To be and to last is one of the more iconic phrases that you might have heard thrown around in traditional Parkour circles, but what does it actually mean? It depends on who you ask but most people will agree on the basic principles behind it. As I've come to understand it, it suggests that a person should train their body and their mind to be able and ready for anything, and train in such a way that will allow them to be able and ready for anything, for as long as possible.
It suggests that a person should aim to be strong, but not just in a physical sense. They should aim to be resilient, free thinking, confident and yet remain humble. They should learn to be self-sufficient and useful to their loved ones and they should be aiming to always progress in some way.
To last? That old lesson about the brightest flame burning the quickest is particularly true in Parkour. What use is a person who lasts five years and has to stop training due to bad knees and a broken ankle? How useful is a body that can't move pain free due to years of neglect and abuse? The journey of Parkour was never meant to be a brilliant flash of spectacle and show, it was always intended to be a lifelong pursuit of improvement and one that doesn't need to end once the body begins to show signs of age. No, not whilst the mind is still young. Not if the soul still seeks adventure, and challenge and play. One day you might not be able to make the same jumps you could as a kid but you'll be strong and confident enough to spot your granddaughter when she tries her first cat leap and asks for your help, right? You'll still have exceptional balance, judgement and knowledge, and be able to pull yourself over a high wall if you need to. You'll still be active and mobile enough to be self-sufficient and useful to yourself and your family and friends. That is what Parkour is really about, the jumps are just a part of this training. It's really about knowing what you can do with what you have and having the guts to do it when the situation calls for it. And that can be practiced until the day we die. Hell, my goal is still to be the old guy sitting at the table who is the only one that can open that stubborn jar of pickles...
My journey in Parkour began in September of 2003. Before this time, the number of new practitioners taking up the discipline each week could probably be counted on one hand and it wasn't until Jump London aired on Channel 4 in the UK that the period of great growth really began. Jump Britain, the sequel to Jump London that followed, caused another, bigger surge of interest that found hundreds, then thousands of people begin searching the Internet for more information about Parkour. There wasn't much information available at that time but times have changed. There are hundreds of good tutorials, articles and coaches making an effort to ensure that good content is out there to be found by those willing to dig for it.
Now the rate of growth is hard to keep up with. Every Hollywood action blockbuster has to have a fancy foot chase across the rooftops before or after the car chase, and the terms Parkour and Freerunning are familiar to what is fast becoming the majority of the Western world and far beyond.
So with all this I'm not concerned about the discipline's growth any more. I've met enough good coaches and practitioners around the world to know that Parkour is in good hands and even if the media shines a light only on its spectacular side, people are smart enough to dig a little deeper and find out what it's really about if they are serious. I trust that newcomers will find the communities in their countries and be able to make an educated decision as to who is trustworthy, who the humble, quiet majority are, and who is a fake. Those who venture beyond the thin veils of YouTube, Red Bull(shit) competitions, newspaper articles and adverts on TV will find a wealth of fine, reliable information and decent people who can show them the way. Almost any media exposure Parkour has is helping people to find the tip of the iceberg but the great mass of content and worth lies under the surface for beginners to feast on if they wish to venture there.
It is my hope that this 5 part article series might be counted amongst the wealth of useful content already available to people who dive below the surface looking for more.
What will follow is more than 50 of the most useful pieces of advice I can hope to give to Parkour practitioners, of all abilities, for them to be and to last in this discipline. This is a collection of thoughts, experiences, and opinions both personal and as the result of conversations and time spent with many grizzled veterans in the trenches, both foreign and domestic, over the last decade. It will be released on a weekly basis to make it more easily digestible. So let's get down to business...
Part 1: Training the Body
A big part of being and lasting is to do with how you train and hone your body and its physical capacities. The following points cover the major topics that I wish I had known more about when I first started training.
1) Prioritise high quality movement
It helps to remind yourself regularly that Parkour is about movement, not individual techniques. And whilst a well rounded strength and conditioning programme will help you to progress and protect your body from injuries, the whole point of becoming strong and protecting your body is so that you have a functional and capable machine to explore the environment with and use as you wish.
