I spend an enormous amount of time on conditioning in my martial arts training.  I would probably say that conditioning is at the very center of my training outlook in general.  There are a number of reasons for this.  1) one can only be an effective martial artist (in sparring at least) if one has a strong athletic base on which to build.  2) strength and aerobic conditioning can win you matches.  I’ve both seen and experienced it–you have a massive advantage when your opponent is taxed and you’ve still got lots left in the tank.  In some cases one’s conditioning can be so much greater than an opponent’s that one can go on the offensive for an entire match and still wear down their opponent while retaining energy.  3) The physical activity involved in conditioning supports the improvement of specific martial arts movement.  For example, strength and aerobic training (done a certain way) both promote flexibility and balance as well, which are essential for any martial artist.  4) conditioning helps one stay in shape in general and lends itself to a healthy lifestyle.

Basically, conditioning is awesome.  So my goal is to train hard, and train often.

For the martial artist, however, conditioning is not just a matter of getting stronger, getting faster, or burning calories.  The martial artist should have clear goals in his or her conditioning training, with an eye toward developing endurance, strength, and other aspects that will help us develop as martial artists.  That is, the martial artist should take a holistic approach to conditioning.  Lifting weights, for example, will help us to get stronger, but why not think of other aspects of our development that can be aided by lifting in certain ways?  If we approach lifting holistically, we can find ways to lift such that our endurance, balance, concentration, and reaction are also improved.  The same applies to aerobic conditioning, which brings me to the main consideration of this post:  for aerobic conditioning for martial arts, nothing beats trail running.

I’ve recently been hitting one of the nearby trails (it’s a 20 mile or so system but I generally do either a 3 mile or 5 mile section, depending on how I’m feeling), and I’ve found that the kind of skills one develops while trail running are very different from those developed when running a track or a paved path of some other kind, and are very much conducive to developing relevant martial arts skills.  The main advantage of trail running is that it requires a constant concentration and precision of movement, even while one is physically exhausted.  Running on a track or pavement (or even a relatively smooth dirt trail) does not offer this.  One can let go on such paths and go into autopilot, without concentrating on the path or on how one moves.  On a rugged trail, even when you’re winded you’ve got to pay attention to the trail and navigate over obstacles, otherwise you’re quickly going to find yourself planted on your face. I’ve let my concentration slip on trails a couple of times, but only for a moment or two, because I’ll soon trip over an exposed tree root or a rock and quickly snap back to attention.

The reason this is excellent for martial arts conditioning is that this is a skill one must use in sparring.  In sparring matches, you must be able to concentrate, react, and move precisely even while extremely exhausted, winded, or in the middle of intense exertion.  It’s all too easy to let your concentration and accuracy slip as you progress in a sparring match.  It’s something I’ve seen happen–the longer a match goes on sometimes, the sloppier the fighters’ technique gets and the weaker their control.  Trail running can help us avoid this kind of thing.  Regularly run a few miles on a rugged trail, and you’ll gain the ability to concentrate and move precisely even through maximal physical exertion.

So my advice to martial artists, especially those who compete in sparring–break out those running shoes and hit the trails!