I’ve written before on my attitude regarding injuries, mainly that you’re either hurt and you can keep training/fighting or you’re injured and you have to suck it up and sit out. But even if you’re injured, you can train around it in something like Muay Thai, which was literally designed to replace broken or lost weapons on the battlefield. So, if you’re right leg is out, use everything else and you’re still probably able to defend and attack.
So the other day when I hurt myself through some kind of mysterious means, which later resulted in a hip injury, I kept training around it. I know I have tight hips. It comes from tension that I’ve been trying to train out for a long time. In the past few weeks Daeng has had me doing very fast drills of leg blogs, high-knee sprints at the gym and long sprints at the end of running in the mornings. The sudden increase in these exercises made my glute and hamstring muscles very tight and sore, which probably also affected my hip muscles even though I wasn’t feeling it. On Monday, after evening practice, I was feeling a little extra tight in my left hip but I’d had an incredible training session and figured that was a reasonable thing to be feeling. As I walked through my apartment there was water on the tile floor and I slipped with my right foot, causing a sudden pull and probably a tiny tear in the muscle on my left hip and upper leg. It was very painful, but I could walk and it seemed okay when I went to bed.
The next morning I ran and the hip was incredibly sore. I figured the longer I ran the more it would warm up, but it actually got worse. So I finished only one lap around the lake and skipped the sprints. At the gym I could not raise my leg for kicks or knees, so I hit the bag with boxing only and went home, then decided to skip afternoon training to try to rest my hip and sit in an ice-bath a few times throughout the day.
Now here’s where the lesson comes in. I went back to training the next afternoon and took it easy. I didn’t push myself when the hip hurt and spent a lot of time testing out range of motion, doing slow shadowboxing to see where all the points of flexibility and instability were. I then stretched the muscle at a variety of different angles, attempting to find those same points of motion and limitations after each stretch. I discovered through this process that if I did consistent striking, not stopping and staying very loose, I could use the leg in a capacity very close to normal. So tension was a big part of the pain and limitation in movement. I also stretched the back of my leg and glute muscle on the ring for a long time, maybe two minutes straight and when I stopped I discovered that I could bring my knee all the way up to my chest for jumping knees on the bag and kicks which I could not do just prior to the stretch. I’ve read that stretching the hamstring necessarily relaxes the quad, so it made sense that my hip would “release” from stretching the muscle on the opposite side.
A short video on using “foam rolling” to release tension and pain in my hip.
I continue to pay attention to what my injury is telling me through pain and stiffness, but I do push on it, gently, to see which ways I can alter and improve the limitations. And I can only do this because I went back to training and spent time and energy focusing on that injury, which allowed me to figure out what probably caused it (so I can work prevention into my training with that ever-present command from my trainers to “relax“), as well as finding ways within only a couple days to improve the injury. If I’d gone home with the simple prognosis that it was injured and the only way to help is to rest, I wouldn’t know any of these things, what I did to injure myself nor what I can do right now to make it feel better and probably speed recovery. This lesson is that it’s important to keep moving.
Now, without sounding like a complete granola-head about it, I’m going to use an example from the animal kingdom and make an assumption about “Nature,” with a capital “N.” There are a lot of stray dogs in Thailand. They tend to occupy the same corners like little packs and frequently you will spot a dog that has an injury, either from fighting with a neighboring group or from being struck by a motorbike or car. It’s terrible, but it’s the life of a street dog and most of them recover. You’ll see them limping around for a few days but after that they go back to normal. Even dogs that suffer breaks will find a way to get around really well after their bones have healed. I believe this is because they keep moving – they have no choice, really. If a “free range” human twisted an ankle or pulled a muscle or whatever out in the desert, she’d have to keep moving to find water, shelter, food and find time to rest the injury around those necessities. In moving she would discover ways to limit the pain but she would also keep the blood flowing to the injury for healing. And in a less romanticized version, I’ve benefited numerous times from my own injuries by training through them. I actually learned how to block and keep a strong guard by training with a broken nose and my left kick has significantly improved by having knots on my right leg so that I could not use it for days at a time.
It’s important to note that there are different tolerances for pain and just blasting through something without attention will likely lead to greater injury or persistent problems. What I’m advocating is increasing one’s attention to pain in order to learn from it. And that depends a great deal on mentality. As we age pain thresholds and ultimately the meaning of pain changes. Infants see minor pains as the end of the world whereas adults manage to work through headaches, tooth pain, migraines, chronic back pain and all kinds of things that would halt lesser souls. It’s the same with athletics.
