PARKOUR TRAINING TIPS: MOBILITY AND LANDINGS
Supplementary training for longevity can be done on two fronts. One being improving and maintaining your capacity to absorb impact. The other is increasing and maintaining mobility of your joints.
I attempted to cover impact absorption through the lens of strength on my Instagram in Training Smart for Longevity vol.3. If you haven’t read that or other instalments, see Callum Tips no.550, 552, 564 and 565. This time I’ll cover mobility. Although, a minor disclaimer, it isn’t my speciality or even something I excel at in my own training, but I will do my best to share some principles that you can hopefully act upon practically.
As for the landings side of things, I was intending to create a separate post for landing mechanics for longevity (it definitely deserves its own) but as you can perhaps imagine, and as you’ll find ahead, the two are inextricably linked. So here is a super long-ting tip on both and how they relate to one another.
It may not be obvious to some, as a lot of us are so merrily living in the moment, that how we train now affects how we’re able to train later on. Although we consider parkour an art form as well as a sport, and there are no wrongs or rights in terms of how one chooses to manifest their style, there are however considerably better and worse ways to land in regards to maintaining joint health to mitigate chronic issues.
We all think an arch or heel landing, as opposed to on the ball of the foot, looks bad because we know it’s bad for us. We don’t just think it looks bad because it looks bad visually; one came before the other. Landing on our heels on an edge or on a flat surface causes us to absorb the impact massively, bypassing our foot and ankle complex. It really hurts our feet too!
With a good landing, where we land on the ball of the foot, the ankles are the first at the scene and if we miss them out we don’t absorb that initial force optimally, and the next joints up in the chain, the knees, hips and core, are forced to take a bunch more of the load than they would if only the ankles were in a position to do their job, decelerating through a larger range of motion.
Another example, which is again very visually and obviously a pathological landing technique, is landing with little knee flexion and only a hinge at the hips. If you struggle to visualise an example, think Reagan Chan doing a dash bomb! Watch her here. Although this is a far less common example, it does well to illustrate my point further – the knees are not absorbing the impact optimally, leaving the hips and back to pick up the slack. And in this case, it looked like a shit ton of straight vertical force that her poor hips and spine had to take for the team.
Both of these are unideal landing mechanics, and if repeated time and time again the poor joints picking up the slack will exceed their fatigue capacity, and you’ll have injury. In Reagan’s case, I’m surprised one lethal dose wasn’t enough to inflict a stupid amount of damage from that height! Since most injuries in parkour, either acute or chronic, come from landing forces, I figure it’s a topic well worth covering through the lens of longevity.
When it comes to good landing mechanics, maybe the easiest principle to understand is that good landings utilise as much contractile tissue mass as possible to decelerate your body weight; all joints involved in the kinetic chain working together as a unit, doing their bit at the correct time to spread the force evenly. Muscles and tendons of the ankles, knees, hips and your entire core. Also meaning proper knee and hip alignment, as issues like duck feet, foot pronation and supination, and knee valgus underutilise muscles on either side of the legs. If you have weak links in your kinetic chain, the landing forces will have to work around that weak link and be distributed to the other joints, forcing them to pick up the slack.
Another key principle is time and space. It is always more energy efficient and less destructive to dissipate impact over a longer time and space. Granted, usually a difference of a very short amount, but sometimes not. When we stick something, our whole body weight must come to a dead stop. This obviously exerts a lot more force on the body than going with the momentum to continue, or it being spread out.
A skateboarder, BMXer, rollerblader with their wheels are way better equipped to handle forces. Imagine those mad ski and snowboard jumps if they came to a dead stop and stuck the landing from jumping over 100-ft or something. Think about how well a roll or tap down with the hands works at dispersing ground reaction forces from height, compared to taking the same drop and doing your best to stay stiff as possible and not break past a certain range of motion, absorbing impact in a really short time frame.
The latter is way more stressful, and up to certain heights for you, just impossible. This is partly due to a protective inhibitory mechanism called the Golgi tendon organ, which prevents the muscles exerting more force than connective tissue can tolerate. This is the inhibitor that’s said to switch off in those miracle stories about mothers lifting a car off their kid to save their life.
