If you train BJJ, then you will likely suffer from injury somewhere along your journey. Due to the stress placed on the joints these areas can easily become injured through routine training and dealing with injury can be very frustrating as it usually means time away from the mats. However, if you employ the right strategies it is possible to get some training accomplished even if you aren’t operating at 100%.
First, if you are unsure of the severity of the injury then you must see a doctor. It is always better to be informed about the source of your distress then to simply just hope to gut through it. Second, whatever the doctor says….LISTEN. If he tells you to take 2 weeks off to let something heal. Do it. But what about after 2 weeks? What if you still don’t feel like you can handle hard training even after you’ve taken some time off? Here are some strategies that might help you stay connected with BJJ during these troubling times.
One tip is to simply skip the sparring. This may sound obvious but I have seen many grapplers continue to train, and train hard, regardless of the fact that they have an injury. This will only serve to make the injury worse. If you feel like you can train but only if it is highly controlled, then stick to drilling. There is nothing wrong with working through some movements in a slow and controlled fashion in order to stay on the mats. In truth, the additional repetitions of a technique, setup, or movement will only help to improve your game. Also, make sure to choose movements that allow you to favor the injured area. For example, if you have an ankle injury then it may be time to invest in some closed guard drills and time to skip the takedown drills.
Sometimes injuries will force you to discover new ways of accomplishing your movements or in finding new movements within an existing position. For example, the half guard game developed by “Gordo” was developed while he suffered from a knee injury which made him unable to play the more popular closed guard game of his day. At other times, the injuries you suffer may simply allow you to better challenge yourself. An example of this kind of situation would be an elbow injury. If the injury is mild enough to allow you to spar, then tuck the injured arm into your belt and train with only 1 arm available for use. If you do spar like this then be sure to mention to your training partners that you are injured and slow the pace way down.
If you have noticed that your fingers are aching due to gripping, then you may choose to drill/spar without using grips. In this situation it would be smart to use no gi controls like underhooks and whizzers regardless of whether or not you’re in a gi class or no gi class. Also, if you are facing this kind of difficulty in gripping try to focus more on armlocks, omoplatas, and triangles instead of lapel chokes. Another strategy for sore digits is to tape proactively. If you have a history of finger injuries then proactively taping your fingers, even during times of health, will go a long way towards helping to stave off future injury.
One last tip is to continue to tape and/or use wraps or braces well beyond the point of the injured area feeling better. Quite often the injury will heal to the point that you no longer notice it throughout the day and you feel like you can return to the mats to train like you used to. This time you leave the brace at home and head out to spar unprotected. Then once you’re out there you twist in just the right way or put just the right pressure on that area and BOOM…..you’re injured again. Now you have to take more time off to heal and you also run the risk of an acute injury becoming chronic. Continue to give the area some extra support even after it feels better and you will have an easier time transitioning back to hard training without running the risk of injuring that area again.
During 2011 I suffered a sprained knee while training. There was some concern of a tear having occurred so off to the specialist I went. Unfortunately it was hard to tell exactly how extensive the damage was so we decided to give it a bit of time to see if it got better. As I could not bend my leg at all I had to lay off of training for a couple of weeks. However, after that time interval passed I noticed that some of the flexibility returned. This was enough to get a diagnosis of a sprain and not a tear, but not enough to get back on the mat. Finally after 4 weeks or so went by I was going stir crazy and desperately wanted to train. However, I couldn’t put any pressure on my leg at all as my knee felt horribly unstable. I finally decided that I would go train but that I would stick with drilling. All I could do was lay on my back in closed guard (with the injured leg was on top) and do lapel chokes. As long as I didn’t move to much and put a lot of pressure on my knee then I could get away with drilling 2 positions. So, for the next 2-3 weeks my entire world of BJJ was reduced to those 2 positions. With the instructor’s permission I went to class after the warm-up and drilled with the class until sparring began. In time I found that my knee was getting better and that I could expand my drilling to positions such as the spider guard or half guard. Little by little I was able to do more. I then began to spar again but I only allowed myself to work off my back so that I would not be tempted to be up on the hurt knee. Once my knee felt stable I began to play takedowns and pass the guard again. By working very carefully and respecting my limitations I was still able to log some time in on the mat.
As always, you must respect what your body tells you. Do not push yourself too hard when you are injured. Listen to your body and look for alternative ways of training so that you can protect the injured area. This may help to keep you from having long absences on the mat while still allowing you
to heal in the event of injury.
Russ Helm is a Brown Belt and Competition Instructor at Revolution BJJ