The Martial Arts Ladder

My Sensei used to say that martial arts was like a ladder; we all want to climb up the rungs and get higher. But once you’ve made it up a few levels, it’s important to look back and help up the ones below you. Once they progress, they could potentially make their way higher than you and they would, in turn, reach back and help lift you up to the higher level you have not yet achieved. This is the beauty and wonder of the martial arts…

Years ago, we used to have three regular classes a week. Now, just to be clear… this was back in New Brunswick and I’m talkin’ turn of the century/millenium when everyone was freaked out over Y2K but all I could think about was graduating my black belt in karate! I was training hard. But the world’s perspective on martial arts was changing. People didn’t want to shed blood, sweat and tears like they used to. The next generation was growing strong and people were more interested in the 3-year black belt that some particular schools and styles catered to as opposed to hard work and developing oneself.

When I achieved my green belt (this was the first adult belt in my system after four ranking stripes), it became my responsibility to show the new arrivals their first steps and katas. I had climbed up the first rungs, so now I had to look back and pull the new climbers up.

When I achieved my brown belt, it became my responsibility to teach the entire class and guide them during their basic exercises and aiding movements. I would guide new students through their first couple of forms and help with correction and checking on some body conditioning.

When I achieved my black belt, it dawned on me just how little I knew. I realized that a kick was just kick and a punch was just a punch (sound familiar?). Who was I, to try and guide these newcomers into their journey towards whatever it was they were trying to learn? But as I progressed, I came to understand that white belts also needed to understand how to kick and how to punch, and wouldn’t learn unless someone showed them.

I guess my point is that as a student learns, it becomes important to help the newer students to progress so that they can show the newest practitioners, and so on and so forth. You can’t be an efficient teacher without somehow helping the students to grow to to the point where they will teach others. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Tonight, I had the benefit of having an experienced black belt teach me and show me a form in his particular martial art. It was humbling, because he could have spent his time practicing his own thing, but he spent time showing me the way instead. And isn’t that what’s important? No matter what level you reach, someone will need to carry on the way.

And this, dear friends, is the martial arts ladder. We grow, we learn, and we teach. So for every two steps you take, be sure to help someone else take one as well. Someday, that white belt may become a Sensei who teaches someone one new.

Lactic Acid, NOT An Ingredient In Your Milk…

We’ve all been there, right? Maybe you’re on a wicked jog, or participating in an intense spinning or Zumba class…. Maybe you’ve lost your mind and decided to drag your wife through a particularly sweating hypertrophy workout because it’s “something different”…

No? Just me? Alright then, think back to a time when you’ve been working out or exercising strenuously. Do you remember feeling that sudden burning feeling in your lungs? A noticeable lack of strength in your muscles and your body is essentially telling you to stop and rest? That, my friend, is a build-up of lactic acid in your muscle tissue.

Lactic Acid, or Lactate, is caused when you’re body is burning through more oxygen than it is carrying while exercising. Lactic Acid can be used by your body to produce energy without the use of oxygen, but it leaves some unpleasant side effects in its wake. The buildup of Lactic Acid is sometimes referred to Lactic Acidosis and the big problem is that your body will generally produce more Lactic Acid than you can quickly burn off and this is what causes you to feel symptoms like pain, cramping, nausea, weakness and exhaustion. One can sometimes fight one’s way through the effects of Lactic Acid buildup, but the result is more Lactic Acid. Rinse and repeat. Fun.

Once you hit that point, or what’s called the “Lactate Threshold”, it’s important to start your cool down. Your body’s exhaustion will likely tell your brain that it’s time to stop completely and maybe lie down for a nap, but this is not the proper thing to do. You need to cool down and allow your excess Lactic Acid to burn away.

There’s no real way to prevent Lactic Acidosis, other than to exercise regularly and increase the intensity gradually. I think WebMD said it best: “Don’t go from being a couch potato to trying to run a marathon […].” But if you build yourself up gradually, it will increase your threshold and make you capable of a lot more physical exertion before Lactic Acid builds up. The reality is that our ancestors sometimes had to face threats that didn’t allow them to build their intensity gradually, and this is why our bodies have this backup. But it is meant to be temporary. Unless your life is in jeopardy or the immediate situation mandates it, continuing to fight through Lactic Acidosis can be harmful (at the very least, it hurts like hell!).

