Thursday, 17 October 2013

Parkour: Be Useful

I've recently read the (out-of-copyright) translation of David Belle's book about parkour. It's definitely worth a read - tells you more about parkour, in a way, but also isn't about physical parkour and is more a discussion of his life and life philosophy, meaning that even if you don't care for parkour it's still very interesting. I also saw a couple of interview transcripts from David earlier today, which were also quite interesting.

I don't want to talk about what parkour is or isn't. But I will talk about a part of it. 

One saying that David and the French guys had (they had quite a few little slogans) was "ĂȘtre fort pour ĂȘtre utile". They actually got this from George Herbert, the guy who developed Methode Naturelle*, and I hadn't realised the extent to which Parkour developed out of that. At one point David even says that people should do two years of methode naturelle training before starting parkour.

Anyway, this saying has been taken on by parkour too. Be strong to be useful. I'm going to talk about it a bit and say what it means for us in actual application.

The first meaning I see is that we should be strong. Strong is good for a number of reasons (I'll take it as given that you agree that 'strong is good'). For parkour especially, when we're bouncing around concrete, strength is useful. We don't want to damage our bodies from this training (on the whole, we're making them better, but there can be damage as part of this whole), both through normal training and when we fall. Lots of experienced parkour people can fall quite spectacularly but still be fine - for example, David Belle here - which is quite incredible. Watch it and marvel. Another of the parkour sayings is 'etre et durer' - to do and to last - which I won't go into in more detail (this post is long enough already), but thought worth mentioning.
A few of us doing some strength training. It's also 'functional'!
The second meaning I see is that it means that the strength we want is useful strength. It isn't enough to be able to bench 100kg, what's more important is whether you can get on top of a wall you've grabbed with one hand, onto a bar you're dangling from, or how far you can carry somebody, or all of these other useful things. In this sense, what we want is functional strength. It's not about bodybuilding but your physical ability to actually do, not just muscles which look good and have some statistical strength. This also means strengthening the tendons and ligaments and bones, which some gym training doesn't really do.

'Functional strength' is a phrase thrown about a lot among people who exercise. I think it's commonly used to mean exercises which aren't isolated liner muscle movements (like bicep curl or leg press) but instead ones with a chain of muscles doing something, as typically these have some actual use (function) to them. But there's more to it than that. Not only does the body part of us have to be strong enough to do something, but we have to be able to mentally do it too. Obviously we need the technique for it, but we also need to be able to do it. This sometimes means overcoming fear: you aren't able to use your ability and be useful if your fear stops you (or inhibits you, as it's usually harder to do things well while scared). This is true function: what the limits of your ability are. Sometimes these are physical (I can jump so far, so precisely, I can do this much weight, I can pull myself onto a wall this many times, I can get up a wall this high). Also to take into account is consistency: being able to grab a 14ft wall one time in ten doesn't help if you're being chased by a dog and need to make it, for example. And third, as I said, is the mental limits. "Yes, I can make this jump, but only if I prepare myself for it." Or, "I can do a cat-leap 10ft, but if there was a drop beneath my I'd be too scared to do it". 
Rail precisions are scary
Until recently, that's all I thought this phrase meant. Be strong, and have useful strength. Turns out there's more to it than that.

"Be strong to be useful" doesn't just mean we're being strong so that we're able to be useful (like functional strength); it also means that with our strength we should be useful. It's a call to actually be useful. This the same idea as "with great power comes great responsibility": do something with your strength. Carry someone's shopping, or a suitcase up the stairs, or whatever.

Interestingly, David Belle seems to think that a key purpose (if not the main one) of his parkour training was so that he could rescue his family if need be - his family had a past of being fire fighters (good ones, in the Paris squad which apparently has a great reputation). Blane (Chris Rowat, now with PKGen in London, very inspirational) has said a similar thing in the past.They train for other reasons too (or at least get other benefits from parkour), but this is a focus for them. This is probably utility fully realised, the ability to save someone's life. Both physically and mentally (especially not being overwhelmed by fear and being able to focus and do). This is why, for example, height training is good, as that gives us fear, and practising with fear helps you to learn to deal with it. Similarly with any jump that needs breaking or a movement that makes you scared. 
Moving over a wall quickly
 "Ok, great!", I imagine you saying, "you talked in a philosophical way about the discipline of parkour.". How about some application of all this to training.

In parkour, we must train to be useful. There's the obvious stuff: improve what you can do, get stronger, overcome fear and other barriers. That's what we do in parkour training most of the time (aesthetics are kind-of irrelevant, and showing off is not the point and is bad for parkour). Then there's the active step of actually being useful. But here's some suggestions for how to train to be more useful.

1. Train in all conditions. Not reluctantly, but embrace it. When it rains, you've got this whole new environment to try out and challenge yourself in (I've written about this before on the Oxford Parkour blog). But you also need to become capable of moving in the rain, not being scared, and knowing how the rain affects the environment for what you can and can't do. Train in the cold, train in the heat, train in the wet and the icy. If you have to use real parkour (instead of artificial training) by running for the bus, escaping from something, or saving a life, you can't choose the conditions, so get used to it.

2.  Train in a more realistic way. I've noticed this when I've had to run for the train this week: there's no warm-up and you need to be ready. Try doing some training without doing a warm-up and wearing the clothes you usually wear, and see what you can do. Go straight for the difficult stuff (for you) and with speed, because when it comes to it you have to get it right first time. 

3. You should always be ready. Physically, this means looking after it with stretches/mobility/massage (lacrosse ball!) and nutrition. Mentally, pay attention: be aware as you walk. Don't listen to music too loud or get distracted by your smartphone; instead be aware of what's going on and the environment you're in. When I'm out at night or in a dodgy area or get a bad vibe, I pay more attention. But I do it at normal times too: seeing where cars are, what other people are doing, etc. (This has its own merit instead of being incase something bad happens, it means I have fewer accidents and can do things like cross roads at efficient times and wait less at traffic lights). Be always ready, always alert, and ready to act without hesitation if you need to, as if something happens you probably won't have time: for example if somebody starts a fight, tries to steal from you, or a car is going to crash into you.

So there are some thoughts of mine about parkour philosophy and training style!

*Methode Naturelle (natural method) is a style of training meant to be all-round and natural, including running/swimming/fighting/climbing/lifting heavy things like rocks and logs/other things. It's modern reincarnation is the MovNat franchise (not sure if franchise is the right word), which is also great.

(This post is written by Alex, also at, my blog which also includes non-parkour things)

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