The animated GIF is breathtaking. An average-looking dude (which is to say he’s not Ryan Lochte) in a gray tank-top and black shorts runs for six pounding steps on a rooftop before leaping to another rooftop from what looks like several stories up. He lands, assuredly, with both feet. The footage is in slow motion and it’s been viewed more than 4.7 million times. Of course people on reddit loved it. Just look at it, who wouldn’t be put in awe?
The jumper is Phil Doyle of Cambridge, England. In the video, he’s all-in from the moment his feet leave the ground. But what happens if he misses? How does someone practice and know they can accomplish something, when failure means severe injury or death?
Parkour filmmaker Scott Bass — yes, he has been filming parkour athletes for over a decade — shot Doyle’s Cambridge leap that went viral, and estimates the span was about sixteen feet across and another couple of feet up. Doyle not only jumps far but he jumps up, making it all the more impressive.
Anyone who remembers high school science knows that an object can travel farther along the horizontal plane if the destination is vertically below the origin point. Since Doyle lands higher, the spring requires more power than a traditional long jump. Doyle has to gain enough speed, focus on sticking the launch, generate enough power reach the proper height, and jump as far as he can. It’s quite a lot to handle.
Not to mention, the mental training that needs be done before something like this. Any nerves could cause hesitation that could mean a mistake, and a mistake can be costly. The picture below illustrates that a fall from this jump doesn’t necessarily mean death, but it does mean injury, and that’s got to affect a person’s ability to perform.
More than anything else in the relatively new sport of parkour, the athletes who take part in it may just have the minerals. Guys like Doyle give even the original daredevils — Hollywood stuntmen — pause. Jeff Galpin a stuntman who worked on films like Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, isn’t a free-runner himself, but he has worked with parkour artists in the past. There’s no way this sort of risk would be in a film, he says.
Galpin explains that considerations like insurance and character continuity, and just maintaining the safety of the cast and crew, would necessitate safety protocols. There would most likely be pads offscreen, and ideally the artist would be hooked up to a line. That way falling doesn’t mean death.
Galpin the stuntman, says jumpers like Doyle, do this stuff without studio backing or a regard to personal safety. He says they “are super-super-super-talented guys,” but from his point of view, “to get good at some of this stuff you gotta take unnecessary risks.”
“Just run fast and have a crack.”
But Doyle is a different sort of professional. Described by all who know him as an extreme talent who’s consumed by his love of the sport, he tells Inverse it’s more about feeling than physics: “It’s the kind of jump I’ll only bother trying if my body feels warm and fresh, if so, just run fast and have a crack.”
Modern parkour has its origins in France in the story of two best friends, David Belle and Sebastien Foucan. They learned a French military training regimen involving obstacle courses and escape techniques called “natural movement” from Belle’s veteran father Raymond. All through the ‘90s, Belle and Foucan dedicated their lives to training. They achieved a little fame in France, but eventually the two split over creative differences and Foucan brought the sport to the UK. Foucan got a role in the opening sequence of Casino Royale and the sport really started to take off. Sadly, neither Belle nor Foucan ever bothered to write a how-to manual. Luckily there was video.
American Ryan Ford watched those videos from Europe. He would download them overnight through a dial-up connection, then attempt what he saw. Ford says now it wasn’t the safest or smartest way to learn, but it’s all he had access to then. He took what he learned and began to teach those who were interested out of a small climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado.
Ford founded APEX Movement, a parkour gym that’s grown to five locations and written a book called Parkour Strength Training: Overcome Obstacles for Fun and Fitness. In August, he’s launching ParkourEDU.org that’s geared toward teaching the basics of parkour with online videos, an evolved version of the way he learned.
Rather than measuring their own limits, Ford’s students are taught to sort of flow within the confines of their talent — Ford likens it to another freestyle movement: “As a jazz musician, the true experts are basically forgetting everything they know and just playing, improvising.”
“You get to a certain level and you’re able to draw upon all of the muscle memory that you’ve developed over the years and you can just kind of apply it through improvisation,” Ford says.
So while hard science doesn’t inform parkour, scientists want to learn from it. Ford and his Apex Movement team aid researchers studying biomechanics in labs at Colorado University in Boulder and the University of Wyoming.
Dr. Boyi Dai in the Division of Kinesiology and Health at University of Wyoming, is one of those researchers. He says that the moves first used on the streets of Paris now shape techniques that could lessen the chance of injury for athletes who jump or fall as part of their sport, or occupation, whether it be for gymnasts and basketball players or soldiers.
Here’s Bai setting up some of his tests. (Turn down your speakers if you’re not into Snoop Dogg.)
Bai and his colleagues found that free-runners have developed landing moves that use the energy created by the impact, and spread it through other movements. This enables them to fall and jump from heights that weren’t impossible before, at least not without injury.
“If the best athletes can jump maybe six feet, why would we need to know what would happen if they fell from fifteen?,” Bais says.
Bai also has theories why parkour athletes have seemingly supernatural abilities. He pointed to a 2016 study in the European Journal of Sports Science that found free-runners display better jump performance and muscle strength than both gymnasts and power athletes. Bai also found from his own observations that “parkour athletes are strong relative to their body weight, which allows them to jump high and perform body-weight tasks very easily.”
“They have good flexibility as indicated by good joint range of motion, which allows them to modify their body postures during jump and landing,” Bai says.
And most importantly for jumping between buildings, parkour athletes have “very good spatiotemporal awareness which allows them to perform tasks with a high level of accuracy.”
Ford and Bai agree that nobody, not even Phil Doyle, would be able to do this jump on his or her first day of parkour. That comes with hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of practice.
Doyle tells Inverse he saw his jump on a “men’s health Facebook page, which I found amusing as my body is no temple.” So, no, his parkour talent doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an Olympic-level athlete.
A bit like Miles Davis and other great jazz improvisers, the best free-runners treat it like a conversation that’s less about actionable steps and more about reaching a state of flow. Davis famously said “When you’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been doing it, I mean it’s just automatic. It’s just one. Ain’t nothing but a move.”