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Martial Arts Made Me a Better Outdoor Athlete

Perhaps the most important positive thing I ever did to improve my life outdoors was step into the ring and fight.

Training in martial arts made me a better outdoor athlete.(Photo/Paige Triola)
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My opponent was better than me. That much was certain after a full first round of her throttling my face with solid, well-placed punches.

By round two of the kickboxing match, my movements felt slow as my opponent walked me to the ropes, continuing to smash her gloves into my eyes until the sweaty headgear spun sideways. The ref jumped between us and gave me a standing eight count, worry on his face as he ticked his fingers in the air.

While I clumsily worked on twisting my headgear back into place, he leaned in to whisper, “Do you want to continue?”

Even the ref wanted this to be over.

“Yes!” I hissed, pride stung.

So, I continued. Getting thoroughly clobbered, but giving it my all until the final bell clanged. The audience gave a collective sigh of relief. My opponent, slightly shocked that I was still standing after such an onslaught, pulled me in for a hug. I smiled at her through watery eyes. She was the better fighter. But we both belonged in that ring.

Martial Arts and Outdoor Sports: The Crossover

That was the last fight of my amateur GLORY rules kickboxing career. But I’ve since also received instruction in Western boxing, Dutch kickboxing, Muay Thai, and a bit of jiu-jitsu.

Many people have expressed their disbelief at how anyone could willingly walk into a ring and slug it out with another person. My ready response to this has always been, “You have to enjoy hitting more than you fear getting hit.”

That translates perfectly to trying challenging things outdoors. You have to enjoy the experience more than you fear it — whatever “it” is. It could be riding a mountain bike over bone-rattling terrain. It could be climbing a sketchy rock face, or running a grueling trail race up and down a mountain.

Half the battle is mental. Sure, I relished the physicality of punching, kicking, and sharpening my coordination. But I also loved where fighting took me mentally. Training and competing in martial arts empowered me to be braver in life and in sport. Here’s how…

Training in martial arts made me a better outdoor athlete.
(Photo/Paige Triola)

Learn to Push Past Fear

Feeling fear is part of the human experience, and I have never been immune to it. But I learned very quickly that I had to flip off the “fear switch” when competing, because it simply did not serve me in the fight. Fighting required me to stay present and alert, mindful of danger but launching into the fray regardless.

Likewise, there are many outdoor pursuits that I find daunting and strenuous, but they require my full attention and a commitment to boldness. Mountain biking is a great example; the bike can sense fear! I’m always more likely to crash when I’m afraid.

But when I do my best to put fear on the back burner and plunge forward with an “I got this” attitude, the result is a smoother ride and less blood on the trail.

Training in martial arts made me a better outdoor athlete; (photo/Paige Triola)
(Photo/Paige Triola)

Own Your Space

Confidence is essential when competing in a combat sport. Not everyone liked having a girl around — some fellow fighters and a particularly rude sports commissioner come to mind — but I didn’t take any of the discouraging comments to heart.

In many outdoor spaces, too, there are often gatekeepers who have been doing it longer, know more of the lingo, and snicker at the inexperience of others. But when you’re able to hold your head up and say, “I belong here and no one can tell me otherwise,” that attitude will serve you well in any arena. Feel free to teach me, but don’t try to stop me.

Training in martial arts made me a better outdoor athlete.
(Photo/Paige Triola)

Learn to Harness Competitive Drive

A huge part of why I started fighting was my hearty sense of competition. Soon after I joined my team, we all went to watch some local fights. Seeing two girls slugging it out in the ring just sealed my fate. I turned to my coach and said, “Get me a fight.”

That sense of competition is what gets me through races and helps me reach my goals in any outdoor activity. I’m either trying to beat someone else on the course, or I’m challenging myself to be better than I was yesterday. 

Training in martial arts made me a better outdoor athlete.
(Photo/Paige Triola)

Cultivate Resilience

Fighting came with its fair share of injuries and setbacks. Adrenaline helped tremendously to dull my pain in the ring, but some blows were more brutal than others. I’ve broken toes, taken a knee full-force in the groin, and had the wind knocked out of me from kicks to the gut, but I was trained to keep a straight face.

In my outdoor adventures, wipeouts happen, and they hurt! But oftentimes, the only option is to brush it off and store the pain away until it can be properly addressed.

I don’t encourage being a tough guy when injuries need attention. But this skill has come in handy when I had no choice but to keep moving. 

Training in martial arts made me a better outdoor athlete.
(Photo/Paige Triola)

Martial Arts and Outdoor Sports: The Final Word

From a physical fitness standpoint, martial arts training certainly translates well into outdoor activities. These are full-body sports that require a high level of flexibility and a wide range of motion. All of those roundhouse kicks and spinning back fists have kept me limber and free of overuse injuries. (My stamina is another story…anyone who has been on a run or tough bike ride with me can attest that I am no super athlete.)

But what I’m most grateful for are the psychological tools that martial arts have given me that get me through the toughest moments.

Outdoor sports can be punishing. But in the same way that I relish sparring with teammates and testing my skills in the ring, I love getting my blood pumping outside on sketchy trails and challenging races.

Sometimes, when I’m dragging myself up a 14er or finishing out a run with lead legs, I think back to the last fight of my amateur kickboxing career and feel energized to keep going: Wow, that was rough. I’m so glad I did it. French philosopher Blaise Pascal said it best: “It is the fight alone that pleases us, not the victory.”

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