Parkour, the art or discipline of movement through urban spaces, and its more expressive and competitive offshoot, freerunning, are distinguished by their differing philosophies. Both disciplines are relatively new, and a very simplified way to distinguish the two is to know that parkour is characterized by the obstacles in its environment, while freerunning is more about the abilities and expression of the person than the performing space.
According to discipline founders, parkour is an individual discipline of physical and mental control, while freerunning is a more theatrical and social sport of physical expression. In the real world, though, the differences between the two disciplines are blurry, and there can be confusion even among participants. Participants of parkour are called tracuers, and in freerunning they’re freerunners. In most parts of the world, both disciplines have only caught on in the last decade but are becoming increasingly popular, to the point that training courses can now be found in gyms and school athletic programs.
Freerunning has progressed from its parkour foundation to incorporate more gymnastic-style movements and techniques. Ironically, despite the name, freerunning does not necessarily need a large space to operate, but parkour does. This is because freerunning focuses more on a person’s technique and free expression, rather than completion of the obstacle course. In addition to the basic climbing and jumping movements of tracuers, freerunners flip and spin through the air, and hand spring and cartwheel on obstacles. As freerunning continues to progress, it's the acrobatic elements more closely resemble diving or skiing stunts than parkour. Freerunning’s unrestricted approach means that it has become less dependent on urban landscapes, and freerunners are equally at home in a park or on a beach or rocks.
Parkour is more of a training discipline than a sport, traditionally practiced in an urban environment. Parkour movements can include running, leaping, rolling, climbing, swinging, or whatever is necessary to move through the (often simulated) environment. One of the goals is to see the surroundings in a new way, and find innovative ways to move around. Tracuers treat the urban landscape as an obstacle course. With its use of urban ledges, rails and walls, parkour almost resembles street skateboarding without the board. Tracuers are not encouraged to hold competitions, but to simply focus on their own development. However, this didn’t stop Red Bull from hosting a large parkour competition in Greece, or the top parkour athletes from signing up to compete.
Both freerunning and parkour participants seek to reimagine (mostly urban) spaces, and find new ways to move through areas. However, freerunning has abandoned some of the austere philosophies of parkour to create a more traditional sport which is competitive and social. Style and theatrics are an important part of freerunning. For instance, while a traucer would simply vault over a wall as fluidly and quickly as possible, a freerunner might flip off the wall. The point is not to move as quickly as possible, but to be creative, improvise and express oneself.
Philosophy plays and even more important role in parkour than in freerunning. In fact, many of the most prominent athletes in parkour have clarified that parkour is not a sport, but an art, or a discipline. There is an intense focus on the self, on merging mind and body, and being able to overcome physical and mental obstacles. Belle has described parkour as a means of self refinement and improving physical and mental control. An emerging philosophy of parkour is that of human reclamation, or moving naturally through an environment in a way that has been lost in civilization. The idea is to interact with and use the physical world, rather than simply be directed by it.
In the early 20th century, a French naval officer named Georges Herbert became interested in the physical health he witnessed while visiting indigenous tribes in Africa. Their physiques were purely the result of their lifestyles, and he began to model an athletic discipline based on their movements. He combined activities, including running, jumping, climbing, and self defense, and he eventually came to encourage the use of obstacle courses in military training. These courses were known as parcours, and are a primary inspiration in parkour’s movements and name. David Belle, considered the founder of parkour, was inspired by his father’s military training, and began to find urban obstacle courses in Paris, and soon others joined his group, which was called Yamakasi. In the early 1990’s, French television caught on and the parkour movement began its growth.
Freerunning began with Sebastian Foucan, an original member of the Yamakasi parkour group. He wanted to incorporate more expression and style into his technique, using moves that were not really necessary to get from point A to point B. This clashed with the utilitarian nature of parkour. He decided to branch off from some of the parkour principles and create freerunning. He wrote a book on the topic, as a means of defining and differentiating the new sport. Two documentaries, Jump London (2003) and Jump London (2005), also raised awareness of freerunning.
The archetypal image of freerunning and parkour became one of a person making huge leaps between rooftops. This image appealed to filmmakers, and action movies like The Bourne Ultimatum and Casino Royale feature action sequences with a distinctly parkour/freerunning type of style, furthering the world’s awareness these disciplines. This vision of parkour/freerunning has also shown up in video games like Assassin's Creed and Mirror's Edge.
Dedicated training and instructional classes in freerunning and parkour come in several forms. In many large cities it’s possible to meet up with a group of freerunners/tracuers for some informal training in a public space. Web sites such as meetup.com and local forums can be a good resource for this sort of training. Colleges and universities are beginning to offer training courses, and though this may be limited to students, private gyms and fitness centers are also beginning to catch on. The most professional training can be found in dedicated freerunning/parkour training centers, although these are fairly rare. Freerunning acrobatics can also be learned at a gymnastics center.
Courses. with professional instructors at a gym or training center tend to cost about $80 to $100 per month for weekly classes.