Some of us come to karate, especially as adults, carrying existing long-term injuries or niggling pain. When we first start training, the unfamiliar movements required in karate can make us aware of muscles, tendons, and ligaments we never thought about in the past. And sometimes this can make us think we need to stop training to let our bodies heal.
However, there is an enormous difference between an injury that needs to heal and the discomfort/pain which is the body’s natural response to being asked to do things it hasn’t done before.
But how do you know the difference, and how do you decide whether to train through your discomfort/pain or whether to give your body a rest?
When to train through discomfort/pain
Ultimately, you know your own body best, so you’re the only person who can determine whether to train or not. Often, training through some discomfort/pain is the best way to proceed. As your body gets used to the movements of karate and your feet get better acquainted with the training surface, you’ll find some common ailments eventually subside. This can include:
- muscle soreness, especially in the arms, back, thighs and calves – everywhere really!
- tenderness in the shoulders, especially as we are still learning to use our body to punch properly
- bruises, especially on the knuckles and forearms
- plantar fasciitis, which is soreness on the underside of the feet, especially when we’re still getting used to working out in bare feet
- sore Achilles tendons and ankles as we develop flexibility in our joints
- sore elbows, especially as we learn how to punch properly without putting strain on our joints.
Sometimes, we wake up the morning after a training session and feel quite sore but, after a hot shower and a stretch, much of this should dissipate.
Too often, we see people quit karate after the first couple of months because they’re worried that these common ailments actually signify a more permanent injury. But, with perseverance, you can work through these issues and develop a stronger, healthier body. As time goes by, you’ll notice you don’t bruise as easily, or that your ankles no longer hurt, or that you can maintain a low shiko dachi for longer without your thighs being sore the next day.
When to ease back from your training
If you love karate, it can be disappointing to have an injury that prevents you from training. The good news is that you can still train with most injuries. You may just need to modify the way you train.
Let your instructor know
The first step is to let your instructor know that you’re carrying an injury. This will let them help you find activities you can do within the class without aggravating your existing injury. You should also mention your injury if partnering with someone so they know to take care.
A word of caution, though: when you’re in the dojo, try to avoid talking too much about your injury to avoid getting into a negative spiral and, potentially, bringing others down with you. It’s fine to ask others if they’ve had a similar experience or to seek advice but try to keep the conversation focused on the positives.
Modify how you train
Your body might not let you train at full intensity all the time. For example, arthritic knees and hips are commonplace as we age. If you have bad knees or hips, you may want to keep your kicks lower or use less intensity when you kick. If you have a chronic shoulder injury, you may want to punch slowly and smoothly instead of looking for power. The important thing is to keep your body moving in a way that won’t cause additional harm.
Train in a different position
When you’re injured and unlikely to be able to join in with most activities, you should bow into the class in your normal place, then move to the back or the junior position in the line. This means you won’t get in the way if you’re going slower than the others. This way, they can still go hard rather than modifying their pace to match yours.
As senior students, we are often aware that others in the class are watching us closely. Moving to the back signifies that you’re not at 100 per cent and that your training shouldn’t be used as an example.
Talk to a professional but beware
It may be worth seeing a sports physio or a specialist to gauge the extent of your injury. They can often help you understand your limitations as well as your potential to push a little harder. Be aware that some medical professionals don’t understand what we do at karate and assume it’s a high-contact, high-risk sport. These professionals are likely to advise you not to train; however, as any karateka knows, training isn’t about smashing each other. You can train smoothly and slowly with zero contact and still get a massive benefit from karate, so don’t be discouraged.
Take time off but not too long
If you have an acute injury such as a pulled muscle, torn ligament, fracture, or dislocation, then you may indeed need to take some time off karate to let your injury heal. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay away from the dojo altogether.
When you’re ready, you can come to the dojo and train at your own pace. This means letting your instructor know that you may pull out of certain activities, or you may go slowly even though the instruction is to go fast. If you have a lower limb injury, you may want to stand (or even sit) in the corner and practice punching and blocking. If you have an upper limb injury, you can still join in with stepping and kicking exercises without doing any punching or blocking. And at all times there is some stretching you can do to help maintain your body as you heal.
If you can’t move at all, you can still benefit from coming into the dojo. You’re always welcome to come in and watch the class, take photos or videos, and help out where you can. You can learn a lot from watching and listening.
Just keep training!
Although having an injury can be annoying, upsetting, and frustrating (not to mention painful!) it doesn’t have to mean the end of your karate journey. You can still train, you can still progress, and your injury doesn’t need to hold you back.
You will almost always find a way that you can join in with a class without making your injury worse. And, by doing so, you can continue to learn and develop your karate and get all the mental health benefits that come with training regularly.