You probably already know what it is, but may not recognize the name. If you’ve seen James Bond’s opening foot chase in the film Casino Royale, or Nike and Xbox commercials featuring urban acrobatics while on the run, then you’ve seen parkour.
The word itself comes from parcours du combattant—or “obstacle course” in French—a form of military training developed by French naval officer Georges Hébert shortly before World War I.
Hébert modeled the movements after African tribesman as they navigated with great speed through the jungle and brush. Integrating their techniques into the contemporary combat preparedness of the day, Hébert developed a form of martial arts that focused on efficient flight rather than fight.
But it wasn’t until the 1990’s that this formalized training would transform to parkour, thanks to Frenchman David Belle. His father Raymond had been a student of Hébert and passed the techniques on to David who, along with friend Sébastien Foucan, immediately saw a recreational application. Their form of free-style running took off throughout the urban centers of France and soon became an international extreme sport with mainstream appeal.
The sport’s enthusiasts—referred to as traceurs— are guided by the principle that agility, physical fitness, endurance, and creativity should be a part of everything one does. Though originally different, parkour has now become synonymous with the term “freerunning”, and as the name of the game implies, the primary type of exercise involved is the pursuit itself. But before that can happen, a base of general training is required which involves strength and cardio work that includes jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and various plyometric drills. The latter involve continuous jumps over increasingly higher barriers for sixty-to-ninety-second intervals in order to condition the body for the tricks themselves. And conditioning is critical before attempting such feats as the Kong, front flip, back flip, side flip, the cat grab, wall spins, and a variety of spin kicks—all requiring coordination and stamina in order to safely clear whatever you come across. In addition, traditional resistance training such as push-ups, sit-ups, rope-climbing, and weight-lifting is an important part of parkour, as the body needs to be strong and resilient in order to be nimble.
If this all sounds a little intimidating and out of your reach, it doesn’t have to be. Nobody is too young or too old to join in the fun. Here in town, local clubs and studios offer a great learning environment for those ready to take their first steps. One place to practice is Valhalla Elite Training Center located at 1113 State Street in Santa Barbara. A martial arts academy, Valhalla offers a course every Wednesday and Saturday that teaches the fundamental concepts and techniques behind parkour, emphasizing proficiency in plyometrics, core workouts, flexibility, and balance. The class is an amalgamation of escape tactics and sport, where the untrained can come and learn how to do everything necessary to get out of a tough situation. The motto favored by head instructor Michael MacDonald: “The best defence is to not be there.”
But it’s also about how to make your body into the ultimate machine you’ve always wanted it to be and, of course, to entertain yourself by doing the same amazing things seen in movies and video games. It’s highly encouraged, however, that students take time to go out and exercise on their own, as the majority of parkour practice is simply preparation of the body, the rest is application. How much one benefits from this sport depends entirely on how much time and effort is invested; you reap what you sow. Typical results one should expect from proper training include heightened levels of strength and stamina that may have obstacles previously thought to be impossible, seem like a breeze. You’ll also gain a whole new approach and appreciation toward your surroundings as the world literally becomes your playground.
Joel Coryell is a parkour instructor at Valhalla Elite Training Center in Santa Barbara. Joel can be reached at 951-751-1145 for more information on classes.