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Cardio not enough? Relax harder!

(Published April 4, 2022)

Have you been away from Jiu-Jitsu from awhile? We’d all like to have perfect attendance at Jiu-Jitsu class with no breaks in training, but life gets in the way sometimes, doesn't it?

When people come back from a long layoff, their most common complaint is that their cardio just isn’t what it used to be. They feel sluggish, winded, and out of shape, even if they’ve been hitting the gym hard in preparation for coming back to class.

More often than not the problem isn’t actually their cardio. Sure, you've got your folks who took a few months off where their only cardio was running to the bathroom in between episodes while binging their favorite shows on Netflix and eating nothing but cheesy puffs and hot pockets. But if you took any Olympic endurance athlete and stuck them in their first Jiu-Jitu class, they’d feel sluggish, winded and out of shape too. And Olympic level endurance athletes don’t have any cardio issues.

On the other hand, there are plenty of fat, out of shape BJJ black belts in this world that can kick your ass without getting nearly as winded as you are. And your cardio is probably better than theirs. (No offense to fat black belts. Please don't dojo storm me.)

So if cardio’s not the problem, what is?

Nine times out of ten, the problem is that we've forgotten how to relax. When we come back to Jiu-Jitsu after a long layoff, we’re worried that we’ve regressed. We want to be able to pick up right where we left off.

So after we slap hands and bump fists, we try really really hard to do just that. We do everything with more intensity than usual in an effort to do so. We grip harder. We push harder. We pull harder. We move faster. Our muscles tense harder in anticipation of each movement.

All that extra muscle tension requires more energy. So we’re actually using more energy to do the same movements we used to before the layoff. This makes our heart beat faster. It makes us breathe heavier. We’re doing the same things we used to do before our layoff, but it hits us way harder.

Then of course there’s the fact that our timing isn’t quite what it used to be. If you’ve been out of it for awhile, your sense of timing suffers. Timing beats speed. But when your timing is off, you're gonna make up for it with speed. When your precision is off, you'll make up for it with power. And when your leverage points are off, you'll make up for it with strength.

This is a long way of saying that you’re less efficient.

You can’t do enough cardio and conditioning to make up for this during your layoff. Just like you can’t out exercise a bad diet, you can’t out exercise bad timing, precision, leverage, and excess muscle tension.

The best thing you can do for yourself is relax. It can take a couple weeks or more to really get back in the groove of things after a long layoff. Here are a few things I do to ease the transition.

Close your eyes.

One of the best ways to force yourself to relax is to close your eyes. Do yourself a favor and wait until you get grips and work to a comfortable position on the ground first. You don’t want to get elbowed in the face by a spazzy white belt after all. But once you establish contact, you can feel where the other guy is going. Closing your eyes forces you to open yourself up to that sensory input, slow down, and really think about what you’re doing.

Breathe through your nose.

This is a very close second to closing your eyes for me. Close your mouth. Breathe only through your nose. You’re not going to be able to get as much air in, and that’ll force you to slow way down. You’ll overdo it at first. You’ll have to break the seal and gulp in some air with your mouth. That’s okay. I’d rather you cheat than pass out. Just know that means you’re going way too hard. Slow it down, catch your breath, close your mouth and start breathing through your nose again.

Play defense your first week back.

Just work on getting comfortable being on the bottom with somebody trying to rip your arms off and choke you unconscious again. Let people pass your guard. Play bottom side control and just work on being okay with that. If your training partner really sucks, you are permitted to recover guard. If he’s absolutely hopeless, you are permitted to gently sweep him, but let him get back on top. Don’t try to win the roll. Just work on relaxing under pressure.

Play guard the second week back.

My next phase coming back from a long layoff is to play guard. For the first few rounds, focus on guard retention. Don’t go for sweeps unless the other guy is just so far out of position that he’s begging to be swept.

Then after you’ve had a few warm up rounds, go for knock downs. Notice, I didn’t say sweeps. Knock 'em down, but don’t solidify the sweep. Let them scramble back up into your guard. See how many knockdowns you can get in a round. Again, don’t try to win the round. The whole point is to remember how to relax under pressure.

Full sparring

After two weeks of playing off your back with eyes closed and breathing through your nose, you should feel a way more relaxed while rolling than you did a couple of weeks ago..

When I stick to my own advice here after a long layoff I’m able to ramp back up to my previous activity level in a relatively short time frame without reinjury. It also helps me avoid that crippling soreness that makes you want to skip the next class. And the more mat time you’re able to help your body reasonably handle the better, especially when you’re trying to get back into the swing of things after a long layoff.

Hope that helps.

- Big Mike


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