Extreme Parkour for Newbies: How to Add Freerunning to Your Workout


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This weekend I traded in my running shoes to sample a new type of indoor workout. And I learned that Spider-Man does exist.

In fact, there is an entire team of Spider-Men-in-training at the World Freerunning & Parkour Federation, and they're teaming up with Equinox to bring parkour classes to a gym near you.

Flips and vaults and jumps, oh my
Parkour comes from the French word parcours, or "route." It was started by a French naval officer as a training program in World War I and II that taught the most efficient way to get from point A to point B, using obstacles in your path to increase your efficiency. (Can you say functional workout?)

As the sport progressed, parkour became less about efficiency and more about the creativity and expression of movement. Parkour athletes developed gymnast-like flips, vaults, and jumps—all en route from one point to another, often in urban environments. The physicality of the sport is also intertwined with a philosophy that there is no obstacle you can't overcome.

Parkour has recently jumped into pop culture, too, with appearances in Casino Royale, the music video for "It's Not My Time" by Three Doors Down, and on MTV's Ultimate Parkour Challenge airing October 22.

My first parkour class
When I entered the gym this Saturday for a special preview class, I knew nothing about the sport. Imagine my surprise when, after a short warm-up and a few joint mobility exercises, our nimble instructors pulled out mats and began explaining the proper forward roll technique. (Check out some of their skills!)

The next 90 minutes were much like the time I taught myself—at age 6—to do a cartwheel: rolling around on the grass until I figured out how to successfully flip my legs over my head.

This weekend—at age 24—I spent the majority of the class rolling around on mats (and over vaults) until I figured out how to flip my legs over, under, and around my body.

We started out with a simple forward roll and progressed into run-hop-roll combos. Then we moved on to a vault, learning to maneuver our bodies and legs in the air, followed by balance drills on a set of beams, and jumping drills between two parallel beams. We ended with a freestyle obstacle course that was part middle-school field day and part gymnastics class.

A fresh and fun workout for runners
Parkour was fun and fresh, yet not for the faint of heart. I've competed in a half-marathon, triathlon, and several other endurance events, but parkour put my agility and courage to the test. Because the class is high impact, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone with joint injuries either.

The mental exercise is considerable as well. Unlike my mind-numbing long runs, parkour forced me to focus throughout the entire workout, partly because the jumps, rolls, and vaults were unfamiliar movements, and partly because I didn't want to fall on my bum in front of the young (and attractive) instructors.

Just like interval training, your heart rate fluctuates between a steady and intense rate, depending on the activity and how much running is done between exercises. Plus, the workout is a good mix of cardiovascular and strength training—you typically approach each move with a run and use your strength to propel yourself over an obstacle.

Though I didn't get nearly as sweaty as I do in my weekly Spinning class, my core was pleasantly sore the day after the class.

In October, Equinox gym will offer parkour classes that focus on core conditioning and balance. However, they won't be doing any of the daredevil tricks shown in the videos. According to a statement from Equinox, "The class uses equipment such as the vaults, beams, fitness equipment, crash, and padded mats to simulate an outdoor training course with minimum risk." If there aren't any Equinox gyms near you, find a parkour group here.