The Best Ways To Prevent Injury In Jiu-Jitsu, According To An Athletic Trainer

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“Jiu-jitsu is a marathon, not a sprint” is the mantra of many older upper belts at gyms everywhere. There is a lot of focus on stretching and warming up prior to training, but not always as much time is spent stretching and cooling down after training. In order to train well into our 60’s or 70’s, and many of us do, we need to make it a priority to listen to our bodies to ensure we can obtain this goal. I sat down with athletic trainer and jiu-jitsu blue belt Brett Dailey to better understand how we can prevent injury and avoid time off the mat.

Jiu-Jitsu Times: What is your background and experience in athletic training? How long have you been an athletic trainer?

Brett Dailey: I have been a certified athletic trainer for 19 years. I have worked with professional athletes in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, tennis, and soccer. I have worked with collegiate athletes in wrestling, rugby, track and field, and a host of others. I have certifications through the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Performance Enhancement Specialist and Corrective Exercise Specialist.

JJT: What are some common injuries you see from jiu-jitsu practitioners? Are there any stretches or exercises that can be performed to help to avoid these injuries?

Dailey: Most injuries that will occur in jiu-jitsu will be acute (sudden) injuries. These are sprains (damage to a ligament) or strains (damage to a muscle/tendon). Unfortunately, these are usually a result of improper technique, “muscling through a move,” or not tapping.

There are “injuries” that occur if the practitioner does not take care of themselves — these are the chronic (develop over time or slow onset) injuries. These are the injuries/pain that have had no sudden onset, but cause pain and discomfort (tendinitis, bursitis, low back pain/stiffness). There are several stretches and exercises that can be performed to help reduce chronic injuries. Sore back, shoulders, and hips are the usual problems. If these areas do not receive the proper stretches or exercises, they can become bigger problems.

JJT: The longer you train, what are some things that need to be focused on more for recovery?

Dailey: Nutrition is probably one of the most important aids in recovery. It is usually the one that is overlooked the most. If the body does not the proper fuel it starts to shut down. If the body doesn’t have the right material to repair the damage done, there is an increased chance for an injury. Rest is right up there with nutrition. If the body does not have a chance to heal, recover, or repair the damage that is done, we develop chronic injuries.

Strength training and range of motion training should be a focus. The strength training should be focused on core, joint stabilization, and should be functional. Range of motion should be within the person’s normal range of motion (can increase with training and over time). Range of motion is not just stretching. Our muscles can be tight, but we still have a lot of motion in the joint, and our muscles can be loose, but our joint is tight.  Both need to be addressed when working on range of motion.

JJT: Why is yoga so beneficial for jiu-jitsu from a kinesiology standpoint?

Dailey: Yoga address both joint and muscle range of motion (ROM). It allows the body to increase its ROM in a slow controlled manner. It can be modified for beginners and advance. Yoga also incorporates core and joint stabilization activities. The practitioner cannot go beyond what their body can do. It helps identify problem areas (tight, weak), and allows the issue to be addressed right away. Yoga helps prevent and reduce chronic injuries.

JJT: What can be done, or not done, during rolling to avoid injuries?

Dailey: Stay away from the super heavy weight white belt if you are 150lbs. There is not much to be done to avoid the acute injuries. During the actual rolling, there is not much to be done.  If you have pain or a concern, talk to your partner and let them know. TAP!! If a shoulder is hurting and a Kimura is locked up, don’t wait for the pain, TAP!!

The chronic injuries can be reduced if common sense is used. The most important thing that can be done is listen to your body. If a person sits at their desk all day and then heads right to the gym to roll, their body is not ready (if the jiu-jitsu practitioner sits all day and then gets up and has back pain/tightness, they need to loosen their back up or an injury will occur). If a shoulder is bothering them, find out what movements causes the pain.  In every gym there is someone who has some medical knowledge (chiropractor, MD, athletic trainer, etc.), use that knowledge. Ask that person what they think. If something hurts or limits movement for more than 2 weeks, see a doctor. Chronic injuries will not go away, they will only get worse, and they usually will cause other problems along the way.

JJT: Neck injuries are a concern while training. How can we prevent these injuries from happening and what are some easy exercises we can do to strengthen our necks?

Dailey: Neck injuries are avoidable, neck soreness/tightness is unavoidable. The muscles in our neck are meant to be tight, that is how our head is held up. When the muscles become too tight, that is when we start to have pain, or loss of ROM. There are no real good exercises to strengthen just the neck. Our neck muscles are already stressed holding up our head (lay on the floor and hold your head up to take a drink—that gives you an idea of how hard the muscles are working). Certain massage techniques can help with tight neck muscles and soreness. Stretching usually doesn’t do much because of opposite muscles preventing full ROM.

To strengthen the neck, the shoulders (traps, deltoids) should be strengthened.  There are several muscles that start at the neck, but then attach on to the rib cage, shoulder blades, and breastbone/collar bones.  By strengthening these muscles, we also working the neck muscles.  Form plays a big part.  If poor form is used, the muscles that should be targeted are not.

To avoid neck injuries, know how to break fall, don’t roll with the person who goes for neck cranks, and TAP!!

JJT: How beneficial are therapeutic massages, and how do they differ from regular massages?

Dailey: There are several different types of massage.  Sports massages are used before and after a competition.  Its main use is getting the muscles ready to work prior, and then to calm down after the competition.  Relaxation or Swedish massage is used to relax the body and mind.  Therapeutic massage is used to correct problems.

Jiu-jitsu practitioners will benefit the most form therapeutic massage if they are dealing with a chronic injury.  A therapeutic massage releases tight muscles that may be causing pain or a change in how the body moves.  It can address trigger points that may cause pain or loss of ROM.

JJT: Are there any additional stretches or routines you’d advise someone to perform post-training?

Dailey: Any routine post training will be beneficial.  Target the areas that cause the most discomfort.  Educate yourself on the muscles that attach on or around the area that is causing problems.  Stretching just the hamstrings for a tight back is not enough.  Stretch out/target the muscles on both sides of area.  If a back is causing problems, stretch the back, but also stretch the hip flexors and abs.  Stretch or move the body through a full ROM.  Don’t go home and lay on the couch after training.  Move around, the muscles will tighten up if the body becomes sedentary.

Brett is an athletic trainer at Open Guard BJJ and the Lake Country Racquet & Athletic Club in Hartland, WI.

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