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What You Need To Know About Parkour

Warm up those joints!

by Molly Hurford

If you read the title and wondered what the hell parkour was, or maybe you’ve heard of it but never really understood what it meant, you’re not alone. Parkour is a style of freerunning, with the aim of getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, by going over and under obstacles rather than going around them. So, why should you try it? First of all, why not? You’ll look like a total badass the next time you’re on a jog and be able to vault a park bench too. Second, it’s an incredibly intense workout—but it’s so much fun that you’ll barely notice (until the soreness sets in later). And third, if you dig running on trails, practicing parkour will hone your technical skills and make hopping logs and rocks a lot easier.  

But before you sign up for a year of classes, we’ve got some handy advice for you. Lehigh Valley parkour instructor and longtime parkour practitioner Adam McClellan and I worked out, then worked up a few key tips based on what I learned that would make that first session a lot more fun, and a lot more beneficial.

Warm Up Your Joints

Get the fluid moving before you start sprinting at a vault or jump by doing some simple active stretching. Most good parkour classes will lead you through a warm-up, but even if you’re practicing at home, take a minute to shake out your joints: Circle your wrists and ankles, windmill your shoulders, and do some quick lunges, squats, and a bit of jogging around to get ready. If you’re new to any kind of running or flexibility, consider hopping into a few yoga classes and taking a walk/run before going to a class. It’s not mandatory at all—parkour welcomes beginners!—but you’ll feel a lot more advanced if you’re already comfortable with basic stretching movements and have a decent feel for your own body. 

Get Ready for Mindfulness and Body Awareness

Parkour is as much mental as it is physical. “You’re in control of everything,” Adam tells me before we even start. “What mindfulness means is that you’re completely empty but full at the same time.” He explains that you need to listen and be quiet enough that you can let your body speak to you, and once you’re listening, you can have a conversation with your body. “Once you know what it’s telling you, you can have a balanced connection and practice a specific movement,” he finishes. It’s admittedly easier said than done, but by the end of your first session, you might start to understand what he means. For me, it came during a vault practice when, after my fifth screwed-up attempt, Adam stopped me and told me to take a minute and clear my mind. I took a few deep breaths, closed my eyes, aimed for my happy place, and tried again. Nailed it.

Don’t Be Intimidated

Being a beginner is, frankly, the best! It’s the easiest time because you’re perfecting the basics, not trying to do crazy stunts. “It’s natural to feel intimidated,” Adam says. He’s right: Being in a mixed ability class with guys jumping eight feet from rail to rail is a little terrifying for someone who’s not naturally graceful. "I’m not sure it’s possible to not feel intimidated! But it’s designed to be something you can do at any level. It doesn’t matter who you are,” he adds. "Parkour is about challenging you at the level you’re at. Whether it’s jumping eight inches or eight feet, we’re going to add a little bit every time, so you’re always advancing.” 

Practice Jumping

Parkour is great because the basic movements become the advanced skills. Take jumping: At the start, it’s literally just jumping from one spot, with both feet, and landing in another. Graduate to jumping and landing on a line. Then, boom, you’re jumping onto a balance beam. Then, you’re hopping between balance beams. And, to be honest, it’s easier than it looks. Jumping is all about precision, but it’s shocking what our bodies are capable of calibrating, resulting in landing us in exactly the right place! When Adam started to work with me on jumps, I quickly learned two of the biggest secrets. One—and apologies for sounding like a self-help book—is that you have to jump with both feet. I mean this literally, not just in a spiritual sense. If you lead with one foot, it’s harder to land smoothly. Keep your feet together (not locked together, just moving in tandem). Two: When you do land, keep your heels up. It’s tempting, especially when jumping onto something like a balance beam or rail, to let them drop and aim to balance on your toes. This will make you topple faster. Developing a good squat stance, with your knees bent and hips in line, when landing helps as well (and builds a great butt).

…And Vaulting

This move is one of the major tricks of parkour, and it looks terrifying and super intimidating. But really, I promise that it’s not as scary as it looks! The trick: start insanely, painfully slowly. You’ll want to approach a vaulting surface (preferably with a soft landing pad underneath in case of spills!) from a dead stop. Plant both hands on, followed by your left foot a couple of feet away. Then, using the momentum from getting your left foot up, follow with your right foot, and slide it between your arms and your other leg, bringing it through and planting it on the ground past the vault. Boom, you made it! The next trick? As you land, try to land on the ground in a way that you can walk out of, not a smash down, that’s going to require standing back up. You want to vault and keep running, not vault, pause, restart.  

Enlist a Coach

“Find a good coach who makes you feel comfortable and helps you get the basics; that’s the most important thing for learning,” Adam says. And he’s right. You can get started on your own with the jumping and vaulting (just hop on YouTube for some tutorials), but it’s hugely helpful to get a bit of one-on-one time with an expert who can help you nail the basic moves so you can go further, higher and faster. You can fake it through the basics on your own well enough, but if you truly want to make major gains, the basics have to be done right, not just done.

Get Better, Faster

Improve your general cardio and your upper body strength outside of class. Go on runs, walks, any kind of activity that will get your blood pumping. And as for strength training, keep it simple: lots of push-ups if you don’t have gym access. If you have a playground nearby or a gym where you can train, add pull-ups. Another big parkour move is essentially a muscle-up, where you use your upper body to get yourself up and over an obstacle. The class becomes easier when your heart isn’t racing from just the warm-up, and when you get strong enough that you can focus on the movement specifics, rather than struggling to just make it through.

Don’t Get Angry

Patience is a virtue. “By nature, parkour shows you your failures,” Adam says, adding:

It’s designed to get you to fail—you go to where you’re good, and then you keep going. So you’ll always be overcoming failure, no matter what. It’s hard at first. But good, positive self-talk is important. It’s easy to get in the habit of saying bad things about yourself, out loud or in your head, but you have to break that habit. That’s an absolute must, in daily life and in training! Once you get out of that habit, the internal way you see yourself starts to change, and then you become more comfortable with failure.

Wear Whatever

Loose pants are the cool thing, but I find leggings are more efficient, and I don’t feel like I’m trying too hard to fit in. “Anything that’s loose-fitting so you can move, but not so baggy that it gets in the way of movement, is great,” Adam says. “But most parkour people wear baggy pants: that’s kind of the fashion because it makes the movements look more aesthetically pleasing.” That said, do you. Most classes in the U.S. have a huge range of participants of every age, gender, and fashion sense.  

Go In with an Open Mind

I’ll be honest: I was skeptical at first. Adam is a rad coach, but the philosophy of the whole parkour practice was a little much for me at first, especially with the mindfulness stuff—meditation and I don’t mix well (yet). But while it gets a bit philosophical at times, and it can be a little frustrating at first, if you can just truly sink into it, it’s freaking awesome.