Proper karate training requires physical contact, and as a martial art, that means there are going to be periods of discomfort, moments of pain, and instances of injury. It is important to recognize the differences between discomfort, pain, and injury if you want to train both effectively and safely. Many people believe that these things are all the same, which leads them to train ineffectively. Others have a skewed idea of what each of them is, which can lead to more injuries. As in all things, balance is important, and we must balance realism and effectiveness with safety.
Discomfort is the feeling you will be experiencing the most during karate training. This includes physical things like the burning sensation in your muscles as you use them, the shortness of breath from the intensity of your training, and the stitch in your side from pushing your limits. It also includes mental discomfort, such as dealing with other people well within your personal space, touching sweat, and experiencing fear and uncertainty. None of these things is very likely to lead to injury, in and of themselves, but they can be very difficult to overcome. This nearly constant state of discomfort is part of what gives all martial arts their character-building qualities. You learn to deal with things as they happen, and push yourself beyond them to achieve your goals.
People often confuse discomfort with pain. While they can feel similar, pain is typically more intense and abrupt than discomfort. Typically, it is a warning that you are about to be injured. When you are put into a joint lock, for example, and do not escape or tap out quickly enough, you can experience pain as your body warns you that your joint is about to be damaged. If someone hits you hard enough, your body will use pain to tell you that you should avoid being hit again. Sometimes, the things that cause you pain will leave behind reminders of the trauma you experienced, such as bruises, split lips, scrapes, or bloody noses. These things could be considered injuries, but they are very minor ones. This kind of pain is part of the learning process when you are involved in a martial art–it helps you figure out how techniques work, when they work, and what their limits are. They also help you learn about your own limits.
When I say “injury,” I am talking about damage to your body that will inhibit your ability to function until it heals–that is, if it heals. This would include things like broken bones, sprained joints, and concussions. It could also include things that we don’t necessarily think of as injury, such as skin infections like ringworm, Staph, and MRSA, or contagious illnesses like the flu or mono. These things should be avoided in training as much as possible. We want to take care of ourselves and our training partners in the dojo, so that we can all keep training, but accidents do happen. If you train long enough, you are bound to experience some injuries. If you do, it is important to allow them to heal so that you do not put yourself at risk of making it worse.
Ideally, your dojo should be kept clean, all students should maintain their personal hygiene, and everyone should respect one another. Respect and trust in training are truly key to avoiding injury, even while you are experiencing discomfort and pain. Everyone is different, and can handle different amounts and types of trauma, so it is important for students to communicate with their partners and instructors. If discomfort becomes true pain, then you have likely pushed yourself beyond your limit and need to take a break. If pain becomes unbearable, you are probably getting close to injury. If you are injured, you need to rest and recover, and tell your training partners if you continue to train while injured so they can take care of you. Intense, effective training is important, but it doesn’t do you much good if it ruins your health.