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Preventing Injuries in Martial Arts

Over the past 18 years I have spent practicing Martial Arts I have been injured many times. Sometimes it’s easier to name body parts that have NOT been injured, than listing those that were. In fact, I owe my current career choice in Physical Therapy to all those injuries I’ve experienced practicing Martial Arts.

While every discipline has its characteristic injuries- “boxer’s fracture” in boxing, sprained fingers in grappling, injured ankles in kicking styles, there are also some similarities in the circumstances of injuries. Let’s call them ”Injury Rules”. I am sure you have noticed such patterns in your own training. While some injuries are unavoidable, I believe that by being more aware of these rules, one can mitigate the frequency and the intensity of the injuries and keep you training more.

  1. Injuries and Fatigue: Most of the time I was injured when I am fatigued. I rarely hurt myself in the warm-up or at the beginning of the practice. I found that as I get tired, I am more likely to get sloppy and get hurt. This particular risk factor can be addressed in numerous ways. For example, making sure your cardiovascular conditioning is appropriate for your martial art. Perhaps you can add some roadwork or swimming to develop the necessary energy system. Another way to address this risk factor is to increase your awareness of your fatigue levels. We all like to push ourselves to enhance our skill and toughness, but if you are really dragging on the mat, maybe it’s time to sit out this round.

  2. Warm-Up Properly: I am often injured when I am not properly warmed up. I noticed for example that I would get hurt during open mat practice. I would get to the gym and want to start sparring right away, without the pre-requisite warm up. As a result, I found that I get hurt almost as soon as I start sparring. My current rule is to make sure I have worked up a light sweat before I begin any practice. When your muscles and connective tissues are cold they are not as pliable. Your body needs to loosen up with either light aerobic activity, some calisthenics specific to your style, and/or dynamic stretching. I am not a fan of static stretching before practice, as it’s been found to be ineffective in preventing injury and even negatively impact performance.

  3. Stop while you’re ahead: When I am hurt I often keep going and hurt myself more. Many of us are guilty of this-You feel a slight pop in the knee or shoulder, but it’s not affecting you yet. You continue to practice and all of a sudden that small twinge becomes a lot more painful and that joint starts to swell up, turn red, and stiff. Well, there’s a physiologic reason for this. As you are practicing and your body is full of adrenaline and natural endorphins, you are less likely to feel the extent of the injury. In addition, it takes your body some time to initiate the inflammatory process. Thus, you may not notice swelling, redness, and heat associated with inflammation for a while. In addition, there is an important psychological component to our perception and processing of pain. For many of us, mental toughness is part of martial arts training. After all “martial” is in the name. We often use words associated with combat to describe our experiences, such as “go to war”, “it was a battle” etc. As such we exhibit attributes associated with combat, such as disregarding injuries and practicing through the pain. Instead, I recommend we consider that while a light injury may result in only 1–2 days of missing practice, a major one can keep us away for months.

  4. Choose your partners carefully. It’s easier to get injured with knucklehead/spazzy partners. In order to develop your skill, it is important to practice with different kinds of partners. That’s why professional fighters bring in different opponents to their camp and some fighters travel to other academies. However, if you know that someone at the gym has been hurting partners or every time you practice with someone it feels like you got mauled by a bear, maybe it’s time to reconsider your partners. There is an implicit trust in most martial arts gyms-when we practice we have to protect our partners as well as trust them to look out for us. If someone doesn’t seem safe to themselves or others in practice, then it’s questionable if they would make a good partner. Along the same lines, be mindful of your own practice style- if you project aggression, you will likely get the same in return.

  5. Give your body enough time to heal. If I am coming back from a long time off due to life or injury, I am more likely to get hurt. One of my PT colleagues has a saying “ Sometimes our brain writes a check, our body can’t cash”. We have all experienced this: you take some time off to recover or because of work/family obligations. You return to the gym determined to “take it easy”. Yet, as you get over the initial trepidation, you begin to pick up the pace. Next thing you know, the old injury is aggravated and you are forced to take time off again. When you take time off from training, a few physiologic events take place: a. you lose your cardiovascular conditioning (see rule 1); b. your body loses some of the neuromuscular control you have developed (muscle memory); c. your brain doesn’t always realize the extent of these changes. So to decrease the risk of injury, truly allow yourself to “ease” into practice. You should be able to tolerate the warm-up before you begin drilling. When you’re warming up and drilling without pain or difficulties, progress to sparring with trusted partners. After a few sessions sparring lightly without pain or re-injury you can begin to practice full contact.

  6. Stay in shape to practice martial arts. I understand how it is, many of us find it boring to go to the gym, lifting weights, doing push-ups, etc. However, on a purely physiologic level, investing the extra time outside of the martial arts practice on training your cardiovascular and neuromuscular system improves your performance on the mat and helps to prevent injury. While there are some evidence-based methods of preventing injury, such as the FIFA 11 in soccer, you have to find the best way that works for you and your lifestyle. I generally try to spend one-day cross-training for every two days of martial arts practice. Keep the exercises specific to your martial arts practice and make sure you give yourself enough time to rest between physical activity.

I hope that these rules have made you reflect on your experiences with injuries. Martial arts provide physical challenges, camaraderie, and a constant learning experience. I know that by making it a safe and enjoyable practice, it can become a lifelong endeavor. I would love to hear about your own strategies in preventing and managing injuries. Also, please let me know any additional PT/Rehabilitation related topics you would like me to write about.

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