The World Is Their Playground Parkour Offers a New Way to Get Fit in Any Environment

For parkour enthusiasts, the urban environment offers endless opportunities. Retaining walls for jumping, handrails for vaulting, roof-tops for leaping. Also known as freerunning, this sport combines the fearlessness, skill and flexibility of gymnastics with an improvised, edgy sensibility.

The sport holds particular ap-peal among young men, but the demographic is expanding, according to Mark Toorock, founder of the American Parkour website, Primal Fit-ness, the Washington, D.C., gym affiliated with the site, has members in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, Toorock says. Toorock is 41 and began freerunning in 2003.

A New Perspective

The idea of freerunning is simple: just as skateboarders exploit their surroundings to grind, jump and launch tricks, freerunners experience the environment as a series of obstacles, using only their bodies to flip, hurdle and soar. The sport got its start in the 1980s in France, and is named for “parcours du combattant,” an obstacle course used to train soldiers of the French military.

A person who practices parkour is generally known as a traceur, or a traceuse if she is female. Getting started requires no special equipment, although Toorock says supportive shoes are a good idea.

Toorock’s favorite running spot is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which includes multilevel stone platforms and wide terraces. Playgrounds are great for parkour, as are college campuses, that “are made for pedestrian traffic,” Toorock says.

Ready to Launch

Parkour sites can be found anywhere. “The more that you increase your skills, the more you can practice anywhere,” Toorock says. “Just find different ways to move. Climb a tree branch. Interact with it. Learn to jump and roll. You can do it in your living room.”

Maps and tutorials on freerunning are included on his site, which last summer logged more than 100,000 unique visits per month. Its affiliated Facebook page counts 65,000 friends.

Amateur video of parkour is nearly endless online, featuring everyone from backyard leapers to freerunners with finesse. And the sport has landed on commercial television as well. Toorock was involved in the eight-part series, Jump City, last year, which was taped in Seattle and features freerunners interacting with that city. Produced by television giant Free-mantleMedia, the show is now available on YouTube. But for every online video that instructs, there is one that records a painful mistake. A video that opens the American Parkour site features a Kent State University gymnast and experienced runner named Natalie leaping over one low wall only to crash face-first into another.

“That was five stitches and a nose broken in three places,” Toorock says.

Still, Toorock insists that freerunning is safer than most sports. Compared to football, it features no tackling or similar impact from other players. Unlike skating, there are no wheels, therefore no speed to amplify the effect of a fall.

Getting Together

According to Brian Orosco, the manager of a California-based freerunning team, the biggest challenge to the sport right now is organization.

Orosco is a founder of Tempest Freerunning, a Los Angeles-based group started by professional stuntmen. Among other goals, he would like to see freerunning become standardized. “We need to create levels of progression and skills—a grading system,” Orosco says

Just as the National Football League organizes football, he says a central organization is necessary for freerunning. “The sport is still really fresh,” Orosco adds.

In April 2011, the team opened its own 7,000 square-foot training facility, billed as the world’s only indoor parkour playground. An academy associated with the facility offers classes and summer camps as well as an outreach program for schoolchildren.

“We want to use freerunning as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles in your life,” Orosco says.

To combat any stigma associated with adults who climb buildings and jump off walls, freerunners try to leave areas better than they found them, Toorock says. His club’s Leave No Trace Initiative builds on the idea that at public attractions, visitors should take only photos and leave only footprints

But it goes further. At a wooded, riverside area last year, Toorock’s group collected 65 bags of trash, two car axles, a steering wheel and a baby seat, and disposed of it all responsibly. In all, the group has cleared more than 340 bags of trash from public parks, he says

“We want to be viewed as people who are respectful of the environment,” Toorock says. “We’re doing something good for the places we’re in.”