Urban fitness alternatives

Monique McDonald looks at the city a little differently to the rest of us. Where we see a park bench as somewhere to sit, she sees it as something to leap over. Through her eyes, walls become balance-beams and trees are something to climb.

The 20-year-old sociology student is a traceur: one who practises the art of parkour.

Developed in France in the 1990s by stuntman and gymnast David Belle, parkour is a training method of ''escape and reach''.

The sport was exposed to the masses when Daniel Craig (as James Bond) used parkour to chase a suspect through a construction site in Casino Royale.

''I tried gyms and a few other indoor sports but parkour had greater appeal,'' McDonald says. ''I love that it's outdoors and it's almost free, which is important when you're a student.

''Most of all, I love the movement and discipline it involves. It's all about using your environment and Sydney city has some terrific urban spaces. Since I've been doing parkour, I'm more aware of things in the urban environment. I'll see a wall and wonder whether I can climb it and edge along it.''

There are now thousands of practitioners in Australia and up to 70 instructors in the Australian Parkour Association.

''There are plenty of places to train in Sydney; you just have to know where to look,'' parkour president and stuntman Matthew Campbell says, citing Pyrmont Park as a popular choice.

''Parkour is all about technique, so you have to practise your rolls and vaults, how to land safely and how to warm up … it's a good workout.''

Viva la difference

Many city-dwellers who want to keep fit head to their local health club or pull on trainers and pound the pavements. Others might swim laps in the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool, join a boxercise class in the Domain or even go boot-camp crazy in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

But a growing number of people like Campbell and McDonald are finding less-conventional ways to get their exercise fix.

Some people take part in activities that are not only alternative, they are illegal. In ''buildering'' (aka urban climbing), Spider-Man types scale structures, often without safety harnesses. The most famous ''builderer'' is Frenchman Alain Robert, who in 1997 climbed to the top of the Sydney Opera House. This year he climbed to the top of the world's tallest building, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai.

A legally dubious activity is urban-draining, whose participants explore the city's sewers and drains.

But, on the whole, Sydneysiders are a law-abiding bunch.

Most alternative fitness options throughout the city are legal, if not a little offbeat.

New directions

Traditional orienteering is a winter sport in which punters race through the scrub looking for checkpoints. Unfortunately, the Sydney bush gets a bit snakey in summer, so from October through to March, orienteers head to the urban zones.

Because of the heat, races are reduced to just 45 minutes, in which time orienteers must find as many as 30 checkpoints in areas such as Kirribilli, Annandale and Centennial Park. Some evenings, up to 240 participants have been known to try their luck. ''It's a really good way to discover hidden parts of the city,'' the marketing manager of Orienteering NSW, Ian Jessup, says.

Run fun

Now in its seventh year, the Urban Max is an adventure race in which teams of two run around the city, searching for checkpoints and taking part in various activities from tenpin bowling at Darling Harbour to tai chi in the Botanic Gardens. It's sort of like The Amazing Race but without the TV cameras and hissy fits.

This year the field is limited to 500, so get in quick. The winners will be crowned Australia's Urban Champions.

Pedal power

Played on a hardcourt, urban bike polo eschews nags for bicycles. Teams of three battle it out with wooden mallets, whacking a little white ball into a net at either end of the court. The first team to score five points wins.

The game was invented by an Irishman in 1891 and is now played in urban areas all over the world.

''New people are always encouraged to come down and will fit in just as well as the seasoned vets,'' Sydney player Lewis Ciddor says.

If you don't have a bike, helmet or mallet lying around, usually a few spares are available on the day, so you can try before you buy. Ciddor says most players opt for a single-speed bike (to avoid derailleurs, which are easily broken or bent). Other features include wide tyres and a low gear for fast acceleration.

Stair masters

For most people, a fire stairwell is a place to escape a burning building. But for people such as Adam Ryan, it's a whole different story. In fact, lots of storeys.

Ryan is the the co-founder of Stair Climbing Australia, dedicated to the exhausting activity of scaling the city's stairs.

''Climbing stairs improves muscle strength and tone, provides aerobic fitness and decreases stress,'' Ryan says. ''It's a full-body exercise completed in a short period of time.''

How short? Australian Paul Crake took an incredible six minutes and 52 seconds to run up the 1504 stairs of the Sydney Tower in 2000, a record that still stands.

The Sydney Tower Climb is a highlight of the stair-climbing calendar and although the event was cancelled this year, it is due to return in July. In the meantime, you could always try your luck in the Eureka Climb (Eureka Tower, Melbourne) next Sunday.

Ryan's training involves dashing up 200 floors in a single training session. He also does hill cycling, squats and leg-presses in the gym. He says the key to stair climbing is efficiency and maintaining a steady pace rather than sprinting in short bursts. ''Run up on your toes and use the handrails at all times to take pressure off your legs,'' he says. ''If you hug the inside line, you avoid covering extra distance.''

Enter the dragon

Not all urban fitness is confined to terra firma. Dragon boating uses Sydney's most fabulous asset: its harbour.

Dragon boating dates back 2000 years to ancient China and, since the 1970s, has been growing in popularity in the West.

At least 15 dragon boat clubs are based at Dragon Boats NSW's Bank Street Pyrmont training site. One of the most successful of those clubs - Sydney Tsunami - kicked off in 1992 and now boasts about 80 members. Last year, it was named NSW dragon boat club of the year.

''We're very happy to have new people show up on the day, prepared to get a little bit wet,'' Sydney Tsunami president Simon Freke says. ''If you're not fit, you'll get fit. Dragon boating uses muscles not used in any other sport.''

Regattas are held about every month, the most famous being part of the Chinese New Year celebrations each February (held at Darling Harbour). Races are usually between 200 metres and 500 metres.

''Dragon boating really suits city people, because you don't need space in your flat to keep bulky gym equipment, or a bike or anything,'' Freke says.

''Everything is kept at our storage facility in Pyrmont.''Get out there

Stair climbing: towerrunning.com.au

Parkour: Sundays, 1.45pm, Pyrmont Point Park, parkour.asn.au

Urban Max: city, November 19, maxadventure.com.au/urbanmax

Bicycle polo: Sundays, 2.30pm, Alexandria Park, sydneybikepolo.org

Urban orienteering: Wednesday afternoons, starting times from 4.30pm to 6.45pm, non-members $13, sydneysummerseries.com.au

Dragon boating: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6.30pm, Saturdays, 8am, Bank Street, Pyrmont, sydneytsunami.org.au