I was tired and breathless. My Muay Thai kickboxing trainer was punching and kicking me repeatedly. I tried to push him away but he kept coming closer. To say I was praying for the bell to ring would be an understatement. When it did ring, I collapsed into the corner, thoroughly exhausted and wondering how I was going to survive the next round.
I've been training on a daily basis for four weeks in Thailand, but this was my first encounter with something close to a real fight. I knew fighting was going to be tough but I've never thought it was going to be that tough.
Setting my sights on Muay Thai
It all began a few months ago when I was looking for a new physical challenge after completing a triathlon in Melbourne. We were on our way to Israel so I thought stopping in Thailand would be nice.
Since I was a little kid I always wanted to have a boxing experience. My mom would often find me throwing punches in front of the mirror, and she likely laughed inside at the apparent futility of my efforts to beat my own reflection.
Although Muay Thai also involves kicking, I decided to throw myself into the experience anyway and registered to a four week training camp in Phuket, the largest island in Thailand.
Many of my friends raised an eyebrow when they heard my plans. "You're a peaceful man", "This sport is too aggressive", they said and they were all right. If I'd ever had plans to engage in a real Muay Thai fight, they ended in the first week. We went to see some authentic Thai kickboxing at one of the stadiums on the other side of the island and literally left in shock.
You see, Muay Thai is a bit more aggressive than most other forms of Martial Arts, in the sense that it allows knee and elbow strikes, as well as holding of the head. When I saw an elbow smashing into one of the fighter's face sending him into the ground unconscious, my first reaction was to step into the ring and help the poor kid. Yes, he was a kid, probably only 16, and the crowd was cheering with their beer bottles, while he was lying on the floor, not moving.
So yes, I guess I am a peaceful man and yes, I find the sport a little bit too brutal for my taste, but there's more to Muay Thai than simply fighting.
Why Muay Thai
Muay Thai is sometimes termed "the science of eight limbs" because it makes use of punches, kicks, knees and elbows strikes, as opposed to two limbs in Western boxing and four limbs in other sport-oriented martial arts.
The result: A well proportioned physique development with stronger and more defined muscles. Five minutes of Muay Thai training is more demanding on the body than other forms simply because more body parts and muscles are at work.
If you're after some weight loss or want to speed up your body's metabolism, Muay Thai can be extremely effective. I met a few westerners who lost substantial amounts of weight in a relatively short space of time, and in my experience, the body tones up very quickly from continually engaging the core muscles.
On a physical level, the training builds cardiovascular stamina and significantly increases fitness, speed, and power. On a mental level, Muay Thai allows mind and body to sync up. You have to instantly react to your opponent's attacks, which promotes focus and concentration. On other levels, the sport is an effective form of self defense, a useful skill for anyone and especially for long term travelers like me. Whilst training you get to experience full-contact fighting on a regular basis.
Lastly, training in a camp requires a degree of self discipline and commitment. I quickly found that I became a lot more determined to train harder each time simply because I was in a motivating and fun environment.
So with so many benefits it wasn't that hard to stick around for four weeks.
The training experience
The amount of training varied from person to person, but generally it consisted of three to four hours a day, six days a week. Those who were registered for a fight trained six hours a day in three separate sessions, whereas most of us completed only two sessions, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.
The day started around 7 am with a moderate 5K run. Then there was the morning session which included technique, boxing, sparring, kicking pads and some stretching at the end. At 3 pm we were back in the gym for the second two hour session of Muay Thai training, which required some willpower due to the extreme heat and humidity of the island.
I tried to alternate my runs every other day to allow my leg muscles recover from the physical impact. I also missed some sessions voluntarily due to complete body tightness. On one typical session you can expect to do dozens of sit-ups, push-ups, kicks, punches, blocks, and to work on a punch bag, so tightness is part of the story.
Besides technique and Muay Thai drills, training included free style fighting with complete freedom to move around the ring. In many ways it is like chess game, trying to guess the opponent attacking strategy with every move you take. If you go for an upper kick with your right leg for example, your opponent can try to trip your left leg in return.
My least favorite practice was something called the "Clinch". You wrap your hands around another person's neck for leverage and then use your knee to strike him. Needless to say, my neck and shoulders got sore on regular basis.
But not only the upper body is at risk of soreness. As you strike your opponent in the lower area of his body, it is not unlikely for his sensitive areas to be hit. It happened to my opponent. Not a nice scene to watch!
I know it all sounds very tough but in reality everyone had fun and there was always laughter around. Plus, a nice and relaxing Thai massage at the end always made it worth while!
Overall spending four weeks of training in Thailand was a fun experience which I would recommend to anyone who's into intense fitness. I obviously liked the body conditioning and what it did to my fitness levels, but more than that, I loved the mental focus aspect.
It's hard to describe the surreal feeling of being totally focused on the present moment while you're in the ring. It's like nothing else exists except you and the person in front of you. Everything seems to slow down and your thoughts melt away. You can even hear your own breathing as you're about to take your next move.
So instead of pumping weights or running on the treadmill next time you hit the gym, consider taking a martial art class. Who knows you might even like it.
Live your dreams