First Rule of Fight Club: Unspoken Methods and Medicines in Muay Thai
The Ubiquitous Remedy
Before my first fight upon returning to Thailand for this year-long stay I was told by one of my trainers that I had to go to the pharmacy and pick up some things. I was told to get some kind of electrolyte and/or peptide concoction for before the fight, basically to stay hydrated, and to get a second medicine for after the fight to “clean my blood.” Both medicines were given to me with their Thai names, so I had no idea what they were and I had to ask him to repeat the names a number of times so I might remember how to ask at the pharmacy.
After some questioning it was finally revealed to me that the second medicine is actually a laxative. Upon hearing this I assumed that this trainer was playing a practical joke on me, but he kept repeating how important it is to take it after every fight; he said it would help me recover faster and I wouldn’t have bruises or lumps to deal with for days afterward. I’d never heard of it before – fighters taking laxatives after fights – and nobody had mentioned this in my shorter stay in Thailand two years ago, so I double checked with Andy and sure enough he told me, while being careful to say, “some fighters” do indeed methodically take this laxative after every fight in order to expedite recovery. He said that you can get boils under your armpits if you don’t take it.
I’m a good student. If my trainers tell me to drink a raw egg every morning I’ll give it a go. This seemed odd to me, but after doing some research online and finding at least a few corroborating articles (including a well-described experiment by Muay Thai blogger Laura dal Farra here) I decided to try it. Apparently laxatives are a panacea in several countries for everything from ear infections to acid reflux, so there’s at least some cohesion here.
The most common tincture is called Ya Nam La Damphon (“ya nam” is liquid medicine and “la damphon” is a call to arms… serious stuff) and I asked for it everywhere. None of the pharmacies within my little 4 kilometer habitat had it in stock, meaning it’s either not as popular as I assumed or it’s even more so and was sold out. So I had to settle for a pill form, which lists “muscle aches” as one of the symptoms it addresses.
My husband kept making fun of me, telling me I’m not doing it for real until I take the liquid form. This Ya Nam La Damphon is everywhere supposedly and Chantal Ughi in Bangkok, when mentioning that she no longer takes the medicine on her facebook (unrelated to my own experience; totally coincidentally), was absolutely astonished that I was having difficulty locating it. But the pills work well enough in accomplishing what their meant for and after about 4-6 hours your system is being cleaned out pretty thoroughly.
I would take the pill directly upon my return from a fight so that I could go to sleep and wake up to the gut punches the next morning and hopefully be done with it all by early afternoon. The effects last for a while, so there’s no training the same day you’ve taken the medicine, unless you want to be running to the toilet every 15 minutes during your workout.
I can’t say for sure whether the pills make a big difference. My trainer would always ask me when I got back to training (or before if he saw me walking down the street) after a fight whether or not I’d taken the pill. I always answered to the affirmative and more often than not he’d tell me to take it again. “Clean your blood,” he’d say. If I got hurt in training after a fight – you know, basic stuff like a bruise on my shin or my forearm from a kick – he’d yell at me for having not taken the pill, or not enough times. I never lied to him; I did actually take the damn pill after every fight and I still get hurt in training, usually in the first few days upon my return. Never badly; never enough to stop training. Shins are mushy after fights no matter what and that’s going to lead to bumps and bruises in the days after. That’s why some trainers won’t hold pads for a fighter for days after a fight, whether or not they’ve spent a day cleaning out their guts. Truth is, the more you fight and bash your shins the tougher they become, so eventually my “baby shins” as Den calls them will give way to iron-bones like Master K has – regardless of the after fight medicine, I think.
In Case of Flu
In my 21st fight I got cut in the second round and it has seemed more and more over the days after the fight that my nose might have been broken as well. At first I thought it most certainly wasn’t broken – it wasn’t swollen, the cut was the thing. But the next day my nose was very swollen at the bridge, so that I looked like a puma, and I developed black eyes on either side. The swelling has gone down and the cut is healing nicely, but the sensitivity remains. I can mess around with the bridge and feel a little “crunching”, which is good that it’s not a lot, but the pain is intense at even light touch – such as pulling a shirt over my head and the collar grazes along the bridge of my nose. Hurts more than seems reasonable.
I didn’t take the pills after this fight, mostly because I forgot to buy more. I’d been experimenting with ice-baths after training the week prior to the fight and had great results. Purchasing ice on the way home from the gym and filling my little tub to about waist-high when seated was doing wonders for the recovery of my legs. So I happily repeated this process after the fight, icing my mushy, bruised up shins (from blocks) and getting all the lactic acid out of my muscles was surely a splendid thing. Next day I felt great.
The afternoon after the fight I went to the gym and did some joint rotation and shadow just to get moving – that felt good. Then on Sunday afternoon I returned to the gym for more shadow and a little bagwork, again feeling good. Tuesday I trained hard, getting really good boxing work in with Neung in the morning and JR in the afternoon (no kicking yet as my shins are still sensitive) and felt really stoked for the three weeks of training I’ll have before my next fight. (Den encouraged me to take an extra week before getting back in the ring to let the cut on my nose heal completely.) I felt a little achy in my joints on Monday night, nothing terrible but certainly noticeable, and was a little chilled even with the comforter on the bed, but I get cold pretty easily now days.
