Middle Age Muay Thai

A wellness blog focused around Muay Thai

What a shit week. From the start, this week presented me with challenges and frustration. So much so that I had not posted a single entry here. The mantra is accountability and discipline though, so here we are...

Mental mistakes (both inside the gym and outside of it), my body not co-operating with me and the usual life challenges have provided me with plenty of opportunities for reflection this week.

“adversity truly introduces us to ourselves”

It was not a question of “if”, but “when”...

Summer is in full swing where I live. The temptation to take a day off has been strong recently. There are times where I'd much rather stay home and work on something else that isn't me. Maybe go to the pool with the family... or work in the garden... or sit on the deck and watch the wildlife... or (fill in the blank with any of a hundred possible options).

Times like this are when gains are made though. Not physical gains really, but mental. From a physical standpoint, I'm not really doing anything crazy. Sure, I'm out-of-shape and the work is hard, but it isn't anything I can't do. The trick is getting my mind in the right spot to facilitate the activity. From that point on, I'm good.

“The contract with ourselves is non-negotiable”

As soon as the internal negotiations with myself start, I need to squash them. With my current program, the most time required from me is ~2 hours, and that is only twice a week. Outside of that, most of my routines (jogging, core work, etc) take at most 30 minutes. How the hell am I going to sit here and convince myself that it is ok to take a day off? I can't spare 30 minutes to improve my life and the life of those around me? Nope, I'm not going down that path.

I am not just doing this for me. I have a long list of people I want to help, but I can't do that (effectively) until I help myself. I want to lift the people around me up, to help them see what they are capable of, but it is all hot air unless I've done it myself. There is no way I can talk to my kid about facing adversity head-on while I'm sitting here debating on if I'm going to go jog because it looks like it might rain.

When times like this pop up again, and they will, I need to remember why I started this and why I need to not give in to these little (and they are just that, little) distractions.

Most of us have probably heard some form of the phrase “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” before, but if you haven't, the idea is that you build your foundation(s) slowly and accurately. Being technically sound in all of your training at a slow speed is what enables you to be fast later on when it comes time to use that training.

This concept is something I have tried to focus on since I started learning muay thai, but just recently it hit me that I'm not staying true to it. As I have started to become more comfortable with what we do in class, I've started to let my focus on being technically sound slip. Yesterday it finally smacked me in the face (figuratively, not literally luckily).

There are always exceptions to the rules, but a good basic rule is that you should always have your hands up by your face for protection. If you are punching with your left hand, your right hand should be up at face level to block. If you are throwing combos (left hand followed by right hand for example), things get interesting as you have to time things accordingly. Your left hand needs to come out fast, but it also has to come back fast so that you can get it up by your face in preparation for the right hand you want to throw next.

  • Left hand out (punch)
  • Left hand back at face (protection)
  • Right and out (punch)
  • Right hand back at face (protection)

This is something that kru is always making us aware of, and something that I had made sure to focus on and pay attention to. I don't have any evidence to support it, but I'd say I was actually doing pretty good with following this rule. Until recently...

Yesterday during our drills I had taken note that when I was throwing punch combos, I was leaving my non-striking hand down around my chest area. It was so obvious that I noticed it while I was going through the drills. The problem? I didn't do anything about it. I was so caught up in the act and working on looking like a real fighter, that I was ignoring what essentially is striking 101. It wasn't until kru came over a few minutes later and made a comment in passing to “keep my hands up” that I finally gave in. I had to step back, swallow my pride and realize that I'm not there yet. Trying to run through the drills at a higher rate of speed is not what I needed to be focusing on. I needed to slow down and make sure that my technique was sound, even if that meant moving at what felt like an incredibly slow pace. So for the remainder of class I went back to a slow, methodical pace and really made it a point to focus on technique.

To be honest, it is a shitty feeling, but that doesn't mean that it was the wrong decision. While the physical aspect of muay thai was one of the primary things that lured me to it, the mental aspect was right up there as well. Moments like this are going to happen again, and how I deal with them will determine how well I develop. Being able to maintain that self-awareness and avoid letting any form of ego get in the way is going to be just another skill that needs attention and focus as I move forward. There is no point in doing any of this if I'm not going to do it the right way, so it is time to take a baby step back (which sounds funny after only a month) and re-prioritize what I focus on during class.

As much as I would like to be at the gym every single day, it isn't something that is possible right now. So as a way to get some additional “training”, I try to watch one or two muay thai fights a day.

