Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Today I was talking to a parent who had done Taekwondo with us for a little while about a year ago. He was telling me that he really enjoyed it, but that it was hard since he was so out of shape at the time. He said he might want to start again, but was worried he wasn’t fit enough for the class. His wife reminded us both about a time 6 months ago when he had tried to start again, but was so sore the next day that he didn’t come back.

At this point I was reminded of what one of my many instructors had told me years ago regarding conditioning training in the martial arts. (“Conditioning training” is commonly referred to as iron body or iron fist training.) When I first began to learn this, I remember seeing the advanced black belts striking wooden boards that were mounted on columns or posted in the ground. They were hitting the things (I later found out that they were called “makiwara boards” in Japanese or “kong do” in Korean) so hard that it made a loud cracking sound with every hit. The students were completely focused and expressionless. So of course you can imagine my disappointment when my teacher had me slapping water out of a 55 gallon barrel drum in the back of the dojang. After a few months of this I’d had enough and decided to ask my master when I would be able to do what the other more advanced students were doing. He looked at me and smiled, and said this way is better.

He then went on to explain that, in Asia, when they do this kind of training, it’s common to start right away with punching trees from the very beginning. However, most people quit after only a few days or weeks. He said it was always the same: the tough guy student would come in and hit the tree or board as hard as he could, as many times as it took for his hand to swell up like a balloon and turn black-and-blue. Then they wouldn’t see him again, or he’d come back in 4 or 5 months when his hands didn’t hurt anymore, do it again and disappear again.

He explained that those students were much worse off because their hands were always every bit as soft as when they started. But all that damage they would do gave them lots of other problems. So his solution was to start slowly and softly, and gradually increase the hardness of the striking material. Now in terms of hitting things, this may seem obvious; but I would say the same approach is just as good when you are talking about getting back into shape. As for the parent, I told him to come back to training, but to make a commitment to not go full force on his first day back. Instead, start slow and soft, and every day we would increase slowly.

I have always found that the best thing to do when you are sore is to get back in there, move around and train. This was the same for hitting the makiwara. One day I came in and was very sore from hitting the water, and I told my Instructor that I thought I shouldn’t do it that day because of how sore I was. He of course told me that I would feel better and less sore if I got out there and did it again. He was right!

So I also explained that to our esteemed parent; just as I had, he looked confused and I could see he had his doubts. But luckily for him I am not nearly as mysterious as the masters of old. I explained that when you’re sore, moving the muscles will increase blood flow and oxygenation in those areas, which will in turn speed up recovery and prevent lactic acid build-up.

As always, I found this conversation a good reminder for my own training. Because who doesn’t want to start doing things just like when we were kids and in great shape? But again, slow and steady progress is the best kind of progress as it gets the best results. When you are sore, get up and keep training – your body will thank you. Lastly this reminded me again about one of the things I love best about teaching: everything I talk about in class becomes an immediate inspiration for me to lead by example in my own life.

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