The Universal Guide to Parkour and Freerunning
So, you want to move. Not just run, but fly. Imagine charging a foe, be it living or undead- they position themselves so a picnic table is between you. Every fiber of their being is expecting you to go left, or right. But you don’t. You go over. They’re dead before their brains (mmm brains) can process what’s happening. People expect things, and their reaction time is based on what they are expecting. So do the unexpected. Vault that table, leap off the wall, roll under shots. This is Parkour. And today, you’re going to learn how to do it.
Parkour (original French parcours) was invented by David Belle as a method of moving through one’s environment with a focus on efficiency and maintaining momentum. Freerunning was later suggested as an English translation of Parkour, although the terms have grown into separate philosophies. If you want to get from Point A to Point B, it’s Parkour. If you want to travel the same route but add a backflip or a pull-through, it’s Freerunning. Practitioners are called Traceurs and Freerunners respectively. /textbook
In my experience, if I call myself a Traceur, I get weird looks. Mostly because people don’t know French. I will be using all the terminology loosely in this guide, because it really doesn’t matter. Both arts are non-competitive, and no one is going to call you out for using the wrong name. In the same vein, movements have many different names (IE cat/kong, tic-tac/wall run). Again, names don’t matter. Know how to move, not what to call it.
Although there are many moves out there, try not to think of it as a combo or series of pre-defined patterns. Every obstacle is different; every course you run must be handled differently. Sometimes you will slip, your foe will move, your goal will change. The core ideology is getting to where you need to be without letting anything stop you. You do this by learning your own body and how it moves, and using that power to overcome obstacles. I’ll be covering a few movements and how to practice and refine yourself.
Can you run a mile? Impressive, I can’t. It’s too dull. That said, parkour requires a taxing combination of cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, and coordination. It is also a very high-impact activity. If you have heart or joint problems, talk to a doctor before you start. Even if you don’t, ease into it. Your body will adapt over time, but going to fast will get you hurt- trust me, I’ve done it. Aim to get out and practice for just 15 minutes the first day. If you’re fine the next morning, ramp up to 20. Keep going as long as you’re able and as long as you have free time. The more you practice, the better you get. There are lots of other ways you can improve your ability without directly practicing, of course. I’ve highlighted a few here.
Resistance Training (aka get swole)
It takes a lot of power to be able to pull off some moves. Power is how quickly you can exert your strength, not how strong you are or how big you are. Get into the gym, get a resistance training program, and stick with it. It will also improve your connective tissue, recovery ability, cardiovascular ability, and a host of other factors. You don’t have to be superman or bench 315 to start. Just challenge yourself, however big or small that weight is.
Cardio Training (aka hell)
Yep, you have to run. Though as I mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be in a straight line. If you already run, bike, swim, or something similar and love it, great! Keep it up. Parkour is high-intensity though. You will get your heart pumping after ten minutes of vaulting.
Balance and Coordination
Get a slackline and practice on it. Stand on one leg when you’re still. Walk on lines in the sidewalk, stay on the same line of tiles or the same board inside. Pick a spot 50 feet away, pick a foot, and land your foot on that spot without a short step or a long step right before it. It might sound simple, but it is an important ability. You’ll need to run up to a wall with the right foot spacing to launch- a stutter step or an overextended stride will end your momentum.
Flexibility (aka get bendy!)
Flexibility is another important trait because the longer your range of motion, the higher your power output becomes. Can you squat down ATG (ass to ground), knees in line with toes, without falling over? Check out How To Become Flexible: A Practical Guide (and really the whole blog). I won’t go too into detail, but don’t neglect this skill.
You don’t have to buy parkour shoes or special sweats to practice. However, long pants are a VERY good idea. You’ll knock your shins at some point and be glad of a little extra protection. Personally, I don’t practice in jeans, as they slow me down and restrict movement. Sweatpants or some athletics are fine. Just make sure you won’t trip over them! Oh, and don’t wear flip flops, high heels, dress shoes, etc. Barefoot, running shoes, and skate shoes will all do, though they aren’t ideal. You can pick up a pair of Tigerclaws for ~$20, and they’re arguably the best shoes for Parkour out there.
