The reset effect

If you ask many martial arts practitioners how they feel after a training session most of them will describe a sense of well-being, relaxation and other positive factors. The biochemistry behind this well-being is relative simple; the adrenaline initially released in the blood stream due to a stressful situation helps releasing dopamine at the end of the training which makes us feel good.

In my long experience in training and teaching martial arts I repeatedly noticed a standardised outcome from all of my training sessions; I decided to call this the “reset effect”.  My way of describing it is: “it doesn’t matter in what mood I enter a class, I will always come out feeling good, physically slightly tired, with a well-being feeling of having completed a great and complete workout”.

In fact I end up in a good, positive and relaxed mood which helps me to look forward to the activities which will follow in that evening: dinner, relax, family time or eventually going out and meet other people.  I have been training martial arts 2-4 times per week for 30+ years, which is a very long time.

As training is usually after work or, on Sunday, after a relaxed day, it’s quite usually to arrive at training in a variety of moods:

  • Happy or euphoric because I just closed a good deal or achieved something good
  • Irritated because of an argument with a client, supplier or the boss
  • Stressed because of a dead line
  • Shocked (just once but I still remember it) because I was told my company was going into liquidation
  • Anxious about an upcoming important event like a university exam or a job interview
  • Sleepy because of lack of sleep or just woken up from an afternoon nap

Usually the fact itself I am entering the training room is already partially smoothing down the previously described feelings.  Then I warm up for about half hour and the fact that I have to concentrate on the exercises it helps me detaching even more from these feelings.  Then the 60-90 minutes training, which requires full concentration, truly helps resetting my whole mood.  So the next few times you train martial arts try paying attention at how you feel at the end of each training session and check whether it has for the same “reset effect” on you.

Training with injuries – the recovery

armEvery time I get injured and I see doctors they always suggest total rest to avoid aggravating the injury.  I somewhat disagree about total rest being the best solution for my fast recovery. Here is my latest first-hand experience.

On 7 April 2016 I sustained a serious injury: while demonstrating a leading hook punch against the shoulder of a 97Kg student of mine I tore the tendon of my left bicep.  Difficult to say how that happened after hundreds of thousands of these punches I have thrown in my life but there I was:  A&E at Cambridge Addenbrookes’ hospital at 8:30pm, just after the end of the Thursday’s lesson.  I managed to get a consultant to see me in emergency the following day and, although he advised I could have a nearly normal life leaving the arm as it was, I decided to get operated on the first available slot.  The operation took place at Addenbrookes hospital at 12 noon on 14 April, 7 short days later.

I was released from hospital on the same evening; my left arm was on a sling and I received precise instructions about what I could and should not do with the operated arm.  Basically I could squeeze the hand and move my fingers around; lifting absolutely nothing, not even the arm’s own weight for the first 6 weeks and then no more than a cup of tea for the following 6 weeks.  When I was still in Italy 20 years ago I saw my master sustaining a similar injury which also needed a surgical procedure and he carried on training while he was wearing his sling.  By the same token I had a strong opinion that total rest, which would have driven me to total craziness while make me very unfit, was not the best option for me.

Here is how it really went, while keeping myself safe and injury free:

