Parkour vs Freerunning? What’s the Difference?

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This post was originally published on Movement Unleashed.


Parkour vs Freerunning? A guide to their Definitions

If you’ve done any googling on parkour or are just getting into it, you’ve likely heard both the terms “parkour” and “freerunning” being thrown around – which can understandably lead to confusion. To make matters worse the media, much to the chagrin of some practitioners, often misuse the terms in their news reports.  So what people are talking about and what you should call it yourself?

This guide will clear up the confusion – or at least explain it. There is, of course, much more depth to the use of the terms, but our aim here is to provide a simple to understand guide to the issue.

Parkour or Freerunning?

Today “parkour” is the most widely used term to refer to the activity.

However, it was not the original term for the activity. To understand the issue, we’ll go briefly into some history.

Parkour vs freerunning

What’s the difference?

Original Usuage

Originally, the activity was called “l’art du déplacement” (French for “the art of displacement”) by the original group of friends who practiced and developed the activity into its modern form. As the group became extremely skilled in their practice they attracted media attention who wished to showcase their abilities, and unfortunately this lead to conflicts which caused some members of the group to part ways from each other.

Notably, David Belle disagreed with the media’s initial portrayal of the activity, and so renamed his own practice and values of the activity to “parkour”. This is a derivative of the French “le parcours” from “parcours du combattant”, the obstacle courses used in military training, of which David Belle’s father was familiar and so passed these training methods onto his son. This version of the activity was based on efficiency of movement as it would be used in an emergency situation. And so the term parkour, which is widely used today, was a homage by David Belle to his father.

Around the same time another member of the original training group, Sébastien Foucan, also took the activity in his own direction and reportedly coined the term “freerunning” to refer to his practice. His version was similar to parkour, differing mostly by bringing in particular values as goals of the activity. However despite Foucan’s intention of how the term should be used, other practitioners who came after the original group were bringing in influences from other physical activities such as acrobatics, gymnastics and generally more of a focus on creativity of movement over efficiency of movement. This style gained in popularity and so, in order to separate it from the more emergency-based goals of Belle’s parkour, some adopted the term freerunning to refer to this new style. Thus Foucan’s meaning of the term was changed, and his meaning is not widely used today.

Of the term “l’art du déplacement”, it is not widely used today.

Current Usage

Moving on from our brief dive into history, today the parkour and freerunning are the most commonly used terms. To explain these, there seem to be three main camps of practitioners, from my own experience, who hold differing views on how these terms should be used. These are:

  1. That the terms are not interchangeable and should be used distinctly. This camp holds that parkour refers to the activity as influenced by David Belle which focuses on efficiency of movement as it would be used in an emergency situation, and freerunning refers to the separate but similar activity which focuses on movement within an environment for creative or expressive purposes.
  2. That the activities are not separate but are merely different styles of the same overall activity. This camp seems to use terms parkour and freerunning mostly interchangeably, but will sometimes differentiate if exactness is required.
  3. That there is infact no difference between the activities as they are in essence the very same thing. This camp uses the terms parkour and freerunning interchangeably without distinction of any difference. This camp also occasionally points out that arguing over the meanings such things is a waste of time that could better be spent actually moving.

Conclusion

Ok, so I can see where people’s confusion over the terms comes from! Largely because their usage is still in flux and their definitions are still being contested. But this also means that right now is an exciting time for the activity because the history of it is being made! It’s being made by practitioners out there practicing the activity.

In future years the terms may become solidified in their meanings. Today however the community remains split on their use. There’s no majority consensus on the usage of the terms parkour and freerunning… yet.  However when choosing to call something parkour or freerunning, it may pay to figure out which camp of practitioners you’re dealing with.

For simplicity’s sake, this website largely uses the term parkour.

References:

  1. Personal knowledge from the parkour/freerunning community.
  2. Parts are taken from ‘The Ultimate Parkour and Freerunning Book’, by Jan Witfeld, Ilona E. Gerling & Alexander Pach. 2011, Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.
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