by Don Heatrick
@donheatrick

Naresuan the Great Shrine, Ayutthaya

Naresuan the Great Shrine, Ayutthaya

My first trip to Thailand was back in 2000, organised by Ajarn Tony Moore though the British Thai Boxing Council. The trip was an eye-opener in every sense possible!

As a Muay Thai coach, I travelled to train in real Muay Thai gyms, to see fights at both Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums, to experience the Thai weapons art of Krabi Krabong, to learn more about Thai traditions and culture, and to visit the Grand Palace and the ruins of Ayutthaya.

I also got… Thai food (chillies for breakfast), Tuk Tuk rides (death wish on the Expressway) Thai nightlife (ping pong balls, blow darts, and goldfish), Thai karaoke (definitely not my favourite), Thai massage (I like being stood on), and nearly into a lone fight against a gang of Pattaya ladyboys in the early hours.

And every time I’ve returned to Thailand, I’ve continued to experience and learn more, to develop a deeper perspective, and witness the changes over the years.

I’ve visited Thailand as a Muay Thai coach, as a competitive fighter at the World Championships, as a strength and conditioning coach to the Thais, and as a reporter/media.

I’m lucky to have spoken at length with many esteemed Muay Thai fighters, coaches, and gym owners, both in Thailand and the rest of the world too.

I’m far from a Thailand expert (and would love to get there more often), but I believe I’ve experienced enough to offer a balanced perspective, and perhaps share a unique insight on Muay Thai training both inside and outside of Thailand.

Why Every Serious Thai Boxer Should Train In Thailand At Least Once In Their Career

Don at the late Pimu's WPT Gym, Bangkok 2007

Don at the late Pimu’s WPT Gym, Bangkok 2007

The most important reason is that it’s an amazing opportunity to accelerate your technical and tactical Muay Thai skill development (if you find the right gym & trainer).

There are two reasons that you’ll improve considerably when training in Thailand:

1) The technical and tactical Muay Thai skill and knowledge level in Thailand is obviously VERY high

2) You’ll be training more frequently and for longer durations – you’ll simply accumulate a higher number of training hours in a short space of time

Your relative improvement will depend on the quality of the trainer you work with and how many productive training sessions you can amass during your stay.

(Note I say “productive” training sessions. Don’t fall into the trap of just showing up super fatigued, unable to learn new skill!)

In addition to that, here are some other great benefits of training in Thailand:

  • You can train full time like a professional, alongside professional fighters.
  • Depending on your location, your experience and your physical size, you’ll likely have the opportunity to fight far more regularly in Thailand.
  • You can experience the best Muay Thai fighters in the world competing at Rajadamnern and Lumpinee stadiums.
  • You can develop an understanding of the cultural and traditional aspects of Muay Thai, gaining a feel of what Muay Thai really is.

The Dark Side Of Training In Thailand

In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing anyone heading to Thailand to train is that there’s a general lack of understanding in Thailand of 1. what progressive training is, and 2. Why it needs to be done.

Thai-style training, for the most part, is not progressive – meaning they don’t allocate an adequate period of “building up” to high loads of intensity and volume demanded by fighters, and there’s no actual measurement of how hard a fighter is training. It’s more of an attitude of “push them until they break”… then maybe back off a bit (depending on the gym & trainer)… then keep pushing them again.

They seem to understand that the body adapts over time, and that by training every day, eventually the fighter will be capable of more than before. But they are almost always pushing to the max, which is simply NOT optimal in terms of creating maximum growth.

As many scientific studies on athletes has shown, it takes a proper dosage of training stimulus & fatigue, in conjunction with adequate recovery and nutrition, to reach elite levels of performance. The properly planned approach, which optimizes an athlete’s training program based on the body’s rhythm and capacity for recovery & growth, always beats the “max out every day” approach.

If you have ever done any kind of strength training, you know how this works. You simply can’t hit your true 1-rep max every day in training – because the next day your body simply won’t be capable, and your central nervous system (CNS) needs time to recover before you’re able to truly max out again.

In the sphere of strength training, it’s common knowledge by now that attempting to max yourself out every day is NOT a good training plan, and that deloads and recovery periods are hugely beneficial (and necessary) for optimal athletic adaptation.

I’m not saying all Thai gyms and trainers are like this, but many are – especially when it comes to Westerners who come wanting to fight. They tend to have foreign fighters jump right in, and injury and overtraining is likely unless you are already physically prepared, and disciplined enough to start gradually after touching down in Thailand

Taking the full-time regimen that Thais have built up to from a young age, and applying this regimen to Westerners (with a myriad of different training ages/histories), often leads to injury and overtraining very quickly.