One of the first things that caught my attention when I started watching old fights was how much apparent respect existed between each corner. As an example, it is a custom/tradition that each fighter is offered a drink of water from their opponent's corner at the end of the fight. So you just spent 15 minutes (5 rounds, 3 minutes each) beating the shit out of your opponent, and now the opponent's trainer/kru/corner person is offering you some water. Crazy right?

From what I've seen and read, it is very common to see fighters embrace or give a tap of the gloves to their opponent after every round, not just at the end of a fight. You will frequently see one fighter check on the health of the their opponent after a KO or a TKO. There is almost zero trash talk between fighters. As someone who lives in the USA where MMA and boxing are the main fighting sports, it is incredibly refreshing to see two people just go to work and do their job. No drama, no horrible takes on social media and most of all, no huge egos.

It is typically edited out of the videos (the routine can last for a bit), but before a fight even starts, the fighters will typically perform their wai kru ram muay which is a way to show respect to various people (kru, opponent, authoritative figures, etc).

As of today, I've been officially training in muay thai for a month, which comes out to ten classes. Outside of missing one class for a mother's day event, I've attended every class since my first trial class.

I used this small milestone as an opportunity to assess what, if anything, has changed since I started. To start with, my body shape/composition has certainly changed enough for me to notice. A lot of the “baby fat” I had hanging around (face, arms, love handles) has receded, which I find interesting as my weight has not really changed a lot. I've also noticed my energy level has increased quite a bit. There are times where it almost feels like my muscles are... itching. It feels like they just want to do SOMETHING which is new to me. There are other minor things as well, like my flexibility increasing and my cardio endurance improving, but given that the class I'm in doesn't focus a ton on cardio (that happens in the next class up), it hasn't been a drastic change. Overall I would say that my body is coming back to what you could probably call a normal baseline.

I am the type of person who when I start something, I tend to go into it 100%, full-time on the fringe of obsession. I have purposefully tried to avoid doing that with muay thai, as I am trying to pace myself and avoid something like a 6 or 12 month burnout. I have told myself (many times) that I am not moving up in classes until I've mastered the fundamentals, so I anticipate that some of pure fitness benefits from muay thai might not show-up for awhile, and that is something I have to be ok with. As the saying goes, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and that thinking is something I need to remind myself of on an almost daily basis.

Just because I'm not doing a ton of cardio in class doesn't mean I'm not working on it though. Outside of our daily walks, my wife and I have started jogging, so I've been trying to get a few 1.5-2 mile jogs in during the week. It is pretty standard in muay thai to start your training session off with a 5k jog, so my goal before moving up to the next level class is to get to the point where I can knock out a 5k without too much effort.

The day I joined my gym, I got the typical “welcome” e-mail which included the following line:

“I would like to welcome you as a new student and family member”

For some quick background, the gym I go to is 100% muay thai, no MMA/BJJ/etc, so for that reason (I'm assuming), it is a bit smaller compared to some of the other gyms around the area that do everything. Seeing the word “family” in their welcome letter wasn't a big surprise. Smaller gym = smaller classes which means people get to know each other.

After a month of membership though, I'm starting to understand that there is more to it than that.

Twice a week I drive ~40 minutes to go to a place where I essentially embarrass myself in front of 10-20 people. I put on mid-thigh length shorts and go sweat my ass off, making horrible sounds (and faces I'm sure) all while trying to keep myself upright because I'm so out-of-shape that just doing stretches makes me tired. I spend most of class paired up with someone who gets to see how weak and uncoordinated I am from three feet away. I am essentially in a reality TV short where people get to watch me attempt to battle through adversity live.

And guess what? Everyone else in the gym is going through the exact same thing.

Think about it, how often do you avoid doing something or change what you are wearing to avoid looking “silly”? Would you sit out in your front yard and let your neighbors watch you struggle through three minutes of leg raises? While this might be a bit of a blanket statement, I think most of us tend to avoid situations like that.

Despite those factors, folks show up to classes where they are making themselves vulnerable, not just from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint as well. I think there is a type of loose-bond that is formed with others when you can share experiences. You understand what the other person is going through. You know what it feels like when you are on your fifth round of drills and you hear the “30 seconds left” buzzer. You can't help but cheer your partner on and encourage them to push through it to finish strong.

Those moments are when the idea of being a family really start to take shape. You want the people around you to succeed. You want to see them level-up and grow. You want to enable them to do their best. So while the smaller size of the gym plays a part in creating the “family”, I believe it is what happens inside of the gym that really solidifies those bonds.