But once you’ve hit that point, be sure to rest up and drink plenty of water as it helps to eliminate the excess acid. In some rare cases, medical conditions can cause Lactic Acidosis without intense exercise. Believe it or not, people who use Metformin for Type 2 Diabetes can experience Lactic Acidosis as a side effect of this medication. If you’re getting any of these symptoms as a result of a medical condition or medications, obviously you should speak with your doctor.

Otherwise, stretch properly, drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet, chase all of that with a good night’s sleep and keep working out. I often hear people think that they believe Lactic Acidosis lasts for a couple of days after the workout; this is part of the recovery and not the actual Lactic Acid. Lactic Acidosis is an event that happens in the moment, and is usually gone soon after the workout ends.

The Next Generation Carries On…

Today’s blog post comes with a thick, heavy ounce of frustration as the power has been out at our home since about 6:30 this morning. We are currently sitting at a local fast-food eatery while my 4-year old indulges in a play structure and I stuff my visage with calorie-rich foods (only because we can’t make breakfast at home, of course!) But I digress…

One of the many benefits of being in martial arts for many decades is that I have been able to see many generations walk through the doors. Believe me when I say that students come in all shapes and sizes, walks of life and backgrounds. A good number of them have been children, and for a brief period in 2007, I actually had a “kids'” school of karate. It was there that I learned how hard some parents push their children. And this is coming from a karate instructor!

Martial arts has always been a passion for me, ever since I saw “Enter the Dragon” with Bruce Lee in 1982. This was further compounded by a ninja-based television series I used to watch called “The Master”, which started airing in the early 1980’s. I was never much of a team sport kind of kid, especially with all the difficulties that came from Diabetes at a young age. Needless to say, my parents didn’t have to encourage me to stay in karate. In fact, they didn’t even know I was practicing it for the first few years!

But to any casual observer watching a class, one thing is immediately obvious: some want to be there; some do not!

When I was teaching my students, one of the deepest lessons I tried to teach was honesty. I made a point of telling them that if they were unable to tell the truth, they would ultimately be unable to properly learn martial arts. This was driven home for me one day when I noticed a pre-teen student who was rather phoning it in during his workouts. This had been his general attitude for a number of weeks and I decided it was time to discuss it with him. I had the opportunity to sit him down after class and I asked him outright if he wanted to be in karate. I was somewhat taken aback when his immediate and unrehearsed response was a firm “no”. When I asked him why he was still coming to class when he didn’t want to be there, he explained that his parents were making him attend.

The following week before class started, I had the opportunity to speak with this young boy’s parents, who told me that they wanted their child to be involved in a sport to learn discipline and get in shape, and that he would remain in the class whether he wanted to or not!

Were they right? This is a fine line, folks. And if I’m being honest, as an instructor and a practitioner, I have to say that if you’re trying to teach your child a lesson by forcing them into something that isn’t a requirement to keep them alive and well, you’re teaching them the wrong lesson.

Here’s the thing: It’s important for kids to get into something. Although it is EXTREMELY important for kids to learnt to self-entertain, they also need to learn some of the basic socialization skills that are required to be carried into adulthood. Sports and leisure activities outside of school help teach this, but it also helps to instil a sense of commitment and accomplishment in a way that they won’t learn otherwise. But how far should we push this point if the kid really doesn’t want to keep doing it?

As part of the lessons about commitment and accomplishment, there are a number of factors to bear in mind. If the child has chosen the activity in question, and money has been provided to allow them to do so, then it becomes important for them to understand that they should stick with it and finish what they’ve started, especially since the family and household have sacrificed to make it so. There’s nothing wrong with them choosing something else once this commitment has been fulfilled. However, if the parent has chosen the activity and are actively forcing the child to stay with it, they may be doing more harm than good.