Seeking perfection in your locomotion and training to achieve an exceptional quality and standard in your movements, regardless of what they are, should always be a priority for the Parkour practitioner. It will take thousands of deliberate and precise repetitions to master even the simplest of movements but the more time you spend reinforcing the basic techniques, the greater your confidence and overall movement vocabulary will become.
Remember that Parkour movements themselves are excellent physical exercises. When the bio-mechanics of any movement are correct, the movement itself will strengthen the body and cause minimal damage. You use your entire body to travel over terrain and you can't beat actual movement when it comes to stressing the body in exactly the way you want it to adapt and improve for Parkour. High quality, regular movement training combined with a solid strength training plan will take you a long, long way.
2) The pursuit of strength
Whether you're a beginner or have been in the trenches for years, your primary goal as far as physical training goes should be to become stronger. Rippetoe said it best when he reminded us that "strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general".
Strength is the rich soil from which all other physical capacities flourish. If you want to jump further, prevent injuries, improve your endurance and increase your bone density then you need to get stronger. Yes, strength gains will improve your endurance. Someone who can do 50 push-ups will further improve and be able to do more once they increase their upper body strength.. since pushing their own body weight will feel like a lighter load to move.
And yes, strength gains will also allow you to jump further by improving your body's ability to exert force on an external object, so that when that that external object is the ground, we can push against it with more force and jump higher and further than before.
Now there have been thousands of books written on the fine details of increasing your strength but to summarise what the majority of them say, look to use multi-joint exercises that are scalable, and do them with perfect form… making them harder as you improve.
Compound lifts such as the squat and deadlift should be the staple diet here and will help systemic growth. Olympic lifting is another useful tool for those who want to maximise their power development. Learning the basics of how to power clean shouldn't take too long under a good coach and this will give you a low impact training method that will allow you to maximise your power gains as you get stronger.
Remember that any exercise is a strength exercise to someone. If you can't do one push-up then a good strength exercise for you will be using a band to assist you in pushing to the top with good form, whereas this will be useless for building strength to someone who can already do many push-ups. It's about honestly assessing and diagnosing where you are and what you're capable of, and choosing the best strength exercises for you at the time. Weightlifting and weighted vests are useful because they allow you to make incremental increases in the amount of load you are handling.
3) Train like an athlete
If movement is our blueprint for training and strength is our foundation, then good conditioning levels provide the mortar that will hold all of our techniques together when things get tough.
Having good levels of conditioning will mean you can train for longer and recover faster, which means the amount of hours per week you can now train will increase. It will also mean that should you ever need to use Parkour in a life or death situation, you will not collapse on the floor after a minute of intense movement under pressure.
If you're serious about Parkour then there’s a good chance you already take enough impact and joint stress without wanting to add any more during your conditioning training, so choosing joint-friendly, effective, time-efficient exercises is the key here. Cardiovascular training is important but don't pound the concrete for hours with jogging.. run hard and fast on softer surfaces. Find a big, steep slope and inject a healthy dose of hill sprints in to your regime once or twice per week. Carrying, pushing, throwing or dragging heavy loads such as a sled, boulders or even cars will do more good for your fitness levels in 10 minutes than an hour on the treadmill will.
Go as hard as you can for 2 minutes, 4 minutes, or 10 minutes, with or without rest periods and you'll notice that not only does your work capacity and endurance increase, but you retain your strength levels along with it. That is not to say that longer, more steady state cardiovascular training is useless, it should just have its place in a healthy, well balanced training programme and not be something you do every day.
The body is not very good at adapting to multiple stressors at one time so you cannot significantly increase your strength levels if you’re also jogging long distances every day. Go through seasons or cycles of training where you focus on developing some areas whilst maintaining others.. But choose exercises carefully so that they don't undo the months of hard work you've put in elsewhere.
Look in to Tabata training and 'finishers' and use these as the staple for your physical conditioning work. A long set of heavy squats with good form will do you more good than a marathon.
