My first experience with martial arts was when I was very little, when I was about 8 years old I was brought into a Judo school by my mother in hopes that I would be able to make new friends. Every lesson would begin with running around the tatami as a warm-up, I don’t think I learned anything from that place because all I remember, besides running laps around the tatami, is that I was kicked out of by the teacher for asking too many questions.
Later in my life I picked up karate, all training sessions would begin with a 10-15 minute run in laps around the tatami, or the wood flooring, depending on which gym I would be training in. I was fat back then, very fat, and I was told to run more by my instructors and peers, despite the fact that I couldn’t really run at all, or walk even, due to some issues with my knees. Still, I did my best and ran at least 45 minutes daily, because that is what I was told I should do, causing my knee to inflate like a balloon full of synovial fluid on a daily basis.
Then I started getting more friends who practiced boxing, and they also ran a lot. I joined them on these roadwork sessions, because I wanted to fit in, I ended up even leading some of these sessions eventually. And of course, there would be more running at the beginning of every workout session as a warm-up, and then right afterwards about 5 minutes of rope skipping. When I joined my friends at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the first part of the workout sessions was running, again.
I always took what my instructors told me to do as something that had to be done in order to improve in whatever I was being taught at that moment, be it Judo, karate, boxing, etc. Running is something I assumed all athletes have to do, for any given sport, and my assumption was supported by popular culture: in movies all athletes run, at the time even the brand Under Armour advertised their products with their Athletes Run™ campaign. Everybody at the gym ran and took for granted that everybody else also ran.
Today I am a whole different person from the one I was back then, I have learned a lot by consuming large amounts of books and journal articles, and I know that all that running I did made no sense, particularly to me with my knee problems.
With this blog post I hope to inform teachers and students: there is a better way to warm-up and definitely a much better way to condition the body for the scope of fighting. Though this information does not only apply to fighting, we are talking about Shisakuteki karate here.
The running myth
Running is not a part of fighting sports. In Judo, karate, boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Tomoi, running is not something athletes do during a competition. On the ring, in the cage, on the tatami, fighters do not run.
In sports, the principle of specificity matters a great deal: the skills developed by running do not translate well to fighting, and the physiological adaptations developed by running may even be counterproductive. Running therefore introduces junk volume to training which can lead to overtraining, but does certainly reduce time that can instead be dedicated to productive volume.
Junk volume is any training volume that is not going to positively affect the desired outcome of the training, while productive volume positively affects the desired outcome of training. Junk volume takes away energy and recovery capacity that could instead be used on productive volume. The desired outcome of training in this case is twofold: to improve the conditioning and the skills of the fighter.
Why do so many athletes run when they shouldn’t? Why is every fighter running for up to a third of every training session? My guess is that it is simply ignorance. Most teachers and coaches in sports are not educated in sports sciences, but are instead just repeating whatever their teachers taught them. With this statement I am not specifically talking about formal education, even just reading a book or asking somebody who is more knowledgeable is something that most teachers unfortunately don’t do.
While running may only improve systemic conditioning (assuming that the right intensity and volume is utilized), sport-specific conditioning improves fitness and skills specific to the sport. Running can improve the cardiovascular system locally in the tissues utilized for running and the physiological adaptations favor specifically running, sport-specific conditioning improves the cardiovascular system in all of the tissues that are used in the sport and the physiological adaptations favor the practice of the sport specifically.
A simple example is the conversion of the muscle fibers: by running, the muscle fibers of the calves are converted from fast-twitch to slow-twitch, which are more favorable to running long distances but are not favorable to fast footwork. These adaptations specific to running are counterproductive to fighting.
What is sport-specific conditioning for fighting? Drills, shadowboxing, extra-light sparring with a partner, anything that resembles the act of fighting and allows the athlete to practice the motor patterns used while fighting can be considered fighting-specific conditioning.
Some may say that general warm-up should be performed ahead of specific warm-up, and therefore running should be performed ahead of warm-up exercises more specific to the workout that is to follow. This is due to a misunderstanding of what a general warm-up is supposed to be.
A general warm-up has the aim to raise body temperature, this can be achieved by performing sport-specific movements. A specific warm-up has the aim to loosen the joints that will be used during the workout ahead, this is usually achieved with dynamic stretching.
Teachers should avoid utilizing warm-up exercises that are not specific to the sport because maximizing the time students spend practicing the sport is of utmost importance in order to efficiently develop their skills.
To put it bluntly: students pay hourly rates to learn how to fight, wasting time on running is disrespectful and inefficient, and it also leads to teachers feeling unfulfilled and inadequate.
When is running ok?
One could use running when he can’t do sport-specific conditioning due to lack of equipment, partners
or due to injury. But even in these circumstances running is only one of the many options to choose
from and often not the best of them.
Consider uphill treadmill walking, which can be very demanding on the cardiovascular system without
getting fast enough to require running. A simple high intensity aerobic interval training protocol can
be utilized to develop VO2max effectively in a relatively short amount of time
(Helgerud et al., 2007)
Elliptical machines eliminate shock caused by each step and the intensity can be selected by increasing
and decreasing the resistance of the flywheel. Rowing machines are also a good option with variable
resistance and targeting different muscles.
It is also worth noting that, because the fighter does not need to develop the skills related to these
activities but just need to stress the cardiovascular system to "stay in shape", it is good practice
to rotate a wide array of different aerobic exercises utilizing different muslces and motor patterns.
This will make it more unlikely to develop localized adaptations to aerobic exercise but still develop
central cardiovascular adaptations.