Overtraining in Muay Thai and Combat Sports
Are you overtraining?
Editor’s note: Claire Baxter is a three time Muay Thai World Champion. She is a practicing psychologist with a degree in sport and exercise psychology. The author wishes to acknowledge Jo Bowen and Soren Monkongtong for their valuable feedback on the content and writing of this article.
Trainers would tell me that I needed to train harder, but exercise physiologists and doctors would tell me that I was chronically overtraining. Like many Muay Thai fighters, I’ve probably spent time in the “overtraining zone”, but I wonder what “overtraining” actually means for a fighter. I wonder whether there is something in the state of being overtrained that facilitates fighting well in a way that overtraining doesn’t facilitate performance in other sports.
After nearly a decade of professional Muay Thai (and before that, a decade in the saddle as an elite cyclist) I know what it’s like, at least anecdotally, to overtrain: I’ve spent a lot of life feeling “smashed,” and blood tests would typically show low iron levels*, low red blood cell count, depleted B12 levels, and elevated white blood cell count.
I have a lay person’s understanding of “the inverted u-shape theory” of training: Imagine a graph where the horizontal axis represents the amount of training you do, and the vertical axis represents your performance. Sports science tells us that the relationship isn’t linear, that it is actually an inverted “u-shape”. This means that there is an optimal amount of training, and if you train more than that, your performance deteriorates.
Most strength and conditioning coaches seem to understand the principle of overtraining, and they will reduce the training load accordingly. Thai trainers, however, typically refuse to acknowledge an optimal amount of training short of “more” than you are doing right now: particularly for new or inexperienced fighters.
“Are you tired? Good! Your opponent isn’t going to stop just because you are tired!”
If I was tired and flagging, then I wasn’t trying hard enough. My trainer would exhort me to find the mental strength to train harder, and give me more work to help me understand the concept.** This is the schooling that I came through, and I believe that I am tougher for it. To those with knowledge of sports science or strength and conditioning, however, I probably excelled despite this approach, not because of it.
To get a better understanding of the concept of overtraining, I spoke with Tom Frost, General Manager at ACE Performance, Melbourne, and previously the Sport Science Manager at High Performance Sport in Papua New Guinea. I also spoke Dr. Peter Lewis, an Australian registered medical practitioner who specialises in sports medicine including regenerative medicine. Dr Lewis is the current chairman of the Australasian Ringside Medical Association and has been managing the well-being of fighters – professional and amateur – for decades.
Tom tells me that overtraining occurs when there is continued overload without adequate recovery time. “There is no adaptation occurring in response to the training load: hence, there is no improvement in performance.”
“So overtraining is a state of “not recovering” rather than the amount of training you have done?”
“Yes, it’s not a case that you trained for 25 hours this week so you must be overtrained, it’s a case of are you recovering properly from whatever amount of training you are doing?”
“So how do I tell if I am just tired, or I had a disappointing fight, versus I am not actually recovering?”
Tom tells me there are some obvious signs to look for: an elevated morning heart rate, feeling tired or fatigued “all of the time”, excessive soreness, a performance drop off, lowered mood and decreased motivation. Overtraining also compromises the body’s immune system, so athletes who are overtraining often get recurrent infections – and being sick further compromises an athlete’s capacity to train.
When I was training in Thailand, I was definitely tired all the time, and my body was often sore – on a deep, muscular level – and not just from clumsy sparring. My mood, however, was generally high, as was my motivation: I loved the fighter lifestyle, and I wasn’t interested in much else other than fighting. I experienced some illness, but not an excessive amount, and on the whole, I was in pretty good health, aside from persistent fatigue. When I had my bloods taken back in Australia, however, the doctor shook his head and told me that I had training induced anemia and that I needed to take a break after the next fight. As it was, I went back to Thailand, trained full time, and won some high level fights. Was I overtraining, or was I simply training hard?
Peter tells me that he regularly sees the telltale signs of overtraining in the mandatory blood tests he takes for fighters. Often fighters’ blood tests reveal that they are low in vitamin D and low in iron, both of which are associated with overtraining. Professional male boxers also tend to have lower than average testosterone levels, (although the jury is out regarding whether this is caused by overtraining or head trauma). “Doctors worry about overtraining because they worry about their patient’s health,” he adds, “but fighters should be concerned about overtraining because it will have deleterious effects on their performance.”
How come, then, I often performed really well off a period of really hard full-time training during which time, I felt pretty much smashed, and I had no spare energy for anything outside of training and fighting? Peter shook his head, and tells me that I probably performed well despite the training rather than because of it. “All Thai fighters seem to train this way, so it’s really hard to convince them to do otherwise, but they could be performing much better if they trained smarter.”
Peter calls into question some of the fundamental Muay Thai training practices. “Firstly, getting your heart rate up for hours on end is not the way to train and get fit. The whole idea of long training sessions – some fighters are training for 2-3 hours twice a day- is flawed. You can get fit – in fact, it is a much more efficient way to get fit – doing short, high intensity sessions.”
