Exploring the world of Chinese Martial Arts

The reality of rest and recovery

I've recently had light shed on some issues that I've had for the past 20 years of training, and it's given me a plan for recovery

The reality of rest and recovery

In my last post I talked about how I’m taking an extended break from training in martial arts.  At that time I was going through some recovery due to inflammation in my knees, but over the past week or so I’ve been consulting with some massage therapists and a chiropractor who shed some light on what is going on with my body.

Rest and Recovery

You always hear about the importance of rest and recovery when training in a physical sport or exercise.  And I understood about rest being when you actually build back up to become stronger, more agile or have better endurance.  I mean, it only makes sense, right?  If you want to grow, you have to give your body the opportunity to do so.  You don’t grow when you train — that is when you break things down so they can be rebuilt.  So rebuilding is the most important part.

I used to think that rebuilding was all about getting plenty of rest, eating right and sleeping well.  But now I see that this is just part of the equation.

Over the years of training in wushu, I’ve gotten random pains and strains in my body.  My neck feels a little weird, or I have a slight pull in my hamstring.  It’s just part of doing wushu, right?  We all talk about it as if we’re in the same club with our inside jokes.

I would let it heal on its own or maybe get some massage to help alleviate the pain.  In my head, I equated pain with the problem, but the reality is that the problem still existed even when the pain went away.

Our bodies are really good at compensating for things.  If you have a problem with your knee then your other knee or other joints in your body will compensate for it.  Eventually, the swelling goes down and you can walk without pain again.  But you don’t realize that the original problem still exists and is becoming exacerbated by continued work and training.

Pain is a pain in the neck

This is what happened to me.  A long time ago, probably 15 years or so, I tweaked my neck on the left side.  At the time it probably didn’t even register.  I might have thought it was a crick from sleeping wrong.  But it has caused a continually increasing string of issues that I didn’t even realize were related to that original injury.

In 2007 while I was living in Hong Kong, I got a severe nerve pinch on the area between my neck and shoulder and it radiated pain down my left side.  I got a massage for it, but the pain didn’t go away.  Not for several months, actually.  Finally, 6 months later the pain had subsided and I thought it was gone.

A couple of years later I had some tightness and light spasms between my left shoulder blade and my back.  I thought I had pulled something.  Again, some massage and waiting and eventually it went away.

A year ago I tweaked my shoulder while in Scotland.  I thought it was from carrying a heavy backpack, but that wasn’t the true cause.  My shoulder was already weak from the same original issue and it manifested with a rotator cuff pain.  I couldn’t even lift my arm over my head at the time.  When I went to a Chinese doctor in Oakland to look at it he said the pain came from tightness in my neck.

My neck?  I thought about it and the dots started connecting.  That’s right.  I had a neck problem back in 2007, didn’t I?  And I always did have some tightness in that part of my body.  Things started to make more sense, but I didn’t really have an idea of what to do about it besides “rest”.  It took around 5 months for the pain to go away.

Connecting the Dots

Last week I got another pinched nerve thing in my neck.  It just happened.  So, I went to a woman here on Moloka’i who has a ton of experience and understanding of how your joints and bodywork.  She did a treatment on me and worked on the tight parts and let me tell you — it made the Chinese sports doctors and massages I received before seem tame in comparison. For a 70-year-old woman, she could do some serious work!

Her analysis?  I had built up so much scar tissue in my neck and shoulder that it was causing continued problems over the years and every seemingly unrelated flare-up of pain was from that original problem.  And since I never really had it totally taken care of (light massage from time to time wouldn’t do it) I was just getting worse and worse as time went on.

Finally, everything connected in my mind.  All my problems in my arms, shoulders, back, and neck were from the same thing — this mass of scar tissue in my upper left torso.

And in fact, the problems with my knees were also similar.  I had slightly flat feet which caused lots of compensation in my joints and ligaments, which is why my knees are always feeling “twingy” and swell up for no reason.

During the session she said that my neck problem was more than she could help me with an advised me to see a chiropractor in town that was excellent at helping to alleviate scar tissue, breaking it up and giving people relief from similar problems.

But she did work on my legs, and while it hurt like the dickens, by the end of the session I could tell she had helped.  Within a few days, I could almost walk normally again.  I could tell that she had broken up a lot of problems in my joints and released some major tension.

Getting chiropractic relief

So, what does this all mean?

It means, first of all, that I have a game plan for my road to recovery.  I have several phases that I’m going to go through and, by the end of it, I hope to be back in shape to exercise again.  Not just swimming, which I’ve been doing for the past month quite a bit (5-6 days a week), but walking, taiji and strength training too — all of which haven’t been possible for the last several months due to the discomfort.

So, first up is the pain in my neck.  I’ve met with the Chiropractor twice and each time, while it was painful, he was able to break up a lot of the pain.  Whereas in 2007 it took 6 months for the pain to go away and it was a very gradual process, this time around things is happening much faster.

After the first session on Wednesday, the pain had actually increased in my shoulder/neck, but Dr. Chow said that was to be expected because he was releasing a lot of things that had been pent up for at least a decade or two.  After the second session on Thursday, I could feel things were improving.  The pain moved down into my arms and the pain in my shoulder, while still there, was now at the point that it was at after several months in 2007.  That means my rate of progress and healing is much faster than 7 years ago.

I have another session on Monday (tomorrow) and another on Thursday, and then probably once a week after that and eventually once every 2 or 3 weeks until I just need to go in for a monthly adjustment.  But given the current trajectory of my recovery, I think I will be pain-free from this neck issue within a couple of weeks.

The sessions with Dr. Chow are interesting because they are a bit different than chiropractic work I’ve had done in the past.  He does the normal adjustments of the spine and neck, but he also spends half the session working on all of the scar tissue and helping to break it up — something that none of the other chiropractors (or even many of the Chinese doctors) have done.  It hurts, but I can feel the difference.

Massage in the future

The massage therapist I mentioned said she didn’t want to work on me until I had recovered from this neck issue.  This tells me two things:  1, she cares more about my well-being than about having me buy more sessions.  And 2, she knows what the priorities are.

So, in about a month or so, once my neck pain is gone I will start seeing her have work done on the rest of my body — especially my legs and feet which is where I think she can really do the best for me.  Just after one session with her, I can also walk with much less pain, so my plan is to have her help me re-align and clean up the problems with my feet, ankles, knees, legs, and hips.

My goal is to get back into walking and taiji again by the early part of 2015 (around early February) and then go to the gym or use body-weight strength training to strengthen the problem areas and help secure my joints in healthy positions.

It’s going to be a long road to recovery and I still don’t have a plan to do wushu again, but I’m mainly just excited that I have a much better idea of the problems that have been plaguing me for a long time, and I have a plan for how they can finally be taken care of.

Would-a, could-a, should-a

Now I know that rest and recovery aren’t just about not-training and taking time away from the wushu guan or gym.  It is also about getting the things that went out of alignment put back in place.  It is about repairing the scar tissue and getting it worked out.

If I had taken the time to get regular work done on me over the past 20 years, I’d probably still be doing wushu today, but since I didn’t realize what was going on, I just slept, relaxed, and continued my steady journey down the road of physical decline.

I realized recently that when I train in China, the pro’s are constantly having work done on them.  I used to think it was related to injuries, but that is only part of it.  Actually, they are getting their bodies re-aligned and fixed up for the constant amount of wear and tear that they go through. They don’t get massages to feel good — they get them because it is necessary for their rest and recovery as professional athletes.

There is a reason every professional wushu team has a team doctor who is always working on them.  Last year when I was at the Men’s All China Games qualifiers in Taiyuan, I was hanging out in the Shanghai team’s hotel room and all the athletes were getting work done on them — tons of massage therapy to help their bodies with the recovery process.  It was an essential part of their training routine.  I wish I had made it a part of mine too.

If you’re training I really suggest having some body work done to help you with your recovery.  Don’t wait until you get to the stage I’m at — with super tight muscles and ligaments that feel like strings on a violin.  Don’t ignore it.  Treat it as an essential element in your training regimen because it can make the difference between enjoying wushu and ending up with a lot of pain down the road.

Take it from someone who made that mistake and heed this warning.  Your health and well-being are too important to ignore.

I’ll post up some updates as things progress, but I’m hopeful and anxious for the future.

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