The "L Word" of BJJ - How I Started Training for Longevity

I am getting close to my 10 year anniversary with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Over the last year, I finally changed my mindset of how I look at my training, and started to think about longevity. I remember being a twenty-year-old white belt, training like a madman, often tapping too late, or barely getting out of submissions I should have tapped to. Older guys in the room would just shake their heads at me and tell me do it while you can.

Of course I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Then I turned 28, and suddenly all those little injuries from hard training and competing suddenly would not go away. It's a completely different game once you turn 30.

My knees, specifically my MCL, were sprained and partially torn more times than I care to count. My hands were a swollen mess – so much so that I had given up wearing shoes with laces on them. And my ribs seemed to never heal. Every few months I was “due” for another rib injury. Thankfully my PT friend was always ready to pop my rib back in.

So I had to start thinking about the L word, you know the one young guys like to ignore: Longevity. It was clear to me that I would be doing BJJ the rest of my life, but at this pace I was not sure my body was going to allow me to.

This is what I have been changing to improve my longevity in BJJ:

  • Started training more no-gi. I needed to give my hands a break, and training no-gi more than my typical once a week allowed my hands some rest from grip fighting while still getting my BJJ fix in. Over time I found I enjoyed no-gi just as much as I do the gi. I try to schedule my weekly training with an even split between the two.
  • Limited the amount of inversions in my game. While I never had back problems from playing inverted, I had recurring issues with my ribs. Berimbolos, rolling back takes, and inverting to re-guard had become a big part of my game. If you ever been sidelined with a rib injury, you know how painful it is. It took a bit to break out of my upside down habits, and while I have not taken them completely out of my game, I use them sparingly now, and my ribs problems have all but disappeared.
  • Developed a less grip-dependent game in the gi. I stopped playing open guard using double sleeve grips. My hands had thanked me and my game has expanded. I’ve also changed the way I pass, using my footwork and body positioning in order to set up folding passes. As an added benefit, my passing and guard game translate to no-gi much better.
  • Mobility work. My friend Matt got really deep into mobility and stretching in order to alleviate his own hip problems. I’ve been able to pick his brain, and he has helped me improve my mobility. Even though I complain non-stop when he makes me do some of the more advanced drills, he showed me how bad my hip mobility had become. Once I got that taken care of, all my knee problems disappeared. After years of recurring MCL injuries, I am back to training takedowns and leglocks without any issues.
  • Cut back on my training volume and intensity. I was training more than I should have. I wasn’t recovering correctly, and it just lead to more injuries. I have become much better at managing my intensity and training volume, and listening to my body when I need to take it easy or rest a day. I had gotten caught up in “get ready for the next tournament” cycle, and even when I stopped competing I was still in that training mindset. 

My friend Kari says that once you turn 30, you no longer get injuries, just small permanent disabilities. And I have to agree with him. Injuries that I would not even think about resting for sideline me now. They don’t magically heal now like when I was 20. We only get one body and you gotta take care of it so you can continue training. I have been very fortunate to avoid any surgeries in my 10 year run with grappling. I hope the steps I have taken keep me on the mat so that twenty years from now gray haired Nelson still has some left in the tank to roll around with his fellow old timers and the occasional young gun.