“Run! Every day, run 10km!”
This is a common mantra in Muay Thai training.
That’s a lot of running. Most fighters train 6 days a week, so that’s 60km of running a week on top of pad work, bag work, sparring, shadow boxing and general strength and conditioning.
Is it important to run for Muay Thai?
Off the top of my head, I can tell you two things about my experience of running; running is great for weight control, and it makes you very tired.
Running is the best way for me to achieve a good walk-around weight. If I don’t run for a few months, I hit the 68kg mark. If I start running again – I run between 4-12km, depending on the day- irrespective of my diet or any other practices – my weight drops into the 65kg range. As a 61-62kg fighter, this is a good walk-around weight. However, I also feel more fatigued and less energetic in training, and in life generally.
Medical reasoning suggests that my experience of fatigue may be linked with a lowered red blood cell count – blood tests confirm that my both my hemoglobin and hematocrit levels are consistently in the lower range of “normal”, and sometimes dip into the “low” range – and that this might be related to my running training.
Research shows that running in particular is destructive to red blood cells. Both the amount and the quality of your red blood cells – red blood cells play an important role in transporting oxygen around your body – are crucial contributors to your cardiovascular system’s efficiency – basically what we experience as “fitness.” If you have lots of healthy, good quality red blood cells, all other things being equal, you will have the potential to develop good cardiovascular capacity.
With a high volume of running, the forceful striking that occurs in the foot can cause the destruction of red blood cells within the blood vessels of the feet. This phenomenon is known as Footstrike Hemolysis, and is diagnosed mostly in endurance athletes.
The repetitive weight-bearing footstrike of running causes a small amount of red blood cells to rupture within the capillaries of the foot, which can lead to conditions like macrocytic anemia. Macrocytic anemia means that a person’s red blood cells are abnormally large in size, and, in addition, they do not carry as much oxygen as healthy red blood cells.
Ironically, people often run to “get fit”, or to increase their cardiovascular capacity. While running is not the only way that fighters train their cardiovascular capacity – they typically do a lot of pad and bag work as well – it plays an important role in many muay thai training programs.
I spoke with Tom Frost, General Manager at ACE Performance in Australia, and previously the Sport Science Manager at High Performance Sport in Papua New Guinea. Tom tells me that when running, the lower limb is loaded with an average vertical force of 3.5 times the person’s body weight. The foot is designed to weight-bear, but, according to Tom, “the load that the lower limb incurs when running begs the question about the cost of repetitive footstrike.”
Tom says that in evaluating the role of distance running in an athlete’s training program, he always asks “what is the purpose of running for this particular athlete in this particular sport?” He also asks what alternative training modalities might be of benefit. Running intervals over shorter distances at higher intensities, for example, can have the same or better effects on ‘getting fit’, without the need for repetitive footstrike.
Tom likes to keep the value – both physical and mental -of running in perspective.
“I do agree with the use of Long Slow Distance running for mental performance – mentally it can help athletes focus, slow their thoughts, and to tolerate both discomfort and repetition. I will give distance running to some athletes, however I will always periodise it, and I always take into account the physical loading that is taking place. The longer running sessions are usually programmed in ‘pre-season’. Additionally, lesser running distances are sometimes encouraged for active recovery – all running training that I put into an athlete’s program needs to have a purpose though.”
In conclusion, more running does not necessarily equate to better fitness. The golden chalice would be to discover the optimal volume and intensity of running whereby I can achieve both my ideal walk-around weight and a high level of fitness without compromising my red blood cell.
Fazal AA, Whittemore MS, DeGeorge KC, Foot-strike haemolysis in an ultramarathon runner Case Reports 2017;2017: bcr-2017-220661
Telford, RD, Sly, GJ, Hahn, AG, Cunningham, RB, Bryan C & Smoth JA, Footstrike is the major cause of hemolysis during running In Journal of Applied Physiology, 1 January 2001
D’Lima, D. D., Fregly, B. J., Patil, S., Steklov, N., & Colwell, C. W., Jr (2012). Knee joint forces: prediction, measurement, and significance In Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Part H, Journal of engineering in medicine, 226(2), 95–102. doi:10.1177/0954411911433372