So where does mobility come into this?
Insufficient mobility affects how we optimally absorb landing forces, because we can’t access positions that allow us to use the maximum amount of muscle mass; this includes not being able to absorb force through a fuller range of motion, dissipating the ground reaction forces over a longer time. I don’t want to get too technical because we land in a vast multitude of ways (very likely more ways than any other sport) that it would be hard, or maybe even impossible, to list the pros and cons of them all. Let’s face it, this thing is already too long as it is! But with the scope of mobility in mind, it makes things easier to illustrate these points with a standard precision landing.
Before diving deeper into the technical side, it’s important to appreciate how little formal research there is on this topic regarding parkour landings, full stop, and especially so regarding mobility and parkour landings. There’s some with gymnastic landings, but I haven’t been fortunate enough to find any that’s actually helpful. With that in mind, the following are musings based on personal experience, mindful observation and coaching, on top of practising parkour for close to 15-years. So, another little disclaimer is in order. I am not a biomechanist or physiologist, or anything like that. I’m just a PK nerd and I’m more than happy to be wrong with any of the following points, and very open to discussion.
Firstly, in order to stick precision landings, your shoulders need to be in a vertical line over your feet or just beyond that. If your body can’t organise itself like this on landing, you lose balance backwards, bouncing off, as we call it. I wrote a tip before about how people with more mobility can make bigger jumps than someone with slightly more power, and I think it just confused people. I spent ages trying to explain in the comment section of that post, when all I really needed to do was tell people to look at the best box jumpers. It’s a mixture of nearly inhuman power and crazy mobility.
Hopefully, the following will help make that point, whilst also covering why sufficient mobility is important for good landing mechanics for longevity.
I’ll start with our foundation again, the ankle. Ankles need to be flexible enough for your knees to track a certain amount over your toes, otherwise you’ll be forced beyond your range, resulting in the infamous ankle thing (ankle impingement). On top of this, if on landing we lack sufficient dorsiflexion (acuteness of the angle between foot and shin), the knees won’t be able to track over the toes as much as they need to. Then the knees and hips will either have to shift forward, resulting in a more quad dominant position and more stress on the knees, or way more commonly seen, backward, limiting the amount the knees can flex to keep your weight centred, causing more abrupt forces at the knee and also resulting in more stress at the hips and lower back.
On deeper landings, this causes the lumbar spine to round in order to keep your centre of mass over your feet, especially so when you have poor hip mobility too (inability to bring knees to chest). Then on top of that, if you lack mobility at the knees (inability to get heels to bum) and at the hips, more rounding of the spine will occur. Let’s be clear, not all landings with back rounding (spinal flexion) are bad. There are a lot of landing trajectories where the hips take most of the force before the spine has the chance. But some landing trajectories are worse.
Watch people with great looking precisions despite having to land deep, like Endijs Mischenko, Max Henry, Matthias Mayer, Benj Cave, Jared Nahulu, and the Pawson twins. You’ll notice great ankle, knee and hip mobility, allowing them to absorb the impact through a wider range of motion, before having the chance to bounce off connective tissue and stressing the discs of the lumbar vertebrae from forming a large amount of forceful spinal flexion beyond active end range, as someone with less mobility would have.
A lot of this may only seem like an issue when landing deep, but we land deep a lot more than you may think; like most times you bounce off a jump, most times you only just make a jump or a flip. I’m not demonising landing deep at all. We need to land deep in our sport in many scenarios and can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid it. We need to land deep with a lot of landing trajectories.
Beyond this, if you don’t land deep as you need to with impact, you have to decelerate your body with a large amount of stiffness in the higher positions of landing. With high impact it takes a crazy amount of muscular strength and tendon stiffness to resist such high ground reaction forces. This is definitely necessary in a wide range of instances, like strides and plyos, where if you can’t absorb the force and drop too deep, you compromise the ideal joint angle you need to continue the momentum onto the next step, landing or another stride.
