Okay, if you just started Muay Thai and didn’t already know: “Muay Thai hurts”. Especially in the early days of your Muay Thai journey and when you start sparring. You need to be both physically and mentally prepared for some regular hurting.
Pain may scare beginners into dropping out after a few training sessions. Many have come and gone: started out enthusiastically about picking up Muay Thai, feverishly instagramming their new-found “passion”, and then dropping out when the shin bruises became a little too much to bear. But as the old adage goes, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Keep training, treat your pain appropriately and it’s going to hurt less as you brave on and continue down this path. Not just because your body and muscles are getting harder, but because your mind has also become more resilient along the way.
Should I stay or should I go?
Now, should you stay off the gym when you have sustained an injury or pain of some sort? It depends. You should be able to continue training with most sores and aches although I have found rib injuries to be somewhat inhibiting. Other than that, there is always some form of training that you can work on while you give those bruises or strains a rest. If there’s an injury in your lower body, you can get away with an upper body workout and vice versa. The only occasions where you are recommended to stay out of the gym are when:
- You are down with fever/infection (See Related article: “Training Muay Thai When Sick”)
- Something’s broken (except for maybe a broken heart)
Common Muay Thai Injuries For Beginners
The aches, pains and soreness you are going to encounter are numerous. Let’s go through a list of physical adversities that you may experience when you start training Muay Thai. Remember that everyone is different: our bodies act and react differently. The severity, and time for full recovery, of your injury is going to be different. NOTE: If you are experiencing severe discomfort, seek professional medical advice.
- Muscle soreness/aches – If you have never experienced DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) while training Muay Thai, you are NOT putting in enough effort. Most muscle soreness are manageable and you will be able to continue with training. Your performance may be affected when you train but this is all part of the process of getting stronger. However, if there is an acute pain of any sort, then you may want to rest it off for a couple of days. A body massage will help to ease some of the aching, along with hot/salt baths and a good rubbing on affected muscles using Namman Muay (Thai liniment oil).
- Knuckle Bruise – This is one of the earliest bruises you will encounter in your training. Almost every beginner will experience some sort of knuckle bruising or rashes at the start. Good news is that your knuckles will harden up in little time but take care to not over do it as you can aggravate the injury and damage your knuckles. However, if problems persist, you can switch to heavier gloves with thicker padding for more protection. Work on your techniques and you should be fine in no time.
- Top of feet Injury – This common beginner injury is often a result of kicking the heavy bag with the top of your feet when you should be using your shins. This will swell and it will hurt for a few days, at least. It’s a matter of using the right technique, so get some advice from your friends or instructors. Treat your swell and let it rest till it goes away. You can continue with some boxing training while it heals.
- Wrist Soreness – Wrist soreness will plague you if you aren’t punching with the right techniques. Firstly, make sure your hands are properly and snugly wrapped, use gloves that provide adequate wrist support, and punch with a closed fist. Avoid punching too hard until you get your techniques right. It is advised to stay away from punching bags and lifting weights as an aggravated wrist injury can easily develop into a sprain or fracture. Minor wrist soreness goes away fairly quickly on its own and even quicker with proper treatment. (As mentioned, wrist injuries can happen due to gloves with poor wrist support. This is common for people with small hands. For tips on choosing the right gloves, read this article “Best Muay Thai Gloves for Small Hands”.)
- Knee Bruises – Knee bruises are common at the start when you practise your knee strikes on a heavy bag that feels like cement. This is minor as it won’t interfere with your training and the bruises go away in just a few days. You may just want to go easy with the knees on the heavy bags till the soreness go away.
- Ribs muscles Strain – Rib injuries can be as minor as a rib muscle strain from overexertion, or as major as a rib bruise or fracture from being kicked during sparring. For beginners, it is not unusual to sustain minor muscle strains. These will take a few days to a week to recover. If you are able to do your sit-ups, you should be able to continue with training. In worse cases such as a rib cartilage injury, the pain can be excruciating. You will experience a popping sensation in your ribs when this happen. This can be caused by inadequate warm-up or you are forcing a body movement beyond your current capability. This can take as long as 6 weeks to heal and a real dampener since there isn’t much you can do while you wait for it to heal. It will hurt with every sneeze, cough, laughter, getting out of bed, and there’s not much exercise you can do except for brisk walking. In such cases, NEVER attempt to push through with training until you are almost fully recovered as it will worsen your injury and delay your healing.
- Backaches – If you haven’t been working out much, you will experience muscle ache in every part of your body when you start training Muay Thai. You use a lot of upper back muscles for boxing, and the core and lower back muscles for pretty much everything. And they will ache because Muay Thai utilizes every single inch of your muscles. Lower back aches are sometimes caused when the hamstrings are not properly stretched and you end up compensating using lower back muscles. Proper warming up before training and stretching after training will prevent or reduce post-workout back muscle discomfort. A good massage or hot bath will help to relieve the muscle soreness.
- Stiff Hips – The roundhouse kick is one of Muay Thai’s most powerful weapon. If you are naturally inflexible, you will have troubles with those high kicks. And if you try to force them, you may experience a terrible strain at your hip abductors or hip joints which can stay and haunt you for a while. This is particularly common for office workers whose lives tend to be more sedentary. Do more stretches that open up your hips or take up take Yoga to improve your flexibility. Make sure you perform your warm-ups before attempting those acrobatic kicks. A good rub with Thai liniment oil before training will also warm up your hips effectively. If you have never been flexible, leg splits will not happen overnight. As with most things, patience is the key.