As for armaments, well, big blasters are risky. The fewer free hands you have, the more limited your moveset. I like being a sock ninja, or a blaster on a lanyard that I can drop at a moment’s notice. Obviously, zombie ninja is a great combo, but I have such an arsenal that I’ll take the risk. Just be sure to practice with your intended gear sometimes.
Alright, you’re strong, you can stand on a reed pole for 40 days, run a hundred miles, and you can touch your toes (to your forehead). What happens now?
Well, something inglorious. You learn what to do when you fall. You will fall! Our first move is:
The Shoulder Roll
You jump from a twelve foot ledge. Landing and trying to absorb that shock will kill your knees. You land with a forward tilt, roll over your shoulder and back, one foot striking the ground, and translate the momentum into a running start. The zed behind you stops in awe. Or more likely, you just tripped walking to class and roll instead of face planting into the sidewalk. This is the basis of many other movements, and it will get you comfortable with being upside down. There are numerous tutorials all over Youtube (I’m a fan of Ukemi Parkour’s). Once it thaws out here, I’ll make my own and add it to this section. Same goes for most of these moves- look it up!
Mechanically, a roll is a way to distribute and redirect force. There is the classic gymnastics forward roll (straight over the head and spine) that works just fine on mats and soft surfaces. But don’t try it in the real world- at best, you’ll be bruised. A proper shoulder (PK, parkour, or martial arts) roll goes from one shoulder to the opposite hip, avoiding the tailbone, PSIS, and hip, then end with one foot striking the ground to propel out of the movement.
When is it useful? All the friggin’ time. If you trip, roll. If you jump down from anything higher than your head, roll. If you bail a movement, roll. Be comfortable with rolling over both shoulders. Make sure you aren’t striking any hard points (bones), and get that pattern committed to muscle memory. End the move with one foot ready to run, and your hands pushing you out. Your head should never touch the ground. Start on a mat, bed, rug, or something soft, and then progress to grass, gravel, sand, and eventually solid surfaces. If you’re bruising, you’re doing it wrong. Take it slow and reevaluate your pattern. The roll MUST be learned before anything else.
Remember, you can use it when it isn’t needed. Rolling under a dart or away from a zed can save your life. Plus, it looks kinda cool. I tend to roll at random moments on campus, just to stay in practice.
When a ninja drops to the floor, they don’t make a sound. Are you a ninja or a sack of potatoes? For every jump, land on your forefoot (or ball of the foot and toes). Use every joint- toes, ankle, knees, and hips to absorb the impact. Try to see how high you can drop from without making noise. A quiet landing is a safe landing. Additionally, land on two feet whenever possible. Double the joints means half the impact. Keep your knees tracking above your toes (no buckling legs). This keeps cartilage pressure symmetric, so you don't blow a knee out.
So, there’s a wall in front of you. It’s about chest high. Some might see a blocked path- I see choices. There are tons of (named) vaults out there. There isn’t a best, just preference. I love thief’s vault and lazies- you might always kong. The essence of a vault is getting over a relatively low wall, rail, car, etc. in a smooth fashion. For all of these, there are TONS of youtube tutorials if you want to see it done.
V.0 The Takeoff
Vaults require you to jump. You aid that movement with your arms in various ways. Get comfortable jumping straight up, straight forward, and everything in between with both feet, one foot, etc. Practice jumping over small things without touching down- bike racks work well.
V.1 The Lazy Vault
Start slow- plant your hands next to each other, and slightly off to one side of your torso on top of a 2’ wall and jump your feet over it. Try to land facing away from the wall so you can keep running. Congrats, that’s a lazy. Now do it from a small jog, up to full tilt. Oh, and try it with your hands off to each side- you never know how you’ll approach a wall, so you need to be ambidextrous.
V.2 The Thief’s Vault
Just like the lazy, but you only plant one hand. Run up, drop one hand to the surface, and cast your other three limbs over. Only the one hand should touch, everything else flies over the wall. Make sure you can do the move with each hand down. For higher walls, your arms will pull you over. For low walls, they're just a good guide.
V.3 The Kong, or Cat Vault
This one takes some real upper body power for higher walls. Plant your hands wider than shoulder width apart, elbows slightly bent, facing your wall straight on. Now straighten your arms and jump- for now, just try to get your feet on top of the wall and stop there. That’s a Kong-Plant. Once you’re confident, try jumping your feet all the way over without touching. Both hands plant, feet go through the middle of your arms, feet touch down, hands shove off the wall behind you. This is a great move to staying head-on over low obstacles, though depending on your anatomy it can be a difficult one to master.