  • I missed the Thursday lesson on the day I was operated (14 Apr), most people were joking about me turning up at class.
  • I was in pain the Friday and a bit on the Saturday (15 & 16 Apr); did not work on Friday and took a total of 3 pain killer tablets. That was the total pain killer intake for the whole time after surgery.  Friday was the only day I actually missed from the office and worked from home, doing the minimum necessary.
  • I could not really move fast so, while I accepted to miss the Sunday (17 Apr) lesson, I decided to walk, with arm in sling, all the way to Kelsey Kerridge where we train and watch half of the lesson; total walked distance about 7Km. Being in the room with other people training made me feel very well.
  • Walked to the office on Monday up and worked a full day but missed the lesson on that evening (18 Apr).
  • Turned up at the lesson on Tues and run the beginners course (19 Apr); I kept the injured arm totally safe in its sling and demonstrated everything with my right arm and legs; in this occasion I did the minimum amount of warm up and stretching exercises to get ready but did not break a sweat during the whole lesson.
  • On Weds (20 Apr) I also run a lesson for Cambridge University and managed to show all combinations with one arm and two legs or by asking someone to demonstrate what I was asking for; I realised then it was easier than I imagined.
  • On Thurs (21 Apr) I continued with the beginners course.
  • On Friday 22 Apr I had the first check-up with the consultant, together with X-rays; the operation went as well as expected and it was progressing well. Next check-up three weeks later.
  • During the following three weeks I started to take part in all warm up sessions and increasing the number and intensity of exercises, getting to a decent aerobic cardiovascular workout. I was using my legs to kick any possible combination while still keeping the arm at rest.  I received some good advice from one of my physiotherapists which helped a faster recovery of motion and strength.
  • On 13 May I had the 4 weeks check-up which confirmed a very good progress of recovery and rehabilitation. The consultant suggested keeping the arm away from full power exercises for the following 5 months.
  • Within the next few weeks I started to use the left arm for very gentle punching, just for straight punches and still avoiding block of any technique.
  • On Monday 6 June I did my first sparring session since the operation; I trained just with beginners, females under 65Kg. This allowed me to perform most of my techniques at a slow pace, keeping the left arm in guard position but without using it for any form of attack or defence and just punching with the right arm.
  • On the same week I also started swimming once per week; about 40 lengths on the first attempt, 60 slow ones on the second one and 60 at a good pace the following times.
  • Over the following weeks I kept training kickboxing regularly and increasing pace and strength to most techniques. I pay lots of attention to avoid direct strikes on the left arm and still use it just for straight punches but I feel at least 80% in shape.

Having spent a couple of months at a slow pace training, carefully avoiding tough classes and technique I realised how much fitness I lost in terms of strength, power and endurance which I am now working hard to recover.  On the positive side I was supposed to do next to nothing for 3 months and then start a slow recover afterwards while I managed to cut that by two thirds: less than 3 months after the operation I am feeling great.

Martial arts and binge drinking

Massimo kicking AndreaI recently went on a holiday where I spent ten days in different places in France and Italy. I noticed, once more, how these countries have a very different drinking culture compared to England where I live.  In most southern European countries it is very much about drinking in small amounts while socialising.  Although British drinking culture is also associated to socialising, there appears to be more  emphasis on the drinking itself.  The result is often having seriously unhealthy side effects with people experiencing hangovers  which incapacitate their activities the day after drinking, or some times longer.  This post discusses a simple martial arts orientated solution to binge drinking.

One of my students was pointing out, a few nights ago, how he drunk excessively on a Friday night and felt awful  throughout the whole weekend.  He felt totally frustrated as he was incapable of doing anything physical.  I find it strange that people want to drink to this extent knowing they will feel sorry for it.  Then, the next time they have a chance, they are back to the same binge drinking.

So I suggested to this student a simple and practical advice which I have been applying to myself since  I can remember.  Force yourself to train, just turn up to a class and train.  Training martial arts when hungover is a very fast way of recovering for the following reasons:

  • The need to move fast will have a cardio vascular effect which will help sweating and getting rid of toxins
  • The release of adrenaline will sharpen your mind
  • Drinking plenty of water at the end of training will re-hydrate your body and make you fill better

Having advised to date a reasonably large number of students I can draw this conclusion: perhaps the first time you train when hungover it will feel very weird but, in my experience, it will have the following long term effects:

  • Helping faster recovery from hangovers, e.g. shorter hangovers
  • Better functioning in the long term
  • Fostering the reduction of drink intake by reminding you, next time you drink, that training the following day is not optional

Here is the story of another student of mine called DB.  He was a computer programmer who used to have a simple life style:

  • Monday to Friday: work 8-9 hours, go home, cook dinner, eating while watching TV and drinking no less than a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer, every single time.
  • Weekends: finding one or two parties around the region, attending them and drinking all night, feeling hungover and sorry the following day.

His perception of his drinking was hardly ever  excessive as he rarely felt drunk but he noticed how his physical and mental performance was decreasing. At age 30 he felt like an old man; he realised  how sluggish his reaction time was and how bad his physical performance was in terms of speed, power and endurance.  When he joined our club he soon realised how people of a similar age, or even much older, could perform so much better than he did.  He progressively reduced his alcohol intake to the point he was going totally dry for weeks and get the occasional drink at parties over weekends.  His will to gain martial art performance pushed him to reduce his drinking by 80-90% within months. Training martial arts helped him to understand how badly he was treating his body when unaware of the damage he was causing.