Another outrageous example that springs to mind is Joseph Henderson at speed comps, when dropping from well above head height to the ground, barely breaking below 45-degrees at the knees and hips, and accelerating onto the rest of the course, without the drop having slowed him down at all. It is far easier and less stressful to absorb through more range of motion across a longer time, but we need the mobility to access those positions.
My point is, cumulative stress through high force landings absorbed in suboptimal positions, due to limited ranges at one or multiple joints in the chain, can cause damage and pain over time. This will either prevent you training how you’d like to, or altogether.
You just need to stretch more, right? Or do yoga? Maybe flop around like a walrus on a cylindrical bit of foam or lacrosse ball. There are too many modalities for gaining flexibility and mobility. Lots of them with fancy acronyms and confusing names. As well as expensive and BDSM-looking gadgets. And, while there aren’t any studies testing their efficacy head to head against one another, they all work to some extent.
Anyone claiming in plain and absolute terms that, for example, static stretching doesn’t work, you probably shouldn’t listen to. Because it comes down to who is using it, to what degree, and for what purpose. We can, however, say which modality is best to use for what and when, and also which is less arduous and time consuming in relation to that what and when. Passive static stretching, as an example, takes an awfully long time and has to be executed very intensely to make any long lasting changes to tissue. I assure you, that is not where its faults finish.
Our purposes in this case are to effectively absorb impact as best as possible, in either landing or bailing, to avoid acute and chronic injuries. Yes, bailing too. Bailing is still landing and dealing with impact, including everything from ankle-thing bounce offs, to bottoming out on one leg undershooting a side flip pre, to flailing out on a back flip or kong gainer and scorpioning, and indeed everything in between.
Although, preparing for every single bail scenario with mobility drills will probably take up half your life, and chances are in most severe cases (as the scorpion) the amount of mobility needed to avoid or minimise injury is more than most people can achieve without being predisposed genetically. Also if, like me, you’re not the most flexible person, you will never achieve the abilities of a contortionist, as again it is massively due to their genes. And also, nor should you want to. Not only because that kind of natural flexibility usually comes with hereditary issues, like chronic hypermobility syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (and I guarantee the majority of those afflicted will not have strong and healthy enough muscle and connective tissue to sustain the impacts that the common parkour athlete takes regularly), but because we just want as much as we need for our sport, for better landings and to mitigate injuries from the most common bails.
Let’s be honest, with this in mind, the most time efficient way to avoid stuff like scorpioning is to be less of a careless idiot when training, rather than spending countless hours toiling to increase your spinal extension capabilities. But some things are unavoidable, and we all should want to be able to safely bounce off something without pain.
Using the more common ankle-thing example, if you have a good amount of dorsiflexion in your ankles, when you land you’ll be less likely to ankle-thing (ankle impingement), because on landing you can absorb force through a greater range of motion, and have less of a chance of forcibly being wrenched beyond your range of motion. How often do you think Endijs Mischenko ankle-things? He doesn’t get forced beyond his range because his range is so large. You might be thinking, wouldn’t you also need an amount of strength in that range too? The answer is yes, and that is one reason why passive static stretching is not the best modality for our purposes.
Now might be a good time to define these two things:
- Flexibility = the ability of a muscle or muscle groups to lengthen PASSIVELY through a range of motion (ROM). An example is lifting your leg up with the assistance of your arms, or pulling yourself down into a forward-fold hamstring stretch.
- Mobility = the ability of a muscle, muscle groups or joint to move ACTIVELY through a ROM. It involves both the muscles stretching over a joint as well as how far the joint moves within the joint capsule. For example, lifting the leg up using just the leg muscles, without assistance from another variable (your arms, a strap, momentum).
The keywords here are passively and actively. And yes, you’re correct in thinking we want the latter.
Mobility and the brain
Your body does a lot of things to inhibit you, to protect itself from sustaining damage. Because, let’s be honest, you’re pretty dumb. That’s why your body gives you pain signals to get you to stop the stupid shit you’re doing. Again, the Golgi tendon organ is a prime example, which tells muscles to relax in order to prevent them exerting more force than their connective tissue can tolerate. But some of these inhibitory mechanisms are like over protective mothers, and they must be detrained (the inhibitory mechanisms, not the mothers).