V.4 The Dive Kong and Double Kong
A bit more advanced! The Dive Kong involves leaping head first towards a wall, or over a small obstacle, then performing a Kong vault from horizontal to get back to your feet. Don’t try this one until you can Kong like a monkey and you’re not afraid to shin-capitate yourself a few times.
The Double Kong is two consecutive Kong Vaults, either to clear two adjacent obstacles or one long one (like a picnic table lengthways). In the first Kong, you kick your feet up and back to get your body horizontal, Kong again, then bring your feet back under for the landing. It’s like clapping the ground twice before you hit it. I’m still working on this move myself.
V.5 Your Vault
Remember, it’s about self-expression. If you find a unique way to get over that wall, call it whatever you want. Get good at it and own it- that’s what the art is about. There are tons of vaults out there. You don’t have to learn and master them all like a checklist. If there’s one go-to that always works for you, great! Use it. Like I said, I always Thief Vault when I can, because it’s adaptable to rails and very high (~5’) walls.
Didn’t we just jump a whole bunch? Well, yes. But you were landing on something pretty big- the ground. It’s hard to miss. Generally, you’ll hit it one way or another, unless your name is Arthur Dent. Try jumping to smaller targets! A two-foot jump (feet together on takeoff and landing) is called a Precision Jump. Work on jumping as far as you can on the ground first, to get a feel for it. As you jump, swing your arms up to generate additional drive. If you start tipping over on the landing, bring your arms back down to cancel your momentum. Once you can jump and stick it on a flat surface, try:
Jumping up steps (1, then 2, 3… 7 is hella impressive!)
Jumping from table to table, stool to stool, wall to wall. Look around your campus- I’m sure there’s a series of elevated flat things!
Eventually, jumping on railings on higher obstacles. Be careful- landing on small, curved surfaces is extremely difficult.
A long jump, or jumping off of one foot, is great for clearing small gaps and getting over low things. The trouble is, if that one leading foot doesn’t get traction, well, you’re in for a world of hurt. Only take one-foot jumps where you’re confident. If you slip, roll!
Well, now the wall is 9 feet high. SOL, right? Not quite.
W.1 Basic Wall Climb/Struggle Up
Jump up. Grab the top, pull with your arms and climb with your feet. Bam, you’re over. There are fancier variations (feet together and hopping up, pulling so hard with your arms that you fly over) but this is the basic. Get one foot up, then the other (or swing it over).
W.2 The Leap-over
Climb up as before, but this time, your feet don’t touch the top surface. Think of it as a vault- get your body close to the top of the wall, then jump your feet over and land on the other side (rolling if needed!)
W.3 The taller-than-you-can-jump-and-reach-wall
Here’s where you need environmental serendipity and/or sticky shoes. Both methods are very similar. In the case of a single tall wall, try to run- straight up it. Yep, run up, plant a foot on the wall and attempt to launch yourself high enough to grab the top. Method two, two walls or a corner. Run towards Wall A, plant a foot, and immediately push off of Wall A UP and TOWARDS Wall B. You can gain an extra couple feet of vertical reach this way. Just be careful not to body slam Wall B- upon grabbing the top ledge, you’ll need to get your feet on Wall B to stop from slamming into it. Then proceed over the top as per usual.
W.4 The Cat Hang
Let’s say you have hold of a ledge. It’s a rather nice ledge. You don’t really want to go over it, but along it. You could get on top and then progress, or, you could Cat Hang. This move requires a whole lot of grip strength. Essentially, you’re going to either hand over hand sideways, or make a series of small leaps to the side with both hands until you arrive, drop and roll or proceed over the wall. This works very well with rails, convex corners, and walls with features (brick gaps, small ledges, etc.)
W.5 The Tic-Tac
Screw it, this wall is too high. You’re not going over, and hanging from it is just going to make you a target. You need to turn, FAST, and leave somebody in the dust. You could try to slide or pivot, but both of those waste precious momentum. Instead, find something like a tree, a wall, or something that can take a lot of force without tipping over. I’ve heard ‘Wall run,’ and ‘tic-tac,’ and prefer tic-tac. It describes the move much better. You’re going to TIC, jump off one foot towards the object, then TAC, use your other foot to plant on the object and jump in a different direction. This can be a very small change (30 degrees total) or dramatic (180!). The sharper the turn, the harder your jumps have to be, and the stronger your joints. But let me tell you, running straight into a wall, tic-tac’ing 180 and blasting the zed behind you is epic.
