Check Your Surfaces: The Importance of Proprioception in Parkour
The Importance of Proprioception
‘Whoa, hold on a minute’, I hear you say. ‘I came hear to learn the art of movement, not to study geology! What’s this surface area thing got to do with fluidity and displacement?’
Well, bear with us. We have your best interests at heart. And with that in mind, we want to bring your head out of the clouds for a moment and down to ground level: after all, as the experienced will know and the inexperienced should learn, this is really where it’s at.
The quality of any movement is heavily dependent upon the surface it is carried out on. Try the same set of vaults on concrete, then on grass, then on sand, then on a sprung floor and you will realize how your motion is affected by what is beneath your feet. Now, for a sport such as running this is basically all the information you need – but for parkour, you need to look a little closer.
Effectively, what this means is developing a familiarity with the stuff you are working with: stone, concrete, brick, metal, plastic, wood, earth…whatever you are likely to be moving through or over, vaulting, sliding across or rolling over. On a basic level, this entails checking surfaces you are going to be using for that day’s training. Some objects may look solid and strong to the eye, but introduce your weight to them with gravity backing you up and suddenly it’s a whole new ballgame. So, when and where you can, actually physically inspect the surfaces first. This may seem like a boring task when you are ready and raring to go, but it really is worth the time.
However, there is much more to all this than merely preparing your training area, and here is where the matter becomes truly interesting. For starters, you have to know everything about these surfaces – do they provide good grip? How much give is in them? Can they become slippery under certain circumstances? How abrasive are they – will they cut or tear the skin? Everything. And then you need to gain an appreciation for the myriad different variations of each surface you can encounter – there are a over a hundred different types of stone used in the construction of our cities, and each type offers its own set of variables for the traceur to factor in. So get to know them.
Reach Out and Touch Something…
Fortunately getting to know your environment does not mean you have to break out a tonne of library books on the composition of stone blocks… what it does mean is gaining a tactile understanding of the surfaces around you, to the extent that eventually you are able to appraise terrain and obstacles accurately before you interact with them. This has to be the goal, simply because you won’t always have time to stop and check a surface before you land on it. At the very least it does somewhat take the ‘flow’ out of your run.
So in order to improve your ability to evaluate surfaces, make physical contact with your environment as often as possible: reach out and touch walls, railings, gates, trees…get to know how they feel both to the bare hand and to the shoe. You can do this even while not training – divert some attention to it while on your travels around any urban setting,; let your hands glide over surfaces as you walk, check the stability of any bollards, bins or rails that you pass, anything you might utilise in a training run. You will find that very swiftly you develop an aptitude for judging the attributes of most objects and obstacles with only a glance, and also that your sense of touch becomes that much more sophisticated and refined.
And this is the hidden bonus behind this kind of practise. Learning to assess your surroundings constantly in this way will enhance that innate but under used capacity we all possess: proprioception.
Proprioception: The True Sixth Sense
“Strength, efficiency and safety of movement is determined primarily by neuromuscular factors, in particular the sense of kinaesthesia and the underlying proprioceptive mechanisms which inform us about where all the components of our musculoskeletal system are and what they are doing relative to one another in space and time.”
Proprioception is the refinement of bodily awareness in time and space. It includes all the thousands of inputs into your central nervous system (CNS) which originate from your joints, muscles, tendons and deep tissue. Just as much as vision or taste, proprioception is a SENSE – it is not the processing of this information, it is one of our information-gathering systems: and it is quite possibly the best and at the same time the most neglected.
It develops early on – by twelve months most of us are able to walk, or near to it, and this requires rapid improvements in our proprioceptive ability. It is how you directly assess your muscular tensions (including movements and breathing), postural equilibrium, and joint stability, and therefore it is, very simply, how you perceive your position in the world.
It is what allows you to scratch a specific point on your back that you cannot see, for example, and how your body knows to adjust muscle contractions in order to achieve stable balance on a thin railing. So, all in all, it’s pretty damn important for what we do!
There are five different types of ‘reception’ by which your body gathers information on a proprioceptive level, but the one we are interested in is mechanoreception. This involves your positional sense, your movement sense and your tension sense, and between them these three carry almost all the information your body needs to navigate its immediate environment. This information is then transmitted to your CNS and to your brain, which then decides on how best to interact with that environment.
Proprioception is so powerful that it causes the most widespread and intense electrical activity in the brain, and more often than not the spinal cord receives this critical information before the brain stem receives information from the eyes and ears. Thus it is absolutely vital that you learn to refine your proprioceptive skills, as this will mean you are that bit faster in reacting to changes in your surroundings, which of course are occurring all the time when practising parkour.
The difficulty is that we tend to rely on vision and hearing as our primary information gatherers, to the detriment of all our other senses. Yet your eyes can be fooled – many times when we visually misjudge our body position as we move, despite our proprioceptive Sixth Sense warning us of the error, we still obey what our eyes show us and end up slamming when we could have avoided it!
One way to counteract this deficiency is through sensory deprivation training – in other words, get a blindfold! Not that you should go leaping from pole to pole on one foot with a black cloth around your head like some Shaolin monk in a bad movie – like the shaven head, that isn’t necessary. Start small: try even the simplest of movements while your eyes are closed and you will find out how much you rely on your vision for balance, control, everything. Work with some basic ground exercises, but close your eyes; go slowly and surely; try to remain in balance and stealthy (as always!).
‘To improve your ability to evaluate surfaces, make physical contact with your environment as often as possible: reach out and touch walls, railings, gates, trees…get to know how they feel both to the bare hand and to the shoe.’
Fully experience each and every movement, from the angle of your joints to your weight distribution to your breathing to your contact with the floor. Then repeat the same exercise with your eyes open – you will soon find that your motor sensitivity is enhanced. Another method by which to access senses other than vision while you move is to train at night: in the dim, ambient light of the city your sight is heavily compromised, meaning you have to rely on your sense of touch and your body’s natural wisdom a whole lot more. This is an excellent tool for developing your proprioception, so use it!
As a traceur, knowing your terrain is something that cannot be emphasized strongly enough, and proprioception is the sense that allows you to connect to your surroundings on a deep, visceral level. And that connection, that experiential knowledge, is what keeps you safe. Have you ever vaulted a rail or a fence that suddenly gave way or wobbled as you were halfway over it? If you managed to compensate for this without bailing, managing to recover your balance and direction to finish the movement correctly, guess what – it was your proprioceptive ability that enabled you to do that. And it all happens faster than conscious thought.
Think about that – while you have time to…
by Dan Edwardes