As I previously discussed, the impact small things can have in muay thai are pretty dramatic. I was reminded of this last class when another “that makes perfect sense, why did I not think of that?” moment came up.

The drill was punch –> knee –> elbow. Whatever knee you use (left or right), you follow it up with an elbow from the opposite side. Left knee, right elbow for example. I am going through the drill when the instructor comes up (kru was gone for this class) and suggests I try something. Instead of bringing my leg back to where it came from before the knee (typically this would be behind you), throw the knee and then leave it forward, but step off to the side of your partner/opponent. I didn't even need him to explain why after I saw him demonstrate it as it was perfectly clear: efficiency.

Measure from your shoulder to your elbow, and then measure from your hip to your knee. For most folks, the hip to knee measurement is going to be longer. This means that your range for a knee vs your range for an elbow are going to be pretty different (you need to be closer for an elbow strike). If your combo is knee –> elbow, and you are putting your foot back behind you after your knee, you are putting yourself in a spot where now you need to close that distance between you and your partner/opponent before throwing the elbow. Depending on the situation, this leaves you open to attack and allows your opponent to recover/reset. At the minimum, it is more energy you are now having to use to close that gap for your elbow.

By leaving your foot forward and stepping off to the side of your partner/opponent, you are now almost chest to chest with them. You can go directly from your knee strike to your elbow strike without having to re-position yourself or close any distance. You've gone from a “boom... step step... boom” to “boom... boom” :).

As I come up-to-speed with the basics of muay thai, one thing that keeps jumping out at me is just how much of a difference little things can make. Kru does a great job of getting us to slow down and focus on a lot of these foundational things, and I feel like right now, that is one of my biggest challenges. Being able to take all of these “no duh” type things (as in “oh yeah, that makes total sense, why wasn't I doing that before?”) and putting them into action is something I am constantly working on. Honestly, it is a continuous struggle to avoid just striking based on my natural movement vs using the movements kru is showing.

An example of this came up last class. The drill was simple: jab (or jab, cross) followed by a kick. Going through the drill I'm feeling ok and trying to put into place things that kru had previously (many times ha!) reminded me of. Kru stops by and observes a few strikes, and in his usual friendly tone says “may I show you something?”. He then demonstrates the same drill, but when he is punching, he is coming up on the ball/toes of his front foot. He asks me to try, and I notice immediately an increase in power. He then demonstrates again, but this time he adds the kick in (vs just the punch) and explains how coming up on the ball/toes not only increases the power for the punches, but it also sets up your front foot for the proper motion for the kick you're going to release right after the punch. I give it a go and I honestly probably just started smiling because he was 100% correct. I went from feeling very robotic and kind of stiff, to feeling much more fluid in the movements.

I am starting to realize why people train in these kinds of disciplines for years and years.

In my first post I mentioned that I have zero intention on becoming an official muay thai fighter, but that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy that aspect of the sport. As I've learned more about muay thai, one of the things that I've noticed is that part of being a fighter is not showing weakness, which sounds kind of like a no-brainer, but muay thai fighters (especially the native Thailand fighters) seem to take it to the next level.

If you watch the fights from Thailand you'll probably notice there is a nonchalant demeanor to many of the fighters. It doesn't make sense for me to just repeat what many others have written about, so instead, go check out this quick blurb from Muay Thai Guy that explains it way better than I could.

This idea of not being knocked off your game by a big shot, or the ability to move forward with your game plan during adversity is something that is very relatable to the “real world”. Being able to maintain composure and display an air of confidence during tough situations is something that I feel can be extremely helpful in day-to-day life, which is why I've decided to incorporate this into my training. In my case, it is smaller things like not exaggerating my breathing while I'm totally gassed, but instead, using controlled and focused breathing.

When I made the decision to start taking better care of myself and focus on my overall wellness, one of the first things I did was have a heart-to-heart with myself to really understand what I needed to do in order to be successful with this. One thing I know about myself, is that I tend to have more success when I'm given a job vs me going out and finding something to do. While this might not be ideal, and it is certainly something I can work on, it is how I am wired currently and there is no sense in trying to change it right now.

One of the great things so far about starting muay thai is that I am genuinely excited for every class. I am at a stage where everything is new to me, so each class offers an opportunity to learn. Each day I come to class, there is a job (ok, many jobs) waiting for me. It might be a job I've done previously, but one that still needs to be done and perfected which means I have work to do.

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