Scrambling up walls, sprinting along rooftops and jumping off buildings are all part of the sport of parkour. As well as being exhilarating to watch, Dr James Croft explains to David Gear how studying parkour can help us better understand how we navigate our environment in everyday life.
Parkour, which developed in France from military obstacle course training, is exciting to watch but its focus on efficient human movement is what attracted Dr James Croft to begin researching the sport.
“I’m not really interested in parkour per se, but rather how we move efficiently through complex environments – not just flat, level surfaces that are typically studied in labs. The main philosophies of parkour align with my research interests – selecting appropriate routes from a range of alternatives and performing each movement efficiently,” says Croft, an exercise and sports scientist.
“In many ways, they are elite athletes. But, their sport is much less constrained than mainstream sports. So we can understand how they quickly make choices in critical situations.”
It is the unstructured nature of parkour that makes it so useful for the study of decision-making. Croft says researching how parkour athletes decide how to approach a particular obstacle can shed light on how we navigate our environment in our daily lives.
“We often have various options as we move through the environment – walk up the stairs or take the longer but more gradual ramp; step over an obstacle – or walk a little further to avoid it,” he says.
“Understanding how we make these choices based on the match between the characteristics of the environment and our physical characteristics has implications for children playing safely, elderly people walking around our urban environment, or the design of humanoid robots.”
Croft adds that studying parkour athletes is also useful to help understand why we move the way we do.
“It’s relatively easy to describe how the body moves, but understanding why we move in certain ways is more difficult, but also more important,” he says.
“Describing is the first step in scientific research, but understanding should be the true goal. Too many studies in our field are content with the former.
“We all walk in a similar way because we are all solving the same problem – minimising the energetic cost to move from one place to another.
“Most of what we know about how the human leg works in locomotion comes from observing walking and running. To prove that models of leg function and limits derived from studying normal locomotion are correct, we need to test them in unusual circumstances, such as occurs in parkour.
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