Wednesday morning I met Andy at the gym and drove up to the lake for a run. I wasn’t feeling great, but decided nonetheless that instead of running the 3.5 km around the lake I’d run up the mountain. It’s about 1 km of flat road to get to the base of the incline and then I have no idea the actual distance up the mountain but it’s straight up with no breaks in the incline. The road is creased with tire-tracks from muddy days that reach as deep as 18 inches in some places. The mud dries enough to give solid support underfoot but it’s completely smooth, like the thick muscle of a snake all across the width of the drive until you reach the edge which either shoots straight up as a wall on one side or straight down as a nasty fall on the other. And you share the road with motorcycles and trucks, mostly coming down the mountain, but everyone pulls to one side where the tire tracks are less deep, so everyone is jockying for space on about 4 ft width of a 10 ft wide road. Fun!
I ran until the road plateaued and then turned around. The way down is not much easier than the way up, but you’re working more for balance rather than fighting to keep moving forward. We got back to the gym and I did my knees on the bag, wrapped my hands, finished a few rounds of shadow and started into my second round on the bag when my knuckles started groaning. I felt achy in my shoulders and my stomach hurt in patches like it had rocks in it. I slowed down, gave some consideration to the thought of padwork under these conditions and decided to go back to bed on the chance that I could come back strong in the afternoon.
On the way home I stopped by the pharmacy and lo and behold they had the ubiquitous/elusive liquid version of the laxative pills, so I picked that up along with some ibuprofen. I’d read somewhere that squeezing a lime into your mouth after swallowing the liquid medicine helped with the awful taste, so I bought a lime and headed up to the apartment.
So, I inspected the label on the bottle for anything I could understand. I can read Thai pretty well but don’t have the vocabulary to know what I’m reading. But I found numbers and was able to work out the dosage somewhat. The liquid is cloudy and brownish, maybe like the sediment at the bottom of apple cider. The aroma is not strong, kind of a mix of floral and vegetal. And for all the whiny descriptions I’d read about how awful the flavor is – how there’s nothing so terrible in the world – it really isn’t so bad. If you grew up with Hippie remedies like liquid echinacea you’ll have an idea of the taste; and echinacea is much, much worse in that the flavor doesn’t dissipate and the alcohol-base stings the tongue. This stuff has a quick finish and the lime kills any lingering flavor on contact.
I drank some water and went to bed. I was full-on passed out for a good 5 hours before I woke up to drink more water. Then I was down again. I slept hard pretty much through the whole day and when the liquid started taking affect it was much milder than the pills ever were. I didn’t have stomach cramps that I had with the pill always and the “active” time of flushing the system seemed much shorter, although to the same degree as the pills. I much prefer the liquid given this one experience to hold against the many experiences with the pill form.
I wasn’t able to eat much on Wednesday, although I did try to get something in my system so that I would have fuel for the next day. I woke up Thursday morning and got out of bed, but the movements of preparing to go to the gym proved too arduous and my exhaustion threw me back into bed. My husband let me sleep late – he has a keen awareness of how hard I’m sleeping and can tell when it’s repairing me; he’s better at it than I am – and we went to breakfast when I was able to sit up. I couldn’t really eat the oatmeal I’d ordered and we decided I’d take another day to rest so that I can come back strong tomorrow.
After resting in bed a bit more I got up and went across the street to a massage parlor that has a sauna in it. I’ve been told by my trainers that I should use the sauna because I fight so often and it’s a treatment that one of my trainers uses himself on a near-daily basis. This sauna is brilliant. It’s about the size of an average (non-NYC apartment) shower/bath and is constructed of wood with benches forming an “L” shape inside. I can lie with my knees bent a little across the longer side, which I did for most of my time inside. The heat is produced – this really is so clever – by a large crockpot that is plugged in to keep water boiling with some herbs in it and the steam fills the tiny space and brings the temperature up impressively high. As I was waiting for the room to heat (meaning for the water to boil, I guess) the operator brought me a small cup of sweet ginger tea and rubbed what smelled like tea-tree oil on the base of my neck.
I worked up a really good sweat in that little sauna and dripped for about 40 minutes before the lady told me to come out. I toweled off, got dressed and headed back home while drinking a big bottle of cold water. I felt great. In the sauna I’d thought to myself, “wow, I’m going to go train this afternoon!” and I noted in the elevator mirror on the way up to my apartment (this is where I really see myself most often – elevator narcissism) how much clearer my eyes looked, how awake I looked after the sauna. The urge to power over to the gym gave way to fatigue soon after I got in the door and I was happy to shower and get back into the bed.
Ice or Spice – Shins
Something that has continuously surprised me in home-treatments here in Thailand is how much heat is used as a cure for injury. In America we like to ice everything and that is a good way to reduce swelling, but out here it’s only the first 12 hours that ice has any purpose in treating anything. After that it’s all hot water. Hot water massages are used for bruises on the shins: you soak a towel in incredibly hot water – Kaensak described it well when he said that it should hurt your hands to wring it out – and then put the hot towel on your bruise, applying enough pressure for some of the remaining water to eek out of the towel. You do this until the water is no longer hot and then you do it again. It’s incredibly affective in curing lumps and bruises on the shins and it’s probably what caused the swelling in my nose to go down after the first 48 hours. Gets the blood moving, I guess.
I can’t say for sure that these laxatives have a great affect in helping recovery after fights, but the liquid version certainly seems to have helped in my recovery from a flu-like illness and the time in the sauna made a huge difference. I can’t advocate for it with the enthusiasm that my trainers have for “cleaning your blood” via laxatives after a fight, but if it’s the tried and true method of the fighters around me, it’s likely going to remain part of my regimen until I can’t stand it anymore. But the hot water massage, the sauna and the ice-baths are keepers.