I’m not really one for introductions, especially since most of you reading this will already know me either from real life or Face Space. So I’ll “jump” (pun fully intended) right into what I have to say. As I’m sure you’ve realized by now, this is going to be a blog about parkour. Don’t know what that is? That’s alright, I don’t either. But I’m slowly trying to figure it out so if you keep up with me maybe we’ll both be able to learn something in the next few days/months/years. This blog is mainly going to be on technique-specific things I’ve picked up on throughout my trainings that have really helped my health/durability and athletic performance in parkour. If you have a problem with me talking about “athletic performance” or “performance output” in the context of parkour, you should probably stop reading now. I intend to treat parkour like a real sport for these posts and use science mumbo-jumbo (sorry YouTube tutorials!) to dissect and analyze movement.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a bunch about control. And ankles. And how that second thing is actually really, really important to the first. If you’ve been training parkour for any amount of time, you’ve probably realized by now that it’s not fun to land on your heels when you drop (if not, get your feet checked by an orthopedist and then finish reading this post!). For people that learned in classes or through YouTube tutorials, you probably did a bunch of exercises where you jumped up and down and practiced landing on the balls of your feet. For those of you like me who learned by watching a bunch of training videos and experimenting with friends, the whole “balls of the feet” thing might have come after a bruised arch or two. So you took that idea of landing on the balls of your feet and made the connection between landing on the ground and landing on top of stuff. Stuff like ledges, walls, and rails. Sound familiar? Good, because you were right to do that. It definitely feels better to land on your balls (what I’ll call the balls of your feet from here on out you sick bastards) than it does your heels. But most of us overlooked something. What your ankles were doing the whole time.
If you’re landing on your balls and it’s flat ground, your ankles are experiencing “plantar flexion” (your toes are further from your shins and closer to being pointed). This is pretty obvious. They have to be in that position at least slightly, otherwise your heel would be contacting the ground. But what happens when you carry plantar flexion over to landing on something narrow? You’re still landing on your balls since all we’ve done is carry the same technique from landing on flat and apply it to landing on a ledge. But this is a problem. The ankles are a serious balance point in your body. If you don’t believe me, go balance on a rail and try moving your ankles up and down while staying balanced. It’s seriously tough, and gets harder the faster you do it.
When your ankles are in a lovely little plantar-flexed position, you’re decreasing the surface you’re trying to land on. This ends up having two effects. First off, it messes with your balance even more. Think about much easier it is to balance something if it has a big base (balancing a pencil on the eraser instead of the tip, for instance). When you land like a ballerina on point, it makes it a lot tougher to stay where you are. The plantar flexion also (obviously) forces the angle between your foot and shin to open up. So you’re jumping down and out to a rail with your feet shooting pointy lazers out of your toes, which is really cool until you land and try and stop your momentum. That angle will force you to land hunched over and falling forward if you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky and you stick it, your ankles will handle the force by absorbing mostly with the calves and thrusting your knees out over your feet to find balance. If you don’t know which category you’re in, go outside and find that rail you were balancing on before. Get back on it and go on your toes. Now try and squat on the rail. Your chest will fall over your hip because that’s the comfy way of doing it. Stand back up and try and do the same squat but keeping your back as straight as you can. You’ll feel your knees drift way out over your toes and you’ll probably feel some pressure in those knees too. Chances are, that’s how you’re landing when you stick precisions with your ankles plantar-flexed. And you wondered why you had so many knee problems?
Lucky for you, the solution is simple. When you jump to stuff, keep your ankles more neutral. That’s not to say you want to have them flopping around in the air when you jump like…well, you get the idea. You’re probably sitting down right now. What are your ankles doing? Until I asked you that and made you all self-aware and uncomfortable, they were probably resting on the floot doing nothing. Being neutral or slightly plantar-flexed. Put your ankles and feet into that neutral position and tense them along with your calves and quads. That’s how you want your legs to feel when you’re landing on something where precision actually matters. When you absorb a landing, your ankles are going to experience slight, rapid dorsiflexion (your arch/heel comes “down” to a level position with your toes/ball) to account for the downward force. How much dorsiflexion occurs depends on how strong your ankles are and the size/angle of the drop. So a small measure of plantar flexion is alright. It gives you room to account for the dorsiflexion when you land. But small is the key word here. Stand up and lean forward over your toes. When you feel your heels leave the ground, that position is a decent idea of how small the plantar flexion is that I’m talking about. In my opinion, if your heels are more than an inch or two off the ground it’s excessive. Will the exact angle “above” the neutral 90-ish degrees be the same in everyone? Of course not, but it certainly won’t be drastically different.
I have a student that studies parkour. He’s 35 and weighs 300lbs. He can do 5 foot level rail precisions, and 3 foot drop precisions to rails. He has a history of knee problems. And he has never once complained about feeling knee soreness from training parkour. We spent the first 3 weeks together working on ankle position and posture of the upper body when landing. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Plantar flexion is why so many gymnasts/dancers/girls have trouble with jumps in parkour. If keeping your toes pointed is a habit, you’re going to have a hell of a time landing and staying balanced on a rail. Especially if you’re doing a level jump, where there’s very little downward force to cause counteracting dorsiflexion. The bright side is, this problem is easy to fix. All you have to do is pay attention. Start off with small jumps (seriously, don’t take it to big jumps right away because you’ll end up getting confused having way through and complaining to me about shinning yourself and I’ll laugh). Practice landing with your ankles relatively neutral. There will be some adaptations your body will need to make muscle-wise to account for the change in technique. But if you focus on what your ankles are doing, I think you’ll see immediate improvement in your balance and control when landing and it will only improve with time.