The other side of the coin is that if you decide to be a progressive parent and allow the child to quit, you may be teaching them that it’s okay to drop something once it becomes boring or played out. And in today’s world of electronically fuelled entertainment, that’s a slippery slope indeed.

Ultimately, I ended up “kicking” the young boy out. I had a talk with him and explained that if he genuinely didn’t want to stay with karate, he was damaging the class by only putting half the effort in. I told him he should talk with his parents and try to choose something that would suit him and make him happy. He was grateful. His parents were not. They didn’t understand that by having a child who didn’t put in the effort, he was damaging the energy and drive of the class, as younger students saw him basically phoning it in and thought this was okay.

And this is the unspoken side of this issue: kids who don’t want to be there will cause certain damage to the school and the goal it’s trying to reach with the children. I would recommend that if your child hasn’t chosen the intended sport or activity, maybe talk with them and see what they would like to do. This will insure a better chance of having them stick with it.

Last but not least, I should point out that every situation and child involved is different. What works for one parent and child may not work for the other. Although we want our kids learning important values such as commitment, dedication and seeing things through, we have to be careful to maintain the balance with respecting their rights and helping them reach THEIR goals.

Water, The True Nectar of Life

How much water do you drink in a day? Think you know the answer? I’ll bet you don’t… Most people don’t get enough hydration throughout the day, and this can lead to problems, especially if you exercise frequently or have Diabetes.

In the old days, we were always told that every person should consume eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day (that’s 1.89 litres for you metric folks). That’s not a lot! But this also doesn’t take into account water contained in foods and other beverages. It’s also no longer correct or relevant.

According to the Mayo Clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256) the human body is composed of approximately 60 percent water. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of different numbers, including as much as 90 percent, but the majority of health professionals all land on 60 percent. But in general, the agreed guideline is to drink roughly one ounce of water for every pound you weigh. So if you weigh 200 pounds like I do (shut up, that’s my actual weight), then you would need to drink roughly 200 ounces a day, which evens out to almost 6 litres of water. That probably seems like quite a bit, but when you account for the water in your fruits, vegetables, food in general and other drinks such as coffee and juice, I can make do at my weight with roughly 3 to 4 litres of water throughout the day. Okay, I’ll be honest, drinking four litres of water in a day still seems excessive!

But this amount is reflected by the National Academies of Science, Engeneering and Medicine who determined that an adequate amount of water is about 3.7 litres for men and 2.7 litres for women. This takes into account fluids from other beverages and food as well. That’s pretty doable, if you sip consistently throughout the day.

The amount of water you need throughout the day will also depend on mass, age, fitness, hot weather, activity level and outlying medical conditions, such as Diabetes. One condition that Diabetics tend to get is what I like to call “The Devil’s Cycle”. When a Diabetic’s blood sugar rises too high, it has a bit of a diuretic effect and causes frequent urination. High blood sugar also causes increased thirst. So you drink more water, which leads to more urination, and so on and so forth. I call it “The Devil’s Cycle” because until the blood sugar comes down, you basically feel like hell.

Drinking water has an immeasurable number of health benefits, including but not limited to maintaining hydration, aiding in digestion and weight loss, energizing muscle tissue and keeping skin looking good. Regular water consumption aids in weight loss because dehydration is often mistaken for hunger, and people will eat when all they really need is to have some fluids. It also helps to alleviate headaches and is the only true cure fro a hangover. Water and time, people. Water and time.

There are a number of signs that indicate whether you are probably hydrated or not. Most prominently, if you’re not thirsty as all hell, it’s a pretty good sign you’re properly hydrated. I’m not going to start describing colour and odour of urine here, but if your conscientious enough to check, there are signs in your urine that will tell if you’re properly hydrated or not and these can verified through your family practitioner or on a reputable medical website.

Bottom line is that if you’re thirsty, drink some water! When you work out, drink some water! When trying to control your blood sugars, drink some water! See where I’m going with this? DRINK SOME WATER!!! Keeping a reusable, disposable water bottle with you around the house will help with this. My wife and I always have plastic, washable water bottles with us. Stay hydrated, folks!

