Sunday, October 16, 2011


So, you've done a bit of training, and now your muscles are SORE. Do not despair, as there is a secret technique to make them happy again: the Foam Roller. The foam roller is a very, very simple piece of equipment, but an extremely effective one. Where to get one? on the internet, of course, and maybe at the local sports store. Choose the high density kind, which will hold longer. How to use it? put the roller on the ground, put the sore limb on top, and then roll gently back and forth while putting the weight of your body into it. Make sure you roll the entire muscle: if the front of your quadriceps, (close to the knee) is in pain, then you must roll the entire thing all the way to your hip to make the entire muscle relax. If you're not sure about this, have a look at an anatomy atlas, it helps figure out how it's all put together!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Jumping and landing

Jumping and landing is the first building block of Parkour training. Good landing technique is the key to safety, protecting your joints and controlling of your movements. It is the first thing you need to learn, and yet one of the hardest to truly master.

Here's the basic idea: your body is a spring. Your only point of contact with the ground are the balls of your feet (the widest part, between the toes and the arch), everything else is springs, tensing and releasing in the jump and coiling back in the landing. Your ankles, knees and hips all work together against your mortal enemy, gravity. To improve your landing form (and your jumping form as a side effect), you must understand what each of these can and should do, and what they cannot.

The ankle controls the angle with which you reach the ground, protecting your heel from impact. It has a limited range, and is not very strong, thus you need to train it carefully and often. Upon landing, you will need to extend the ankle in order to reach to the ground with your toes before the weight of your body comes down toward it, and resist its inflection as the first step of absorbing momentum.

The knee is in the middle of the leg, and a major part of the coil, but not the driving part of the spring. The bending at the hips is what brings power to the jump and absorbs momentum on landings. The knee mostly provide a way to keep the lower leg straight and stable, but one can easily hurt it with impact (from the heels hitting the ground), over-bending (when it goes forward of your toes, bearing your body's weight and momentum) and twisting (if landing with any sideways momentum). Like the ankle, the knee can help resist the pull of gravity if the legs are mostly extended (not locked, though!), reaching toward the ground upon landing, and ready to slowly coil back in. But like the ankle, it is not strong enough to absorb fully the impact of the fall.

The hips are at the middle of the whole body, close to the center of gravity. They give power to the jump through tightening of the glut-hamstring chain (back muscle of the upper legs and butt, much stronger than the quadriceps in front), and slow the landing with a progressive release of the same muscle (really "fighting back" gravity). They also provide the needed adjustments to balance the weight of your body and reduce its load on the legs. This joint is not used enough in daily life, and needs some work to get stronger and reach a good range of motion.

Here's a few simple exercises that will be (hopefully) beneficial to this ankle-knee-hip chain. You can work on them often, however remember to warm up the joints first.

Cat paw walking: walk without touching your heels to the ground, trying to be a silent as possible. Explore different paces, all the way to light running.

Squats: really focus on leading with the butt, sinking down and pulling back up. And keep those knees always, always behind your toes. Do 20 of those every morning!

Squatting low: rather than sitting on the ground or your couch, squat as low as you can and relax into that position. You can read a book, watch tv, play video games... maintaining that position a bit longer every day will help improve your hip flexibility and increase your range of motion. Especially important for men!

The Natural Method

One of the main foundations of Parkour is the Natural Method of Georges Hébert ("Méthode naturelle d'éducation physique, virile et morale"), which Raymond Belle followed and passed on to his son, David Belle.

As a fusilier marin (~ French Marines), Georges Hébert traveled the world at the beginning of the 20th century and marveled at the simple physical fitness of primitive peoples. He soon started to incorporate his observations into a physical education method which he used to train sailors, children, Olympic athletes and even women.

His method focused on basic, practical movements: walking, running, jumping, climbing, swimming, lifting, throwing and defending. He invented the term Quadrupédie and developed quadrupedal movement, which shocked the men of his times even more than his teaching of women. Yet, his method laid the principles of today's military exercises such as the obstacle course, and has received a lot more interest recently for its links with Parkour.