So next time you go for a drink or a party make sure you commit to training the very next day, no excuses for hangover or laziness.  Repeat several times and let me know the results.

Why hooligans should practice martial arts

I have been practicing martial arts for well over 30 years so the concept of striking other human beings without the need of being angry at them is well embedded in my subconscious. At the same time I cannot understand or tolerate any form of fanatism, being it religious, sport related or whatever else. I do not watch football and I truly struggle to understand how people can have a fight and risk their life in name of the team they support.

A few weeks back I watched a TV documentary about hooligans and how the culture has evolved over the years. More recently they got better organised thanks to technologies like mobile phone but also they have been progressively controlled by increasing security and video surveillance both inside and outside the football fields. When I see tens or hundreds of people whose only purpose in life is to organise a trip to another town and plan how to fight their counterparts it seems to me very much like a barbaric, irrational act which is hard to explain. I can even try to understand why hooligans have this rush to fight but when they use random weapons, fight many of them against one it seems way too dangerous, putting many lives at risk.

I am not stranger to violence and any person who, like me, is into contact martial arts might agree that fighting another human being can be a great challenge and pleasant adrenaline rush. However in martial arts we have a code of ethics, discipline, proper behaviour, we have rules, referees and judges, even medical assistance when needed.

This is the reason I am suggesting to hooligans to take up martial arts; some people might object that they are already dangerous enough without the training by here is my reasoning. Martial arts will:

  • teach them how to be (more) fair toward their opponents
  • that fighting one-to-one is fine
  • that you need to train regularly and being fit
  • that you need humility and respect for your opponents as much as for fellow training partners
  • that if you train and spar regularly you might get the same adrenaline rush as when you fight other hooligans; perhaps if you do that 3-4 times per week you don’t need to do it on match day

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Or… perhaps people that can be classified as hooligans will not have the discipline and the will power to take up a martial art in a serious way and stick to a regular training regime. That’s why we are martial artists and they are hooligans.

Fundamental differences between amateur and professional fighting

Image Courtesy and Copyright 2014 Duncan Grisby

For many of us training martial arts is a way of life; some martial artists train just a few times per week or less while others follow a (nearly) daily routine.  While techniques and general skills can be maintained with relatively little effort and commitment the fitness and endurance required to fighting full contact imposes a strict training regime.

When I trained kickboxing in Italy between 1981 and 1994 I was training with several national, European and world class fighters; at that time it was possible to be included in those circles and win their titles while training 3 times per week for a couple of hours, perhaps adding a Saturday afternoon sparring sessions during the last few weeks before a fight.

Fast forward 3 decades and most martial arts clubs I know of are training 4-6 days per week and expect most of their athletes to be training 3-4 of these day, on average.  These minimum requirements for amateurs, perhaps keen amateurs but nothing more than that.

Moving into professional fighting is true paradigm shift, big time so.  Going pro means making a living out of your passion which is great; at the same time the stakes become bigger, much bigger and the level of preparation, in terms of physical fitness, technique, endurance and several other aspects of your practice must grow. An average week for a professional fighter sees a 5-6 days of different training sessions usually split in two daily workouts of 2-3 hours each.  Cardio workout like running are alternated to specific activities that focus on one particular aspect of your training such as speed, strength,  power, endurance, defence, ring (or cage) strategies and so on.  Training is no longer managed by a single coach or instructor but usually by a team of different specialists each of them concentrating on one of the above aspects.  Nutrition becomes also a very important aspect of the professional fighter: eating varied, lean and healthy which is a sufficient suggestion for any good amateur, is no longer enough. Very specific and personalised diets must be followed to ensure the optimum intake of carbs, proteins, amino acids, and vitamins, ensuring maximum energy and fast recovery from each workout while maintaining the best possible weight.

This is true for fighting sports as much as it is for other professional sports like Tennis; I saw an interview with John McEnroe discussing the latest victory of Andy Murray at the Wimbledon 2013.  McEnroe was stating how in the 70ies and 80ies his generation of players were obviously good players, people which played better than others, more than others and went on to win great matches.  The reality of a modern world level player is a complete marketing and sports machine working with several full time experts in strength, fitness, tennis, nutrition as well as mind coaches and sports psychologists.

So if you are considering a career as a professional fighter where you dream a life of training and going for fights think again; it’s way more than just a job.