Training with injuries – the three limbs approach

armAn old maxim, from die hard masters, sounds like:

“if you hurt one of your limbs you still have 3 to fight with”

I that really true?   Over the last ten months I broke a rib and tore the tendon of my left bicep in two separate accidents about 6 months apart.  Following the maxim above and ignoring most of doctors’ suggestions I carried on training, missing no more than a handful of training sessions.

As I already discussed in a previous post I decided to adopt an active approach to recovery by training as much as possible as long as it was not causing pain.  In both cases it was matter of assessing what moves, techniques and combinations were possible and set the limit to a point which would not hurt, aggravating the injury or slowing down recovery.  As each injury is different I adopted a very empirical approach which allowed me to assess every week the level of progress as well as the intensity and speed of each technique I could perform.

When you get injured you realise how the whole body is deeply interconnected; ribs are more or less in the middle of your body and you don’t realise how much you move them until one or more of them is painful.  In fact it’s pretty difficult to do anything intense without triggering some serious pain.  The arm is obviously more peripheral to the body but most sharp and intense body movement will have an effect on the arm itself, even just because the arm’s muscles get naturally tensed within the natural instinct of keeping a decent guard.

So going back to the maxim mention in the first paragraph, how does it qualify to an everyday practitioner of martial arts?  While injured, in my opinion you can:

  • Practice gentle warm up techniques and movements which stretch the body and some power activities which are not using the injured parts
  • Practice regimented and pair techniques as long as you perform with a very controlled partner or partners substantially weaker and light than you which, in case they deliver at full power, will not risk to injure you
  • Avoid sparring or any power activity; in fact I tried sparring while my arm was still recovering by using one arm and both legs but any sudden movement has an impact on the whole body and was often hurting the operated arm. Once more I applied the rule of training with light and inexperienced people which would allow me a little workout while teaching them a few new techniques and it partially worked

I would like to conclude that you should be very careful if you decide to follow my suggestions.  Pain is there to warn you against worsening conditions. You should really listen to your body and follow what works for you, while challenging yourself on a daily basis.

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.

Training beyond injuries

My friend and business partner Luca Senatore got seriously injured during a MMA training session back in January.  While wrestling with a 125Kg opponent he got his left knee bent in the wrong direction and he ruptured most of the ligaments.  Luca will be operated in July to sort out the damage but as relentless as it is he recently started to train again to rebuild strength and go under the knife in best possible shape, fostering a quick recovery.  Yesterday he produced a little video that inspire me to go and do some more training as if my 4 times per week training regime was not enough.  Please have a look and let me have your comments:

Stretching for kicks#2

High kicks have an arguable use in self defence although they display excellent athletic performance and look great.  In combat sports, particularly in full contact ones, many people have adopted techniques that limit kicks level to the waist and below.

Bill “superfoot” Wallace retired in the early eighties as undefeated world champion in the middle weight of full contact kickboxing: his combat strategy was always based on fantastic kicking techniques that often caught by surprise his opponents and knock them KO.  Wallace was not just good and superfast in kicking but he could shoot double of triple kicks with a single leg, using these techniques in the same way most boxers faint punching techniques.

In this video he shows some stretching for kicks, one of his legendary training exercises to help improving the central split particularly useful for round, side and hook kick.  Please enjoy the view and leave a comment:

Which stretches will help me improve flexibility for kickboxing?

I was recently awarded best answer in Yahoo! Answers by replying to the following question:

Ive recently taken up kickboxing and my kicks lack power mainly due to lack of flexibility. Could anyone give me a stretching plan which i can fit into 10 minutes of the day? Thanks alot!

and here was my answer:

In order to offer a more accurate answer it would be useful to know what kicks lack of power due to flexibility. In any case it’s relatively difficult to explain what exactly doing as it would be necessary the assistance of an instructor that understand what you are trying to do.

Leg flexibility can be improved by consistent repetitive stretching and relaxation exercises that can be done both from standing and from a sitting position. These exercises will help most kicks, and in particular the ones that do not require to open your hips (like front kick, axe, crescent kicks). Splitting your legs and working out the hips and internal abductors will help your side, round and hook kick.
Your approach is right, 10 minutes extra per day will do a great deal if you are consistent. The most important thing is trying to relax your muscles when stretching, release every tension and breath slowly: treat your muscles well and they do the same to you.