As I have stated before, karate is many things to many people, and seems to adapt itself remarkably well to differences in physical ability, age, gender, and approach (provided you are training in a good dojo). For old and young, from recreation to fitness to competition, karate spans a wide array of physical realms.
One which I have talked about on a philosophical level is tournament, but I haven't really dealt with some of the practical aspects. I think no one would question that an expert martial artist, of the sort who could win a national title, would be an amazing physical performer, just as any other elite athlete, from any sport, would be. We expect all of these people to be extremely physically fit, healthy, and determined mentally and physically. They are tenacious in the face of adversity, and thrive on challenges.
But is it that way in practice? And at what cost? What price is paid to perform on the elite stage, and what does it entail? Are they really those idealized athletic performers, the healthiest and strongest of us all? Or are those rumors true, do football players use steroids, do gymnasts have eating disorders?
What is the reality of the competition athlete?
First, there are injuries. Injuries from accidents, injuries from misuse, injuries from overuse. Some injuries are common across many sports, some plague a few sports in particular. For example, football players and ski racers both suffer a high rate of knee injuries, especially torn ACL's. Gymnasts and distance runners both seem to end up with a lot of stress fractures. Hockey players, of course, seem to lose teeth! The common denominator is, most elite athletes live with some degree of pain, part or all of the time. And not resting those injuries and letting them heal can lead to life-long trouble. One Super Bowl champion quarterback blew out both knees during his career. Now, in his retirement, he awakens so stiff he hobbles like an old man, and practically lives on ibuprofen. He's in his early 40's and walks like he's 80.
Second, there is the issue of diet. Many elite athletes watch their diet more closely than a teenage girl before prom. They count every calorie and weigh every portion to make sure that they are getting very precise amounts of the right nutrients required to keep their bodies working under such a heavy demand. They take vitamin supplements, drink suspicious-looking green pulpy drinks, and make sure they get enough protein, carbohydrates, and, yes, fat in their diet. These build and maintain muscles, and keep them moving under stress. Unfortunately, many athletes do NOT take this kind of care, instead going on fad diets to gain or lose weight, depriving themselves of crucial nutrients in an effort to make weight. Permanent damage is often done to the bones, joints, and organs in the process, not to mention the distinct possibility of developing an eating disorder.
Third, there is the problem of time. You don't get or stay in elite shape by training a couple of days a week and breaking a light sweat. You do it by training 5 or 6 days a week, several hours at a time, pushing yourself to the brink of exhaustion in many cases. When you're pushing yourself that hard, you also need to make darn sure you are getting enough sleep. If you have a job and a family, you can bet that one of those areas of your life is going to get short shrift. There just aren't enough hours in the day.
Our regional women's team is going to compete at Shoto Cup this fall, and we are all so proud of them. In a way, though, they've sold their souls to karate for the next few months. These women are currently training 7 days a week, and all of them have full-time jobs and families. Fortunately, all of the men involved are extremely supportive and proud, but it's not always easy. Their other commitments make it harder for them to monitor their diet and to get enough rest. One of them is planning her wedding, just over a month away now. Another one bought a new home and had to move during the past month. All three of them are looking tired to me right now. Very, very tired. I know that these are all intelligent women, driven but possessing a great deal of common sense. I'm sure they're doing their very best to keep themselves as healthy as possible. I know that they are cross-training, doing karate one day, running the next, etc., to minimize stress and burnout. But still, they look awfully tired to me. I'm worried that they will return from Shoto Cup and then disappear for awhile, needing that time to recover.
I will not be the one to question their regimen -- after all, it has brought them to this point. However, I remember something that Sensei Yaguchi told me several months ago, when I had to pull out of tournament with a sore foot: "There are many ways of training. You train by doing, but you also learn by watching, and by listening. If you can't compete, then watch what the others do, and pay attention."
For those who are considering engaging in competition-level martial arts, proper physical conditioning is essential. But don't try to attain that overnight and end up with an injury that could sideline you for weeks or months. Build up to it, and when you have, be smart about maintaining your fitness. Don't end up overtired, injured, or burned out. Maybe spend one less day in the dojo, and use it instead to watch karate videos or read a martial arts text of some kind while you do long, slow stretches on your tired muscles. Don't deprive yourself of the food and drink that you need to keep your body performing, and stop worrying about calories unless you're concerned that you aren't eating enough! Eat good food instead of junk, drink water instead of soda, and you'll feel better, train better, and sleep better. Speaking of sleep, make sure you get to bed at a reasonable time. Also realize that you will reach peaks and then fall from them. Try to time it so that you will peak, physically and mentally, for the biggest competition of the year, but don't demand the same degree of perfection from yourself all year long. If you do, you'll burn yourself out, just about the same time that you drive yourself crazy.
There is no magic trick to being an elite athlete, it's mostly pure hard work and dedication, in karate or any other physical endeavor. But if you don't approach it with common sense, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble.