Don’t slog it out on the treadmill – vaulting, jumping and climbing is much more fun, says Jimmy Lee Shreeve who explains why he took up free running in his forties
It’s 3.20pm and I’m on the school run. The bell goes and my 10-year-old daughter, Imogen, appears, handing me her pink lunchbox, which I hastily slip into my backpack. “How was your day?,” I ask. “So, so,” comes her stock reply. We then set off for home, but not by car. I’ve always done the school run on foot as Imogen and I enjoy walking. But now our daily jaunt on shanks’s pony has taken an eccentric turn – which could explain the odd looks we’re getting from the other parents and children. Imogen and I are “free running” our way home.
First we jog across the playground, weaving in and out of the logjam of parents and children, slowly making their way out of the school grounds. Then we dart through a row of trees, scramble down a slope to the sports field, and sprint across it like a couple of cheetahs. We then leap a five-foot fence, bringing us to an alley, which gets us way ahead of everyone else.
Moments later, we jump on a wall that skirts a rank of neat-looking shops and run along it, then swing under a couple of railings, bringing us back on to the pavement. Within five minutes we’re at our pitstop – Tesco Express. After grabbing a couple of snacks and smoothies, we’re in action again, bounding out of the sliding doors (which never seem to open fast enough), and vaulting over a row of concrete bollards outside.
We then spring over an old red brick wall, fly down a back street, and leap on and off a telephone junction box. The final leg involves scaling a six-foot wall (which has a few footholds) and running breathlessly up a long alley that brings us out at our bungalow in a sleepy cul-de-sac on the eastern outskirts of Norwich.
It’s now 3.35pm. Time for our smoothies and snacks, then it’s Newsround for Imogen, and back to work for me.
Why do we do it? Simply because it’s fun. It transforms an otherwise dull walk through suburbia into an adventure. But there’s no denying that the exercise is good for us. What’s more, we need it. Like most people today, my work as a writer is very sedentary. It’s the same for Imogen: apart from lunchtime play and PE/ games twice a week, her day is spent sitting in a chair – such is the state of modern schooling.
I first took up free running a year ago after renowned US “evolutionary fitness” instructor Frank Forencich (www.exuberantanimal.com), raved about “parkour” – the discipline that free running came out of – in one of his newsletters. “The great thing about parkour [and free running] is its willingness to adapt to whatever conditions it encounters,” he wrote. “Instead of adapting the environment to the body, it adapts the body to the environment, which challenges it. This is very much the way of the hunter-gatherer, a practice that was the norm for many hundreds of thousands of years.”
In other words, free running mimics how we are hard-wired to move, and thus is arguably a far more beneficial way to exercise than pumping iron or pounding a treadmill. In fact, the roots of free running can be traced to indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa. During the early part of the 20th century, French naval officer George Hébert (1875-1957) travelled to Africa and was taken aback by the level of health and fitness displayed by people he met. “And yet,” he observed, “they had no other tutor in gymnastics, but their lives in nature.” He set about creating his “Natural Method of Physical Culture” which advocated “the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed”, and involved specialised obstacle courses.
Hébert’s system was taken on board by the French military – later inspiring French soldiers fighting in Vietnam. By the late 1980s, it was taken to another plane by a group of Parisian teenagers that included David Belle and Sébastien Foucan, the leading exponents of parkour and free running. Belle learnt the system from his father, who had been a soldier, and taught it to his friends. But rather than create obstacle courses, the youths used the urban landscape around them – leaping like gazelles over walls, balancing like cats on impossibly thin ledges, and swinging like apes from metal railings. When they grew up, they took their art to another level, making spectacular leaps between tall buildings – where a split second’s lapse in concentration would have seen them plummet to their deaths. Their aim, however, was not to pull ever more dangerous stunts, but to achieve a fluidity of movement as they bounded and glided over their concrete and metal playground. But their biggest aim was to enter a mind-body state called “the flow”, which has parallels in the mysterious “chi” (life force) of martial arts. Unsurprisingly, the founders of parkour, who have been strongly influenced by Oriental martial arts, consider it a philosophy, not a competitive sport. “Our motto is no violence, no competition, no groups, no chiefs,” Foucan declared.
