February 28, 2014 12:43 pm

Learn to parkour like Spider-Man

Lesser mortals can also learn to scale walls, says parkour queen Shirley Darlington
Illustration by Matt Murphy of parkour©Matt Murphy

Twenty-five years after it was invented by a couple of school friends in northern France, parkour really has come on in, well . . . leaps and bounds. A “greatest flips” video, Parkour and FreeRunning, has been watched more than 38 million times on YouTube. The parkour sequence at the beginning of Casino Royale, which culminates in a thrilling leap between two 200ft construction cranes, has been voted best James Bond stunt of all time. And jokes on the subject regularly circulate on Twitter. Q. What do you call Spider-Man with his suit off? A. Peter Parkour.

Parkour and I have a history. I first tried it in 2008 and, despite being wowed by its acrobatics and athleticism, I couldn’t help thinking that it was an activity best practised by stuntmen, former Olympic gymnasts and those raised by trapeze artists. Five years on, I’m giving it another go. Shirley Darlington, parkour evangelist and full-time instructor, is keen to shake off the sport’s image as an activity for daredevil types. But the real clincher for me is that she promises it will change my approach to aerobic exercise, which I try to avoid because I find it so boring.

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“Parkour really is for everyone of all ages and all abilities,” Darlington tells me, as we walk up to a housing estate in Kilburn, north London, to take on its walls, railings and steps. “When I first started, I hadn’t done any sport for six years,” she says. “A friend invited me to a class, and I was amazed: I had no idea that it was possible to move your body like that. But parkour is very progressive; you’ll be surprised how fast you’ll be able to do things.”

I point to the pedestrian barrier that runs up the middle of the road. “So, I expect I’ll be leaping that on my way home,” I say.

“You’ll be leaping that in about five minutes,” Darlington replies. “And, by the end of the session, you’ll be vaulting a 10ft wall.”

I’m about to laugh at her joke when I realise that she is absolutely serious.

As soon as we hit the housing estate, Darlington gets straight down to business. “Let’s get you vaulting,” says the 27-year-old mother of one, as we stand in front of a metal fence that runs along the top of the estate. “Watch me as I do it, and I’ll break it down into easy steps. First, take hold of the top bar with both hands and, by extending your arms, raise yourself up as high as you can. Next – and this is the key – lift your hips and, finally, swing your legs over.” Darlington vaults the fence. And then back again.

“Now, it’s your turn,” she says. “So put your hands on the top, extend your arms, lift your hips up and, finally, get those legs over.” I manage the vault on my first attempt. My legs get a little tangled and I hit the ground heavily but I’m over.

“Well done,” Darlington says. “Try to land as quietly as possible. By making as little noise as possible, you relax your muscles.” I have half a dozen more goes, managing to reduce my thud factor a little each time.

“OK,” Darlington says, “time for some quadrupedal movement: that’s crawling around on all fours without your knees touching the ground. You’ll find you become so much stronger and fitter if you incorporate this into your daily routine. It employs muscles that humans are designed to use but which have become redundant in our sedentary lives.” She drops to the ground and starts moving around and I follow suit. It’s hard work but she makes it more fun by introducing variations: moving the opposite hand and foot together, moving with the same-side hand and foot together, going backwards and up and down steps.

Next Darlington vaults on to the top railing of a barrier and walks up and down it. Before I give it a go, she makes me practise a safe dismount, by bending my knees, grabbing the railing with both hands and landing softly. “It’s important that you know how to get out of something,” she says. “That way you never need to be frightened.”

I’m finding it difficult to progress more than one or two steps along the railing without falling off. “With parkour you find out what your strengths and weaknesses are very quickly,” Darlington says. “I used to come here every day and wouldn’t allow myself to go home until I could make it the whole way along.”

I ask her how often she’s been injured. “I’ve never broken, fractured or sprained anything . . . I’ve had little scrapes or bruises but nothing more. At the heart of parkour is very careful practice; 90 per cent of our training is done at ground level – we always start ‘low and slow’. It’s about being confident, being completely focused at that moment. It’s not about adrenalin; parkour is not a competitive sport, you only move on when you’re ready.”

At which point she decides that I’m ready to give a 10ft wall a go. First, though, she shows me what she wants me to do. She runs at the wall, plants her right foot at about waist height, at the same time pushing upwards and grabbing the railing that runs around the top of the wall before swiftly swinging herself over it. The photographer and I burst into spontaneous applause. Darlington then talks me through it. “Run at the wall and fix on the spot where you want to place your front foot. When you hit the wall, push upwards and lift your other leg up at the same time – this will give you the momentum to keep on going up. As you do this, extend your arms, and reach for the railing.”

Anthony Lavelle and Shirley Darlington jumping over a vault©Greg Funnell

On my first try, I manage to plant my front foot and get some upwards movement but I don’t get anywhere near the top. “Maybe plant your front foot a little higher: that will give you more push,” Darlington says. On my fourth attempt, I manage to grab the top of the wall with both hands but I’m getting very tired now. Darlington shows me how to do it one last time. “You’re so nearly there,” she says. “I really think you’re close to being able to do it.” I give it one final go and I make it over. It takes a lot of heaving, groaning and effort – and it certainly would not be accurate to describe it as fluid – but I have vaulted a 10ft wall.

The experience has been exhilarating, making what has been an intensive workout feel like extraordinary fun. Darlington advises me to attend a few more classes and also to look around where I live for fences, railings and other obstacles. “Parkour changes the way you see your environment,” she says. “When you walk to the Tube each day, you can switch off, so that route becomes subconscious, or you can start looking out for obstacles and challenges, for potential for movement – essentially, that’s what parkour is.”

On my way back to the Tube station, I vault the pedestrian barrier that we passed earlier. I feel a giddy sense of achievement. Now that I’ve managed that, I tell myself that high walls should soon be within my grasp. Of course, the 200ft construction crane managed by James Bond will probably take a little longer.

Have you pulled off a personal challenge? Either comment below, email magazineletters@ft.com or join the conversation on Twitter using #FTPursuits. You can also tweet us your photos or upload them to Instagram (#FTPursuits)

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Anthony Lavelle jumping over a handrail©Greg Funnell

What I learnt about myself

I had become rather set in my three-times-a-week gym routine.

I like exercising outside, without any equipment.

I can learn new physical skills faster than I thought.

Anthony’s tips

• Don’t just focus on the jumps and rolls: balance, co-ordination and core strength are all important too.

• Start low and start slow.

• Work out a parkour route where you live: use walls, fences, street barriers and trees.

• Practise, practise, practise.

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Details

parkourgenerations.com; The London Parkour Academy opened last month, Trinity Buoy Wharf, 64 Orchard Place, London E14 OJY; parkouruk.org

Shirley Darlington is a coach at Parkour Generations. To comment, email magazineletters@ft.com

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