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Pain in the Dojang

All River Valley Taekwondo students will experience pain with regularity. It comes in varying degrees and from many causes. To an outsider, the concept of pain in martial arts practice might conjure images of sparring injuries, bruises and swelling from board and brick breaking, and other perils that come from applying our techniques. This kind of pain certainly exists, but long-time practitioners know that those dramatic injuries are extremely rare—in our Jidokwan school at least—and that students are far more likely to experience the more pedestrian pain of muscle fatigue, soreness, and strains. This is typical of anyone who participates in vigorous physical activity: athletes in most sports, laborers in physical jobs, and so forth.

Over years of training, I’ve identified three main kinds of pain in Taekwondo:

  • pain that goes away as soon as we stop doing whatever causes it
  • minor muscular damage from intense physical activity, which goes away on its own after a few days
  • injuries that linger for more than a few days, sometimes for weeks or months

Each has a different meaning, both physically and philosophically, and here are some observations on how I recognize and deal with them.

Pain that goes away immediately

This is generally the most intense pain we experience during our Taekwondo training. It comes, in a word, from fatigue: specifically from “going anaerobic” as our body fails to fully oxygenate muscles during intense exercise; from lactic acid buildup in muscles during sustained heavy burdens on our bodies; and from a number of other normal biological processes. This type of pain can dominate our perceptions, but it usually goes away quickly when we stop to rest or switch to a different type of activity.

How many of us have grimaced in agony at the end of class while doing an endless session of squeezing imaginary oranges (or tennis balls, or whatever image you use) with rapidly opening and closing hands? That burning sensation in the forearms feels overwhelming, and it comes with a slowly growing message from the brain: “you just can’t keep doing this!” Facing the class while we do this conditioning, I can see it in everyone’s faces by the end of a few minutes of work. If you acknowledge this warning but set it aside, it’s often surprising just how long you actually can keep opening and closing your fists as hard and fast as you the muscles will work. Eventually you might cramp or the muscles might fail to obey, but that usually takes much much longer than people keep going to find out. Most people go on as long as they can, and then either the exercise ends, or as their will to endure gives out, they just stop.

Facing, identifying, and prevailing over this type of pain is the daily work of every endurance athlete: runners, swimmers, cyclists, and so forth. Although it’s not usually very important in self-defense situations, it’s a useful metaphor for martial artists in training for physical confrontations, where being able to function at a high level despite significant pain can be very useful indeed.1 Having a broken nose or wrist isn’t the same as having burning legs or aching lungs from maximum exertion, but the ability to be aware of pain without being crushed into inaction as a direct result is a transferable skill.

Ultimately this type of pain is interesting and valuable for those who experience it regularly and quickly lose their fear of it. Learning to coexist with pain that doesn’t actually damage us can be helpful on so many levels, as anyone who has trained for a long time knows in their mind, body, and spirit.

Pain that lingers for a few days

When we overtax our bodies, we often wake up stiff and sore the next day. After an exceptionally tough workout, the second day may even be worse than the first! This kind of pain usually peaks after 48 hours or so, then it recedes steadily for a couple more days—or for people with less base of physical training, perhaps as long as a week or more. As above, this is normal and expected, and it has no harmful effects over the long term.

This second type of pain is where the phrase “no pain, no gain” comes from. It usually comes from microscopic tears in muscle fiber as a result of overexertion. This sounds pretty bad, but in fact the damage heals quickly, and when it does, the muscles are stronger than they were before. It is the fundamental process used in weight training, endurance racing, martial arts conditioning exercises (the latter, especially, may cause similar changes in bones and connective tissue as well) and signifies as much progress as it does soreness. If you feel this type of soreness, know the following:

  • if you perform some light exercise about 48 hours later to get those sore muscles moving, it may be unpleasant, but it’ll help them heal faster AND it’ll help reduce recurrences as you continue to train later. if you wait until all the pain is gone and you feel normal again, the cycle may just start over again and you’ll go through endless pain and recovery. if that was what exercise was really like, people would be right to avoid it!
  • as your body gets used to exercise, it gets harder and harder to work out hard enough to cause this kind of pain. this is good news if you don’t like the sensation, bad news if you have an expectation of seeing steady rapid progress over the long term. as it gets harder to cause soreness, it gets just as hard to make dramatic improvements in your physical performance. the two are inextricably linked: these are growing pains.

The best treatment for this painful but important process is to ice the muscles and take small doses of anti-inflammatories—aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Taken in moderation over the short term, these drugs don’t just mask symptoms, they actually help you heal faster by reducing the swelling that accompanies the microdamage (note that acetaminophin, aka Tylenol, won’t help). Swelling hurts as much as (or more than) the damage itself, so reducing it in this way actually helps the body through faster recovery.

