Advice on restoring damaged knees from karate training

One of the most common complaints from those who have practiced karate for a long time is that they have damaged or painful knees. The secret to restoring damaged knees is simple: Stretch, Pressure and Movement.

Understanding and putting that gem of wisdom into practise will require a fuller explanation, hence this article. The attached video shows some light exercises to work with but it probably won’t make much sense on it’s own either.

[VIDEO AT THE BOTTOM OF ARTICLE]

When I was younger many of my seniors in the dojo would complain to me about how karate training had taken a toll on their knees. Not only their knees but backs, wrists and elbows too. They’d flaunt these arthritic aches almost like trophies, like it somehow validated the years they’d spent gruelling in the dojo.

You’d think they were putting their arms around me and saying “So this is how you should do things to avoid ending up like me.” But those words never came. Because of course, we never questioned what we were being taught.

I think this is why I developed a propensity to seek out a therapeutic side to my martial arts. It was always there, only the modern post war era had really split it from the mainstay of dojo training.

Lets consider our knees.

knee joint with ligaments

It might help to think of your knee joint in layers. There are three bones that meet to form your knee; thighbone, shinbone and knee-cap. (Yes they have latin names too but knowledge of how to fix your body needn’t require a second language.)

The ends of these bones are covered in cartilage that helps cushion and absorb shock from movement. These are then topped with a thin fibrous cartilage to maintain fluid about the joint. In addition to this the bones are joined to each other with strong connective tissues called ligaments. Ligaments connect bones and Tendons connect muscles to bones. Tendons are like very strong rubber bands.

The first thing to remember is that cartilage, ligaments and tendons are soft/connective tissues and as such they are all regenerative in nature. That’s right, unless they have been surgically removed or dissected they have the ability to regenerate themselves. Just like if you cut your skin it heals over so too do microscopic tears and rips in your connective tissues. If tendons are tight they can be stretched. If unexercised they will stiffen.

If you’ve already allowed cartilage to be cut, removed or artificial plates attached to the tops of your knee bones then this article will be of little use for you. The only advice, as with any implant, is to integrate it into your body. The only realistic way I know of achieving this is at the sub-conscious level through deep-relaxation or meditation at around the Theta brainwave range. (Beyond the scope of this article).

With knee injuries patience and persistence are key.

Most people today are aware that their bodies are constantly renewing at the cellular level. The bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons in your knee are not exempt from this process. When we’re younger we can regenerate quicker. Did you know that if a child loses a fingertip in an accident it can grow back? Just like a lizards tail. As we mature, the body takes a little longer to heal or recover. You’re never too old, but the older you are the longer it will likely take.

In The Karate-Ka I mention that there are several markers by which I sought out teachers to train with. One of these was the phenomena that they appeared physically younger than their actual age. Without going into too much detail here it was basically a way of me gauging if they had ‘the good stuff’ or not. We all want the good stuff don’t we?

Certain aspects of traditional martial art training actively promote cellular regeneration and slow down the ageing process whilst simultaneously getting us to deeper meditative states. Daruma taught meditative exercises at the Shaolin that were later handed down through martial circles as ‘Bone Marrow washing’ and ‘Muscle and Tendon changing’ routines. We’ll come back to this later.

What is causing the damage or pain to your knees?

Consider the effect of stomping your foot down, kicking a hard target (makiwara) or kicking no target (air kicking), bursting through low stances, or having your training partner kicking your legs. Now times this by the number of repetitions you do year in year out to perfect a technique. That cartilage takes some wear and tear.

When I used to practise Shotokan we stretched a lot, but it wasn’t in a nourishing way. The basic principles were not understood by the majority of teachers around then. Consequently the training was too dynamic for the type of workout we engaged in. Hips were pulled and twisted about, knees jarred. Does anyone still practice air kicking?

That sounds a little obtuse. I do still kick the air because I can’t hang a punchbag here and I don’t like kicking trees. But I do air kick more sensibly now.

