Aches and Pains, They Don’t just Happen To Old Guys Like Me!

People who practice a sport or martial art for any length of time will likely suffer from some level of sports injury at some point. Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve suffered my fair share and they tend to keep on coming as I accumulate a larger number to my age (insert “old dog” jokes here).

I think it’s important to understand the difference between an ache, which one might feel after a particularly intense workout, and pain, which can be the result of an injury. If you’re uncertain as to which you’re feeling, you just might have an injury.

Today’s modern lifestyle helps to encourage unfortunate injuries. Most people work a sedentary or desk position from Monday to Friday, then try to become weekend warriors by sliding into home base on the company softball team or laser tag! When we sit idle for long periods of time, our muscles tend to atrophy and tighten up, making it easier to get hurt once you DO engage in physical activity.

The most common injuries are sprains, which is the pulling of the elastic tendons connecting the joints and bones. But there are some common injuries that occur, such as ACL tears or strains, groin pulls, concussions, shin splints and Tennis Elbow. Those all sound pleasant, right? I’ve experienced all of those, on one level or another, EXCEPT an ACL tear.

If you wake up the following morning and your body and muscles in general just kinda seem to hurt, you’ve probably just gotten the ache of a deep workout. However, if you notice swelling, discolouration or excessive pain that feels as though lightning is shooting through the affected area, it signifies an actual injury.

According to an article on WebMD written by Matthew Hoffman, MD, mild injuries can be treated at home by following the PRICE method:

P – Protect From Further Injury: For more severe injuries, protect the injured area with splints or bandages. Obviously this would involve an open wound. Torn muscles or dislocations may simply require splinting or elastic bandaging until you can get to a doctor;

R – Restrict Activity: Stop doing what you’re doing! Continuing to work out when you have an injury will worsen or aggravate it. It’s one thing to “work through the pain”, but continuing to push yourself when you’re genuinely hurt can lead to permanent injury;

I – Apply Ice: Apply ice to the injury immediately. This will help reduce the swelling, which is common with sports injuries. Ice is considered a natural anti-inflammatory without any side effects. Health professionals recommend icing for 20 minutes every 2 hours for the first two days. Contrary to some opinion, professionals don’t recommend heat as it can encourage further swelling;

C – Apply Compression: applying an elastic bandage will help to reduce swelling;

E – Elevate the Injured Area: Raising the injured appendage above the heart will also help to reduce swelling.

If you have aches and mildly pulled muscles, analgesic creams and warming blankets can help alleviate the pain. Over the counter pain killers such as Ibuprofen can also be useful in small doses, and only in the short term. Anything that persists for more than a few days should be examined by a health practitioner.

One of the best preventative measures is, of course to work out regularly. By maintaining a regular exercise regiment, you’re less likely to injure yourself. When you do work out, ensure to perform a light warm-up before starting. Once your muscles and joints are warm, they can be worked and developed with less risk of you hurting yourself.

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A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand…

Abraham Lincoln made the above noted comment as the opening line to his acceptance address for the Illinois Republican Party in 1858. Although I’m not referring to anything political today, I want to discuss foundations.

A good foundation is the basis for any house. And no matter how big and luxurious the house, it will eventually falter if the foundation is weak.

When getting into any kind of sport or martial art, it’s important to bear in mind that you need to learn the basics before you learn what most people consider the “fun stuff”. In my experience, I’ve found that people will often walk into a karate dojo hoping to do flying spin kicks and back flips within their first month. (For the record, in thirty years of karate I have never done either of those as they are all but useless in an actual fight)

One good example is the originator of my karate style, Kanbun Uechi (1877-1948), once explained that when he went to Fujien Province and learned Kung Fu, he spent three years training and practicing Sanchin kata before the monks would teach him anything else. Can you imagine? Doing the same structured form, over and over again, for three straight years before learning something else? Today’s modern student wouldn’t stand for it. But the monks at the monastery swore that Sanchin was the foundation for everything that followed and needed to be mastered first and foremost. Master Uechi went on to share this belief when he propagated the style in Okinawa.

When studying any martial art or sport, it is of the utmost importance that students learn and master the basics before moving on to something else. One would think this is common sense, but I’ve seen far too many students walk away once they realized that repetition was a constant within the dojo. Repetition is key in mastering any movement.

So, make sure you lay your foundation before building your house, and make it a strong one. This will guarantee that no matter how big your house gets, you can count on it being held up by the foundation you’ve taken the time to master.

No Pain, No Gain! Let’s Be Honest… There Was Pain!!!

It’s important to keep some variety in your workouts. Doing different things helps to build different muscle groups and keeps things interesting. In my case, it also helps with better blood sugar management. This is referred to as Cross Training.

