Many of us runners follow training plans that include “rest or cross train” on certain days of the week; however, we may be more inclined to “rest” than “cross train” with other activities on a consistent basis. But cross training is critical for runners to aid in muscle recovery, and it can also improve cardiovascular health and muscle strength depending on which activity we choose.
Some of the obvious cross training options are swimming and yoga, which use different muscles and don’t have the same pounding forces on the legs. My cross training is in a sport that is less frequently pursued by adult athletes, and that is karate.
Some of us might remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer starts taking karate and he is the only adult student in a class full of kindergarten and elementary school aged children. Karate is definitely a great sport for kids as it aids in focus and discipline. But karate, or any of the martial arts, also provides an excellent cross training opportunity for runners. Doing karate involves balance and lower body strength which can definitely yield benefits to runners.
This month I achieved the rank of First Degree Black Belt in Kenpo Karate at my karate school, One Martial Arts in San Francisco. Different martial arts have different curriculum and belt rank systems, but all martial arts provide opportunities to test on learned skills and earn advanced belts and ranking. I earned my Black Belt 2 years ago and this was my first first major test since then.
My training was extensive and I spent hours each week on my “rest or cross training” days working to perfect my technique in preparation for my test. The curriculum included “katas” or forms (defense against an imaginary attacker), take downs, weapon disarms, as well as traditional Kenpo blocks, strikes and kicks. Karate does not have the same level of aerobic intensity as running, but definitely requires balance and muscle and core strength.
With most sports, there is a big game, or race, or a test, or a tournament which represents a culmination of one’s training. And it is just as much about the training as it is about the big event. The training is the hard part, and that big event is a celebration of all the hard work. People have asked me, “Which was harder, your Black Belt test, or running a marathon?” And my answer is neither. They were both challenging, and I put in all the work for both. I trained hard for my Black Belt test and my First Degree Black Belt test, spending months of time to prepare. And I also train seriously for my half marathon and marathon races, putting in the time to complete long runs and build up weekly mileage.
But the great thing is that karate and running are very complementary. One focuses on memory, strength and balance, and the other is high impact and requires a high level of aerobic fitness. In my personal journey to improve my overall fitness and health, it has been far more rewarding in pursuing both activities. My health and fitness are better than if I was only a runner or only a martial artist. And I feel incredibly accomplished and proud of the fact that I am a Black Belt and a Marathoner. While the belt and the medals are just symbols, they are important symbols of the hard work and dedication it took to achieve those goals.