Saturday, 5 December 2009

You think you're ready to train in martial arts? Well, think again!

I vaguely remember this warm afternoon back in the late nineties. My Kung Fu instructor had taken all his students to the local track, in order to do a Cooper test. I was in the first bunch of students to complete their 12 minutes of running, and I was standing aside and recovering while the second group performed the test. Maria was running with the second group - she was in her early thirties, and I guess she thought that training in Kung Fu fitted well with her alternative, slightly new-agey lifestyle. I remember she had a sunny disposition and was almost always smiling, but as she was walking towards the rest of us after the end of the test, all I could see in her face was discomfort and frustration.
"Hey, what's with you?", I asked her as she was approaching.

"Well, you know what?", she replied. "
I never had the slightest pain in my body... until I started training".

I didn't pay much attention to what she said, I just found it rather funny - I mean, who would take up any kind of training in order to accumulate pain in their body? Still, as my Kung Fu years went by and both the volume and the intensity of my training escalated, as I gradually shifted my focus towards san shou competition, something strange started happening to my body. In the very beginning it was dull pain in both my knees, which was dismissed as "adaptation discomfort", and went away after a few sessions of acupuncture. Later, I started feeling some generalized soreness in my whole body after intense san shou sessions, and it did not go away until my warm-up for the next training session. At some point, I had to take almost a month off training because of a sharp pain in my right shoulder (which later developed into a nasty supraspinatus tendonitis that bothers me until today). The next body part to give way was my lower back: two, maybe three times a year, the muscles in my left lower back went into spasm, and I had to stay away from both training and my job for days at a
time. In late 1999, while preparing for the 5th World Wushu Championships, I trained six hours a day, six days a week and at the same time, devoted a minimum of eight hours a day to my job. My body was constantly complaining and I had trouble sleeping at night due to numerous pains. I talked to my instructor about this and his reply was that "my problem was fear, not injury" (or something just as stupid and ignorant), so I kept on training - I wasn't going to cave in to fear, right? Of course, in order to keep going, I had to take lots of pain killers and muscle relaxants. In the end, I was unable to peak my training for the championships, but I travelled to Hong Kong anyway and lost in my first bout. Six months later, in the Wushu nationals, I managed to win two fights, but in the third one, for the gold medal, I had to quit after two rounds. It was impossible to continue fighting, because I could barely stand upright - the pain in my lower back was excruciating and my left leg was numb from the buttock down to the toes. A few weeks later, an MRI scan revealed a L5-S1 hernia and degeneration of disk in my spine. Although my doctor (an orthopedic surgeon) told me that I would never be able to train again unless I had the hernia surgically removed, I ignored him and managed to make a come-back after three weeks of rest, another few sessions of acupuncture and some dead-lifting (no, seriously). A year later, I partially tore the meniscus in my right knee, and as I was pretty close to the age of 35 (which is the age limit for the International Wushu Federation san shou competitions), I decided to call it quits - something which gradually led me away from the Chinese martial arts altogether.

While it is relatively easy to describe the injuries, it is hardly possible to convey through writing all the pain, the frustration and the anguish I felt back then. After all, I was supposed to be a talented athlete! Why was this happening to me? Well, the thing is that my body was trying to tell me something by breaking down, and I was just not listening. In the next years (as I grew older and, presumably, wiser) I decided to pay more attention to what my body was trying to tell, and I also tired to learn as much about the human body as I could. So, what I know today and did not back then, is that I started my training for san shou competition being slightly scoliotic towards the right side, so my right shoulder was slightly protracted and internally rotated (does this spell supraspinatus tendonitis, or what?). I was also slightly knock-kneed, and my feet were slightly everted in a normal standing position. I emphasize that all these problems were slight. They could not be detected, if one did not know what to look for, and it seems no one did. The orthopedic surgeon I mentioned above later told me that they were all deviations from the ideal, but still, well within what is considered to be normal. Oh, and one more thing: my squatting technique was very bad, but nobody seemed to know what to do about it. In any case, it seems that there was no particular reason (at least in the beginning) to suspect problems in my motor control, since I could easily perform all the skills related to my sport.

I suspect that the wealth of information widely available today on the structure and function of the human body was not available back then - certainly not in a country like Greece anyway. The thing is that all those slight asymmetries in my body were weak links leading to what sports scientists refer to as "energy leaks" due to poor biomechanics. You see, even if an athlete has some sort of deficit in strength, flexibility, coordination, stability or balance (like I did), the body will unconsciously find a way to perform what is asked of it, even if that way is less than technically optimal. This is known as "compensating" and that's exactly what causes an energy leak to happen. According to physical therapist and strength training expert Gray Cook, "an energy leak occurs when all of the energy generated to perform a certain task or movement, does not go specifically into that task or movement. Science tells us that the energy must go somewhere. Usually the energy creates stress within the body. The stress can take many forms. It may cause unnecessary work or movement in another part of the body, placing greater stress on certain muscles and tendons (strains). It may create unnatural motion of the spine or limbs, placing greater stress on joints and ligaments (sprains). This movement can create stress and trauma that may go unnoticed for weeks and months. Eventually the athlete will pay the price if the stress continues [mybold]" [1]. Keep in mind that we are talking about slight mistakes here that initially do not affect performance and usually cannot be detected by someone who does not know what to look for. So as the training load increases, a shoulder starts to hurt more and more, the lower back is consistently sore, a knee buckles, but the causes remain mysteriously unknown!

When one takes up martial arts training, it is taken for granted that his body is functioning properly and ready to accept the training load imposed by the needs of the art. Well, this might have been the case with young boys in ancient Sparta, the offspring of the samurai in feudal Japan, and the children in a Cossack tribe. Is it the same though with modern Western people (even youngsters) who grow up sitting for hours at a time in front of a computer, and who's idea of exercise is playing video game hockey or basketball? I very much doubt it. The body needs to be thoroughly tested and assessed first in order to determine if generic movement properties are correct, before one proceeds to learning martial art (or sport) specific movements. After all, a two arm shoulder throw (morote seoinage for you judo people) is nothing but a push and a pull, a rotation around the body's central longitudinal axis, a squat and a bend at the hips. Still, if there is even a minor problem in any of the movement components, the thousants of repetitions required in order to master the technique, will inevitably lead to injury. Oh, and one more thing: even elite level athletes use compensatory movement patterns, resulting in overuse injuries or training plateaus. Imagine what might be the case with an average 20 year old who walks into an MMA school with dreams of becoming "the ultimate fighter"...

So how is it then that one can assess generic movement properties, before progressing to specific skills? Well, there are numerous methods out there, and it is the responsibility (and dare I say, duty) of every coach, especially those working with children, to study as many of these as possible. Otherwise, some day a student might walk up to his Sensei, Sifu, Guro or Coach, and say: "You know what? I never had any pain in my body... until I started training". And that wouldn't be nice, would it?

[1] Cook, G.
Athletic Body in Balance. Human Kinetics, 2003. p. 9