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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 2000 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Parcourses may have long ago faded from popularity, but their star once burned brightly. The first U.S. Parcourse appeared in 1973 when a Bay Area real estate developer named Peter Stocker, who had seen similar installations in Europe, bolted one together in San Francisco's Mountain Lake Park with hand-routed wooden signs. Then, around 1979, the company got a major boost when Perrier, introducing bottled mineral water to the United States and seeking to align itself with the nascent fitness boom, began financing courses (about 200 in all) in busy public locations.

At the trend's mid-1980s peak, close to 4,500 Parcourses studded the land, along with hundreds of knockoffs sold by rival firms. There were Aqua Parcourses for swimming-pool sessions, "joint-use" Parcourses for disabled people, indoor Parcourses, cruise-ship Parcourses, and dozens of corporate-sponsored employee Parcourses, not only in the United States but in more than 25 countries the world over. These days, many have gone the way of Hacky Sacks and A Flock of Seagulls. "The courses are relics now," says a wistful Richard Cunningham, former owner of equipment-maker Parcourse Ltd. "But there was a time when you could stand on a corner in Silicon Valley, in Santa Clara, and see four different Parcourse facilities. It was a boom time. There were probably a hundred of them in San Jose. I bet you'd have a hard time finding a dozen of them now."

Still, rumors of the courses' extinction have been greatly exaggerated. An Alabama playground-equipment maker called GameTime continues to sell new, tubular steel course equipment at a rate of 30 sets per year. Boyd Sign Company in Beaverton, Oregon, even sells replacement signs for dilapidated circuits. And Parcourses of varying ages endure from Juneau to Sedona to Disney World to Negril—all waiting for a 21st-century revival that may be less far-fetched than it sounds. "There is a trend now in fitness clubs," says Judy Hobbisiefken of the International Sports Sciences Association, an organization that certifies personal trainers. "Some places call it core training, others call it basic training, where they set up stations in an aerobics room and do the exact same exercises. Parcourses basically take that idea and say, 'Look, it's way more fun to do it outside.'"


My hour at the local Parcourse was fun, and I realized that, forsaken though they may be, the courses lend themselves well to preparing for the multihued palette of summer sport: a 10K here, a climb there, a mountain-biking overnighter in the foothills, a sea-kayak voyage sometime before Labor Day. Core calisthenics build ligament strength, help shorten reaction time, and improve balance. And given their alfresco setting, they can also combat the mind-numbing monotony and confusion-inducing machinery of indoor strength training. "There's sort of this backlash of people getting too frustrated with complicated workouts," says Eric Schmitz, director of fitness and personal training at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club. "Something like [the Parcourse] really brings fitness back to basics."

Since a typical course's instruction signs have begun turning to mulch by now, I asked Schmitz if he could set up a workout suited to the common Parcourse (or Vita Course, or Fit-Trail, or WorldTrail, or other subspecies). Before diving in, however, it's wise to start with some assessment of your current fitness level (see "Everybody Wins," opposite page). Even if you've been exercising through the winter (sorry, your week-long ski trip to Whistler doesn't cut it), it's best to startat a level that's at or below your current ability. The last thing anyone wants is to sacrifice half the summer to injury.

Here, then, is Schmitz's blueprint for a full-body, spring fever-fueled, plein-air workout. Local circuits vary by brand and sequence of exercises, making it tricky to standardize a regimen, but the following calisthenics (see "The Neo-Parcourse Workout," above) use equipment common to most courses. Spend five minutes stretching out and warming up before plunging into these resistance exercises, counsels Schmitz, and the same amount of time stretching and cooling down afterward. If the stations are clustered together, do jumping jacks between sets to keep your heart beating at a training rate. You can also lunge or high-step between stations (just hope you don't run into anyone you know). Also, work large muscle groups first, and then progress to smaller ones. Start with legs, then do chest and back, then shoulders and arms, then abs.

The beauty of the Parcourse is that with such basic equipment you can shake up your routine into countless permutations. Why not do odd-numbered stations on odd calendar days, and, what the hell, evens on evens? For added power, incorporate plyometric bounding and jumping drills to build explosive leaping ability. Using the low balance beam, for instance, "You could do a really advanced plyometric exercise where you're bounding side to side, one or both legs at a time," says Schmitz. "That's great if you're into skiing or tennis or any sport that requires lateral motion."

Despite its obvious value, you probably won't need to make reservations on the local Parcourse anytime soon. You might, however, run into Richard Cunningham, who sold the rights to Parcourses in 1994 but still visits a Bay Area installation a couple of times a month. "It takes you through a balanced, full-body workout—stretching, limbering, strengthening, cardiovascular—in as little as 20 to 25 minutes," he enthuses. Reminiscing, Cunningham recalls an incident in the 1980s when a vacationing familyfrom Ohio dropped in at Parcourse's San Francisco headquarters. "We used to publish a list of where all the courses were," Cunningham says, "and thisfamily was driving their RV from Parcourse to Parcourse, working out as they traveled." He laughs. "Every once in a while, you got a glimmer like that of how it might have been."

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