Unfortunately, most of Georges Hébert's works are out of print and only available in French. One of his earliest books surfaced on Google Books and was "fandubbed" into English by Gregg from Hawaii PK and myself. You can get a copy of the translation (and links to the original) here. There is still a group of followers of the Méthode Naturelle in Belgium, and a pretty cool derived method called MovNat. You can also find a lot of discussion in this APK / Hawaii PK forum, and a new website from Germany.

To me, the Méthode Naturelle has a few very important training guidelines:

  • Train regularly: better to train half an hour every day than four hours every Sunday; better to train a little every week than a lot when summer comes.
  • Train everything: rather than focus on highly specialized moves and techniques related to a single sport, it is better to train a variety of techniques and sports. This is why parkour is a good fit for the Natural Method, as it includes many different types of movements and skills.
  • Monitor your performance: whether you count a number of repetitions, track the weights you lift, the scaling of the climbing walls, or even keep a mental list of things you can and cannot do in your parkour training, it is important to know what you are capable of and how much that changes with your training, so you can adjust and improve faster.
  • Focus on form: understanding the moves, their biomechanics and physics, is essential to progress in training. By paying attention to the details and working on them, your movements become more and more fluid, natural, effortless.
There is much more good advice in Hébert's works, and I'll try to post more of my own impressions here, but I recommend you to check it out if you can!!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Safety and Responsibility

Parkour is often depicted as an extreme or dangerous sport. One of the reasons is that we don't use special safety equipment, train in carefully outfitted gyms and expect everything we may do to be safe.

Unlike many sports, Parkour is very minimalist: there is only ourselves and our environment, like in every day life. And like in every day life, our safety is our responsibility. Parkour is about learning precisely what you are capable of, how much you can move safely in an environment that not designed to keep you safe. Training will also help you push the limit of what you can do, but always within this balance against safety. Why? because if you attempt something you are not ready to achieve, in the real world, you're likely to get hurt. And it's all your fault if you do. So maybe Parkour is the safest possible sport, because it teaches you to be safe!

To remain safe and keep others safe, bear in mind these all-important rules:

  1. Check your surfaces. Your environment may not be as solid as it looks, many places are littered with broken glass and may be more slippery or grippy than you expect. If you're training somewhere, always spend the time to get to know your environment first.
  2. Be aware of others. Whether they are fellow traceurs or innocent bystanders, you share the space with other people. Make sure you keep an eye on them and always can avoid running into them. You are responsible for their safety too. For fellow traceurs, it also means helping those who struggle with a move, warning those who dare too much, providing a helping hand or spotting them.
  3. Respect your environment. Even a concrete wall will hurt a little when you jump on it. Shoes often leave marks, repeated wear and tear appear at our favorite training grounds. So you must tread as lightly as you can, as gently as you can. And maybe then the walls will help you jump farther too!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Parkour shoes

Many people ask about shoes. In fact, shoes are the only equipment you need for Parkour, so there's a fair deal of animated discussion on the internet over Parkour shoes. Here's our very personal recommendations:
  • cheap shoes: Parkour is going to beat up your shoes rather fast, especially at the beginning. It's no use spending too much on a pair of fancy shoes until you know how long you can make them last.
  • no plastic arch: many running shoes have a plastic support under the arch of the foot; those will hook on rails and make you slide to your doom. Don't do it. Continuous soles are safer.
  • lighter is better: a thinner and flatter sole will allow you to feel the ground better and improve your grip. Thinner shoes have also more flexibility, while heavy shoes weight your feet down.

Beyond that, it's all about personal preference. We like the Feiyue wushu martial arts shoes because they're about 15€, ultra-thin and grippy, but they also absorb no impact whatsoever and you tear through the sole in a few months. Some have been happy with the Adidas Samba, which are sturdier and have a nice flat sole. Twio-X recommends the Kalenji Ekiden 50 from Decathlon, also for their low, low price. The Fivefinger barefooting shoes are cool but a bit too technical and expensive to my taste. There are many trail running (but not hiking!) shoes that are light and sturdy (we had some great La Sportiva, but they stopped making them) but once again pricey. You can find specialized Parkour and freerunning shoes from K-Swiss, FiveTen and others, also fairly expensive.

And in the end, the best way (but most challenging, and not recommended without a long and careful preparation) to train is barefoot!!