I’m reminded of a scene in the movie The Princess Bride in which Wesley, prior to revealing his identity, says to Princess Buttercup: “Life is pain, Your Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” I’m reminded of the moment in the context of athletics because I do believe that western gyms (especially, but not uniquely) tend to favor a kind of power trip with their stable of fighters and members that I don’t appreciate or buy into on a personal level. Trainers and coaches take a strong-hand approach to advising their fighters and students in which the trainer is the sole authority. In the west you confess your feelings and show all your pains and doubts to your trainer for them to diagnose and ultimately set to work solving for you; a nicer way to say it is to say solve it “with you” and I do believe there are coaches who accomplish this distinction. I’m not meaning to sound like trainers and coaches are nefarious in any way – they have their students’ best interests in mind. But they’re selling themselves as authorities upon which you must depend to know when to push, when to rest, what to eat, etc. No matter how great your coach is – and I have some trainers who I trust immensely and for whom I would sacrifice a lot – nobody is a greater authority on you than you. Especially, I think, in the matter of pain. If someone told me that Muay Thai shouldn’t hurt, I’d laugh. In the words of my boxing coach Ray Valez (Tiger Schulmann and Mendez Boxing), “This is the hurtin’ game!” In other words, you’re going to get hit; it’s going to hurt sometimes.
Pain is a precious teacher. I’ve been told more times than I could ever count that I need to relax but I struggle with it because a) it’s hard to relax when someone who outsizes you is kicking you and punching you in the face and 2) I honestly don’t know what relaxing feels like. I cannot tell the difference between tense and relaxed because I can’t relax at will. But since my hip hurts immensely when I’m tense and not really so much when I shadow with constant striking – which kind of forces relaxation – I can definitely feel the difference between pain and not pain, so I know when I’m relaxed or not. Same deal with keeping my hands up. I can believe they’re up all I want but getting hit in the chin lets me know, without argument, whether they were really up or not.
There is a quote by Henry Ford that I like a lot. It goes like this: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” It’s pithy and memorable but ultimately it’s a little cutting also. If you’re injured and you think you can’t train, you should probably stay home. I’m not recommending that everyone push through every pain. Sometimes the pain is telling you to stop and that’s what you should do. You know best. But I’m writing this because I learn something important from my injuries and I’d miss these lessons if I stayed home and “rested” the way we’re taught to do in the west. I’m suggesting you might learn something, too.
Whenever I verbally express some kind of pain that I’m feeling, my husband immediately offers up a long-term, serious injury scenario. He reads a lot about sports and watches a good share of football and basketball. He’s “up” on all that. So he knows about the long-term injuries that occur with great frequency among high-level athletes. As much as I don’t view myself in the same light because I’m too busy doing what I do, I am, in fact, a high performance athlete. These things are in my realm of possibility. But it’s never as morbid as all that; I’m never seriously injured in a long-term way. And my husband is also aware from all his reading and watching of sports that some of the best performances come about through injury – especially in basketball as he would have it. The blanket advice given by doctors and trainers is that injuries require immediate rest and rehab, but the reality of top athletes (and, I believe, the average fellow among us all) is to play (or work) through it.
Look at The Karate Kid. He had to do that crane thing because of an injury, adjusting his performance to protect his hurt leg but still pressing through. Nobody comes away from that movie saying, “he really should have stopped and iced that leg.” Our moral compass points otherwise. When Rocky says, “you gotta cut me!” to finish the fight, nobody shakes their head and says, “no, he’s going to risk later injury.” Now, obviously these are peak performance moments when the hero is trying to tough it out for the competition. You don’t have to cut your swollen eye open to see during training; that’s a little… intense. But if you tone it down a notch to adjust for the intensity of training, the moral remains the same. We are not limited by pain, we adjust to it. If Danial-san had trained stopping when he felt pain, he wouldn’t have finished the competition. If Rocky had stopped running to rest his shin-splints we wouldn’t have shared in his triumph at the end of his training montage when he scales the stairs of the Museum of Art. And quite frankly, millions of people per year wouldn’t complete marathons around the country, which they do – many of them through injury.
When we are faced with limitations we express our passion by how closely we toe the edges. “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
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