- Shin Pain – Every beginner’s greatest bane. Conditioning your shins takes time, so patience is the key. You don’t have to kick banana trees or bash up your shins with baseball bats to condition them. If you kick -incorrectly- with your shin bones, the instant painful feedback is something you will not forget. All you need is to diligently kick the heavy bags and the pads, and work on your technique so you are kicking with the correct part of your shins. Treat your bruises and bumps, let them heal and repeat the process all over. You will be able to kick harder and harder, it’s only a matter of time and determination.
How to Treat Common Muay Thai Injuries
For most bruises, muscle strains, and minor injuries sustained during Muay Thai training, home treatment will help to relieve the pain and swelling, as well as speed up recovery. For the best results, you will need a few things: ice pack, heat pad, Namman Muay (Thai Liniment oil) and appropriate rest.
- The general home treatment advice is known as the RICE treatment: Rest-Ice-Compress-Elevate. You are certainly going to need more rest if you want the injury to heal faster. As soon as possible after sustaining an injury, you should start to apply an ice pack to the affected area every 2-3 hours for 10-20 minutes. This is done for the first 24-72 hours following the injury to prevent or reduce any swelling. Doing this also helps prevent or relieve inflammation. During this period, make sure you have sufficient rest/sleep, compress the injured area with an elastic bandage or compression wear, and elevate it where possible.
- After the ice pack phase is done, it’s time to apply your heat pad and liniment oil. Both of these treatments will soothe the pain and ache. The purpose of heat is to draw blood to the affected area which can help it to heal faster. You can do this every hour for 10-20 minutes for pain relief and healing until the pain completely subsides. Exercise caution to NOT apply the heat pad directly on your skin to avoid burns. You can also alternate between ice and heat treatment during this phase for pain relief.
- If you notice “bumps” or “knots” in the area of impact, it is recommended that you rub it out with liniment oil. This step must be performed as early as you can, even during the icing phase. Alternate between icing and rubbing the affected area with oil. Bruises should appear in place of the bump the following day, and that is a sign that it’s on the road to recovery.
- If the pain is acute, and you find difficulty in breathing or feeling nauseous, you should see a doctor as soon as possible to check for any fractures, broken bones or even organ damage. Rib/chest injuries and head concussions especially, should be taken seriously. When in doubt, always seek professional medical advice.
Muay Thai Recovery Kit
Here are some of the ointment and treatment aids that I have personally used through my Muay Thai path:
The wonder oil. The famous Thai liniment oil is a miracle product. Rub them over your legs before training to warm them up, and after training to ease the soreness. It is especially handy when you need to rub out those nasty shin bumps or bruises. You may need to get used to the smell if you are not acquainted with Asian liniment oils. The analgesic content is strong enough to soothe your soreness but not overly dosed that it causes skin irritations. Certain woodlock oil and pain relief gel actually irritates the skin and causes dryness or flaking. This is a must-have for everyone training Muay Thai.
This is a Chinese liniment oil that I experimented with in my early days of Muay Thai. I find that it works very well for sprains and smaller areas of bruise and I continue to use them for such purposes. It’s watery so it is not as easy to apply when you have bigger bruises. For that, I would recommend oil-based liniment.
You can simply use a cloth with some ice cubes or you can use a flexible commercial ice pack which conforms better to your body contours. Pro-grade ice packs are used in physical therapy and stay cold longer than your DIY ice packs. These FlexiKold cold packs come in a few sizes but the standard size should suffice for your Muay Thai injury needs
Applying heat to injured or sore muscles can help them to relax and hence ideal for pain relief. Heat promotes better blood circulation which eliminates any lactic acid buildup and aids in faster recovery. The traditional way to applying heat is by soaking a towel in hot water but it cools very quickly and can be troublesome to prepare. Heat pads are more convenient, more portable and stays hot for as long as you need it. This Sunbeam heat pad model is one of the best out in the market. It heats up fast and wraps comfortably on any part of your body.
For muscle stiffness, knots and general soreness, rollers are great tools for self-massage. They work the same way as deep tissue massage by compressing and releasing the tightness in the muscles, resuming normal blood circulation and flexibility in blocked areas. Foam rollers are good for most cases but especially the back and hamstrings while roller sticks are great for relief of shin, hamstring and calf soreness.
Injuries are part and parcel of Muay Thai training. If you adopt a positive mindset, your bruises can teach you many things to help you improve your game. While you nurse your injuries, you don’t have to revert to your couch potato days. Unless you have been rendered completely immobile, bandaged up like a mummy, there is always some form of training you can do.
As you train, you will experience first-hand which parts of your body are generally weaker. You should identify and work on strengthening/conditioning these muscles. Your body needs time to get conditioned for Muay Thai. Work on your weakness, overcome your fears, embrace the warrior spirit in you.
Hopefully this article is helpful for you in managing your Muay Thai injuries and at the same time, motivate you to push on and become a stronger and better version of yourself.