There are many forms of fitness, and your relationship with all of them changes with age. As a kid I could sprint around a football pitch for 90 minutes without warming up whatsoever, and the only soreness I’d feel afterwards came from crunching tackles. The mere thought of doing that now makes my muscles ache for days.
Decades later I took up sports like trail running and cycling, and still I’d lace up my running shoes and hit the hills, or start pedalling my mountain bike or road bike without doing a single stretch. That did start to take its toll, eventually, and I’ve been through all the usual spectrum of middle-age injuries and niggles, from hamstring twangs and knobbled knees to aching Achilles and sciatic pain. And the older I got, the longer it took to bounce back.
And then, in my mid 40s I took up taekwondo, and it changed my entire relationship with fitness.
There’s nowhere to hide when you’re doing martial arts. Whether you’re practising kicks on a punching bag, sparring with a partner at your local club or getting on the mat and fighting at a competition, if you’re not sufficiently stretched and properly warmed up, you’re going to get hurt. And not (just) by your opponent.
I started doing the Korean martial art of taekwondo mainly because I wanted my two daughters to learn some basic self-defence techniques to help keep them safe in this big bad world. The master at our local dojang was really encouraging, and I joined in too, because it was more fun to take part than to simply sit and watch, and I thought it would better enable me to keep the girls engaged and enthused.
Lockdown interruptions broke my eldest daughter’s connection with the sport, but my youngest stayed with it, and gradually, we worked our way through the belts together, learning kicks, punches, patterns, blocks, stances and holds.
Now several years into our taekwondo journey, we train twice a week and have begun taking part in competitions all around the region and country. It’s become part of our lives, something special we share, and we’ve also been welcomed into a worldwide community of people who enjoy the sport. But one of the most important (and totally unexpected) takeaways from the whole experience for me is that I have – finally – learned to love stretching. And that has changed how I approach every physical activity I do.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that taekwondo originated within the Korean military (with elements taken from many ancient martial arts), the sport takes a regimented approach to preparedness. You don’t just rock up and start throwing kicks around – thankfully, otherwise, I would soon have been sidelined with serious injury. Instead, each session begins with a good half an hour of warm-up activity, stretches and strength-building exercises, ranging from push-ups, squats, burpees, planks and sit-ups to more sport-specific activities.
The stretching process both focuses the mind and loosens up your muscles, meaning you can perform better during the second part of the session, and over time the exercises noticeably strengthen your core, legs and arms – all of which pay massive dividends once you move on to kicking and punching pads, and ultimately start sparring with an opponent or fighting at competition.
The combat side of taekwondo is called kyorugi. Being on the receiving end of the techniques we learn is much easier when your body is tuned up, and the preparation part of each session sharpens your reaction times, too – because, of course, it’s always better to avoid or block a blow than simply absorbing the impact. Even with pads and gloves (taekwondo gloves are more minimalist than boxing and Muay Thai gloves) on, you definitely feel those hits when they land.
But you don’t have to get on the mat and fight. In taekwondo, as with most martial arts, there are patterns (poomsae) to learn, and practising these sequences of moves (which become increasingly complicated as you move up through the colour-graded belts) is an excellent memory exercise, and great for your mental health. There are self-defence techniques to master, too, and all of these things can be done at a competitive level or just for exercise and personal fulfilment – it’s entirely up to you.
Beyond the dojang
As I became increasingly involved in the sport, I began to incorporate the stretches I had learned to love in the dojang into my daily routine and soon started to feel benefits that go well beyond the ability to throw my foot around at head height. My all-round flexibility started to improve enormously, as did my core strength and endurance, and my recovery after long runs and cycling escapades got so much quicker and easier.
Previously I could never seem to find the time to stretch before any given exercise, but now I know this was a false economy, and ultimately I’d lose weeks to injury because I’d failed to prepare myself properly before putting my body through stress. The most important thing taekwondo has taught me is patience, Now, I always do 15 to 20 minutes of stretching before hitting the trails, getting in the saddle or stepping on the mat, and a warm down after finishing. And I’ve been injury-free for ages.
If you're starting to feel your age, I highly recommend taking up a martial art. It might just revolutionise your approach to fitness, as it did for me, and help you stay active in all sorts of ways for much longer.
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