Cross training refers to training in a routine that covers off several different forms of exercise. In order to excel in your chosen sport (such as martial arts), it’s important to train consistently in that discipline. however, cross training allows you to vary your workouts and helps to develop an overall high level of fitness. It can help to prevent injury by ensuring more areas of the body are developed, can help with weight loss and will help to ensure you stick to exercising since it won’t get boring.

Ace Fitness has a good article on this and can be read here: https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/36/what-is-cross-training-and-why-is-it-important

This morning, I decided to do something different. I got up at 6:30 am, slipped on some dry fit gear and a helmet and hit the frosty streets on my bicycle. It was -3 degrees Celsius, the windows of most vehicles were frosted over. Since I was wearing a bike helmet, I had no protection for my nearly bald head and my face was seized with cold.

One of the benefits of biking like this is that no matter how uncomfortable or cold I got, the only way for me to get home is to keep peddling! This morning, I faced that exact situation. Within five minutes, I had left the suburban neighbourhood and was faced with endless open fields (I live in Saskatchewan, after all). The morning breeze was light, but combined with the speed of cycling along, caused the muscles in my face and neck to twitch and beg me to seek shelter.

By the end of my run (when I reached my driveway and hit stop on the tracker app), I had reached 4 kms in 21 minutes. That’s a far cry from what I wanted to accomplish and it sure didn’t burn as many calories as I expected, but I got outside, stuck with it and did something different. I’m hoping to start shaving that time through consistent biking over the months to come. Who knows? I may even start biking to work… (someone’ll make me eat those words eventually)

It was nice to do something different. I spend so much time lifting weights and doing martial arts, I realized I have a few muscle groups I don’t use often, and I don’t often include cardio. I may or may not be cursing my legs at the moment.

Right now, I’m using an app called RunKeeper. It’s pretty sweet, it allows me to track distance, time and pace with just about any type of workout one can imagine. In fact, I also use it as a passive log to document my karate classes and weight workouts.

A screenshot of this morning’s bicycle adventure

The above image is what you can look at once you’ve ended your workout. There’s a lot more information available on the previous screen and as you screen down, I just think the map function is super cool!

Although you kinda need to download the app on your smart phone, since that’s the point, you can check it out at the following website: https://runkeeper.com and sign up for it for free.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go load my legs with analgesic cream and nap before karate class tonight!

Take It Easy, Or Take It Properly…

This month will mark thirty years for me, in the study of Okinawan karate. I still remember the spring evening in 1989 when I walked into the New England Academy of Karate and Judo for the first time. Sensei was absent that evening and the class was being taught by a brown belt. I watched the entire class and was impressed enough that I chose to attend the following Monday. When I showed up, I met my Sensei and started the journey that I still haven’t completed.

One of the benefits of having done martial arts for so long is I generally know what I’m looking at when I walk into a martial arts school. People have frequently asked me what they should be looking for when thinking about joining. That’s often a dangerous question…

First and foremost, students should try and avoid schools that are open for the prospect of making money. The term “McDojo” was coined a long time ago, and refers to a martial arts school that teaches a watered down version of its art in order to make money. These are often noticeable by the fact that EVERYTHING has a fee. Belts, uniforms, registration, seminars, books the student is “required” to read and even belt tests that have no inherent cost to the instructor, will generally have a cost attached to them. To be honest, one of the first questions a prospective student should ask the head instructor is “What can you tell me about your style?” If the instructor immediately goes into the historical background and particulars about the style, then it should be fine. But if they start by explaining their fee structure, it may be an issue. These are not the only signs, but they are certainly points to watch out for.

Another problem are schools that promote students to black belt within five years. Realistically, with some very rare exceptions, most students should take approximately ten years to achieve the rank of first-degree black belt. Unless one already holds an extensive background in the martial arts, where most of the basics have already been mastered, one cannot truly achieve the skill required for such a rank in that short a time.

The purpose of this post is not necessarily a checklist as to how to find a proper martial arts school, but rather what to do once you’ve found one. Let’s say you’ve found a dojo that suits your needs; the style feels right, the instructor is sound and they have a good reputation. What should you be looking for next?

The martial arts can only be properly achieved through three obstacles, and require only one thing. These three obstacles are blood, sweat and tears. Plain and simple. In my decades of training, I’ve had lots of all three. The one thing required in order to make it through these obstacles is concentration. Through proper concentration, one can achieve a great many things. In fact, I’ve often seen athletes in prime shape be unable to continue beyond the first few classes.

