Martial Arts Training With Joint Injuries (Part 3)

OK, this is the last post on this subject, I promise  🙂

There is a certain attitude in martial arts, that we don’t like to give in to pain or to complain about it.  We just soldier on.  But if you are suffering any kind of joint of pain or discomfort, get it properly checked.  I would recommend a good Osteopath, Chiropractor, Podiatrist or something similar rather than an ordinary doctor (known as a General Practitioner [GP] in the UK).  My personal experience is that when it comes to any kind of sports or physical activities injury, the GP will just tell you not to do it any more.  Well it makes his job easier!

That of course is not a satisfactory answer to a martial artist who wants his/her martial art to be a lifetime study.  Also (in my personal experience) the GP tends to look only at the symptoms and not what might actually be causing the problem.

Osteopaths and Chiropractors on the other hand tend to look at the body more holistically and are much more geared to getting us back into our chosen activity (be it sport or martial art).

When I was about 20, I had a problem with my knee.  There was so much swelling that fluid dropped down to the ankle which literally became about twice the size (due to the excess fluid).  After visiting the GP and having my knee examined I was told that he could not find anything wrong with the knee and to rest it.

So I rested, selling went down, trained, swelling came back, rested longer, swelling down, trained, swelling came back.

Back to the GP.  Another examination of the knee revealed nothing wrong and I was told to rest it longer.   So . . . . . . . rest it longer, swelling down, trained, swelling back, rest it longer, swelling down, trained, swelling back.

GP!

I was sent to the local hospital for an X-ray of my knee.  Guess what they found?

Nothing.

Guess what the advice was?

Yes you guessed it, rest it even longer.

That had taken about 3 months.  Desperate to get back to my training I tried an Osteopath.  He actually looked beyond just my knee.  He found a small mis-alignment in my hip joint which was affecting me knee.  He did a manipulation on the hip that night, told me to go back to training and take it easy at first and gradually build back up.  The problem disappeared and I very soon was able to get back into full training.  In 3 months of going to the GP and the hospital, they hadn’t even looked at the hip.

Now when it comes to Osteopaths and Chiropractors you have to shop around as they are not all good.  If you can, get a personal recommendation.

Another common problem these days is fallen arches in the feet.  This is common because our feet were not designed to walk of flat surfaces, they were designed to walk on sand, mud, earth etc, which our ancestors would have done bare feet.  On these surfaces, the arch of the foot is supported by the sand/mud/earth etc.  However, on flat surfaces which we have in every home, every office or factory, every pavement/sidewalk, or every training room floor; our arches are not supported (unless you wear special shoes).

Why is this an issue?

When your aches fall, your foot tends to rotate slightly to the inside edge.  This realigns your legs.  Over a period of time your muscles, tendons, ligaments etc will adjust and assume slightly new positions.  When you exercise vigorously, these new positions can cause all kinds of problems as mis-aligned parts rub against each other causing inflammation, swelling and pain.

Over yet more time, this can even affect your back giving you back pains.

I know this from personal experience.  Having been off training for a number of years due to a lot of domestic problems, my arches fell causing constant pain and discomfort with my knees when I did start training again.   It was a Chiropractor who pointed this out to me and arranged for me to have an orthotic insert to wear inside my shoes.  This supports the arch and adjusts the mechanics of how I walked.  Over time there has been a marked improvement.  I later went to see a Podiatrist to get a made to measure orthotic inserts rather than the off-the-shelf orthotics from the Chiropractor.  Gradually, slowly the situation has improved.  It’s still not perfect, but I’m able to kick much better and relax and sink into my stance more  easily (most of the time).

I can’t emphasise enough, if you are in pain when you train, get yourself checked out.  Try non-evasive treatments first (operations can’t be undone).  If they don’t work, then you can move on to the more drastic options later such as possibility of an operation.

Some supplements are good for joints too (though they won’t help much if the joints are mis-aligned).  Many people swear by Cod Liver Oil or Glucosamine.  Others use Ginger.  The thing that worked best for me is Collagen.  Until fairly recently collagen molecules could not be absorbed by the body orally as the molecules were too big.  Now some variants can be.  However, I would suggest you experiment to see what works best for you.

 

Martial Arts Training With Joint Injuries (Part 2)

Following on from (and inter-related with) Part 1, we are now going to look at body alignments, in particular with legs and stance.


Mechanics Of Normal Walking

Normal walking is a continuous fluid motion with one step merging into another step.  When we walk normally, our body weight moves directly over our knees and feet.  When viewed from the front, our ankle, knee and hip joints all in complete alignment and our feet pass each other no further apart than our hip joints.  That is where the femur locates into the pelvis, (not the outer surfaces of the hips).

This is logical as when we walk our weight is supported on just one single structure (one leg) then transferred onto another single structure (our other leg).  To support a weight on a single structure, physics dictates that the most efficient way is for the supporting structure to be directly below the main weight (in this case – our body).

