Running and Taekwondo: Adding Strength, Balance and Flexibility via Martial Arts Practice

IMG_1026Last Fall my wife and I signed my 8 year-old son (pictured at left) up for Taekwondo lessons through our town’s rec department. At first, we had assumed that this would be a typical kid activity where we show up, the child participates, and the parents sit on the sidelines for an hour and watch. We were mistaken. The instructor, Master Daniel Jung, a 6th degree black belt from South Korea, felt very strongly that the parents should participate alongside their kids. So began a new adventure in my life…

I have never done martial arts of any kind. In fact, the thought of trying it had never even crossed my mind. But, though my son is an extremely energetic boy, he sometimes lacks the motivation to complete tasks when they get difficult (both mental and physical). We thought that an activity like Taekwondo might provide some discipline and motivation (which it has), and also serve as an outlet for him to burn off some of his boundless energy (which it has also succeeded in doing).

My wife took him to the first class, and came home to report that parents were encouraged to participate, but that my son had not taken to the physical effort with the gusto that she had hoped. The following week, with some amount of apprehension on my part, I took him along with my 6 year old daughter (pictured below), and all three of us participated. I was immediately hooked – the class was an incredible bonding experience with my kids, and the physical workout was way more intense than I had expected. Turns out that being a distance runner in no way prepares you for the demands that Taekwondo makes on your body.

Emma TaekwondoMy son slowly improved his effort over the ensuing weeks, and the belt-earning system turned out to be an amazing motivator. He was studying Korean numbers, as well as practicing his kicks at home (which required intense parental vigilance to ensure that his path of destruction stayed clear of furniture, valuables, pets and siblings). I attended each of the following six classes, and after the holidays my daughter, son, and I decided to continue taking classes twice per week together at our instructor’s dojang (NH Kicks in Concord, NH).

I’m now one full month into classes, and the experience has been altogether fantastic. My kids have been loving it, and we all look forward to each class with enthusiasm that has been absent from other activities in which they have participated (gymnastics, basketball, soccer, teeball, dance, and so on…). A big part of it is that we have been doing it together as a family, but the other thing that has made the experience so positive is that Master Jung is a phenomenal instructor. He places family bonds foremost, teaches the kids discipline and respect, and most of all makes the classes fun. He’s particularly good at working out the adults while going easier on the kids – my daughter loves to sit on my feet and watch me struggle to finish off situps, or when I have to hold her over my shoulder while doing lunges or squats. But, they break a serious sweat as well, and they have a blast doing it. Master Jung is a natural with kids, and has even started to prime my 2yo son for a future in the martial arts – so far carrying medicine balls across the gym seems to be his favorite task :)

One of the most valuable aspects of Taekwondo for a runner like me is the emphasis that it places on flexibility, balance, and strength. One of the things I’ve repeatedly heard from running injury experts like UVA physical therapist Jay Dicharry is that the ability to control one’s body while in single-leg stance is a critical skill for any runner, and Taekwondo practice really hammers on this. We spend a good deal of time each class standing on one leg while performing kicks or other movements (always barefoot). We also do a lot of balance and plyometric work that has massively improved my leg strength in multiple planes well-beyond what the largely single-plane movement of running could possibly do. Try doing three sets of 20 hopping round-house kicks on each leg and you’ll see what I mean – it’s a killer workout!

Because of the need to extend the leg when kicking, we also spend a good deal of time each class working on flexibility. While I’m still sorely lacking in my hamstring flexibility, I’ve come to appreciate the feeling gained from a good ham stretch, and I feel like I have made some progress. I’ve also gained quite a bit of strength in my hip flexors – for the first several weeks after starting my practice I had near-constant soreness in my iliopsoas – constantly lifting the thigh quickly to do kicks really works these muscles. Core work is also emphasized heavily, and ab exercises are usually a part of the intro to each class. I think the strengthening has already paid dividends as evidenced by the fact that I ran a 5K last month on minimal training over the winter and finished 10 seconds faster (19:20) than my best 5K time from last summer. It’ll be interesting to see how I do after a summer of solid run training.

Finally, Taewkondo has really emphasized to me once again the importance of good form and the regular practice of proper movement. Some of the kicks we do require a great deal of coordination, and if you do them with poor form injury is definitely a possibility. I pulled a hip flexor once doing a turning back kick with poor form, and a simple bit of advice from my instructor solved the issue immediately. I do think this can be translated to running – what we do when we run may work for us, but it may not always be the best form we could use to perform the movement of running. Constant practice with the intent of improving form is critical to training the muscle memory required to perform complex movements well.

