I’m 6’2”, 250lbs and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. I’m also 44 years old. I train 5-6 days a week and compete in both amateur and pro events. I took triple gold at the IBJJF Denver Open in 2018 and went 1-1 in split decision matches in F2WPro against the current IBJJF world champion in my bracket, and against a very competitive former Olympic level wrestler. Staying healthy enough to train is one of the bigger challenges for an older athlete, particularly in a sport like mine. If you aren’t familiar, jiu-jitsu is a grappling martial art. No strikes, just chokes, joint locks and positional control through leverage. It’s logical, addictive and very physically demanding. In the 15 years I’ve been on the mat, I’ve dealt with dozens of injuries. I’ve trained through most of them, learned from all of them, and I’d like to share the take away from all of that.
Overtraining and Ego. These two things lead to more injuries and time away from your sport than everything else combined.
Let's start with Overtraining. Being overtrained means your body not only isn’t recovering from your workouts, your body is being overwhelmed by your workouts. This happens because you aren’t giving it sufficient time/nutrition/sleep to recover and repair. When you are overtrained, you’re more susceptible to injury because you’re pushing a body that is fatigued, may be suffering from crashing hormone levels, from non-healing muscle/ligament/tendon damage, and from a general decrease in athletic coordination. The cure for overtraining is time off to recover, proper nutrition before during and after exercise, and 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night.
I spent years getting all of that wrong. I was always tired going into training, getting only 4-5 hours of sleep per night, and eating nothing but protein after grueling, hour-long randoris (live jiu-jitsu training). It wasn’t until I visited CU Sports Science to find out why my Wednesday training was so much worse than my Monday session, that I realized how incorrectly I’d been doing it all. I had taken 4 days off, eaten a pizza, and gotten some sleep before I went in for the testing, feeling far more rested than I typically was during a week of jiu-jitsu. The tech did an ultrasound scan of my quads, biceps and abdominal muscles. When she came back with the results, she told me that I was overtrained and shouldn’t be doing anything but recovering. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was very recovered. Turns out my muscle glycogen was only at 60%, despite the days off. She explained to me that while liver glycogen (think of it as your fuel tank), has a relatively broad glycogen recovery window, muscle glycogen requires specific refueling within about 30 minutes of a high intensity workout.
I’m not a nutritionist, so I’m not going to give recommendations other than to do some research on liver and muscle glycogen recovery, to talk to some specialists, and to not just assume that you know what you’re doing. The difference her advice made to me was incredible. Instead of my first workout of the week being the best one and then each subsequent workout going downhill from there, every workout now feels the like the first one. I still rarely get 8 hours of sleep, but I always get at least 6, I sip recovery drinks before, during and after randori, and if I feel like I’m even starting to get overtrained, I take a few days off.
As for Ego, less is more. For an older athlete, ego is the enemy and reason is your friend. If you feel 70% but decide to train at 100%, you’re probably operating on ego. If you feel 100% but choose to train at 70%, you’re operating on reason. I missed 3 years of Pan Ams and Masters Worlds, at black belt, because I kept getting injured weeks before the competitions. I was overtrained and under recovered and yet still trying to ramp up my training output and intensity. A perfect recipe for injury after injury, which is exactly what kept happening. It wasn’t until I realized that my ego was in the drivers seat, that I was able to stop getting injured, train more often, and improve faster than I ever had before. I now always try to train with 100% focus and 70% output. I went from being injured 3-4 times a year to not having an injury of any kind in the past 18 months. I’d like to continue to practice and compete in jiu-jitsu for a long time, and I know I’ll only be able to do that successfully if I leave my ego at the door.
Black and white photo above this article is used with permission. Copyrighted image by Moira Burns from Fight2Win92 in Denver, Colorado of the Heavy Weight NoGi match between Gabe Beauperthuy (USA Wrestling’s Associated Styles Athlete of the Year 2017, 2018) and Foster Bailey (on right) who won the match by Split Decision.