Physics also dictates that the weight is most easily supported when the supporting structure is straight (which our leg is as the weight passes over it).  To test this, try standing on one leg for a minute.  Then try it again with a bent leg.  You can do it with a bent leg, but you’ll tire much more quickly.


How The Karate Step Differs From Normal Walking

Taking Forward Stance (Zenkutsu Dachi) as an example, our feet are shoulder width apart when viewed from the front (rather than hip joint distance as in normal walking).  This extra width of stance gives much more stability and “root” from which to deliver our technique and to absorb and rebound the reaction forces from the impact of that technique.

As mentioned above, when supporting a weight with a single support then the support should be directly below the weight.  However, if you can have multiple supports (using both legs in a stance at completion of a step) then the most stable structure is a pyramid shape (broad base, small on top).  We can’t really make our torso smaller, but the broader stance (feet shoulder width apart) does form a shallow pyramid structure, giving us maximum stability for that split second of impact.


Putting Natural Alignments Into Your Stance

In my early days of training we were taught to push the knees outwards.  In Forward Stance the front knee would be pushed outward, in Back Stance (Kokutsu Dachi) the back knee would be pushed backwards and in Horse Stance (Keba Dachi) both knees would be pushed outwards.  I realise that many teachers and associations have moved on from this practice, but it is still worth mentioning.  Pushing the knees outwards puts unnecessary pressure on the outside of the knee joints and will damage them over time.  Many senior instructors have had to have knee and hip replacements.  Many others have just had to give up their training.

Pushing the knee(s) outward is like bowing the leg and distorts the natural pyramid shape structure, thus weakening it.  This not only damages the knee over time, but it creates extra tension as your muscles around the knee tighten slightly in order to try and keep the knee joint in place (so as to prevent the damage).  Tension of course just slows us down, so it is bad from a self defence point of view as well as for our health.

When looking at the front of the leg the ankle, knee and hip joints should all be in alignment (as with normal walking above).  For this purpose I would like to define the front of the leg as being viewed from the direction that the foot is pointing in, as the legs can rotate at the hip joint (hence in back stance the feet point at about 90 degrees to each other).

It may not be the same for everybody, but I find this alignment is most easily achieved when the weight is balanced on the base of the big toe, rather then spread over the whole foot (as per Part 1).

Again, if you know anybody who suffers from hip/knee problems, please forward this post to them.

 

Martial Arts Training With Joint Injuries (Part 1)

Having suffered with joint injuries myself, especially to the knee, I know how frustrating it can be and the limiting impact it can have on your training.

I have found some very minor adjustments in training which have helped me to cope with the knee problems that I have suffered with.  I don’t claim that this will work for everybody or that it will be a wonder-cure, I just want to share what has helped me and hope that it will help others too.  Fact is, it is not a cure at all, but a coping mechanism to minimize the pain/discomfort to the joints.

The following is based on a conversation that I had with my podiatrist when I was being examined to have orthotics to cope with fallen arches in my feet.  Although it primarily referring to Karate (as that is the art I practice) it will also apply to many other arts too.

Mechanics Of Normal Walking

Put left foot in front of right.
Put right foot in front of left.
Keep repeating the above.

OK there’s a bit more to it than that.  The way we step in Karate (and many other marital arts) is obviously different to the way that we step when walking normally.  However, the more that we can put our natural method of walking into our Karate step, then the easier and more fluid it becomes.  To do this it helps to have a look at the mechanics of normal walking in a bit more detail.

If you ask most people how the foot works during walking, they’ll often say something like “heel toes, heel toes”.  A slightly more detailed version would be “heel, ball of the foot, toes”.  However, it’s a bit more involved than that.

As we walk the heel obviously comes down first and then roles over to the ball of the foot.  However, the weight comes down primarily onto the base of the big toe (the inside portion of the ball of the foot).  It is important to note that our weight does not come down evenly on the whole ball of the foot.  The big toe lands first, then fractionally afterwards the little toes come down to give us balance.

As we continue the step, we raise our heel and push our weight back onto the base of the big toe.  Again the little toes and the outside portion of the ball of the foot are still on the ground, but are primarily for balance.  Our body weight and the power to push forward are directed through the base of the bit toe (rather than the whole ball of the foot).  If you look at the photograph of the footsteps in the sand, you can see that the indentation in the sand is larger at the base of the big toe then it is at the outside of the ball of the foot as that is the part that is pushed into the sand hardest.

How The Karate Step Differs From Normal Walking

In Karate basics and kata, multiple steps are usually NOT continuous and fluid.  Each individual step should be a very fluid movement, but there is usually a very tiny pause between one step and the next.  This is because on completion of your Karate step, you are looking to very momentarily form a stable platform from which to deliver your technique for maximum effect. Part of that skeletal structure includes having a good “root” to the ground that will not move or give way when your body is subjected to the reaction forces caused by the impact of your own technique.