As a write this I am a yellow-belt green-stripe progressing toward my green belt (six months into my practice). And, I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that my 8yo son’s ability to kick in a coordinated fashion vastly outstrips my own. He’s found something that he absolutely loves, and this is probably the single most important thing that has come from my Taekwondo experience so far. A few weeks ago Master Jung came to his school so he could do a demonstration in front of his class – he wound up breaking a bunch of boards, including one kick where he leaped over me (I was lying down) and broke a board with a side kick. I’ve never seen his confidence so high as it was on that day, and his classmates were in awe – talk about being king for a day!

So, I’d recommend Taekwondo for any runner – most schools will let you try a class for free. In Taekwondo I have found something that not only supplements my running, but that has become a focused pursuit alongside my running. And, it has strengthened my bond with my kids. It’s been an amazing experience so far!

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.



Comments

  1. Mark Ulrich says:

    Great idea!! I’ll check it out.

  2. Saundra Tosh says:

    I’m glad of what’s becoming of your son, Pete. Wadya know, he might be a black-belter someday. :P Yes, Taekwondo is one of the best forms of martial arts, developing the body, teaching self-discipline and confidence, but most importantly, it enhances one not just physically, but mentally.

    Saundra Tosh

  3. Travis W. Rigg says:

    I have been doing Taekwondo for five years (going to be six soon), and running for one (going to be two soon). It’s a blatant passion/obsession of mine. I definitely think that the two go together wonderfully. The only problem that I run into sometimes as a martial artist who runs is that the mentalities are a bit different. In Taekwondo (especially when working on forms) there is focus on trying to be sharp, precise, and strong.

    This is because TKD is a martial art that focuses on strength of stance, and straight line movements. In more direct language, it is a striking martial art. You are trying to kick, punch, and block effectively (solidly).

    Running is a little different though. It is fluid. It is smooth. It is quiet. It is light. You are trying to move in such a way that every single movement leads into the next, and to minimize the force of impact. This is the exact opposite goal of TKD in which you are trying to maximize the force of impact.

    So what is one to do?

    Find the common ground.

    In Taekwondo, as well as in running, there is a huge focus on perseverance. TKD is more long term perseverance. It is about knowing that an adversity today will pass. It will become unimportant in time, unless you give up. If you give up, that adversity became everything about your experience.

    Running (to me at least) is all about perseverance in the moment. When things get tough in a race, you strive to not let them get in your way. You strive to do everything you can to finish as strong as you started.

    (WHAT IS HE DRAGGING ON ABOUT!?)

    Running and taekwondo combined can result in an attitude of determination. This attitude can then be applied to everything. There is nothing in your way once you find this determination.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Very well put. I would add that though running is a fluid movement, it also involves form that can be improved such that running becomes more efficient and powerful, as well as less prone to causing injury. I thing this is a strong parallel between the two. It does lack the snap and emphasis on crisp power involved in forms, though this may even apply to some degree in sprinting where the goal is to maximize speed and force applied to the ground with each step.
      Sent from my iPad

  4. Nicole Lacoste says:

    Oh I would love to try this. I have two girls and its so hard to juggle working out and kids. I’ll try to find a place we can do this together near me. Thanks!

  5. Cody R. says:

    i’ve been looking for martial arts…but not for sport…

    maybe traditional TKD but eh…

    the more articles i see about stuff like this, the more anxious i get to find the right dojo….bleh

    • Travis W. Rigg says:

      Traditional TKD and the sport of TKD are one and the same. There are, however, two different branches of TKD that have been practiced since the 1960s. The branching happened not long after the rediscovery/reinvention of TKD in the 1950s. WTF style TKD is purely sparring. ITF style TKD is about both forms and sparring.

      As a runner who got into running from TKD, it’s a bit of an obsessive passion of mine. The things that people take from TKD for me are far less about the strength and the balance. To me, it’s all about the tenants of TKD (Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit).

      Though I completely agree, finding the martial art the suits you is purely up to you. I have a friend who swears by northern Shaolin style Gong-fu. I have another who absolutely loves Ba Gua. Both of the styles exemplified by those martial arts are purely against my line of thinking. That’s one of the great things about martial arts, though. What you take from them is an expression of your personality, especially if you take the spiritual part of them seriously.

      Anywho… that’s my rant. Congrats to anyone who took the time to read it.

      • Pete Larson says:

        Just to be clear, I agree completely about the mental benefits in terms of respect, perseverance, etc. – this is a running blog though so I was tailoring this particular article to my audience.
        Sent from my iPad

      • cody r. says:

        not to start an argument, just adding from my last post, the traditional has the punches and the throws, while the olympic sport is only kicks…

        but yea, i do see benefits of TKD for the mental and conditioning aspect,

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