The thing is, there are lots of martial arts schools where you’ll get a decent sweat, everyone high fives each other and you have lots of fun. You get a long with everyone in the dojo and you actively enjoy going to class. But there needs to be more…

There will be classes where you’ll feel as though you can no longer go on. Some classes where you’ll be learning the combat side of the martial arts and your nose will bleed, muscles may get pulled or sprained and after some belt tests, you’ll ache for days. I remember there being times when I would sit at home, weeping into my hands because I had felt I couldn’t advance any further. But these are all parts of the learning process and the need to grow as person in tandem with your chosen martial art.

Everyone has a different reason for getting into the martial arts. Maybe it’s to improve one’s health or get into shape. Perhaps you want to learn to defend yourself or you’re looking to learn about something old and traditional. You simply need to ensure that the school you’re joining has what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a place to socialize and have a work out, great! It won’t matter if your school focuses on belt ranks, proper process or how long it takes to achieve belts. In fact, you could join anything you like; it wouldn’t have to be martial arts. Go join a yoga or Zumba class. Join a gym group. If you want to test yourself and learn to fight, you may want to join a school that focuses on tournament attendance.

It’s important to find what’s right for you, and to stick with it once you do. As Bruce Cockburn once said “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.” True words. I’ll let y’all folks Google who Bruce Cockburn is.

Lethargy and Apathy are NOT countries in Eastern Europe…

One of the many pitfalls of Diabetes is that is can often cause sluggishness and lack of energy. Many people tend to see this as laziness, but it is often attributed to out of control blood sugars and the physical tolls it takes on the human body.

Just to clarify, lethargy and apathy are pretty similar. the first means a lack of energy and enthusiasm; the latter means a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two.

People often wonder how to “push through” and get their workouts or exercise done, despite the lack of energy. This takes concentration and the willingness to push beyond what your body is telling you. Don’t get me wrong; it is important to take rest when it is required. Your body will eventually need to recharge and replenish itself. This is why most trainers and health professionals will tell you that you shouldn’t work out seven days a week. Eventually, you start doing more damage than good.

But as a matter of course, it is important to push yourself. When you get those days where you just don’t feel like getting off the couch, those are exactly the days where you should. Yesterday, I skipped a karate class. This is not a common practice for me, but some days one simply can’t find the motivation. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But the throbbing pain in my upper back and right shoulder, coupled with my inability to keep my eyes open, told me that if I didn’t take a rest and allow these muscles to heal, I would likely injure or harm myself further.

So it becomes important to know the difference between required rest and lethargy. It is also important to recognize the difference between the ache of a rigorous workout and the pain of an injury. If you are ever uncertain as to which you are feeling, don’t hesitate to visit your family practitioner, chiropractor, massage therapist, whatever you need. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s always better to err on there side of caution. Your body will thank you.

Bone Alignment and Proper Form

When training in the martial arts, or any sport really, it becomes ultimately important to maintain proper form. Having improper bone alignment can lead to pulled muscles, injuries in the tendons and other serious sports-related injuries.

As it relates to the martial arts, the power behind a strike comes not only from one’s brute strength but a number of different factors that people often don’t think about. For example, a properly executed punch will draw some of its power from the ground. Don’t believe me?

A good example is if you’ve ever seen two people on the street breaking out into a fight. You’ll never see someone throw a punch from a normal standing position. They’ll usually blade or take a step back or something to allow themselves the opportunity to properly chamber the strike.

Another very important aspect to examine is your body’s natural pronation and supination. These refer to the natural alignment and rotation of your bones and joints. It becomes extremely important to acknowledge these and to try not to move against it. For example, when doing a “horse stance” movement in karate, one should keep the back straight and allow for the feet and knees to point slightly outward from the body. This is the natural movement of the body and the only way to effectively perform this movement.

The beginning of a good horse stance. I continue by getting lower into the seated position (no laughing at my orange carpet!)

Some styles try to point the feet directly forward or keep the knees pointed forward, but as you squat down in a horse stance, this movement becomes unnatural and taxing on the body.

The same goes with any of the limbs or joints. When one throws a proper punch, it becomes important to strike, keeping the knuckles, wrist and elbow lined up perfectly. This not only guarantees a stronger punch, it also prevents injury.

This is one of the reasons why boxers, muay thai and MMA fighters generally have to wrap their hands. They have lots of striking power, but no precision or ability to align their joints. Without the additional wrapping, they would likely injure themselves after the first few strikes.

A punch, demonstrated with proper alignment of the knuckles, wrist and elbow

Now, don’t get me wrong… I sure as hell wouldn’t want to take a punch from any one of those types of athletes! They have tremendous power to their strikes. But in a situation of true self-defence, one needs to train the body to be ready to strike without the benefit of padding or wrapping.

Normally, your body will tell you if something is unnatural. But this doesn’t mean that the movement your body HAS gotten used to, is correct. Sometimes we need to be corrected and adjusted in order to promote that natural movement.

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.