It is your brain that’s stopping your mobility gains (except from any anatomical restrictions, like bone structure). Your brain won’t let you put your body in positions it doesn’t trust you in, and it uses pain as a warning because it thinks you’re going to put tissue in danger. If you’re weak in a range or position, your brain won’t let you go there by sending pain signals to stop you proceeding further into more vulnerable positions.
We can build more range by building the trust of the brain, assuring it that it’s safe and strong in deeper positions. Strength, stability and coordination builds comfort, which builds that trust. Muscles are strongest in their mid-range position. When your muscles are at end range, they won’t be able to actively hold the position – e.g. a quad stretch with no hand assistance pulling into a passive stretch. If you pull your foot to your bum into a quad stretch, then take the hand away and try to hold it at that end range actively, the hamstring is doing its best to flex the knee in its shortest position, which it rarely does, which causes it to cramp (try it).
Deep slow breathing can be used to calm the nervous system to override the part of the brain that says NO, FUCK THIS, I don’t wanna be here! Static stretching, foam rolling and the like, mainly changes ROM temporarily but if not used actively promptly after, like with a deep squat, the newly acquired flexibility won’t have long term effect. That includes all of you who stretch for a cool down, thinking you’re doing it to stay supple and flexible after a session. So we should look for modalities that actively use the end range positions, and build strength there to earn the trust of your brain to let you use those ranges more readily. So this is me, once again, telling you that you need to get strong – surprise surprise!
With this in mind, addressing your mobility flaws that relate to your landing mechanics and isolating the issues, applying appropriate methods, is far more time efficient and goal specific than doing general practices like yoga or Ido Portal’s Movement Culture stuff, etc. Yoga is amazing as a practice, and you can incorporate elements pragmatically, but to only do yoga for your mobility shortcomings is kind of like chucking stuff at a wall to see what sticks. And as for Movement Culture and similar, I think Rafe Kelly of Evolve Move Play summed it up best, “Movement Culture is an infinite search space with no search prioritisation”.
Let’s focus on goals, without being drawn into the fluff of general practices. That includes the parkour people that get drawn into powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, etc, to improve their parkour, then tumble down too deep into the rabbit hole, forgetting how it relates to the bigger picture; obsessing over the seasoning and ignoring the meat.
Some anecdotal examples
This is some stuff I’ve used recently and made some recognisable personal gains. Taken from various modalities that share the above principles, but are each slightly different. I know I’m a far-cry from becoming a ‘supple leopard’ but this is an ongoing journey. With that in mind, it’s probably better to stay wary of very naturally flexible people spouting flexibility advice and selling programs. Their success story is likely not due to the methods they’re selling, but from genetics and often pathological afflictions (like the two mentioned some paragraphs ago). Taking advice from people with predisposed talent for flexibility and mobility is like asking George McGowan how he’s so explosive. To which he’ll honestly answer, “I was just born powerful” (*read again in a George accent*).
One way of applying these principles I’ve found really useful for ankle dorsiflexion is using reciprocal inhibition, which involves agonistic muscle contractions in order to relax the antagonist. I held an overcoming isometric (muscle contraction without movement), contracting my tibialis anterior (the gastrocnemius and soleus’s antagonist) against an immovable object for 20-30 seconds (that can be against your sofa or even just your other foot, so long as you’re unable to move it), in a position a few degrees from end range, which causes the antagonist calf to relax.
Straight after, I would do a slow set of full ROM bent knee calf raises or some banded joint mobilisations; doing deep lunges with a resistance band tight at the talus bone. And I’d do 3-4 cycles of this and notice a big change in the wall test. I would also recommend spending some time doing full range tibialis raises, as that’s the muscle responsible for active dorsiflexion.
I recommend testing your own dorsiflexion ability with the wall test. If you’re unable to fit your fist between the wall and your big toe, with you heel remaining firmly planted on the floor, I’d say you’ve got some work to do. I’d argue the ankle is the most crucial one to have right, as it’s a way more common issue to send everything out of whack. Sort out that base!