Sleep, The Quiet Training Tool

Sleep can sometimes be elusive. We’ve all been there, right? You hit that certain hour of the evening, do your nightly routine and curl up comfortably on your bed of choice (mine happens to be a memory foam mattress I bought a few years ago at Jysk! It’s absolute heaven!). As you close your eyes, slow your breathing and attempt to slip into the land of nod, nothing happens. You lie there with your eyes open, staring at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. Brutal. But here’s the bad news: whether you can achieve it or not, sleep is necessary!

According to Dr. Eric J. Olson from the Mayo Clinic, the average adult requires 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. There are varying factors to how much sleep one requires, including the quality of sleep you get, sleep deprivation and change of sleep patterns due to things like aging and pregnancy. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/how-many-hours-of-sleep-are-enough/faq-20057898)

If you’re sleep deprived, the amount of sleep you’ll need to get the following night will likely be increased. However, it is important to acknowledge that most health professionals agree that sleep is not a cumulative function. This means that you can’t get three hours of sleep the first night, followed by thirteen hours of sleep the second night, and expect to have the same results. So it is important (shift work notwithstanding) to set aside that required 7 to 9 hours every night. I’m sure we’ve all met that person who claims to be able to function after only a few hours of sleep, but their performance will be invariably affected even if they don’t realize it. WebMD has a good article that outlines some of the dangers and effects of sleep deprivation and “sleep debt”, which can be read at https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-requirements#1

Regular naps can be beneficial, if your lifestyle and schedule permit them (I’ve covered this in a previous blog) but they shouldn’t “replace” nor can be counted as, part of your night’s sleep. Neither should meditation! Despite how restful a proper meditation session can feel, it doesn’t replace the rejuvenative properties of a full night’s sleep.

Now, we get to the part about how sleep plays an important role in fitness and martial arts. Sleep and exercise go hand in hand. I’m sure that those of you who have ever had a wicked burn of a workout will acknowledge that once the day’s end hits, we crash like a pile of bricks for the night. This is because the physical exertion causes the body to need rest. Makes sense, right? The reality is that you actually tear and destroy muscle tissue during your workouts. (Trust me, ask you doctor next time you speak with them!) Your body’s muscle tissue and essential systems regenerate during your sleep cycle, which is why some professional and hardcore athletes require closer to ten hours of sleep every night. This regeneration causes your muscle tissue to heal and repair itself to be stronger than before. This is why a proper sleep regiment can allow you to be more energized and stronger in the long haul.

Bear in mind that napping, coffee and energy drinks don’t serve as adequate substitutes for proper sleep and will only help to alleviate the grogginess in the SHORT term. becoming dependant on these things can have negative effects in the LONG term. This coming from the guy who starts every morning with an energy drink… I can totally quit if I want to! Who am I kidding; my blood is 90% caffeine.

In all seriousness, the last aspect of sleep I’ll cover is Diabetes. As any of my Diabetic readers can attest to, EVERYTHING affects blood sugar levels. Our eating habits, fitness habits, work habits and sleep habits all play a role on how blood sugar levels are controlled and maintained. So as you can imagine, lack of sleep can certainly contribute to uncontrolled blood sugars.

So no matter what your lifestyle, fitness routines or work habits are, remember to set aside time for a good 8 hours of sleep! Your body will thank you.

From The Mouths Of Babes…

I was out running around with my son this morning, and we drove towards the south end of the city. When he stepped out of the family vehicle at our first stop, he got all excited and pointed to the sky “Look, daddy! An Airplane!” I looked up and calmly corrected him, “No, buddy! That’s a helicopter!” He replied with a simple oh, but the excitement on his face was something to see.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the big deal was. After all, it’s just a f%&king helicopter, right? But children are particular that way. The smallest things fascinate them and make them happy. My son is almost like a cat. He usually ends up playing with the wrappings and paper instructions he gets during holidays long before he plays with the actual toy.