4) Find something difficult and repeat it until it's easy
Difficult means possible, but something that takes your full concentration, excellent technique and just the right amount of power to achieve. If you do it perfectly every time then it's not difficult enough for you.
The trick is to find such a difficult movement, jump or challenge and spend time with it. Repeat it, reflecting on each attempt objectively and making an effort to improve each time. If you jump too far on the first jump and continue to jump too far for five more attempts then you need to make a deliberate change and bring the power back gradually until either you make it to your satisfaction or you undershoot.
Attempt, analyse, adjust, attack, again and again.
Once you can repeat it with success almost every time and it becomes easy, then move on. Find a new challenge, jump or movement and repeat the process. Use your experience from the previous jumps to give you confidence.
The biggest mistake people tend to make is moving on too soon before they really nail something. Often there is much more to learn from a jump than people think and they float around from jump to jump improving at each one a little bit but never truly mastering any of them. Can you still do it in the rain? Can you do it when it's dark..?
5) Train both sides
You don't need to be completely equal on both sides but at least aim to be competent on your weak side. I've known guys with massive running jumps and a fearless approach to using them completely freeze up at the idea of doing a simple one-footed jump to a rail on their weak leg. If the imbalances are this severe then there's an issue. Not only is an individual such as this severely limited technically, they are also risking a long list of muscular imbalance issues by being so dominant on the one side. Postural and structural issues leading to chronic pain will appear if they're not already present. It's a time bomb waiting to go off.
The good news is you can fix this quite easily before it becomes a problem and if it is a problem then you can take steps to rebalance your body. It's fine to have a dominant side and most people do, just be sure to spend time working on your weak side every week. I aim to train both sides equally 90% of the time and I accept that there will be some jumps or movements that fall in to the 10% category that are just not going to be done on the weak side today. Those big, scary, technical jumps that take everything you are to come out the other side in one piece? It's sometimes enough to just 'do them' rather than worry about doing them on your weak side too. Sometimes.
One really nice way to train this is to occasionally spend a whole training day only working on your weak side.. You'll be surprised by how much you'll improve.
6) Find the strangest jumps you can and let the jump dictate the technique.
Forget about the names. My favourite kind of jump is one that can't be categorised. It's the one where you need to jump high enough to clear the wall, but not too high that you hit your head on the branch and you must turn 74 degrees to your right and grab with your left hand around the corner on the hold you can't see.. Without your feet touching the ground. It's the jump so complex that thinking about it makes it harder. The kind where letting instinct take over reigns supreme and you just jump and adapt in the air.
"Wow, he just did a.. wait, what was that?"
The French guys have the right idea here. Listening to them talk about a route, they won't be talking about cat leaps, precision jumps, turn vaults and wall runs but they'll just be pointing and saying 'tac, tac, tac, tac... taaac!' To show where they will go, and this is great. They prioritise the obstacles, the course, the route and the direction rather than the techniques and it's a liberating way to think about Parkour.
I'm still amazed by the amount of practitioners who go to training spots looking for the jump they saw on that video and try to replicate it and film themselves doing it exactly the same way. Or they go to a spot and try to find the cat leaps or the kong to precisions instead of looking at what's there and letting the obstacles and terrain dictate the movements.
Focus on the obstacles!
7) Test your CNS and adjust your training on a daily basis
If you're familiar with the term autoregulation in training then you'll know it's a useful tool. It's particularly useful in a Parkour context as it allows you to adjust your training plan for that day to get the most out of it.
Maybe you'll remember a training session where you just couldn't balance on a rail with the same ease as you usually can, or that it was just somehow harder to stick a rail precision that day. This is nothing to worry about and just one of those days where it might be worth training something less technically demanding.
The central nervous system is responsible for controlling every function of your body, including every movement you make, and just like the muscles in the body the CNS can become fatigued from training and needs time to recover between training sessions.
Different exercises impact the CNS to different degrees and if you've been doing a lot of heavy training over the past few days then it should be no surprise that you find it harder to balance today. Even if your muscles feel fine, your CNS could be fatigued and it's just finding it a bit harder to control the stabilising muscles responsible for helping you to balance.