Although most people won’t want to do this anyway, I’ll at least mention that muscles in this state shouldn’t be subjected to full-intensity workouts, because they’re less flexible and more fragile. Trying to “work through the pain” can be too much of a good thing and lead to. . .

Pain that lasts longer than a week

Every once in a while, people who explore the limits of their bodies through exercise will probably experience pain that just doesn’t go away. Sometimes it comes and goes in cycles: the more you train the more it hurts. Other times it comes and goes unpredictably, or in a worst case, it comes. . . and doesn’t go for a long time. It can be a sharp acute pain or a tenacious deep ache—there are many variations on the theme.

This is the kind of injury we don’t want to have, since it means we’ve done something that won’t get better without conscientious rest. Muscle strains and sprains, frayed connective tissue (e.g. tendonitis), bruises and stress fractures are common among people who train with great intensity in martial arts and many other disciplines. Unfortunately, there’s often no treatment for these maladies other than rest.

We have to respect these injuries, because if we go to heroic lengths to ignore them (or foolish lengths) they can lead to much more serious injuries (tears, dislocations, breaks) that take many months to recover from. Sometimes we may need to seek treatment from a physical therapist, or to learn to move in different ways while training. The best way to avoid this kind of injury is to:

  • expect slow, gradual growth, not sustained rapid progress. train hard but not recklessly, and have patience to see yourself change over time.2
  • be well-rounded in your training: don’t just get strong, develop stamina, increase your flexibility, eat healthy food, or whichever of the fundamentals of good health you like best—do them all! strong but inflexible bodies are just as vulnerable as those with little muscle tone but limber joints. people who are tired, whether because of a lack of stamina or poor nutrition, are more likely to succumb to wear and tear.

Although the first two types of pain can be safely worked through, this type can’t. That doesn’t mean you have to stop training entirely, though. I sprained my left ankle as a green belt, many years ago, and after the first couple of weeks of total rest, I returned to Taekwondo class, just kicking with my left leg (with sprains it’s often the standing/stabilizing leg that hurts more, not the kicking leg) for months while my ankle slowly returned to full strength. Decades later, my left leg is still better when performing several kicks that I was working on during that formative period. If you come to class and watch during these enforced rest periods, you will likely learn different kinds of things than you normally would—and you will certainly impress your instructors!

Calibrating your mind and spirit

Learning to identify these three kinds of pain in your own body is an important part of training in Taekwondo, and like so many of the lessons we can draw from the dojang, it applies to our life outside. People who can continue functioning, in ways that are appropriately balanced and productive, will get more out of life and experience more than those who overreact and allow themselves to be stopped by things that aren’t as important as they might feel. So many people think “I hate exercise!”3 How many of them are reacting to a harmless and temporary phenomenon, one where it may be surprisingly straightforward to comprehend its true nature and move beyond?

In your practice of Taekwondo, how have you grown to understand and appreciate these differences? What challenges might you overcome by persisting against—or in some cases, yielding to—these different kinds of pain, or the ideas they represent?


1 In case this isn’t obvious, consider a passage from Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Rory Miller:

Damage is destroying structural integrity to the point that all or part of the body is not usable. In your training, be very careful that you understand the difference between pain and damage. As a guest at a Kung Fu school, I was sparring with one of their senior belts. It was friendly, non-contact stuff. At one point, my opponent suddenly stopped and said, “The custom in our school is for you to respond to a good hit like it was real.”
“I thought I was.”
“I just hit you in the nose,” she said. “That would have broken it.”
I was honestly puzzled. “Right, so I hit you back. That’s what I did to the last two people who broke my nose.” She had been taught that a good shot to the nose would end the fight.
A broken nose, while fairly painful, is not debilitating in any way. You can keep fighting through it and so could your opponent. Be aware that some can ignore damage to a limited degree—occasionally, you will run across someone who will punch with a broken hand—but not a shattered elbow. I did a Judo randori match after my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) snapped. The knee had bent completely backward. I didn’t do well, but I wasn’t finished either. Nothing is 100{9d204e46156178432139deccc0c784bf83c77baf126b54d56437ee109e4b4738} reliable.

2 A famous Zen story goes something like this:

A novice monk asks the Master, “How long will it take for me to become enlightened?”
The master replies, “Ten years.”
The monk says, “That’s a long time. What if I work twice as hard as everyone else?” to which the Master replies “Twenty years.”
Flustered, the novice asks, “What if I work three times as hard as all my peers, distinguishing myself in every conceivable way?” to which the Master replies, “Thirty years.”

This story refers to spiritual and mental training, not physical exercise, but the principle is exactly the same. Too much of a good thing can lead to setbacks, overuse injuries being just one of the more obvious risks.

3 Or something more specific: running, stretching, weight training, eating healthy, etc.

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