In fact, even many Thais have been broken by the typical training regimen too, and long since kicked to the curb – despite being good, athletic fighters. They just genetically couldn’t tolerate high-volume training methods… their training was mismanaged.

Traditional Muay Thai gym resistance training equipment isn't appropriate for real athletic development

Traditional Muay Thai gym resistance training equipment isn’t appropriate for real athletic development

A traditional culture that also prizes respecting (not questioning) elders (or handed down training methods), combined with a lack of scientific training knowledge, makes it difficult to improve the situation.

It’s changing very slowly in Thailand… I’ve written about it before here.

And this change is accelerating. Organisations like One Championship are doing a good job of showcasing fighters and their training methods from around the World, not just Thailand.

This can only shake things up. And as more good Thais begin to struggle against farang fighters, Thai gym owners and trainers may take a more rounded, holistic approach to training in the future too.

That aside, there are a few other common issues Westerners tend to face when training in Thailand:

  • If you end up with a bad trainer (who simply sees you as another tourist, paying the gym bills), you’ll likely not learn much.
  • Different trainers will show you different ways of performing the same techniques – even in the same gym. This can confuse beginners… Which is the right way?
  • It’s important to understand that there are many ways to execute the same techniques  – depending on the coach’s personal preference, and the particular application in a fight (which can’t always be communicated due to the language barrier). Be prepared to try different ways, and keep what personally suits you best.
  • Training doesn’t balance all the performance qualities that serve a striking athlete. Lack of scientific understanding and adequate resistance training equipment leaves untapped potential (which I’ll elaborate on later in this article)

Things You Should Know About Thai Gyms vs Western Gyms

In Thailand (depending on the location, the specific gym, and even the trainer), foreign students can be seen merely a tourists that pay the gym’s bills. Don’t get ripped off with poor training.

Classes are informal and aren’t typically structured for a whole group to carry out the same drills and activities. You’ll be expected to run with the group before training and spend a certain number of rounds of skipping, shadow boxing, pad work, bag work, and sometimes clinch and sparring etc.  

You’ll likely be left to your own devices while working on the heavy bag, and the pad rounds are generally when you’ll get the most personalised coaching from your trainer.

Sparring partners in Thailand are typically smaller in stature than western countries. If you’re a bigger fighter, you may be dependant on suitable sized (and skilled) sparring partners also visiting to train while you’re at the gym too.

Depending on the area, scams exploiting tourists can be commonplace. Be aware of this in your dealings with the many smiling Thais that will approach you to “help”.

Finding The Right Gym For You

Finding the right gym in Thailand very much depends on your personal training experience, your training/fighting goals, and what your requirements are for the trip outside of Muay Thai too. Your choice of location has a massive impact on all of this.

For this reason, your choice of destination is your first priority. Broadly speaking, you can subdivide Thailand’s Muay Thai training locations into Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, and the various islands (such as Phuket, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Chang, Koh Samet, Koh Phangan etc.).

For fighters, each of these locations generally offer different relative levels of training camp, stadium competition, tourist attractions, and nightlife.

Although there are always exceptions to the norm, overall you can expect the following priority order for each of these aspects for each of these locations…

Training camps typically offer the highest level in Bangkok, followed by Pattaya, then the islands, and finally Chiang Mai

Generally, beginners and intermediates fair better in Chiang Mai, the islands, and maybe Pattaya. Intermediate to advanced fighters will generally get the most from training in Pattaya and Bangkok.

Stadium Competition level is generally the highest in Bangkok, followed by Pattaya, the islands, and then Chiang Mai.

This competition level not only affects the level that you’ll witness at a stadium as a spectator, but also generally the level you’ll face as a fighter looking to compete yourself too.

As with the training camps, generally beginners–intermediates looking to compete will fair better in Chiang Mai, the islands, and maybe Pattaya. Whereas intermediate–advanced fighters will generally have better opportunities in Pattaya and Bangkok.

Tourist attractions vary massively, and your own requirements and personal taste will dictate how you rate this. Do you want historical temples, beaches and watersports, markets, shopping centres?

I suggest having considered the training and stadium competition levels to identify potential regions, that you take a look at the tourist info to see which suits you best.

Nightlife also varies massively throughout Thailand… along with family friendliness! Again, I’d point you to tourist information sources to get the balance right for you.

I’ve seen many Thaiboxers start their training with dedicated mindsets for the first few days, only to fall into the nightlife big time! Training sessions are missed, and nocturnal sleeping patterns take over. Just bear this in mind, and be honest with yourself about your discipline levels and why you’ve come to Thailand.

So…

Do you want to fight? At what level? Be honest!

