An American in Thailand: The Lure of Overtraining

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

[Ed. note: For nearly a year, Lindsey Newhall has been living at a Muay Thai camp outside Bangkok, training for hours a day and soaking in local traditions. We asked her to keep a journal of her experiences.]

A lot of foreigners come to Muay Thai gyms in Thailand for a few short weeks of intensive training while on holiday. I'm always impressed that people actually want to spend their precious vacation time flying halfway around the world and training every day, but so many foreign fighters I meet say the same thing: "I wish I could just quit my job and train here long-term."

A few actually take this wish seriously. Enamored with their brief taste of the Muay Thai lifestyle, they return home with plans to save up, tie up loose ends, and return to Thailand to train. But when you live in a Thai gym semi-permanently, it becomes a totally different game. What was once was a novel break from normal life now is normal life. 

Most gyms in Thailand offer something around two training sessions a day, six days a week. Foreign fighters come to Thailand with the idea of emulating the work ethic and training lifestyle of Thai fighters, but not even the Thais train constantly, day in and day out. At my gym, we all rest on Sundays, and most of the Thai boys take other mini-breaks like an afternoon or full day off here or there when they need it. Nearly everyone takes at least a few days off after fighting, more time if dealing with actual injuries. During an average training week, however, depending on your personal dedication, theoretically you could be training somewhere around 24 to 36 hours, maybe even more. It's basically a full-time job.

Though sometimes it becomes a compulsion. I feel like I'm at the Muay Thai equivalent of a Hometown Buffet--there's just so much to consume and I want it all. But just as overeating at buffets can lead to health problems, so can overtraining at a Thai gym. The effects of overtraining sneak up on you slowly, rather than all at once. You start to wonder why you're having trouble sleeping, even though you're always so tired every day. There's a cold going around and you can never quite shake it. And why are you feeling so irritable and moody these days? Is it normal to have to make such an effort not to backhand the cheeky teenagers you train with?

So just stop training for a little while, right? It's not that easy. There's a sense of guilt over not training, magnified tenfold when you physically live at the gym. Despite not being an active fighter, there have been chunks of time during my past year at the gym that I would train nonstop. These training binges would last a few months, and I'd feel a kind of anxiety if I wanted to skip even one session per week. I was exhausted and my training was suffering for it, but in my head I felt like I was on the right track, like I was "being good." Mentally I loved it, but it wasn't sustainable for me physically. I imagine it's sustainable for very few, and we call those people names like Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu.

Sylvie is an American fighter and prolific blogger who trains full-time in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. And when I say full-time, I mean full-time. She clocks six to seven hours a day at the gym, six days a week. Sylvie takes Sundays off with the rest of the fighters, but that's about it. She fights with high frequency, often every couple weeks. While the Thai boys at her gym take full days or even upwards of a week off after big fights, Sylvie jumps back into training the very next day. I asked her if she ever takes regular time off to rest, and she said no, that she trains constantly. “But this week I had some extra time off because I've been very sick,” she told me. “I was dying during my last fight. Fighting with bronchitis fucking sucks."

The foreign fighters who stay here short-term are usually very gung-ho, attending most sessions and really trying to get the most out of their brief stay. Their energy and enthusiasm do wonders for my occasionally flagging sense of commitment to daily training. Being in a community of hardcore athletes, regardless of their length of stay, is often enough to motivate me to show up to training on days I'm slacking. No one wants to be known as the lazy foreigner who chills in her room all day and only occasionally makes appearances to demonstrate her sadly subpar commitment.

Trainers' attitudes also play a large role in motivation. It's always very encouraging when your trainer tells you you're doing especially well today, looks duly impressed with your technique, and asks when you want to fight. But on the flip side, sometimes trainers' responses are an indication that maybe, just maybe, you're overtraining and should take a break. I received comments during one morning session from Trainer Yod about the dark circles under my eyes. He was concerned that I was sick or not sleeping enough. Up until that moment, I thought I was feeling fine.

Another time, I was just ending my fifth and final round with the very energetic teenage trainer Biya when he ordered 100 kicks with my right leg. I complied, though with serious difficulty. He saw me struggling, but that didn't stop him from calling for 100 kicks with my left leg. I doubled over and stopped to catch my breath before embarking on this latest kicking frenzy he demanded, but I must have taken too long because he frowned and barked, "Why you no kick?! What your problem?!"

"…. Just … gimme … a minute." After five rounds and 100 kicks, I could barely get the words out.

"What, you tired? You no like Muay Thai? You baby! Baby go sleep! Go your room! Go sleep!" He pointed his Thai-padded hand toward my room, his disdain both amusing and discouraging me.

I resolved to interpret Biya’s outburst as his roundabout way of looking out for my well-being. As I did those last 100 kicks, I thought to myself, “Maybe he's right. Maybe I should sleep more.”

Later I decided to see what would happen if I spent a few weeks training half-time. A week into it, I was shocked at how good my body felt training only two hours a day as opposed to five. I slept better and had more energy for the sessions I did attend. But in my head, I was constantly berating myself for skipping sessions. I felt so indescribably lazy even though I was still training nearly every day. This is what it means to live long-term at a Muay Thai gym: Muay Thai becomes your identity. In the U.S., I think I'm doing really well if I make it to five Muay Thai sessions a week after work. Here in Thailand, five sessions a week is an embarrassment.

That said, calling friends and family at home never fails to pick me up when I'm feeling down about what I perceive to be my gross under-training.

"I feel horrible," I once said to one of my American friends over Skype. "I only trained 10 hours this week. Do you know how bad that is?"

My friend paused then said, "Um… that's, like, more exercise than I get in a month."

Check out these earlier installments of "An American in Thailand":

Silent Muay Thai

The Muay Thai Guide to Communication

Muay Thai Wedding