This is not an article for “old people.” This is an article for people who want to feel happy and healthy as they train into old age. I might even be so bold as to suggest that if you are young, ambitious, and live and breathe jiu jitsu, then you should heed what is written here to make you even more powerful! Many careers are derailed due to lack of self-care.
The “gentle art” of BJJ can be punishing depending on how you and with whom you train. In fact, if I subjected my students to the type of training I did when I was a white belt, I’m certain 95 percent of them would have quit within the first month. As our sport has grown, we have been fortunate enough to diversify the type of people we train with, in addition to improving and evolving the ways we teach to make things more inclusive.
Keep your reasons for training BJJ close to you. When times get tough you will want to remind yourself of the reasons you committed yourself to this discipline in the first place.
Here are some lessons that I may have learned the hard way that I want to pass on to anyone with the patience and willingness to read them. If you implement them early in your career, you may find that you have a smoother ride to your black belt and beyond:
1. REAL INJURIES DESERVE CARE
When a snap, crackle, or pop is heard coming from some part of your body, chances are something is wrong. How wrong, only a doctor might know, but I could bet money nine out of 10 times that it will involve some rest and rehab. It’s very common for us to “suck it up” and power through because we don’t want to appear to be wussies. Don’t listen to the obsessive irrational voice in your head or the external teammate or teacher who is trying to convince you it’s fine. Err on the side of caution and get it checked out. We often avoid a proper medical assessment because we don’t want to be told to take time off. It’s much better to heal than to come back prematurely and end up with a chronic issue 10 years down the road.
2. TRAIN WITH PEOPLE CLOSER IN SIZE MORE REGULARLY
Unless you’re planning to compete in absolute divisions sometime soon, aim to train more frequently with people closer to your size. Age and rank can vary, but it is far less wear and tear when someone of equal size is grinding you out vs. someone 50 lbs heavier. Most of us have options now, so why put your body through that every day? Save your absolute matches for specific sessions or days.
3. TAP EARLY, TAP OFTEN
You only get one body in this lifetime. Don’t let your ego ruin it. So much stress is exerted on our joints when an opponent moves in for the kill. Why put your body at risk by being stubborn during a regular training match? Making mistakes is part of the game and learning to tap and move on will not only teach you more about strategy and outcome, but it will save your joints and limbs.
4. YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
If you want to ask your body to do some serious work on the mats multiple times a week, be conscious of how you fuel it. It doesn’t mean that you have to go on a strict diet, but try to give your body wholesome nourishing foods most of the time. McDonald’s one hour before class or a Monster energy drink probably isn’t the best choice! That being said, we all have our vices, and I strongly believe moderation is key. Give yourself a treat every now and then, but don’t feed yourself junk from sunrise to sundown.
5. SLEEP WELL
The more your train, the more rest and repair your body needs to do. Quality sleep is key to restoring your body. Aim to rest seven to eight hours nightly if you can. Are you an insomniac? Make an effort to clean up your sleep hygiene. Turn electronic devices off earlier in the evening, try reading a book, listening to soft music, meditating or doing breath work before bedtime. Learning to turn your brain off is vital to your recovery.
6. ADJUST YOUR TRAINING FREQUENCY AROUND YOUR GOALS
Are you planning on winning Mundials this year and every year until 2025? If the answer is no, then it might not be great for your body to endure intense training five hours a day, six days a week. BJJ is a year-round sport and doesn’t really have a true off season. Train around your goals, don’t just train like a maniac every day till kingdom come. You’ll suffer burnout and injury quickly. Training long and hard is not sustainable years at a time.
7. GET A LIFE
I would even say this for the highest level athletes: Having a little life outside BJJ helps you appreciate it more. I remember a handful of years where every vacation, social engagement and spare moment was thrown into BJJ. I got to a point where I began to resent it. Learn to miss it a bit. Even a day or a week. Balance is crucial to your long-term practice.
8. TREAT YOUR BODY WELL
If you demand a lot from your physical self, why not make sure it has everything it needs to run like a well-oiled machine? I regularly see the following specialists to help me stay strong, mobile, and supple:
- Personal trainer: I hate working out for the sake or working out, but I enjoy working out for the sake of improving my BJJ. I work with a personal trainer who helps me see what I can’t see in terms of strength, posture and balance deficiencies. Their goal is to help me use my body more efficiently and to increase my strength and stability.
- Physical Therapist: When I’m injured, my PT is my number one go-to. Before I even see the doctor, I reach out to him. He can usually help me assess whether I’m dealing with a minor or a major injury if it’s not already obvious. He will also provide me with the expertise and guidance to rehabilitate or reprogram areas of injury or dysfunction.
- Chiropractor: Every now and then, my neck gets cranked and my spine gets twisted. A great Chiropractor can help you get “unstuck” and speed your recovery along. There are different schools of thought in Chiropractic work, so make sure you find one that’s right for you. I don’t see them every week, but it’s very handy to have a great one in your circle of influence.
- Massage Therapy: Massage is often thought of as a splurge, but in my book, it’s therapy. Rarely do I treat myself to a spa massage, but I regularly see a therapist who practices multiple modalities like: myofascial release, sports, deep tissue, craniosacral, reflexology, trigger point, and lymphatic drainage. Sometimes receiving a human touch that is aligned with healing the body vs. harming it is very necessary!
- Osteopath: Believe it or not, but sometimes there is an injury that won’t/can’t heal, and the physical therapist, chiropractor, and massage therapist can’t quite get to the root of the problem. Enter the osteopath. Soft tissue, neuromuscular, skeletal manipulation — sometimes it feels like they are performing magic, but they truly are products of rigorous medical wonder. Though they are Medical Doctors, they are a DO instead of an MD and not all DOs have chosen to practice the hands-on manipulation aspect. If you find one, they largely work out of medical benefit systems. When everything else fails, try this as another holistic method.
- Acupuncture: I cannot confirm or deny that you may be asked to drink some terrible tasting concoction of earthy things … but don’t be scared of it or the needles! An ancient method of healing that has been used in TCM (traditional Chinese Medicine) for centuries, energy meridians are unblocked through the use of tiny needles that are inserted into different pathways of the body. They usually don’t hurt and this can be a very effective way of treating spazzed out muscles, sickness, pain, insomnia, and a whole slew of other ailments.
- Yoga: I don’t actually ever meet this ideal, but I aim to spend one hour lengthening and stretching my body for every hour I scrunch it up into an aggressive ball of grrrrrr. We contract and shorten our muscles so much in BJJ that we can create long-term postural damage if we don’t do something to reverse the mechanics. Consider yoga.
- Hot and cold training: Having access to saunas and ice baths, ideally moving between the two, can be an extremely effective way to calm the nervous system and help you relax. If you have a heart condition, consult with a medical professional first, but hot and cold exposure can be an excellent way to tap into your nervous system, reduce inflammation and expel toxins from your system.
- Meditation: If you struggle to calm the body, sometimes it helps to start with the mind. Quiet what’s going on upstairs with five to 10 minutes of mindfulness a day. If you don’t know how to meditate there are plenty of great apps available on your smartphones to guide you through the first steps.
- HRV training: Heart rate variability training involves simple breath work and a heart rate monitor. Learning how to access your heart through your breath can be an powerful way to manage your physical and mental state. It can be a great tool for times of stress and can help you with recovery as well. There are plenty of smartphone apps that pair with a heart rate monitor.
9. TAKE BREAKS
Remember why you picked this crazy sport up in the first place. Always enjoy yourself. If you feel burnt out, take a break. Everyone and everything will still be here when you feel like you’re ready to come back. Your association to BJJ is very similar to a long-term relationship or marriage. Sometimes you need to spend some time away from your partner to truly appreciate them!
10. KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
Keep your reasons for training BJJ close to you. When times get tough you will want to remind yourself of the reasons you committed yourself to this discipline in the first place. Losing your purpose or not having one in the first place can be discombobulating. It’s also ok for your purpose to change. Just make sure you are always coming back to the mats for yourself.