Do you want access to a beach? What other tourist activities interest you?

What about nightlife?

Having considered these points, identified potential regions, and checked out relevant tourist info to get a feel which may suit you best… Now it’s time to research the gyms there.

Here’s a website that lists many gyms in Thailand based on region. I don’t think it’s been updated for some time, but it’s still a very useful resource: https://muaythaicampsthailand.com

The longer you stay at a gym with your trainers, the more effort and attention they will invest in you. Your trainer is waiting – Sasiprapa Gym, Bangkok

The longer you stay at a gym with your trainers, the more effort and attention they will invest in you. [Sasiprapa Gym, Bangkok]

The longer you stay at a gym with your trainers, the more effort and attention they will invest in you – and the better progress you’ll make. If you keep changing gyms, you begin this trust building process again.

So unless you’re staying in Thailand for an extended period… Rather than training at many different gyms, I’d recommend doing your research and picking 2 or 3 gyms to shortlist, and then visiting them on arrival to see how they feel to you and picking one from there.

Who are the boxers training there? Are they mostly foreigners (farangs), Thais, or a mix? Are they predominantly tourists or fighters? What about nationalities? Will you be able to communicate with the others training there?

Depending on the timing, you may find a large contingency of one particular nationality in attendance at the time of your stay. Just something to consider.

Observe the trainers… do they correct mistakes or just dish out a beasting? Do they adapt what they do depending on the level of the individual student? Do they work on defensive habits as well as attacking ones?

The truth is, some trainers are lazy and will do the bare minimum to get paid. They may well be charismatic, but offer you little personal growth in your limited time in Thailand. Don’t settle for a trainer like this.

Find a trainer who’s interested in his students, with a passion for helping them grow through the art of Muay Thai. The difference is light and day. Unfortunately, you may have to “kiss a few frogs” before you “find your prince”… but watching trainers with their students before you take a session with them can save you a lot of heartache!

After you’ve done a little groundwork like this, ease in with a morning session first.

How To Prepare For Training In Thailand

With regards to preparing while in your home country, it really depends where you’re personally starting from, and what level you want to train/compete when you get out to Thailand, but as a minimum I’d suggest…

  1. Get used to running a moderate 5km at least 4 times a week
  2. Get used to running a steady 10km at least once a week
  3. Increase your number of pad rounds and bag rounds – at least 5x 4min rounds, 4 or 5 times a week
  4. Stay well hydrated (drink a LOT) while practicing this training in a sweat suit as often as possible too (to begin acclimatising to the hot, humid climate)

It really is all about increasing your training volume (number of sessions, duration of sessions) ahead of time so that your body can better cope with the changes. Regardless, as you adjust you’ll still feel shell-shocked for the first few days when you get there.

Training Advice For Beginner & Intermediate Trainees

As a beginner/intermediate trainee, you’re probably staying in Thailand for around 2-weeks… but don’t let that make you rush into every available training session right away.

Jumping into two 3-hour training sessions each day from day one usually results in two or three days of training before injury or fatigue slams on the brakes – hard!

Instead, keep your eye on the longer-term. Your learning in Thailand will compound… meaning you’ll gain more from your last week of training than your first week. Breaking yourself in the first week means you’ll miss out on some exponential growth.

Start steady… and accelerate!

Even if you’re superfit going into your first training session in Thailand, it’s important you consider:

  1. You’ve likely just been on a long-haul flight, messing up both your eating and sleeping patterns. This is more stressful on your body than you may realise
  2. You’re now training in a hot and humid climate, and potentially a fairly polluted environment too (depending on your location). This is also going stress your body
  3. Thai trainers don’t get this, and will likely push you to match the output of everyone who’s already settled into to training already

Training camps typically have two training sessions of between 2–3 hours, 6 days a week. One session in the morning and one in the afternoon. Depending on the gym, the morning sessions typically start between 6:30am and 8:00am, and the afternoon sessions between 3:00pm and 4:00pm.

Morning sessions tend to be lighter/easier going than the afternoon sessions, and both sessions typically start with a run – a longer, slower 10km to 14km run in the morning, and a shorter, faster 5km run in the afternoon.

Sessions typically involve running, skipping, shadow boxing, heavy bag rounds, pad work rounds, clinching or sparring, followed by some conditioning (multiple kicks/knees etc on the bags, bodyweight exercises).

I’d recommend starting with just the morning session for the first day or two, to get yourself acclimatised (both to the climate and the training volume)!

Depending on your budget, private 1-2-1 sessions with a trainer are another option rather than the general sessions.