So listen to your body and be aware that regardless of how fresh it might feel, it's worth using a few simple balancing tests as part of your warm-up to see how fresh your CNS is today.
8) If in doubt, keep things simple
You don't have to over complicate your training to make progress. You will go a long way by just performing the basic exercises to a high standard, frequently. If in doubt, squat, sprint, climb and train your precision jumps. Those four exercises will have a lot of carry over to everything else in the discipline then you can add some complexity and variation when you want to.
9) Train the simple things like your life depends on it. It might.
A lot of Parkour practitioners become very competent when it comes to moving at ground level but cannot express this potential when they are at height, even though there is no physical difference in the size of the jumps.
One good way of overcoming this common issue is to train every jump as if you were at height. With some practice you can actually begin to feel some of the same fears and doubts you experience at height but in a safe environment where there are no consequences. Combined with further training just outside of your comfort zone, you will gradually desensitise to the heights and you will also be training your body to make a jump first time, which is a very valuable and underrated skill.
10) If a movement just doesn't work for you, don't do it
Just because all of your friends are training their '180 cat leap' techniques doesn't mean you have to. Think for yourself and if you don't enjoy a movement or if it is not something you want to use then don't do it. Parkour is about overcoming obstacles in a way that is safe and effective for the situation. Sometimes the situation will demand slow, deliberate and careful movement and sometimes you can inject much more speed in to it but the actual movements themselves are not important.
I know a couple of guys who just don't use the monkey/kong vault. They can do it.. they just don't like it and would prefer to run and jump over the obstacle instead. It works.
11) Stop worrying about your shoes.
I've seen masters of this practice move well barefoot and in boots. If your technique is good then footwear isn't so important. Sure, some footwear is better suited to Parkour but if you follow a few general rules then you can't go wrong.
Aim to find shoes that have a good rubber compound on the bottom and offer a fair amount of grip in both dry and wet conditions, on concrete, wood and metal. Test them before you buy them. Avoid any plastic sections on the bottom of the shoe as plastic slips on metal too easily*. Depending on what you're used to, aim to minimise the amount of padding in the shoe and gradually aim to use thinner shoes as your feet become stronger and your landings improve over time. Avoid ankle support as this will limit natural ankle mobility and lead to more wear and tear on the knees, which will have to compensate for the restriction. And try to find a flat sole.. if there's a raised heel then you will shorten and weaken your Achilles tendons.
Apart from a few simple guidelines, it doesn't matter what you wear. The brand is irrelevant and don't believe all of their superior technology bullshit. There was a recent study that found a direct correlation between the price of running shoes and the chances of becoming injured whilst wearing them. The more footwear deviates from the natural shape of the human foot, the more problems occur. Go read Born To Run by Christopher McDougall for much more information on this topic.
Expect to replace your footwear on a semi regular basis but remember this is one of your only expenses in Parkour. As you improve you'll find that they begin to last you longer as your technique develops and you begin to minimise the impacts and wear and tear on them.
*I once bought a pair of training shoes to train rail precisions that had a thick plastic section along the width of the sole, right in the middle.. just so that I couldn't land on the middle of the foot without serious consequences. Needless to say my technique improved quickly.
If Parkour could be stripped down to just three types of movement, we would be left with running, jumping and climbing. Of those three, the vast majority of those who practice Parkour love the jumping, hate the running.. and neglect the climbing.
Most Parkour people are bad climbers because they rely on their upper body strength rather than technique. I'm not the best climber but I have been focusing more on this side of Parkour over the past couple of years and it's made a huge difference to my ability to move. Parkour is about passing obstacles, yes, but some obstacles can only be passed slowly and deliberately. And when the wall is too high to wall run then perhaps your only option will be to climb over. Spend some time working on your climbing technique, prioritise foot placement to reduce the amount of work your arms have to do. As a general safety rule, try to have three points of contact on the obstacle and only move one limb at a time as you climb.
13) Master the climb-up and the muscle-up.