Parkour and the Human Body
Thu, 2010-12-30 18:14
It is a fact that up to this point in the short history of parkour (in its modern guise) there has been no way to know, with absolute certainty, what effects the long-term practise of the discipline has upon the human body. There just isn’t a precedent yet. Even the longest practising individuals are still fairly young, in the prime of health even, and – accidents aside – going strong.
But will this always be the case? From the collected experience of the parkour community it has become clear that certain injuries and degenerate conditions are becoming commonplace, due without doubt to overzealous starts that demand too much of the unprepared practitioner’s body and to incomplete, dangerous training methodologies, or indeed to a combination of the two. Parkour is an immensely physical art, one which places great stresses and exacting forces regularly upon the body – sudden flexions, powerful impacts, deep muscle contractions – all of which can accumulate over long periods (and often without our knowing, until it is too late) to cause lasting damage to joints, tendons, ligaments, and even bones.
The burning question remains: is this what lies in store for us all ?
One thing is for sure: our bodies were not designed to drop, run, and generally bounce around on concrete. Our technology, and therefore our living environment too, has changed radically in the past few hundred years while our bodies themselves remain largely as they have been for the past tens of thousands of years. We are ancient anatomies inhabiting a digital age, and the results include some major incompatibilities.
For example much, if not most, of our modern, urban environment has no give in it whatsoever and even to run (especially to run poorly) on these manufactured surfaces brings jarring shocks to our musculoskeletal structure that, over time, can result in permanent injuries to the knees, hips and back. Throw some ten-foot drops into the mix and this process of attrition can be hugely accelerated.
Does this mean we should all hang up our painstakingly-chosen footwear and quit while we’re ahead so that we can at least walk – and not be wheeled – into our old age..? Of course not: but this assured answer doesn’t come without qualification. The qualification is that your training must be sustainable. And, quite simply, in order for parkour practise to be truly sustainable it must not detract from your overall physical health in any way. Is this possible? The good news is YES, it is – in fact, good parkour training should actually enhance your vitality and strengthen your anatomy all round. How is this possible? Through having a complete, holistic approach to your practise that both prepares and maintains your body for the duration of your training career.
Good preparation includes, of course, a thorough warm-up and warm-down framing every training session. Warm-up methods vary greatly, so do your research and choose what works best for you: raise your body temperature slightly with a good ‘global’, rotate the major joints thoroughly, etc… the important point is that you ease into your training session, and don’t go from 0 to 60 in an instant. A proper warm-down ensures that your body returns to its less-active state correctly and safely, and reduces the likelihood of suffering after-effects the next day or the next time out. Do both, and make them part of your routine.
In the wider context, however, preparation means the correct and comprehensive development of the physical attributes necessary for parkour. All too often beginners, and even some more experienced individuals, will attempt actions that their bodies simply are not capable of performing safely and without incurring damage. The young especially are prone to ignoring these warnings, confident that because they feel no immediate pain or signal from their body that they are doing no harm. Unfortunately you can be accumulating plenty of anatomical damage without even being aware you are doing so, until one day something gives and the result is an ambulance rushing in and someone’s unrealised potential disappearing just as swiftly.
The way to avoid this danger is to build up to each challenge incrementally and gradually. Regular practise of bodyweight and biomechanical exercises, such as those we utilise at the Parkour Academy, will help the body develop the strength, flexibility, and endurance necessary to keep you safe as your parkour ability improves. Regular, safe drilling of the core principles of parkour – balance, precision, sensitivity of touch, fluidity, stealth, etc – will significantly decrease the likelihood of receiving injury or accumulating damage, and will also evolve into the process through which you can overcome those more advanced challenges that can at times seem well beyond your reach.
Lincoln was right – it’s all about good preparation.
Understand that in order to be able to train safely for many years to come, what you need is regular, continuous preparation. This is a state of mind as much as anything else – the realisation that to be able to maintain your optimum level of performance, you must resist the urge to sit on your laurels and rely on what you have achieved thus far. Your personal training must be complete and it must revolve around progression: it must involve physical conditioning as an integrated aspect of your parkour, and it must be carried out regularly and diligently. Your body is your only tool in parkour (other than those all-important shoes, of course!), so keep it sharp.
A telling measure of the true effectiveness of any discipline – and of its practitioners – is its, and also their, sustainability. Can it be practised for as long as you want, with little or no adverse effects? Are its advocates reduced to shambling mounds of injuries after years of training? If a training method enables you to perform some amazing feats for a short period and then results in premature physical degeneration, it is probably not being done right or done well, or both! As sole guardians of our own health and quality of life, we need to be able to assess our own training methods and ensure they are as safe, effective, and productive as possible.
In order to maintain the highest levels of skill – and, thereby, one’s own safety – it is absolutely vital that you aim to improve constantly, as well as to keep working the basics and keep up with the conditioning exercises. Only such a complete regimen will lead towards constant growth and advancement, while also serving to keep you safe and healthy for the long haul. And longevity is not to be neglected lightly.
Machines need regular maintenance to continue operating at peak performance, and the human body is no different. You only get one, so learn to look after it.
The purpose driving our continued efforts, of course, is personal performance: to be able to kong-vault that little bit further or faster; to make that cat-leap that has intimidated us for so long; to scale that unconquered wall with a perfectly smooth double-tap. Performance is what we strive for, no matter what brought us to the pitch in the first place.
And it’s really quite simple. A solid foundation of thorough preparation then maintained by a comprehensive training method will lead, inexorably, to good performance: and to performance that continues to improve as long as this holistic approach is sustained. But this takes work, it takes self-control and real discipline – in fact, it takes something approaching self-mastery. Is that beyond you though? Chances are, if you have chosen parkour as your vehicle you are the sort who likes to aim high anyway. Why not aim for the top ?
We want you to be pursuing this incredible activity for as long as you possibly can, safely and healthily, and for you to be physically better for having done so: stronger, faster, more robust, more alive. And with just a little thought, with only a little investment into learning good preparation and maintenance methods, parkour can bring enormous physical and mental benefits to everyone who walks its steep pathways.
Of course, ultimately it is everyone’s individual choice as to how much of a priority they wish to make their long-term health and training needs. Some may wish to live fast and die young, saying that the brightest candle burns quickest – but I would ask, why be a candle? Why not instead nurture and develop the flame until it grows into a powerful and enduring blaze? Why not plan to burn as bright and as long as you can, rather than to resign your body to a meteoric rise and fall? Seems to be an obvious choice to me.