This move can also be applied to cross gaps. Run nearly parallel, tic at the edge then tac to land on the other side. Great for clearing fountains and walls that protrude from bigger walls. You can add more steps to your horizontal motion (I’ve seen four at best) to extend the gap clearing capacity. This is when ‘Horizontal wall run’ becomes a more suitable descriptor.
Bars, Rails, and other Horizontal Grabby Things
We’ve talked a lot about going over. How about under? If there’s a railing in the way just a bit higher than you’re comfortable vaulting, there are other options.
B.1 The Roll
Oh look, here it is again! Yep, a roll maintains your speed and lower your profile by a lot. As long as you have good form (No flailing limbs) you can shoulder roll under bars, partially open garage doors, and other low clearances a lot faster than you could duck or crawl through. You can also do a side roll, or simply roll around your central vertical axis (think dogs rolling over). Technique isn’t as important, because this is to get from point A to point B, not save your knees from force.
B.2 The Pull Through
Instead of ducking (and slowing down!) lean back. Grab the rail and swing yourself forward and under it. Having your hands on the rail prevents you from whacking your face on the way by, and the swing can win you a little extra speed.
These can get fancier, of course. You can make it an aesthetic move by doing a Gargoyle or skin-the-cat if you’re from a gymnastics background. Grab the bar with both hands. Arms should be slightly bent, legs mostly straight. Now, jump, trying to hit yourself in the face with your knees at the same time you are straightening your arms. The combined motion will send your legs between your arms. You’re essentially doing a backflip while holding on to the bar. Keep holding on until your feet hit the ground- you can let go earlier once you get used to it, but make sure you are landing on your feet. These can also be done backwards by reaching behind yourself, grabbing a bar, and jumping your feet back, up, and through. The starting position for a Back Gargoyle is the ending position for a Front Gargoyle, and vice versa. (A front flip while holding on.) Front and back Gargoyles can be done in an alternating pattern, which is a great way to practice and work on shoulder mobility.
One last fancy-up is the Russian Pull Though. It was invented (as far as I’m aware) by Fight or Flight Academy in Minneapolis, MN. Instead of having two hands on an overhead bar or rail, one hand grabs a vertical bar or is planted against a wall. The Gargoyle is then carried out at a roughly 45 degree angle. These can be a little tricky for leg clearance, so take it slow. You also have to be able to hold your bodyweight with one hand.
Well, that’s enough moves for now. I’ve covered the basics, and hopefully you’ll get into Parkour and start learning and creating movements of your own. You don’t need a gymnastics facility- if you’ve got a flat surface or a couch or a picnic table, you can start. I pick one building on campus and try to get as many moves on it as I can. Once you have individual moves down, work on stringing them together fluently. The ability to transition from obstacle to obstacle is called ‘flow,’ and it’s one of the most vital aspects that make parkour so damn impressive to watch. Start with little elements, like a good approach, a good jump, a good Kong plant. Then put those elements together into a move- a Kong vault at speed. Then start combining movements into routes, or traces. (Traceur, remember?) You’ll be the most survivable human or the deadliest zed in no time.
As a personal tale, I’ve been tagged once in 5 HvZ’s. It was by a football player who had speed like nothing else- I saw him a block away, deemed he wasn’t a threat just yet, and turned to take out the half dozen zeds in front of me. He got to my back before I got three shots off. That’s my ONLY death, though. Last game, at the end of the night, I baited every zed up some stairs to a large concrete porch with a low wall. I then waved cheekily, vaulted the wall, dropped ten feet and bolted to safety. I heard one “Holy ****!” and a friend laugh and call out, “This is the day, we ALMOST infected TheSilverhead.”
I’ve been OZ. Once. I’m not allowed to be OZ any more. I tagged about 20% of the humans in the first ten minutes (250 players). Yeah, people don’t expect ninja zombies.
Questions and comments? I’ll be creating videos for much of this in the spring, but in the meantime, Youtube has a plethora of examples.