The obvious thing is not to hyper extend the knee when kicking (or elbow, when punching). Another facet contributing to injured knees is the rooting of the supporting foot. We were always taught to ground or root the heel when kicking. In Shuri-te we do the opposite. The heel is lifted so that the tendons in the back of the legs are more protected and greater power released.

Stances too need to be re-examined. The obvious ones are side-stance and sanchin-stance. In modern karate styles side stance is typically performed with the toes of the feet straight whereas the older Okinawan styles utilised a more open footed stance called shiko-dachi (Shotokan’s Shikodachi goes too far again)

The ‘toes out’ side stance has obvious combat efficiency elements but less obvious is that the posture is far healthier for the knee joint and structure of the the legs. Static training in shiko-dachi further develops the calves, knees, quads, glutes, hips and lower back.

Sanchin-dachi is another developmental stance in Okinawan karate and worth looking at for the knees. Modern karate styles utilise a broader based variant called hangetsu-dachi (half moon stance) which is too wide and places unnatural pressure on the sides of the knee joint. Trainees should be careful of pigeon-toeing the feet but only in motion. What I mean is, static training with feet turned in could be beneficial from a strengthening perspective but when applying in combat the toes would be better held straight. (This is another factor beyond the scope of this article but it’s important to define between that which is a training practice and that which is for combat).

You’ve got to nourish your knees. One step towards this is to re-examine your training and have the confidence to make the alterations needed in your personal practice. Good body movement dynamics are built into the older Okinawan martial arts. The next stage is to consider diet. Again, when we were younger diet wasn’t all that essential but now we could do with more nourishment. Consider also that the production of food on a global scale has never been at this level before. The foods you eat today are not the foods of yesteryear.

If you want to get serious about improving the internal structure of your knees then I’d suggest a 2-4 week detox, cut down on sugars and uptake more sour foods. Sugars raise the acidic level in the body which, as with an excess of adrenaline in the blood, practically corrodes the soft tissues.

  • First thing in the morning a glass of warm water with a fresh lemon squeezed in. Then some gentle exercises combined with the breath followed by breakfast.
  • Learn how to produce some sourkraut and have it at meal times (Magdalena could do a video on this but there are plenty online)
  • Drink more water. Good water. (Unless you’re using a Berkey filter or similar then buy Volvic, I’ve tested all the main brands here in the UK and Volvic has the best PH level for you)

The next thing to do is learn how to massage your own knee. Rest it up on a chair with a cushion and start by getting a good heat into your hands and rubbing all around the joint as if washing it. Don’t just concentrate on the knee but come up and down the legs too.

Bring your thumbs into play and apply a slow sinking pressure into all the points around the knee joint. You don’t need to know where all the points are before you start, find them through exploration. Breathe out through the mouth with a relaxed jaw and try to lean your weight into the thumbs. (see the video).

Don’t shy from sore spots, they need it the most. Work slowly and compassionately on yourself. Place your foot on the floor and massage deeply into the back of the knee. Spend a good five minutes on each knee, daily. Do it whilst sitting down in the evenings after work or before bed.

If your knees are particularly sore then apply extra heat. Heat allows the tissues to soften and increases circulation into the area. Arthritis is the result of long-term contraction in the tiny pores of tissues surrounding joints. The reduced flow of blood and fluids leads to a dull ache which can be reversed through heat treatment.

Don’t ice your knee. Ice packs were first used to reduce swelling in injured joints and numb pain. If your knee is swelling then your body is trying to fix itself. Let it. The icing of injured joints was simply a triage technique and one later adopted in the professional sporting world to get athletes back in the game quicker. If an athlete isn’t playing they aren’t making money. It has now come into the physio’s toolkit for the same reason. (to get you back to work quicker)

The trouble is that if you short cut this initial healing phase you only defer the problem for later.  Ice if you have to get going, but then use more heat than ice to achieve a longterm result.

The video below shows a few simple ways to begin:

If this article makes sense to you, then you might find my upcoming workshop of interest:
Karate for Health Defence:

Saturday 5th August 2017
SW13 London
10AM – 1PM