When I reply that, often training sessions are so long because Muay Thai is a skill-based sport and there is so much to learn, Peter shakes his head; “You can’t change the rules of the game: I get it – there is a lot to learn. Western fighters who begin training and fighting later in life often feel they are playing a catch-up-game with their Thai counterparts who begin training at 2-3 years of age, but this idea of simply doing lots and lots of training to catch up is flawed.”
According to Peter, training needs to be smarter: the emphasis should be on skill acquisition and development rather than grueling fitness regimes. A good trainer who can teach movements to the fighter and who gives regular, quality feedback, will fast track skill development. Peter tells me that a lot of trainers seem to think that more time kicking pads or bags will result in good technique: it doesn’t. It results in consolidation of whatever technique the fighter has right now, and a lot of unnecessary fatigue. “To fix overtraining, you need to fix the overall training picture.”
Tom emphasizes the need for measurement in order to gauge response to training. “Measure everything,” he says; weight lifted, running times, distance jumped or thrown, heart rate, body weight, everything. If you can’t measure it, Tom says you should be recording it: diet, sleep, mood and motivation – even when you meditate.
“An athlete with a strong drive and understanding of their ‘why’, will understand what they are able to push through for the purpose of greatness, and what actually requires recovery in order to improve. Gathering data facilitates this understanding,” says Tom.
An obvious challenge for Muay Thai fighters is that training typically doesn’t involve objective measures. Whereas a track runner can see that their running times for a given distance are improving or deteriorating, this kind of direct, measurable feedback isn’t usually available for fighters who spend the bulk of their time doing pad and bag work. Peter suggests including objective measures into a fighter’s all round management, such as measuring early morning heart rate, and introducing things like the beep test shuttle run, where numerical levels achieved can be mapped against a fighter’s training. This can provide valuable data about general fitness and whether the athlete is adapting to the training load, or breaking under it.
I wonder about the damnation of overtraining. There are times when I’ve been so tired from training twice a day six days a week, that on the day off before the fight, I’ve slept for 13 hours straight, and yet, I’ve won fights. I’ve received good feedback from trainers and managers – people who know me and who know Muay Thai- and I can see from watching the video replays of my fights that my performance is improving.
Is this just a coincidence? Would I have experienced these improvements anyway? Would I have even experienced greater improvements if I had been better rested? Contrary to sports science wisdom, I wonder if I might have experienced these improvements precisely because I was training for so long and so hard.
My thesis is that fatigue, perhaps, is conducive to fighting in a way that it might not be conducive to performance in other sports. I feel primed for combat when I am already battling to survive the training load; when I’m extended, challenged, fatigued and battered and bruised from tough training, then, and maybe only then, I am ready to fight for myself. Perhaps I am operating below my physiological potential, just as Tom and Peter say, but I’m not trying to run my fastest 400m here, or achieve a PB in the deadlift: I’m about to step into the ring with the intent to damage the person who wants to damage me, and to do that, I need a certain amount of grimness and readiness for violence. Perhaps it isn’t a physiological peak that I need to perform my best in the ring, but rather, a psychological one. Maybe overtraining brings a fighter close to breaking point, into a place of grimness that facilitates a psychological shift; you put up with and overcome the overtraining in the same way that you put up with and overcome your opponent’s attempt to harm you and beat you.
On a strictly scientific program, where the training would stop once the measurable performance drops off, when would I ever be pushed into that zone where I have to dig really deep? In the words of my (various) trainer(s) “your opponent is not going to stop just because you’re getting tired!” In pushing me into a state of fatigue and demanding that I work harder still, I believe that my trainers were preparing me for the psychological as well as the physical demands of fighting.
Could it be that overtraining prepared me for this in a way that optimal physiological conditioning as understood by sports science might not have?
When I put this to Tom, he argued that a good trainer who is schooled in the sport sciences does not ignore the mental side of performance. “I truly believe that sporting performance is hugely mental, and that the psychological drive of the athlete is the biggest factor in good performance. I also believe that attending to the physical side of sports performance with a scientific understanding of training effect and recovery has an important role to play in optimal performance.”
I think there are two effects here; one is the physiological response to training, and the other is the psychological preparation for fighting. As I prepare to return to the motherland later this year, I know I will be undergoing a massive psychological shift when the trainers demand that I dig deep and overcome my biggest limitation: my inclination to ease up rather than push harder when the pain starts. But maybe I won’t run hard every morning before training this time, and maybe I’ll dedicate one or two sessions out of twelve to recovery every week. Maybe I can train smart, and achieve that psychological shift that I need to fight well.
* on a variety of diets ranging from daily to zero meat consumption
** at least this was true of my earlier fight days: trainers seemed to give me more concessions as I got more experienced.
Tom Frost has not worked with Muay Thai fighters: he is the strength and conditioning coach for UFC fighter Jimmy Crute. He has worked with international level taekwondo, karate, and judo athletes, as well as a number of athletes from non-fight sports including State Rugby League players, Rugby Union players, swimmers, rowers, and netballers.