If you’ve trained BJJ for any length of time then you’ve probably come to the conclusion that mastering this art is more of a marathon than a short sprint.
And you’re right!
There’s a LOT to learn and a LOT to get good at in this sport. That’s why a black belt takes so bloody long!
The fact that it takes so long is part of the reason why we have to talk about training layoffs. At some point something is going to come along that’ll make training almost impossible for a while. This is almost inevitable in the grand scheme of things. As Dr Seuss says, “I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.”
So what we’re talking about today is how to deal with those training layoffs without losing all your hard found skills and without going stir crazy because you can’t train.
Step 1 is not beating yourself up emotionally when you take a temporary break from training.
Let’s say that you’ve had to stop training for a while.
Maybe you’ve suffered an injury that’s gonna take some time to heal. Or perhaps someone in your family gets sick and needs extra attention. Maybe there’s this crazy deadline at work and you have to concentrate just on that for a while.
If that’s the case, then cut yourself some slack! Temporary training layoffs happen to everyone.
In fact, maybe it’s the many times that I’ve had to come back from layoffs and start training again that qualify me to write a newsletter called ‘Beginning BJJ’ 😉
So don’t worry, you’ll get back to it. Training layoffs are inevitable in the grand scheme of things.
Step 2 of getting back into it is not beating your body up too badly when you return to the mats.
Here’s the thing.
A LOT of people get injured right when they return to training.
It’s understandable why this happens. The returning person is chomping at the bit to get started again. They want to get back in shape and catch up to everybody else technique-wise.
So they push themselves super-hard on their first day back – as hard as they did before the layoff – and blammo! They get injured and now they’re back on the sickroll.
So don’t do that! Remember, it took a while to work up to your peak level of fitness when you started, and now you’re starting again. Just dip your toes in the water the first time that you return to training.
At this point I have to point out that I don’t make rookie mistakes like that anymore. I’m no dummy! I know to take it easy my first class back…
Having survived the first time back, so I foolishly ramp it up to 110% for my second session. And – of course – blammo! I get injured on my SECOND training session after a layoff.
Don’t do that either!
Now let’s move on to some more detailed strategies for dealing with layoffs and return to training. There ARE things you can do to make it a little easier when you do eventually get back to training. My recommendations are based on a mix of scientific research and my own personal experience.
Hopefully you’ll come away from this lesson with a couple nuggets of practical advice.
Physical Factors for Staying Sharp During a Layoff
BJJ is a physical sport, and so it should come as no surprise that physical factors have a strong effect on your performance. These physical factors include strength, power, flexibility, aerobic / anaerobic endurance, muscular endurance, coordination and balance.
The trouble is that when you stop training your performance in all these areas drop off…
Some of the first things to go are aerobic and anaerobic endurance – for the sake of this lesson I’ll lump them together as ‘cardio.’
When someone has been off the mat for a month or two and then come back to training they often do OK in the first few minutes of sparring.
As they get a little deeper into the sparring match, however, things start to go wrong. They’re suddenly exhausted and their grappling level drops precipitously.
That’s because when you get tired you’re not strong. When you get tired you’re not fast. When you get tired you’re not even smart.
So cardio is critical!!!
There’s a lot of research on endurance, and it turns out that a simple concept like ‘endurance’ isn’t actually very simple. To dig into this research you have to become comfortable with terms like VO2 max, exercise stroke volume, respiratory exchange ratio and ventricular wall thickness…
The bottom line is that if you stop training your endurance will start going down within a week or two. At first the effects might be relatively small, but in a close match a few percentage points of VO2 Max can sure make a difference.
You also lose strength, power, explosiveness and muscular endurance, but usually this takes a little longer than the relatively rapid decline in cardio.
So when a layoff is inevitable try not to become a complete couch potato (or desk jockey).
Try your best to stay active and do something physical. If you have a choice, then give priority to activities that get you out of breath. Even it’s only a 20 minute jog, every little bit of cardio helps. You can look at it as crosstraining.
Anything is better than doing nothing. Running. Lifting. Climbing. Swimming. Soccer. Yoga. Biking. Boxercise. Hiking. Skiing. Rollerblading. Pushups. Crunches. Pull-ups.
Once you start training again you’ll start regaining what you’ve lost. If you took 2 months off of training then it will take at least 2 months to get back into the shape you were in before you stopped.
One final thing to consider: if you just don’t have the time for physical activities, or if you’re injured, then pay attention to your diet and don’t let that slip too! It’s hard enough to get your heart and lungs back into shape without having to lose an additional 20 lbs of bad body weight…
How to Stay in the Game Mentally
In BJJ the mental game is at least as important as the physical game (that’s why small BJJ black belts eat larger, stronger opponents for breakfast).
Mental factors include creativity, sensitivity, perception skills, the ability to remember techniques, the ability to make quick decisions, willpower, self discipline and mental toughness.
All of these factors are important, and all of them decline with detraining.
However the ability to make quick decisions is one of the first things to go when you stop training.
Here’s an example.
When you’re sparring after a long layoff you still know what you should be doing and how you should be reacting to your opponent. The problem is that your thoughts move like molasses.
Your opponent does something, and it’s up to you to pick the correct response. But you’re like the ship’s computer in the old Star Trek series:
“… processing … processing … processing…”
You haven’t forgotten all the BJJ you ever knew. It’s just taking you longer to make decisions.
Back at your peak you could choose the right technique in the blink of an eye. Now the same decision takes three or four seconds, by which time your opponent has moved again and the situation has already changed.
Your old sparring partners are now one or two steps ahead of you all the time.
So what can you do about this?
I’m not going to go into the actual research here, but there’s a ton of evidence that VISUALIZING activities and WATCHING activities then helps you PERFORM those same activities
So the bottom line is that anything you do to keep your brain actively thinking about BJJ will keep your mental skills sharp.
Go drop by class and watch your friends spar. Watch some instructional DVDs. Study how a high level player competes by watching youtube. Read a book. Visualize using your favorite techniques. Daydream about new techniques.
All these things help.
And finally I have to point out that ALL your mental processes get slower when you’re fatigued. So work on your brain and your body, and you WILL see the effects of it when you get back to the mat.
Chin down, hands up; you’ll get through this!