It got me to wonder if we, as adults, lose something particular as we get older. As a Buddhist, I strive to enjoy the simple things in life. I pride myself on being able to sit still and simply enjoy being, as life in and of itself is something to be enjoyed. But as we mature into adulthood, and the many complications that come with life begin to encompass our daily routine, we forget the simplicities that bring us joy. Little things like quietly reading a book, or sitting in the sun and breathing in the fresh air.

My son Nathan usually has the ability to run around our back yard with nothing to entertain him but snowballs, our family dog and passing squirrels. As I type this, my wife is humouring my son by kicking a small rubber ball back and forth in the basement. It’s a mindless repetition that makes him laugh and entertains him to no end. I can guarantee that any adult would typically be the ones to say “alright, that’s enough” before any kid would. But the simplicity is enough to make him happy.

Meditation and the martial arts follow this very same principle. There is a lot of repetition, often to our frustration. And there is a simplicity to the mindfulness involved. I think there is a lot to learn from how children view the world. Perhaps if we remembered how to see the world a bit more as they do, we would be freed up from some of the worries that plague adulthood… Just some food for thought.

My son Nathan and I

Stretches and Warm-Ups… Yay or Nay?

How useful is stretching prior to a workout? How long should you stretch for? How long should your warm-up be? What is the difference between the two? These questions have been hotly debated between myself and my martial arts colleagues for quite a number of years.

Back in the day, when we would have school gym classes, we would be encouraged, and even required to stretch prior to taking the class or playing sports. But does it serve a purpose in the martial arts? The argument is that if you were to suddenly face off against a dangerous foe in the street, you wouldn’t have time to warm up or stretch. So why would you train that way? You won’t have that benefit if you actually need to fight. There are two sides to the coin, and some believe you should stretch; some believe you shouldn’t.

According to an online article posted by Men’s Journal, experts agree that a combination of static stretching with dynamic movement would be the best route and guarantees some benefit to your workouts. Prolonged static stretching has shown to actual decrease athletic performance in most people.

The article goes on to explain that you should only spend approximately one minute stretching any major muscle group in order to avoid decreasing one’s performance.

And what about an actual warm up routine? Are the same factors present there? For most athletes, the belief is that you should include a short period of cardio before any major workout. Of course, my personal belief is that this can include some dynamic stretching as well. But the consensus seems to be that warm ups shouldn’t take more than ten to fifteen minutes, at maximum.

For a period of twenty years while I was able to practice consistently at my home dojo, (Dalhousie, New Brunswick by the way) students were expected to stretch prior to the start of class. This was required so that the class could roll right into the warm up, which would NEVER go beyond the fifteen minute mark. My Sensei would make it clear that students should show up to class at least fifteen minutes prior to start in order to stretch properly. It was generally understood that if you didn’t take advantage of this fifteen minutes, or showed up late, you were responsible for stretching properly or deal with the potential injuries. This is something that is also covered in an article posted by Livestrong.com

It’s important to warm up the muscles and get that heart rate up during any workout. Stretching and warming up are integral parts of a good workout, but let’s be clear: it IS possible to stretch or warm up to much! Stretching one muscle group for more than a minute or so will cause it to have reduced elasticity decrease muscle performance. A decent, cardio-based warm up that exceeds ten to fifteen minutes will lead to a build-up of lactic acid on the muscle tissue and will prevent a good work out. Some martial arts schools will have a warm-up that encompasses almost half of their scheduled class time, which hinders the proper growth and progression of its students.

So here’s the bottom line: get to class early, stretch well, then enjoy a brief warm up so that you can get down to business. Focus on technique and precision, listen closely and never stop practicing.

Bearing in mind that I’m not a doctor, kinesiologist or professional (other than my thirty years of intensive martial arts training!), you can review some of the facts I’ve quoted at Men’s Journal (https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/should-you-stretch-before-working-out-20160205/) or LiveStrong.com (https://www.livestrong.com/article/511702-how-long-should-a-warm-up-last/)

As I enter my fourth decade of life, I’ve come to learnt hat it is all the more important to stretch properly and be nicely warmed up before getting down and dirty, especially in the martial arts! As usual, I’m compelled to remind everyone to consult their family health practitioner before starting ANY major fitness regiment. Stay healthy!