Immersing-in-(Muay)-Thai-culture... Left: Don next to his birthday buddha (Pang Tawai Natra), Right: Hanging Outside Rajadamnern Stadium

Immersing-in-(Muay)-Thai-culture… Left: Don next to his birthday buddha (Pang Tawai Natra), Right: Outside Rajadamnern Stadium on fight night

In those first few days of acclimatising, I’d recommend you take the opportunity to immerse yourself in learning more about Thai culture and tradition. Visit temples, get guided tours, check out some stadium fights if the timing is right!

Through your training regimen, you’ll learn the value of managing recovery effectively (sleep, nutrition, recovery activity etc). Get this right and you’ll quickly shift from a feeling of “survive” to “thrive”.

As a beginner/intermediate trainee, your Muay Thai training emphasis will be on learning technique (footwork, punch, kick, elbow, knee, clinch). Find a trainer that has an interest in you and wants to help you learn – goes beyond the bare minimum to get paid.

There are 3 main areas of development while training in Thailand (in priority order):

  1. Technical and tactical Muay Thai skill
  2. Cardio fitness: aerobic capacity/aerobic power/lactic power
  3. Local muscular endurance

Regardless of your experience in Muay Thai, your predominant emphasis when training in Thailand should be learning technical and tactical Muay Thai skill.

Cardio and local muscular endurance conditioning are almost side effects that you’ll gain too. But technical and tactical development should always be your main focus, and is the biggest benefit of training in Thailand.

But saying that, your pre-existing fitness levels will affect how strong the conditioning side effect stimulus is!

This will be a graduating scale, with less conditioned fighters experiencing the strongest effect, and most conditioned fighters the least.

Training Advice For Advanced Trainees & Competitive Fighters

As a fighter, you’re probably staying for 4 weeks or more, and looking to fight before you return home.

It’s important to still consider the effects of long haul travelling, and the change of climate on your fatigue levels and recovery ability. Start slowly over the first few days… it’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish (just like a Muay Thai fight)!

The fact that you intend to fight and represent their gym, will naturally result in more focused, deliberate attention from the trainers.

Even so, your emphasis (especially initially) should be technical and tactical Muay Thai skill. Being more advanced, you’ll move beyond technique alone to learn better tactics – raise you fight IQ.

You’ll be invited to spar more, and pad work with your trainer will become far more interactive – with your trainer hitting you back more often, and drilling tactical combinations or set ups.

I previously mentioned a graduating scale, with regards to the most conditioned fighters benefitting least from the conditioning training in Thailand…

A caveat here would be when experienced, well conditioned fighters go to Thailand as the final part of their fight camp… In this instance, technical and tactical development is not their predominant focus – it’s too late for that. Rather it’s peak fight fitness they want, as they aim to push “full-time” without distractions.

Staying longer in Thailand, you’ll naturally deepen your understanding of social aspects of Thai culture and your personal relationships with your trainers… You may be invited to eat with the fighters and trainers at the camp for example.

Optimising Diet & Nutrition

Thailand is renowned for great tasting, affordable cuisine. However, if you’re training and fighting in Thailand, your approach to feeding will be very different to the casual tourist.

And there are some challenges for a Western Thai boxer looking for effective nutrition to fuel their training efforts while in Thailand.

Readily available food and drink choices are different, and you won’t find nutritional supplements easily available either. So maintaining or developing good nutrition in Thailand compared to home requires some compromise.

Staying Hydrated

We’ll start with the basics… first, don’t drink the tap water. To avoid getting sick, use bottled water only (even when cleaning your teeth). Ice cubes in drinks are best avoided too, just in case. You may have a cast-iron constitution, but then again, you could write-off a week’s training to double-ended purging and massive fatigue!

Staying hydrated is a priority if you want to train productively. Losing just 2% of your body mass through water weight will reduce your performance typically by 10%. And if you feel thirsty, you’re already 2% body mass dehydrated!

My go-to rehydration drinks are either coconut water or half-diluted fruit juice (typically orange juice) with water. Both of these are isotonic drinks that hydrate you more effectively than plain water. 

Many of the dishes you’ll buy in Thailand will be leadened with salt, sugar, and MSG. To avoid this as much as possible, don’t add sauces and ask for no MSG (“mai sai pong chuu rot”). Although, MSG is still often added even if you do ask!

As a rule, I generally recommend a balanced diet provides everything that you need. However, if necessary, whey protein isolate and creatine monohydrate are proven choices I typically suggest depending on your goals.

Supplements

You can get supplements in Thailand, but they’re expensive! You could bring enough with you to keep you going if your stay is short enough, but I recommend getting what you need from your food and drink intake during your stay.

Caloric Intake

When it comes to basic nutrition, the first thing to get right is your calorie in