06 October 2009

The world is your playground

If you want to get fit, join a gym. If you want to get fit and look cool while you do it, why not take up parkour?

A Zen saying goes: the obstacle is the path.

That's true of parkour, the gritty urban sport that evolved from obstacle course training for the French military into a fitness option for urban youths – and which is now, with fine irony, coming inside, to US gyms.

In parkour, your environment is the gym. The bridges, buildings and railings are the equipment. The goal is a direct route from one place to another. You see an obstacle, you overcome it. Scaling walls, performing apparently death-defying leaps and various other sorts of acrobatics are all run of the mill to traceurs, people who perform parkour.

Mark Toorock, a former martial arts specialist, has introduced parkour at his Primal Fitness gyms at locations across the US. We'd all do well to learn, or re-learn, the basic skills involved, he says. "Parkour has this basic toolkit of movements like running, jumping, crawling, all the things humans used to do."

The technique was developed by Georges Hebert, a French naval officer, who was so impressed by the effortless athleticism of African tribes that he devised a training method based on basic movements such as running, jumping, climbing, balancing, and throwing. The word parkour derives from parcours du combatant, the term for the obstacle course form of military training Hebert proposed.

Parkour sessions, or ‘jams’ usually take place in urban areas between a group of traceurs who attempt to accomplish a run through a series of obstacles without stopping. The obstacles could be anything, from telephone poles to gates, walls or trees.

When out on jams, traceurs occasionally employ ‘spotters’, fellow traceurs who observe whether certain obstacles are too great to overcome, like buildings that are too high to jump from safely. Novice traceurs are discouraged from participating in jams until they are able to complete a gruelling 4½ kilometre run on their own.

Parkour has gained mainstream appeal through its use in movies like District 13 and Casino Royale. It has also garnered something of a dark side in Paris as many cat burglars and thieves have taken to using parkour when escaping from the police.

In the moment
On its surface, parkour appears to be nothing more than an extreme sport but its philosophy is closer to martial arts. It is based on the principles of self-betterment and the ability to escape from dangerous situations quickly and efficiently.

The moves practiced in parkour are hardly tame in nature. Vaults, spins and flips meld together to create one fluid, continuous run where momentum is key. The moves are performed in such a manner that they minimise the likelihood of heavy impacts and force traceurs to think on their feet. Some of the moves used in parkour include:

The roll/ Roulade
The roll is the most fundamental move in parkour. It lessens impact and conveys momentum which allows tracers to continue their runs without stopping.

How to do it: After landing a jump, take the initial impact into your legs, bend your knees, lean forward, arms out to soften the impact some more, tuck your head towards your chin and roll from the right-hand side of the back of your shoulder down to the bottom-left side of your back. Rolls can also be done the other way round, from the back side of the left shoulder to the bottom right of the back.

Drop jump/ Saut de Fond
Drop jumps are used to land safely from heights. This is one of the more dangerous parkour moves as it has a high risk factor besides additional risks like wind or mistiming a jump. Traceurs usually use spotters to help them determine if some jumps are too high to perform. Drop jumps, like precision jumps, can be performed from a stationary position or after a run-up.

How to do it: During the jump, make a metal note of where you’re going to land and steady your body with your arms. Land on both feet, allowing your knees to absorb the initial impact and lean forward to continue into a roll and use the momentum to continue your run after rolling into a running position. Be sure that the area you’re jumping onto doesn’t have any lose gravel, sharp stones or broken glass. Also, be sure that the place where you plan on land is clear and will allow you to continue your run.

Pop vault/ Passe Muraille
Pop vaults are used to scale walls. Run towards a wall/vertical obstacle but not too quickly.

How to do it: Kick off the ground with your strongest foot, placing the other foot at least waist high on the obstacle. Grab the top of the obstacle and drag yourself upwards, kicking off of the obstacle as you do so to gain extra height while pulling yourself up. Be sure to check if the top of the obstacle has anything dangerous like glass shards or wires near where you have to grab on.

Jams take place informally as most traceurs within an area meet and decide where their jams will take place. Visit for more information on where you can participate in jams in your area.

(André van Wyk, Health24, and Reuters, updated October 2009)

Sources: Parkour South Africa (, Wikipedia (, (, Urban Freeflow (


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