We all know what to do when we’re in the gym, under the guidance of a coach and working with our teammates. But regardless of how much we train, most fighters still spend the majority of their life outside the gym. How you spend that time can make or break your next fight. So what should you be doing when you’re not trying to punch your favorite teammate in the face or working to secure that D’arce choke on your buddy, and training outside the gym?
This one is the easiest to start off with. To fight a war for five minutes straight, three times in a row, you obviously need an enormous amount of cardiorespiratory endurance. Much of this can be gained from simply training – sparring, hitting pads, rolling, drilling takedowns all require your heart, lungs, and muscles to perform at a higher rate. Supplemental cardio is a must, and there are several ways you can get that extra work in. Jumping rope may be old school, but it’s stuck around for a reason. Not only does it mimic the cardiorespiratory toll of running without braving the weather or a treadmill, but it’s a great opportunity to work on foot movement and dexterity. Running is, of course, always an option, and there are many fighters who prefer the solitude of the road after the chaos of the gym. The constant pounding can be hard on your body, so fighters have also turned to swimming as a cardio workout that saves muscles and joints that can often be overworked in the gym. If you choose swimming, make sure you are pushing yourself and treating it as either a long cardio workout or sprinting intervals in order to get the full benefit. Leisurely floating around the pool or tossing your kids around in the water is fun, but it’s active recovery, not cardio.
Fighters are always looking to get stronger in order to deliver that walk out KO, but strength training is important for more than, well, strength. Like many sports, MMA requires a lot from the human body, perhaps even more so, given the wide variety of skills required to enter the cage. By providing dynamic loads, lifting weights strengthens the tendons and ligaments of joints that are often yanked around in training, allowing them to absorb more impact without tearing or being jolted out of place. The dynamic loads of resistance training also allows bone to rebuild itself and become stronger, a necessity in a sport where bone on bone contact occurs regularly. By strengthening the muscles, fighters can also help their body evenly distribute the punishment it takes. The body has a way of finding the weakest link when under physical distress, making undertrained quads or glutes a recipe for disaster.
Once you’ve done your training, and your cardio, and your lifting, your body needs a break. As much as you’d like to lay in bed all day, keeping muscles and joints static for a long period of time will have more negative results than positive. Sleep a little longer, by all means, but then get your blood flowing to aid in recovery. Walking is the easiest, and most accessible, method of active recovery. Grab the dog and go for a walk. As a bonus, you’ll get some vitamin D and your dog won’t eat your new shoes. Yoga is another great option that will also provide you with improvement in your flexibility and have a mental benefit as well. Foam rolling and self-massage can both increase blood flow to stiff and sore tissues, aiding in pain relief and faster recovery. There are a number of foam rollers available, while self-massage can also be done with a tennis ball or lacrosse ball (if you’re brave).
This seems like a no brainer, but we all know fighters that subsist on Cheetos and Red Bulls between training sessions. We also know fighters that spend their entire camp dropping those extra thirty pounds. When you’re training a sport that requires all your body systems (unlike a baseball player or sprinter), nutrition becomes an extremely important part of the game. There are two parts to fighter nutrition and that is to fuel hours of training and to recover appropriately afterward. Underfueling your body will mean you’ll be unable to perform at your best in the gym, and training a combat sport while tired means a much higher risk of injury. A split second of decreased coordination can have disastrous results in MMA. Not to mention that your teammates will think you’re a treat to be around. Don’t skimp on carbs before intense exercise, and make sure you’re drinking enough water before and during training to prevent dehydration issues. Post training, take in a mixture of carbs and protein to ensure you’re refilling your glycogen stores and providing your muscles with the energy they need to repair themselves. Keep track of your caloric intake to see if you’re eating enough to replace the calories you burned, and track your macros (carbs, proteins, and fat) to make sure it’s enough of the right calories.
Far too many fighters neglect this area, and it’s definitely the easiest to ignore. Ask any coach who’s been around long enough, however, and they’ll tell you that mental toughness is worth almost as much as physical ability, and in opponents of equal capability, the mentally tougher one wins every time. Finding a few minutes every day to build mental toughness will benefit you not only in fighting but in life. Meditation is a practice that can be done anywhere, and there are thousands of YouTube tutorials and guided meditations for those that are new, as well as several apps (Headspace is a good one) that can help. Meditation and mindfulness practice often go hand in hand, and learning to be calm and in the moment is of enormous benefit in the cage. Visualization is another option, especially for athletes with upcoming fights or competitions. Running through fight scenarios in your mind and visualizing positive outcomes can boost confidence levels, and mentally running through drills and techniques can aid your body’s muscle memory in key moments.
Go full out on these or take a little from each. Put in six weeks of hard work in these areas in addition to training, or try them during your next camp and see the benefits pay off in your fight. Don’t get overwhelmed by this list – pick a few areas to work on, be consistent, and your body (and your coach) will thank you.