In the past, I’ve had some real issues with not being able to touch my heels to my butt, to the point where it has fully injured me bottoming out when bailing. And a more recent time, damaging my medial collateral ligament from slipping out with the right leg, resulting in the left to bottom out. Perhaps a more notable funny one you may remember is when I catpass cleared IMAX 2 in 2010, so narrowly that I bounced off the floor, again bottoming out, bouncing off connective tissue. Still counted though!
In order to mitigate this in the future, a useful technique I’ve applied is using a couch-stretch for my quadriceps, which I routinely did after training for years, but recently I included deep belly breathing whilst in the stretch to calm my nervous system. Using a 4-second inhale, 7-second hold and an 8-second exhale for two cycles before changing legs. Shortly after this, I would make sure to use the newly acquired range of motion actively, with some deep bodyweight squats, with heels raised, similar to that of our deepest precision position.
I have also struggled with knees-to-chest hip mobility. I reckon a big player in my lower back pain was loading a lumbar pelvic tilt (known in the lifting world as ‘butt wink’) when landing and lifting, due to not having the ability to actively flex my hips to the extent I needed without my pelvis tucking under, compromising a strong and neutral spine position. Controlled articulated rotations (CARs) for the hip joint is an exercise I was prescribed to do daily by my back expert, Joel Proskewitz. Just by actively taking the hip through its full range in its socket, in a slow, controlled and isolated manner, a couple of sets each side, a couple of times a day, I saw solid improvements in active range. By no means was this the full extent of my rehab, but I think a crucial part in preparing me for landings again.
The above examples are just examples, and are far from exhaustive. There are many ways to skin a cat, and I recommend looking into different modalities discerningly, as well as just experimenting without tying yourself too closely to the dogmas of each mobility camp or loud fitness figurehead. Test what not only works in that moment, but what sticks around. Be patient. Stick to one or two things for a while and track your progress. Form a merry group of accountabil-a-buddies to keep you on it, if you struggle to be disciplined enough to stay consistent with something more than a couple of days.
Sifting for gold with other sports
We’re not alone in the sporting world. With the problems we face, you can guarantee they’ve been faced and tackled by other sports that are way older and more mature than us unruly street rats. Sports that have the industry and infrastructure allowing money to be thrown at research studies, physical therapy, and top-tier coaching. I believe more of us should sift for gold in these fertile territories for ourselves and our sport’s personal gain.
As one example, Olympic weightlifters require crazy levels of mobility. Their sport requires them to absorb and exert huge amounts of force to and from the deepest ranges possible. With a clean, to avoid the need to pull the bar higher off the ground, requiring more strength, they get under the bar, after pulling it to their hips or even as low as midthigh, before stooping under the bar to catch it in a front squat position, with their butt scarcely off the ground, then squatting it up. You’d be hard pressed to find joints with more end range strength than theirs.
I can’t think of any other sport that loads so heavily such deep sagittal ranges as weightlifting. It might be good to peer into their world to pillage some mobility secrets. As a sport-specific full body mobility warm up for the snatch, they often just do sets of deep overhead squats with an empty or lightly loaded barbell, with a long pause at the bottom, as well as a variety of other specific positions with various ranges of tempos.
There are so many effective possibilities you can get creative with. Remember, so long as muscles are active in the range you’re working on, your body will allow you to gradually access more range.
I strongly recommend taking a look at your own landing mechanics and trying to notice where there are lapses in form, then deciding whether it’s due to purely coordination, or if optimal landing mechanics are limited by a lack of mobility. Then determine which joint or joints could benefit from some active end range love. Once you’ve found the issue, this is something you can work on at home or at the gym on off days, but you also should use these mobility principles as part of your warm-up on training days. Most of all, don’t let your line of inquiry stop here; please go on and delve deeper into this stuff, to help yourself and your friends and students.
Thanks for reading! Some of the images used for this post are screenshots from STORROR parkour stick it challenge – for numerous examples of landings in action, watch it here: