I read a martial art’s article in the 1990’s that said in the old days of martial arts training, the instructor taught his class until the most physically fit student collapsed due to exhaustion.  The American Heritage dictionary defines exhaustion as “the state of extreme fatigue,” and then defines fatigue as “the physical and/or mental weariness resulting from exertion.”  Recognizing the signs of fatigue in martial arts training is crucial to better martial arts performance, and is one of the major keys to avoiding injuries.


What Causes Fatigue?

There are three main contributing areas to fatigue:

1.  Medical Conditions: Anemia (lack of iron in the blood), infections (like the flu), low metabolism, depression, and diabetes are causes of fatigue due to medical conditions.  Since I am discussing fatigue in the martial arts, I’ll concentrate on #2 and #3.

2.  Physical:  The major factor in physical fatigue is the lack of energy required to move your body.  The online Columbia Encyclopedia (6th edition) describes physical fatigue occurring “when the metabolic reserves of the body are exhausted and the waste products increased.  The accumulation of lactic acid in muscle tissue and the depletion of glycogen (stored glucose) results in muscle fatigue.  The contractile properties of muscle are reduced, and continued exertion is impossible unless the muscle is allowed to rest.”

3.  Mental:  The major factor in mental fatigue is the energy used in mental concentration.  “Mental fatigue can affect people for both short and long periods of time. The result of brain over-activity, this is a condition where the brain cells become exhausted – much like our bodies do when we’ve been physically over-active.  Mental fatigue can be caused by continual mental effort and attention on a particular task, as well as high levels of stress or emotion,” (taken from http://www.betterhealthusa.com/public/235.cfm).  In the martial arts, your brain can interpret an intense sparring match as stressful, and therefore exhaust your brain cells.


Why are Recognizing and Studying Fatigue Important?

     Recognizing fatigue is important because fatigue degrades and reduces your quality of both physical and mental performance.  In addition, fatigue increases your chances of injuries.  Just like gasoline in a running car, your body’s energy will expend when used.

     Martial arts training can be physically tasking on the body, and therefore physical performance is very important.  Just the warming-up exercises may include stretching, pushups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks.  Lotus Self-Defense for example, uses punches, kicks, knee strikes, throws, sweeps, and elbows as a means of self-defense.  In addition, Lotus students roll, perform breakfalls, weave and bob, and pivot.  Students perform these techniques repeatedly in order to improve.  All these techniques and maneuvers require energy.

     Martial arts also require a great deal of mental activity, especially focus.  Meditation and mental imagery are tools that play an important role in helping the martial artist bring the physical side together with the mental side.  Lotus recognizes this importance as evidenced in its creed of "Body, Mind, and Spirit."

     In Chuck Norris’s book “The Secret of Inner Strength: My Story,” he mentioned frequently using mental imagery to rehearse upcoming tournament matches.  He would watch an opponent and study his way of fighting.  Then Norris would mentally rehearse the fight and visualize himself winning it by countering his opponent’s attacks.  He was bringing the mental aspect of martial arts together with the physical.  Just as Chuck Norris visualized his martial arts training in action, we should do the same in training.

     However, most beginning martial artists have difficulty merging the physical and mental aspect.  When the beginner spars, his brain perceives the attack and thinks something like, “A punch is coming.”  Then the beginning student is punched before having the physical part of the body respond fast enough to block the punch.  With correct practice over time, the mind and body work as one, and the student’s block will be in motion as the brain perceives the attacker’s punch coming.  The mind and body become more synchronized due to a process called neuroplasticity.   “Neuroplasticity is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. As we learn, we acquire new knowledge and skills through instruction or experience. In order to learn or memorize a fact or skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that represent the new knowledge, (taken from http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html)

     Fatigue increases the likelihood of making wrong decisions due to reduced mental capacity.  Martial arts is a contact sport and a wrong decision can hurt you.  Your tired mind might misjudge the distance of you attacker’s punch, thereby placing you in dangerous range.  In addition, a fatigued mind may not be able to respond quickly enough to specific threats, which can also get you hurt.


How to Combat Physical Fatigue:

     The most important way to build resistance to fatigue is to train often.  Your training should also be as realistic as possible.  The most beneficial fitness plan is one that incorporates flexibility, cardio, and weight training.  The flexibility will give you greater range in your movements and also help prevent injuries.  The cardio will allow you to practice, perform, and fight for a longer period of time by strengthening your most important muscle, the heart.  The weight training will build strength so your blocks, strikes, and movements are effective.

     It is also important to emphasize that water and food are the body’s important sources of energy.  In “The Fighter’s Body: An Owner’s Manual,” authors Loren Christensen and Wim Demeere said, “Dehydration occurs when the body’s water level drops below that required for adequate circulation and normal body function, and it can zap you in as little as 30 minutes after you begin training.  If you don’t do some slurping to replace the loss, your blood becomes concentrated, meaning that it thickens and puts a tremendous strain on your heart.  The good news is that it’s easy to avoid by simply drinking water on a regular basis.”  In addition to water, it is important to mention that eating healthy plays a significant part in performance and the ability to delay fatigue.  I witnessed a student almost faint from not eating, and then alternatively, I observed another student not complete a Lotus belt-promotion test because he became sick during the rolls since he had eaten a meal right before.

To help you cope with fatigue and delay its onset, I recommend the following suggestions:

     Focus on short-term accomplishments rather than the whole event.  If you have a three-minute sparring match, don’t think about the 3 minutes as a whole.  Just think about how you are going to counter each strike that comes your way.  If you are about to perform the 10 katas of Lotus, focus all your attention on the specific kata you are performing.  Tell your mind that you are only going to do that one kata.  Then do the same thing for the next kata.  Therefore, you are thinking of each kata in itself, and you’ll be done before you know it.

     Shorter goals seem more attainable than longer ones, and sometimes we have to trick our mind into that mindset since our brain sends us signals to stop training and rest as a bodily safety precaution.  “Tryptophan is an amino acid which normally rides through your bloodstream attached to a very important blood plasma protein, albumin. However, when blood fat levels rise, as they do during prolonged exercise, the fats 'kick' tryptophan loose from its albumin moorings. This 'free' tryptophan then enters the brain in large quantities, where - converted to another chemical called serotonin - it may induce fatigue and produce a drop-off in performance (serotonin is noted for its calming and even sleep-producing effects on brain cells).  This biochemical scenario has a protective effect: before you exercise so long that you tear your muscles to shreds, your brain fills up with tryptophan and you lose the willpower to force your muscles to keep going, (taken from http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0336.htm).  Another theory is to override your brain’s internal safety mechanism by simply telling it to shut up and keep training.

     Counting down rather than counting up during an exercise helps overcome fatigue.  For example, if I know I have to do 50 pushups, I’ll count down from 50 to 1 instead of from 1 to 50.


How to Combat Mental Fatigue:

     The most important way to build a resistance to mental fatigue is to learn how to properly breathe.  We learned earlier in the article that mental fatigue is caused by over exertion of brain cells.  Brain cells need oxygen.  Some of your bodily functions are automatic and others are voluntary.  Breathing is both.  Since you can control your breathing, you should learn how to breathe more effectively.  Learning to breathe correctly takes time and practice, but the important thing to remember is to force yourself to breathe (the famous kia in martial arts) during strikes.

     Eyestrain is a documented contributor to fatigue.  It is commonly seen in lifeguards who are constantly scanning the open waters in search of anyone drowning.  It is easy for the beginning martial artist to get tunnel vision when sparring, and thus contribute to mental fatigue.  The trick to avoid tunnel vision is not to focus acutely on one specific thing.



     Fatigue is a normal bodily response to training.  If you train hard and long enough, you’ll experience it.  This article described what causes physical and mental fatigue and demonstrates how to help delay its onset.  Good luck in your training.

Written by: Tucker Axum III