Muay Thai a martial art that sits at two different ends of the spectrum. To watch a contest live, as a lover of the game, it is beautiful and breathtaking. But when you’re the one in the heat of battle it can be brutal.
Over the years of training and having the opportunity to have over 50 professional fights, l have been lucky not to ever break my nose and have only ever experienced a handful of black eyes, not that I’m complaining.
These days, on the amateur side of things, competitors wear full body protection, head and chest guards, as well as shin and elbow pads, which eventually come off for competitors as they climb the ranks. The day after a fight is tough, a cork in every muscle, a foot and ankle as swollen as a football, a fat lip, and the need to make groaning noises when sitting down, standing up, and even trying to sleep, are all par for the course.
Though training is done in a safe and controlled environment where the only kicks and punches thrown at 100% are done on the punching bag and your trainer’s pads, there is still the potential for a whole range of colorful new injuries you have probably never experienced prior to training.
No matter what your level of expertise, the management of injuries should be at the top of your priority list. Frequency of training sessions should be the biggest focus because the repetition of new skills is what will help them sink in to your Muay Thai repertoire.
In my experience, if you do not properly treat and manage your injuries they will result in more issues for you in the future. The following list details the injuries that are the most frequently experienced by practitioners of Muay Thai.
For myself and thousands of others getting started in Muay Thai back in the day, our first look at (what Hollywood told us) authentic training in Thailand looked like was the famous scene from the movie “Kickboxer” where Jean Claude Van Damme was told to kick through a palm tree with his bare shin. Though we don’t incorporate those training methods at Bailey Fitness, the madness behind the Hollywood methods has a bit of truth to it.
The shins are our main form of attack and defense and will, no doubt, be sore. The most common form of attacking your opponent is the roundhouse kick. In addition, blocking a kick consists of checking with your shin.
The main difference between the Muay Thai round kick and other martial arts is the use of the shin bone making contact and the follow through. The Muay Thai round kick is like the drive in golf rather than a chip shot that stops at its target—say, it’s the home run swing in baseball rather than the bunt. The kick is about power and follow through to ensure maximum damage.
It’s safe to say that even when you are doing pad work with your trainer you may get a few lumps and bumps until you are a bit more conditioned. When you are drilling kicks on the heavy bag, you will kick with your shins also. It is impossible to escape developing bruises on your shins during your training, but it will get better.
Over time, your shins will become conditioned, and there is no quick method to this, I’m sorry to say. I have tried every trick in the book, but at the end of the day consistent training solves most issues with sensitive shins.
If all else fails, and bruised shins begin to have an impact on your training, use the RICER method (rest, ice, compression, elevation, and a referral to a doctor, if needed).
To the untrained eye the main difference between Muay Thai and its much younger American cousin, kickboxing, is the use of the clinch. Clinching is the toughest skill to master in the art of Muay Thai and requires time to be dedicated to it every day.
Clinching is a form of stand up wrestling where the aim of the game is set up knee and elbow strikes or throwing your opponent to the canvas. The reason it is so tough is because the body to body nature of clinching requires not only strength and skill, but also heart.
Picture this, you are tired and sweaty from a tough session and now your training partner seems to be throwing you to the ground, a lot. Will you tough it out and try your hardest or will you give up?
While you’re learning to clinch, your neck is going to be extremely sore and stiff. As with the shins, there is really no way to prevent this from occurring. Having someone pull down on your neck continuously is going to strain your muscles. Make sure you stretch your neck, shoulders, and back before every clinching session.
There is no quick way to condition your neck—it takes continuous practice and exposure to the exercise. After a few sessions you will begin to notice that your neck and shoulder muscles will be less tender and stiff and will be able to withstand the grind that is clinch work.
A corked muscle has to be one of the worst injuries out of this list. The main reason you get a corked thigh is because you didn’t check (block) a low kick. All kicks should be checked with the impact of your opponent’s kick landing on your shin bone. Although that sounds terrible, I’d take a kick in the shin over a hard kick to the thigh.
I prefer the kick in the shin for two reasons. Firstly, we already know that when our opponents attempts to kick us they use their shin, so we have that knowledge to our advantage to block the kick and set a counter attack. Secondly, if that hard, bony shin lands flush into my nice, soft, tender thigh it’s going to hurt instantly—something I’d like to avoid if at all possible.
If it happens a couple more times I will start to lose mobility and become a sitting duck for more leg kicks. In a professional fight I always like to count how many leg kicks I have landed in the first round or so. My goal is to always to land 10 leg kicks as quickly as possible because it significantly slows my opponents down, if not ends the fight.
A good series of leg kicks is like the “gift that keeps on giving” because the effect can be felt every time someone walks up stairs or uses the toilet for about a week. Out of the ring sparring with someone who can deliver solid leg kicks, even while wearing protective shin guards, will absolutely leave you with a few painful bruises.
The silver lining with this injury is that you are able to prevent it, most of the time. Focus on refining your reaction times and use this as an opportunity to evolve your technique by learning to check, or move back, and counter attack. The alternative to taking the kick in the thigh is to get that shin up in time to block it.
Shin on shin may hurt a bit, but believe me after a few solid checks to the shin it will make your opponent think twice about throwing leg kicks your way because they will feel the pain of the check, too.
In the meantime, let RICER be your best friend immediately after training and just remember that pain serves as a reminder to correct your mistakes and work towards being elusive.
The dreaded rib injury. These tend to be a “once a year” type of injury, luckily (or unluckily). Rib injuries can be caused by kicks or knees to the ribs either during clinching or sparring. The problem with rib injuries is that you can’t really do too much with them to aid recovery. If your ribs break you can’t put them in a cast and if you bruise the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) then be warned—the healing process will take a lot more time.
A good rib injury can be there for a couple of months and, just when you think you are past it, a random sneeze or funny punch line will hit you right in the site of the injury. As I just recently mentioned, the pain we feel will be our best teacher and, over time, your body will become more resilient to these strikes. Until such a time, learn to properly defend or evade these attacks by working on your technique.
Sprained Ankle or Foot (or Both)
If you think kicking a shin is bad wait until you accidentally kick your opponent in their elbow during sparring. This is my speciality—for some strange reason I’m attracted to kicking elbows like a moth to a flame.
If we are sparring and you have an elbow, chances are good I’m going to kick it repeatedly by accident and in the process improve my limp. Though it can get a little bit sore at the time, it’s the type of annoyance that you can deal with and keep on grinding your way through a training session.
The problem is, if not iced immediately after training, you are going to feel it in the morning. For me, it’s always the first 4-6 steps of the day. Getting out of bed after sparring day, for me, is like re-enacting the moon landing, carefully lowering each step like the man on the moon until the old ankle joints warm up a little. Make sure you ice the area and use liniment.
Improve Your Technique to Avoid Injury
Although accidents do happen, you should focus on learning how to avoid taking shots in these areas. Make sure you have a good quality pair of shin pads for sparring and use anklets for a bit of extra support and padding. If your ankle is severely injured it’s a good idea to rest for a session or two because training on injuries may cause more problems in the future.
So there we have it—a little list about the most common injuries associated with Muay Thai sparring. The hardest part about any combat sport is that it will hurt a bit no matter what you do. At the end of the day the whole focus of the sport is to kick and punch people and, unfortunately, when you try to kick and punch someone they try and do it back to you.
Injuries and bruises do happen and they seem to happen more frequently early in your martial arts training journey. Hang in there. With improved skill and awareness comes control, and with consistent training comes strength and conditioning.