Live to Fight Another Day

Follow these six guidelines to keep training injuries at bay.

Over the past year, the UFC has faced an increasing number of cancelled fights due to injury. For the first time in its history, injuries forced the UFC to cancel an entire show (UFC 151), and the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Not only do cancellations rob fans of seeing some major fights, they can be disastrous for the fighters themselves. Fighters miss out on paychecks that many of them need to pay their bills. They also have to go through the painful and time consuming process of rehabbing their injuries before they can step back into the cage. Many fighters choose to fight through the injuries due to pride, or the fact that they can’t afford to miss a fight. Whatever their reason may be, the end result is usually a loss.

Even after an injury has fully healed, it can still haunt a fighter for the rest of his or her career, flaring up on random occasions and costing them valuable training time. Even worse, once the chain of injuries begins, it’s often only a matter of time before one injury leads to another. A fighter can go from having one nagging injury to several, which may require a larger recovery period and longer downtime.

While it’s easy to chalk up these injuries to the unavoidable, brutal nature of the sport, the truth is that a lot of the injuries can be prevented with the right approach to training. There are no doubts that injuries can and do happen in every sport, but the difference in having to withdraw from a fight and simply missing a day or two of training can be huge.

Injuries can be avoided by gaining adequate training knowledge and by listening to your body, as opposed to fighting against it. To be successful in combat sports, fighters have to be well-rounded athletes with a diverse skill set, which means they can’t afford to spend time dealing with one injury after another.

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To avoid injuries and stay in the gym training, follow these six simple keys.

#1: Choose the Right Training Partners

In a grueling sport like MMA, where most combat athletes train five to six days a week for hours on end, having the right training partners can make all the difference in the world. Good training partners can help you hone your skills, prepare you for an upcoming fight, and help you become a more complete fighter, whereas the wrong ones can just as easily hurt your career and leave you injured.
Without question, the vast majority of injuries in MMA occur during training. Far too often, contact injuries happen during high intensity drills or sparring because of poor technique and/or a lack of control. Drilling or sparring with a partner who has bad technique or lacks control can be a recipe for disaster.

Every gym has at least one guy who always throws everything harder than necessary and treats every training session like it’s a fight for the belt. If you value your health and want a long career in the sport, these are the training partners that should generally be avoided. Instead, look for the athletes who are focused on getting better, have good control and technique, and understand that you get better by training smart, not just by throwing every punch, kick, and knee as hard as you can.

#2 Improve Your Conditioning

Many fighters tend to only consider the importance of conditioning when getting ready for a fight, but conditioning is also an important component of injury prevention. When you consider how many more injuries occur when you’re fatigued than when you’re fresh, it’s apparent why being in good shape matters.

Not only does having a high level of conditioning mean that you can train more due to faster recovery times, but it will also help you avoid the injuries that often accompany fatigue. You don’t need to be in peak fight shape year-round, but it pays to maintain a solid level of conditioning even if you don’t have a fight on the books.

When working to improve conditioning without a scheduled fight, choose general conditioning exercises that are low impact to help you stay injury free. Exercises like riding the bike, swimming, jumping rope, and rowing are all great ways to get in some extra conditioning work without putting too much additional stress on your body. When you start getting ready for a fight, you can make the switch to more fight specific conditioning exercises and increase the amount of contact. Outside of that, keep your conditioning general and low impact to avoid unnecessary setbacks.

#3 Monitor Your Training

If there’s one simple thing that you can do that will make a huge difference in keeping healthy and injury free, it’s monitoring your training. This can be as simple as wearing a heart rate monitor to see how your training heart rates compare to normal, or as sophisticated as using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) technology to monitor your fatigue and fitness levels over time.

At the very minimum, it’s important to keep a training log to track your training volume and keep notes on your performance, fitness, and nutrition. This allows you to more clearly see the warning signs of overtraining and that your fitness and skill levels are improving. Tracking things such as morning resting heart rate, heart rate recovery, strength levels in various exercises, and body weight can provide extremely valuable information that you can use to fine-tune your training to get more out of it.

If you’re getting ready for a fight, monitoring your training is also important because it allows you to compare progress from one fight camp to the next and helps you make sure you’re on track. Depending on your weight class, you’ll also want to keep close track of your weight throughout camp and fight week so that over time you can improve your weight cutting strategy and get it completely dialed in. Without any form of monitoring, it’s too easy to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and end up overtrained and injured.

#4 Minimize Stress

Making sure to minimize stress outside the gym may be one of the least obvious ways to avoid injuries in the gym, but without question, it’s also one of the most important. Whether it’s the physical stress of training or the mental stress of life, both have an impact on the body.

Stress outside of the gym, either from work, family, or finances, can compound with the stress of training and set you up for injury because it changes how your body functions.

Imagine if you lived next to an annoying neighbor who blasted loud music at all hours of the day. Sooner or later, you’d make sure all your windows were closed and you may even consider building a fence to block the noise out. Your body does something very similar when faced with too much stress—it goes into a protective mode to avoid even more stress. This is problematic because it becomes less responsive to the demands of training—the muscles can’t produce as much force, hormone levels aren’t where they should be, and the nervous system doesn’t function as well.

These changes can leave you much more vulnerable to injury because the body is unable to respond in the way it should to the demands of training. The next thing you know, you’re left with a serious muscle injury that will keep you out of gym. The bottom line is that everything you do outside of the gym can have a serious impact on your chances of injury inside the gym, so it’s important to minimize stress as much as possible and take some extra time to relax.

#5: Eat the Right Foods

Most people understand that nutrition is important, but when it comes to injuries, it’s one of the most overlooked areas, even though it can have a huge impact on your training and injury prevention. In sports that require high-volume training, such as MMA, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and kickboxing, nutrition is key, not only because it is vital that your body gets all the nutrients it needs to recover, but also because chronically depleted glycogen levels are likely one of the triggers that send the body into an overtrained state.

If you don’t take in enough calories to consistently restock your muscles’ stored glycogen after workouts, you can quickly become fatigued and find yourself in an overtrained state where the chances of injury increase. If you’re training twice a day, this takes on even more importance, as your performance in the second workout of the day depends on your ability to refuel and replenish glycogen stores.

For most combat athletes, a well-balanced diet that provides enough total calories, grams of proteins, carbohydrates, and essential fats is the best way to go. If any of these macronutrients are lacking, recovery slows down, fatigue increases, and muscles and joints become more susceptible to injury.

#6: Train High/Low

Although the High/Low training system was originally developed for sprinters by the late Charlie Francis, it’s equally applicable and effective for combat sports training. At the heart of the High/Low training system is the principle that the best results come from training either at the highest intensities or at the lowest ones, while the middle ground should be avoided.

Training days are thus separated into high or low days, with generally no more than three high days per week and at least one low day separating each of them. The high training days are when you’ll want to do high intensity drills and sparring, and the low days are when you can work on improving your technique and skill development.

Taking this simple approach is an effective injury prevention strategy because it ensures that your body is ready to push the limit on the hardest training days, reducing the likelyhood of injury. Conventional training strategies that consist of too many days of maximum effort often lead to fatigue across the training week because there is not enough time to recover. Because you’ll get more out of your hard training days and have a chance to work on skills and technique on the low days, the High/Low training system is extremely effective for avoiding injuries and for becoming a better fighter in general.

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