Putting Natural Movement Into Your Step

Many people in martial arts do what they think they should be doing (or what they’ve been told to do) rather than necessarily doing what comes naturally.

Most instructors teach that you push off with the ball of the foot.  However, I would respectfully suggest that you should specifically be aiming to push off with the base of the big toe (as in natural walking).

Now many people (possibly most) will be doing this naturally without realising it.  But when you do realise it, then it becomes easier to focus on and develop.  Also, if you are an instructor, it becomes easier to explain and teach the movement to your own students.

Other people however, will be taking the instruction literally and will try to push off from the whole ball of the foot.

Try this little exercise.  Stand upright, with your feet at about shoulder width apart, parallel and pointing forward.  Lift the heel of one foot off the floor and move it directly forward, so that your knee moves forward too.  Now feel where the weight is centred on that foot?  It will be on the base of the big toe.

Now try again, but this time as you raise you heel, make sure that the whole ball of the foot stays on the floor with the weight evenly distributed over the whole ball.  If you’re doing it properly, you’ll notice that your heel and knee go very slightly to the outside.

If you are looking for forward movement, then the transferring weight onto the base of the big toe rather than the whole ball of the foot is obviously advantageous (as well as more natural).

Now picture yourself in a Forward Stance, ready to take that step forward.  Your back foot is pointing slightly outwards (as we can never get it facing completely forward).  If you try to push off from the whole ball of the foot, then as your foot is pointing slightly outward, your whole rear leg will be facing slightly outward as you start your step.  Hence the direction of thrust will be more or less in the outward direction that the foot is pointing.  It will however be quickly adjusted as you begin your step forward.

However, if you start by pushing off from the base of the big toe, then the load is taken away from the little toes (hence taking away unnecessary effort) that fraction earlier.  In turn the leg begins to naturally rotate forward just that fraction more quickly, giving you thrust that is completely facing forward that little fraction earlier.  You get extra leverage to start your movement making the step easier and more fluid for fractionally less effort.

As previously mentioned, many people will be doing this naturally without realising and I do not claim to be proclaiming something new.  However, we are normally told to “push off with the ball of the foot” and there are many people who will take that literally, even if it means overriding the more natural way of doing things.

Putting This Natural Alignment Into Your Stance

When we stand naturally and comfortably (maybe in a social setting), our feet are normally just below us.  Because of differences in the pelvis, women tend to stand with feet quite close together, whilst men tend to stand with feet at about shoulder width apart.

In this comfortable and natural posture, the bottoms of our feet are more or less, squarely on the floor.  However, if we spread our legs further, (as if going towards the splits position), then the further we spread our legs, the more that we tend to come onto the inside edge of our feet.  Eventually at full splits, the flats of our feet come right off the ground and only the side of our feet make contact.

Horse Stance (Keba Dachi) is the stance where we separate the legs sideways the most.  As we do this, the natural tendency is to start putting the weight more onto the inside edge of the feet (heel and base of big toe).

However, many people fight this and struggle to flatten the foot out as much as they can, so that the weight is evenly distributed about the whole of the bottom of the foot.

Why?

What is the benefit of struggling to flatten the bottom of the foot evenly on the ground?  As we have seen above, the power generated through the leg when stepping is released at the base of the big toe which is on the inside of the foot.

Keep the knees in line with the ankle and hips (when viewed from the front) and allow most of the weight to primarily rest on the inner part of the bottom of your foot.  More specifically, focus the weight primarily on the base of the big toe.  The heel and small toes must also be in contact with the floor, but (as with walking) the little toes and the outside portion of the ball of the foot are more there for balance than for supporting the weight.

Try getting into a Horse Stance and alternating between supporting the weight evenly over the whole bottom of the foot and then transferring the weight primarily onto the base of the big toe.  As you move the weight onto the base of the big toe, you should find that your ankles and knees relax just a slight fraction more, because this is a more natural alignment.  The only way to really flatten out the foot evenly is to flex the ankles outward, which takes it out of natural alignment and creates tension.

Have we not always told that relaxation is extremely important?  Why then do so many people try to maintain a stance that creates tension as a by-product?

Note:  Although I’ve used Horse Stance as an example, the same principle applies to other stances too.  It is just easier to highlight in Horse Stance.

Whilst practicing basics and kata, we sometimes have to hold a stance for a moment.  However, for real fighting stances are usually only transitory so we should be able to move in and out of them very quickly so that we can move on to the next technique (or next opponent).  In order to move out of these transitory stances quickly, focusing the weight on the base of the big toe (as in normal walking) makes a great deal of sense on a practical combat level as well as being healthier for our joints.

“Beginners must master low stance and posture; natural body positions are for the advanced”.From Gichin Funakoshi’s Twenty Precepts

Most of us know or train with somebody who suffers from joint problems.  If you have found this useful and think it might help somebody that you know, please forward this post on to them.