MR goes all Jean-Claude Van Damme to find out if martial arts training really can help chop minutes off your personal best.
It’s Monday lunchtime in a sun-kissed Battersea Park and a former Thai boxing world champion is yelling at MR to stop wheezing like a winded wart hog and swing our right leg at the pads for what feels like the 50th time.
In between kicking and slugging the pads, we are sent on sprints up a hill steep enough to give Lance Armstrong sleepless nights. On our second stumble down the slope, we are asked: “You do know you’re supposed to sprint up and jog down, don’t you?”
Usually, we’d be out for a steady 30-minute run, like the other happy plodders passing us by. What on earth are we doing being screamed at in public? Ah yes, the moment this all started.
A couple of months ago over a cup of coffee with Richard Coates, director of the soon-to-be opened Stars Gym in London, he mentioned that, having been a runner since he could remember, the change to his training which finally saw his marathon time tumble was when he took up martial arts or, to be specific, the strength and conditioning sessions designed for Thai boxing.Lying down shouldn't be this hard
Coates has that wiry, angular runner’s build - all slim limbs and pointy elbows - so it doesn’t surprise MR that his personal best over 26.2 miles is 3hrs 19mins, but our interest is piqued when he explains that he ran this last year at the age of 38, 10 years since clocking his previous best of 3hrs 28mins.
He now has his sights set on a sub-three hour time in Berlin later this year and he attributes it to the high-quality cross training that he has built into his programme in the shape of two Thai sessions a week. The man putting him through the ringer is Mati Parks, who collected titles at British, European and World levels before retiring last year.
“I met Mati when we began working together to open the gym,” explains Coates. “He used to laugh at me and say, ‘You runners are weak and feeble,’ and I said, ‘Yeah but I bet you can’t run very far’.
“He begged to differ and came out with me for a 5K round the park. He ran it just as quickly as me and he was barely doing any running at all as part of his fitness regime. He put it down to the type of training he did, so he took me into a session about a year and a half ago. I tried it out and was absolutely exhausted and realised that my muscles weren’t strong at all.”
Coates decided to make the change, incorporating two sessions a week into a schedule that saw him running less but making those sessions count. He noticed the difference before too long.Our man's version of the birdie song
“I cut down the amount of times I was running but increased the quality. I was doing a threshold session, a hill session, a long steady run and a recovery run. But the two martial arts sessions I was doing would be an awful lot tougher. An hour training with Mati uses an intense lactate system and really improves muscle strength.
“After a couple of months I would get out and run and my muscles wouldn’t tire so quickly. When I run I hunch forward quite a bit when I get tired and my form goes. I was finding that my form was a lot better, I was more upright because the martial arts sessions were strengthening my traps and rhomboids. My whole upper body was getting stronger.
“So many runners put cross-training into their schedule but then just think they need to go and lift a few weights and not really do anything specific. Martial arts has proved to be a real high quality cross-training session for me.
“There isn’t really much rest. You are getting quite tired, but it’s very intensive and very effective. You’re not wandering around between machines like you would in the gym. It’s a big session.”
The other aspect of his running Coates says has improved as a result, is the mental side.
“There is no place to hide when you get to 21 to 22 miles in a marathon, and in most of my marathons I have slowed down almost to a walk,” he says. “When I did the 3:19 I went all the way at a good pace. Yes, I slowed up, but the pain I’d been through and the lactate pressure I took when I was doing the martial arts training made me think: ‘If you can do that and handle it you are going to be stronger and more focused when you get to the latter stages of the marathon.’
“Big mileage works but it is old school. I run quicker now at 38 than ever, and I do less running. It’s about quality. Get your long, slow steady run in on a Sunday and you’ll be fine.”The chorus line audition in full swing
And so as the sweat pours off MR’s head and our limbs throb with the effort, we wonder if, when we reach 38, we’ll be running PBs thanks to this torture.
Our first session consists of a four-station circuit. The first comprises five of those hellish hill sprints sandwiched by high intensity pad work. We jog on to a tree-lined expanse for seven shuttle sprints, each one a tree’s distance further, with 20 kicks - 10 on each leg - in between. The sprints quickly become stumbles.
Then it’s 100 step-jumps followed by five stair climbs punctuated by minute-long flurries of punches, kicks, elbows and knees. To round the station off the 20 squat jumps on to and off of a raised platform make our thighs burn like no run ever has.
At this point, Parks enquires as to our physical state given the colour has drained from our cheeks. A grunt in the affirmative and we’re on to the last stop. “You seem quite fit, you haven’t thrown up yet, so I know how far I can push you,” he says, before setting an app on his phone to time three-minute rounds. The bell rings and it feels more like three hours of hooks, jabs, uppercuts, kicks, knees and heavy panting. The one-minute rest is filled with press-ups, but after two rounds, session one is at an end.
The following day in a basement ring with nothing on the walls but a clock and some fight posters, it’s all about the core and upper body. MR always thought there was a finite number of ways you could do a press-up. Parks seems to have invented 10 more. Try lifting your knee up to your elbow during each one after you’ve been flogged for half an hour already. It was nigh on impossible.
As for attempting to manoeuvre a Swiss ball around while maintaining the perfect plank - we managed two in succession before our midriff collapsed like a bridge made of trifle.
The real killer here is that there’s no rest period (at least, there isn’t supposed to be). Once you’ve finished one minute of an exercise, you’re on to the next.Slumped over the ropes, about to lose his lunch
Swinging a tornado ball from left to right would be fun were it not for the punishment we’ve already taken and the squat position we are ordered to maintain while we hurl it side to side. Finally, the gloves are donned and with as much strength as we can muster, a three-minute round of striking ensues. The moment comes when our bacon sandwich threatens to travel back up our gullet, but a couple of dry heaves save what dignity we have left as Parks encourages photographer Matt to get ready for the projectile vomit shot. That never comes. A barrage of sit-ups brings the 50 minutes to an end with Parks pounding our abdomen for 20 repetitions as the final set.
It is hard to remember ever feeling this dreadful at the end of a race. This session he has just put us through has worked parts of the body often ignored by runners.
“One thing I’ve noticed from working with runners is their lack of upper body and core strength,” says Parks. “The key aspect with fighters is to have a strong core and good upper body strength, but we do so much kicking as well that our legs are strong.
“There’s the mental side as well,” he adds. “It’s a case of once you hit the wall you’ve got to go beyond that. In the ring it’s about preservation. If you can’t preserve yourself, the ref will stop the fight or you’ll get knocked out. You have to find that bit extra, or you’re in trouble.
“For a runner, if someone has gone past you and you want to catch them up, you have to do the same. This sort of strength and conditioning work is a way of helping you do that.”
As we leave Parks’ torture dungeon to wonder what agonies tomorrow morning will bring, we make a mental note to try and remember this pain next time we’re thinking about slacking off during a run. We’ll try and find a bit extra.