Eventually, Belle and Foucan (left) fell out, leading Foucan to found free running. Unlike parkour, which is about getting from A to B as quickly and directly as possible, free running allows artistry of movement – practitioners, for example, might finish a jump with an unnecessary spin because it looks good.
Today, Belle, 35, and Foucan, 34, are well-known all over the world – as a result of appearing on dozens of TV shows and commercials. Sébastien Foucan (www .foucan.com) choreographed and performed in Madonna’s Confessions tour in 2006, and that same year showcased his art in the James Bond film Casino Royale. He also took part in the 2003 documentaries Jump London and Jump Britain. And last month a book on his art was published, called Free Running: Find Your Way (Michael O’Mara 2008). It consists of atmospheric and often spectacular photos of Foucan in action, accompanied by inspiring Zen-like aphorisms designed to help you find your own way in free running and in life in general.
Because of Belle and Foucan’s prominence, both free running and parkour have been taken up by young people in many towns and cities in Britain and around the globe. Which is great. But for me it presented a problem – sheer embarrassment. There was I, a middle-aged guy, taking up an activity normally associated with teenagers. My local Norwich Parkour group (Norwich-Parkour.co.uk), for example, are masters of the art, but none of them are more than a year or so out of their teens.
So when I took my first steps in free running, I waited until no one was around before leaping on to walls or swinging on railings. Sometimes I had wait a long time for the coast to be clear. In the end, I steeled myself and did it anyway. Eventually, I got used to it and now I no longer worry about what people might think of me – an attitude that does a lot to improve your self-confidence generally.
From a health point of view, free running offers the kind of activity levels we need in this sedentary age. In his most recent book, Exuberant Animal (Author House, 2006), Frank Forencich argues that, if we want to beat obesity, we must return to the same kind of movement patterns that were found in the ancestral landscape. “The consensus position that’s come out of the big US health agencies is that we need vigorous activity most days of the week,” he says.
Forencich, however, points out that free running and parkour can be dangerous. “You’ve only got to look at the parkour blooper video clips that are going around to see that the injuries can be substantial.” Indeed, some have been fatal – which is why Forencich recommends a “considerable build-up phase” before people hit the streets, particularly if they are not used to regularly physical exercise.
Foucan recommends jumping straight in – but taking it slowly. “The best way to begin free running is to do it,” he says. “Get to know the basic moves and start practising, and you will see what comes to you. Start slowly, do it step by step, and don’t be afraid of how people will see you, especially if you are alone.”
As far as my daughter Imogen is concerned, free running back from school each day beats PE and games lessons. “At school they make you do the same thing over and over again, which gets boring,” she says. “With free running you do what you want, as long as you’re careful, and it’s much more fun.” As for me, I’m setting up a middle-aged free running group, and we’re going to give the kids a run for their money – one day…
Urban Freeflow – The Official Worldwide Freerun/ Parkour Network:
Free running: Learn the moves
Beginners should proceed very slowly and carefully
- Basic jump: Launch yourself forward, landing on both feet, bending the knees to absorb the shock. Complete the manoeuvre with a somersault.
- Blind jump: A precision jump in a situation which makes it impossible to see the landing spot.
- Tic-tac: Run up, use the foot to grip into a small hurdle, and propel yourself from it to leap with greater ease over the next obstacle.
- Cat leap: Run towards the target, place both hands on the wall, leap between them, with the legs through the middle of the arms. Land on both feet.
- Precision jump: Identify a very precise landing target, and being able to judge the exact leap necessary.
- Wall run: Place a foot on a wall to propel yourself forwards and upwards over a barrier.
- Monkey vault: Run up, and use either one or two feet to leap and use both hands to grab on to and cross an obstacle.
Author and journalist