! I remember when I started doing Parkour, I could do maybe two pushups. That was my maximum. I remember doing two, stopping, doing two more. Now I can do… a lot more than that. Not sure, I haven’t tested it! I played a little bit of sport as a kid, but nothing as a teenager.
So you really had a change of attitude after seeing your friend develop.
Yeah. I think the way I started was quite beneficial. I saw him train. For his first year of training he just did strength training and conditioning, before he was doing the big jumps and the stuff where you can hurt yourself. Just seeing his training effort was quite amazing. And back when I started, about 6 years ago, the guys here in Wellington they’d all come out of martial arts and then gotten into Parkour. So when I was training with them they brought that martial arts discipline to it. I remember going out with them and doing, maybe, a hundred pushups and that would be our training session. We wouldn’t even jump anything. But definitely there’s this attitude that you’ve got to be strong before you can throw yourself into concrete.
There’s a definite mental discipline which goes with martial arts. Is there a similar thing which goes with Parkour?
Yeah, I would say so. I’ve never done a martial art myself, but I imagine it’s quite similar. I guess in Parkour you find quite quickly that it’s a mental barrier that holds you back from something. It’s often a matter of looking at a jump and wondering if you can physically make that distance, and being scared. I’d sometimes be freaking myself out because it’s really high or really narrow. That’s mostly what holds you back from jumps. But once you’ve got that strong physical base you know you can jump and land and not hurt your legs.
I think I read somewhere that you also train by jumping between cracks in the pavement, to develop precision.
Yeah. There’s a massive injury risk with Parkour, for instance if you jump between two walls and fall. So how the good people don’t get injured is they really know for certain how far they can jump. They have a really good understanding of their ability. So you watch Youtube videos and there’s guys jumping rooftops without falling. They can do that because they can look at the distance and know one hundred percent they can make it. You get that ability from jumping at ground level a thousand times. You can look at two cracks and know one hundred percent you can jump between them without failure. Then when you take that up somewhere it’s dangerous you have a really good sense of distance, and you think yeah I can make that, or no I can’t. That’s where safety comes in to it. Being able to know what you can do before taking it to a place where there’s risk to it.
Parkour seems to crop up in the movies and on TV quite a lot now. Has that media exposure changed the sport?
No it hasn’t really changed it. Parkour’s been classified as an internet age sport, because it started around the same time as Youtube. It started in France, and I’m here in New Zealand doing it. Through Youtube and through the internet, through the media, movies, videogames it’s just spread around the world. I’ve read articles of people comparing it to the rise of skateboarding or breakdancing and other street sports, but those things took, I’m not sure, maybe 20 or 30 years to develop, whereas Parkour took a few years to spread around the world because of the internet, because the media picked it up so fast. It’s always been that way. It’s always been quite driven by the media.
Is shin splints a common complaint amongst people who start doing Parkour?
Yeah, absolutely, especially if someone’s not conditioned. Parkour is really high impact. Jumper’s knee is the other common one.
So when was your first experience with shin splints? Was it straight away when you started training or was it later?
Probably six months or a year after I started training, and it lasted for maybe two or three years.
What did it feel like when you started getting shin splints?
A dull, aching pain. Quite a mild pain that didn’t go away, like a permanent bruise. Somewhere around the bottom half of my shin, in the middle, on the bone. It really only hurt after I did Parkour.
When you started getting this pain did you adjust your training or try and work through it?
I tried to do less training, to recover more. There was definitely an element of, like, damn it I want to get back to training. I think that’s why it lasted so long. I’d maybe train one day, then a few days later heal up, think I was fine then go out and do some Parkour and they’d start hurting again. That drive to get back into exercise prolonged the injury. I was so new to exercise then. Now I have a sense for distinguishing between pain and injury and just muscle soreness. Back then, doing conditioning, my muscles got really sore but that’s, like, good pain. You can get stronger from that. But when my shins got sore I didn’t know that was an injury. So I didn’t know I should be doing something to fix it. It’s tricky because it’s not like a traumatic injury where you fall down and hurt yourself. It builds up over time, and at first you don’t know you’re injured so if you keep training through it, it gets worse and worse.
What made you decide to go and see a physio?
I finally realised that it wasn’t normal training pain, that it was an injury. It would hurt after training, like on the way home, then it got to the point where if I did any sort of jump in Parkour it would hurt straight away. So it stopped me being able to do Parkour at all. Then I realised this is something bad, and I decided to go and get it checked out professionally. The first physio I saw gave me exercises to improve my posture, knee stability, and things like that which didn’t help at all. So I left there and went somewhere else and they turned out to be really good. They knew what Parkour was and what type of training was behind it. He told me that I have flat feet, flat arches, and when I would bend my knees they would track slightly inwards. That leads to more pressure on the inside of the shins. He recommended these insoles that were made of soft rubber. I’d wear them for maybe a few weeks then add a new part to them and they’d get higher. Then a few weeks later I’d add a new part and they’d get higher and higher to boost up my arch. At first they’d hurt but I’d wear them until they stopped hurting, then put another bit in and they’d hurt again. But because they were soft I still had movement. I found that really good. I read online that a lot of the time people are prescribed solid insoles, something that will disable your foot, stop the foot moving, like a cast that would over time weaken it. But he recommended the opposite, something that was soft and would strengthen my foot.
So it was a gradual process rather than doing it all in one go.
Yeah, I agreed with his philosophy which was to try and strengthen it up, which took a lot longer and was a lot harder but much better in the long run. He said I could keep training, but take it easier.
Did he prescribe exercises for you to do as well?
Standing on one leg and doing slight knee bends, but remaining conscious of being really stable and keeping good posture and keeping my knees tracking over my toes. I found that really annoying because I had enough strength to do a pistol, a one legged squat all the way down to the ground and back up, but the point was to focus on good posture. He also recommended Vibram 5 Fingers shoes to train in, minimalist shoes, going barefoot and practising picking up balls with my toes. Mainstream advice for Parkour would be to go for shoes with extra cushioning to soften the impact, but I think going minimalist and putting in the effort to strengthen and condition yourself is much better.
How long was it til you felt like you’d been successfully treated?
It was maybe a year til my shins started feeling better, and probably two years til the shin splints finally went away.
So you’ve pretty much forgotten about shin splints now?
Yeah, well I find they sometimes get sore now with a little aching pain when I do too much exercise. Like if I do Parkour two or three days in a row. But nowhere near like it was. I find I can train normally now, go out and do Parkour, go for a run, and be fine.
Do you do a lot of running?
No, not really. You do a lot of sprinting when you do Parkour, like running in to a jump, but I get really bored when I do distance running!
Are you still doing regular Parkour meetups in Frank Kitts Park?
Yes we have Parkour meetups at Frank Kitts Park every Sunday at 1pm. That’s an open get together, nothing structured, then my friend Rowan Worthy does Parkour classes at 2.30pm Sunday also at Frank Kitts Park.
Massive thanks to Max Bell for taking the time to come and talk about shin splints and Parkour. Check out Movement Unleashed for more info on fitness, training and Parkour.
Parkour new sport on the move – Stuff article about Parkour in Wellington, featuring Max Bell