One of the most common things I’m asked about is whether there’s a good way to prevent training injuries in combat sports. While we can never expect to prevent 100% of injuries – sometimes freak accidents just happen – there are a number of things you can do to improve your odds. Some of these are commonly talked about – doing a good warm up, being aware of your environment and who’s around you when you’re training, and not letting your ego take over are a few that spring to mind. Here are a few more that may be a little less obvious, but are at least as important.
- Be careful with weight differences: If you’re training with someone who is significantly bigger than you, then there’s always a larger risk that you’ll get injured if something goes wrong. Even with the best will in the world, accidents happen. A takedown goes wrong, and one of you twists your knee slightly; you mis-time a move and your head collides with your partner’s knee; you bob when you should have weaved and walk right into a punch. If you’ve trained for any length of time, you’ll know that this sort of thing is a common occurrence. With someone your own size, that might hurt; but when your partner is a lot bigger than you, it’s far more likely to result in an injury. That doesn’t mean you should never train with people out of your weight class, of course – that would be unrealistic – but it’s important to be aware of the risks. For your most intense training, try to find someone of a similar size.
- Make sure you and your partner are training at the same intensity: There’s a time and a place for heavy competition sparring, and there’s a time and a place for going light and having fun or trying some new moves. Although going hard inevitably increases your risk of injury, that’s not something that can be avoided if you want to get really good. Many injuries happen when there’s a mismatch in expectations between training partners, though. One person just wants to have a light round, but the other person thinks it’s the ADCC final. Or you both start out with the intention of going light, but then almost gets caught with something and instinctively ups the pace. That’s where problems tend to happen. Do your best to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page before you start, and stop trying to go light with that guy who just can’t. Equally, pick your partners for your hardest competitive spars carefully.
- Communicate with your coach / instructor: Your coach isn’t psychic – unless you tell them, they may not know that your back has been causing you problems, or that you’ve been feeling a bit dizzy since you got kicked in the head by Big Dave, or that your asthma has been playing up this week, or that that technique they’re trying to get you to do makes your shoulder hurt. Sometimes people are reluctant to speak up if something’s not quite right, for fear they’ll look bad; cliches like “pain is just weakness leaving the body” and “go hard or go home” can make people feel that they should work through pain and not complain about it. But a good coach knows that looking after their students’ health and wellbeing while they’re training is part of their job – and without good information, they can’t help you to work around any problems you’re having.
- Don’t compromise on your equipment: For most combat sports, there’s only a few things that you really need – gumshield and groin guard, gloves, possibly a head guard or shin pads, perhaps a gi if you do judo or BJJ. Don’t compromise when it comes to these bits of equipment. Good quality gear will last you, and it’s also designed to protect you from injury. The last thing you want is a groin guard that splits on impact, or a gumshield that you avoid wearing because it’s uncomfortable. I’ve seen injuries that have happened due to poorly fitting gloves and shin pads, baggy gis, and head guards that slip. As a coach or instructor, you also need to consider the equipment you’re providing, such as pads, bags or mats, and make sure that they’re safe. One of the worst injuries I’ve seen was a result of a toe getting caught in the gap between two mats!
- Deal with old injuries intelligently: One of the biggest risk factors for future injury to a joint, tendon or muscle is having had a previous injury in that area. Just waiting for it to feel better, then getting back on the mat and hoping for the best is a recipe for future problems. Ideally, speak to a qualified sports injury professional who can give you a rehab plan to strengthen the area and reduce your risk of a recurrence.
- Have a good strength and conditioning programme: In my experience, probably the single most effective way to build resilience and reduce injury risk is to have a good strength and conditioning programme. When I talk to combat sports athletes about lifting weights, they’ll often argue that they’d rather spend their training time doing more sport specific training. That’s a false economy, in my experience – because fighters who do strength training spend less time off the mat altogether because of injury. There’s still a misconception that “martial arts is all about technique, so working on strength won’t help me”, or even that strength training will make you bulky and reduce mobility. In reality, the right kind of strength training will not only make you more robust, but can also be an effective way to improve mobility and quality of movement as well as strength, power and speed. We’ll talk more about this in future blogs and on the podcast!