Training Floor Surfaces

Training Floor Surfaces

My dojo has recently moved its location from a room with a wooden floor to a room with a hard mat. There are some advantages and some disadvantages to practicing karate on this new floor material. Below, I will review various floor types and some of their relative pros and cons.

Wood is the traditional floor material for karate practice. While some wood floors are quite hard and provide little cushioning, they are better for supporting stable stances. Also, turning on wood is usually easier than the alternatives, as the support foot can more smoothly pivot during the turn. Some things to consider regarding wood floors include the lack of cushioning and whether the floor becomes slippery when too damp or too wet. Also a floor may warp or crack over time if not properly constructed or taken care of.

Tatami is the traditional floor material for martial arts such as aikido and judo, but is rarely used outside of Japan and, recently, even within Japan. Tatami is basically tightly-woven rice straw. Tatami mats have about the same amount of cushioning as a hard mat. This cushioning is especially important when doing falls, which are so prevalent in aikido and judo. Authentic tatmi is quite expensive to purchase and maintain, so synthetic substitutes (look like real tatami, but made of a rubbery plastic material) are now used in many dojo where the use of tatmi is desired but not financially practical.

Mat (single, stationary mat)
There are many types of mats. But most stable mat floors (single sheet pulled over a mat or mats, tied at the edges) are somewhat hard. While the feet may sometimes “stick” on a mat (unlike on a wood floor), which can cause unexpected damage to the joints, the added cushion can provide for a safer environment in which to practice falls in training, especially true with a softer mat. One must be careful when training on mats-even the single covering type-as small spaces between the mats (underneath the covering) can cause the support foot to move slightly or a toe could get stuck. Muscles in the legs may compensate for these small movements (or lack of movement) to avoid a fall. This situation, however, can lead to problems with the joints over time.

Mats (multiple, portable mats)
As with single mat floors, multiple mat surfaces can involve different amounts of cushioning. One of the potential problems with moveable mats is the chance that one or more of them could slip and cause unexpected movement of the supporting limb(s). Another common complaint with this type of surface is that the toes sometimes stick in the cracks between mats, which can cause mis-steps and even toe dislocation, ankle sprains or worse. Mats kept folded may be a good breeding ground for mold if left in a moist, warm location for a long time. Some airing out of the mats is recommended if not used often.

Training on grass outside can feel good emotionally, if the weather is nice. One thing that must be considered, however, is the very high risk of getting dirty. Sitting down on the grass or dirt in a white uniform can be very frustrating. Also, practitioners must be very careful to check the entire surface area for stray rocks, sticks and garbage before and during training. There is nothing inherently wrong with training with shoes on, except perhaps that the added weight can put additional stress on the knee during kicks. Another point to keep in mind is that dew sometimes forms on the grass more quickly and potently than might be expected. Dew can cause unwanted slipping when stepping or shifting. I remember one of Mori Sensei’s summer camps in about 1984, when we were having our morning training out in the grass in bare feet. He had Sakurai Sensei (Canada) demonstrate the kata Empi, while we all watched through the intermittent fog. Landing from the jump at the end of the kata, Sakurai Sensei slipped a noticeable distance on the dew-covered grass. What impressed me about this was that despite sliding about two feet backwards, he kept his stance intact and only leaned slightly to compensate for the near fall. His good balance of leg tensions is, I am sure, what saved him from falling. Stance stability is something we need to keep in mind even more when training on wet grass.

Carpet is one of the worst surfaces for regular training. Of course training on all types of surfaces has its benefits from a self-defense perspective, as we do not know what type of surface we might be attacked on until it happens. However, carpet is less than ideal for regular shoeless training, with the risk of rug-burns being one of the drawbacks. There is usually only minimal cushioning provided with carpeting, as concrete is usually less than an inch or so below the feet.

Concrete is probably the worst surface presented here for barefoot training. There is no cushioning, so joints are in jeopardy. Being difficult to keep clean, stray pieces of garbage and uneven surfaces may cause abrasions on the bottom of the feet. With shoes on, concrete becomes a better training surface than carpet in terms of the latter’s tendency for the feet to “stick” while turning.

There are various types of surfaces on which one can train that are not mentioned above. My view on training surfaces is that wood is the best for daily karate training. Some type of mat should be used when practicing falls. Training on surfaces other than wood is good for supplementary self-defense-oriented practice and, if wood is not available, usually better than no training at all!

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published January 2002)