What to Do When You Don’t Have Time to Train

Several months ago I registered for my first competition as a blue belt. Though I had the good fortune to get incredibly busy with my work as a synthesizer programmer for Broadway productions as I was mounting two shows simultaneously, this didn’t work out so well for my Jiu Jitsu training schedule. It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t have enough time on the mats to be fully prepared for competition or to even be confident about making weight, so I dropped out of the competition, but stayed determined to stay on point with my nutrition and my strength and mobility training.

Fortunately, after about a three week hiatus, I was able to return to training Jiu Jitsu once a week during my days off. During the rest of the days, I stayed in shape by designing a strength and mobility program that I could do each morning before I left for work. It consisted of kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, and mobility exercises, and it only took about 15 minutes per day. My program typically alternated between two different routines:

  1. Pavel Tsatsouline’s Simple & Sinister program, which consists of Kettle Goblet Squats, Turkish Getups, and Kettlebell Swings
  2. Pushups and planks

On both days, I’d follow up with mobility and exercises and stretching. Knowing that I’d be spending a lot of time sitting, I needed to make sure to counteract the effects of being more sedentary than usual. I also benefitted from my daily brisk walks between 6th Ave and 10th Ave as I moved back and forth between my two theatres.

Nutrition for BJJ

Starting my day with exercise, even just 15-20 minutes worth, was enough to keep my body healthy and to condition my brain to think with a healthy mindset with regard to nutrition. Throughout this period, I was shuttling between a Broadway theatre on West 44th Street and an Off-Broadway theatre on West 42rd Street, both in midtown Manhattan. Those of you who have spent any time around Times Square will know how difficult finding healthy food options can be around there. Fortunately, I found a salad place where I could grab a large healthy salad everyday for lunch. For dinner most days, I’d go to another place I know where I could get a protein, vegetable, and starch in reasonable portions. I made sure to keep fruit with me for snacking as well as a water bottle. Staying hydrated was essential.

In the end, I didn’t gain any weight, and even managed to lose a few pounds. Eating healthy and making time for exercise, even just a few minutes in the morning, kept me energetic, positive, and injury free. My weekly Jiu Jitsu classes were incredibly difficult at first, but it took minimal time to adjust once I was able to return to my normal 3-5x per week training schedule.

I no longer fear having to be away from Jiu Jitsu for extended periods, though my preference is always to be able to train at lease 2-3x per week for my physical and mental well-being as well as for my love of the sport. I have another busy period coming up next month, so I hope to use what I’ve learned this time around to continue to refine my routine so I can stay even more on top of my exercise and nutrition.

The Mental Health Benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Benefits of BJJ

Last week in class at my Jiu Jitsu academy as the active part of the warmup began, I noticed something that I found to be very interesting. I immediately was overcome by a profound feeling of elation and happiness. It wasn’t just the kind of happy that one feels when they begin an activity they enjoy, but rather something bordering on a runner’s high type of happiness. This experience led me to wonder about the mental health benefits of BJJ and to search out what some others have had to say about it. Although one could argue that these feelings of joy and elation are simply the result of an endorphin release, and they’d be partly correct, it must be noted that this experience occurred at the beginning of training, and therefore prior to when the endorphin release would be in full effect.

I would argue that at this stage of training I was experiencing a sense of what sociologist Victor Turner calls communitas. This is a sense of a greater community and togetherness that members of a community experience through shared rites of passage such as religious experiences, work, music, sports, and other occurrences. I would argue that Jiu Jitsu is actually a combination of several of these types of ritual. On the surface, we experience the bonding of sport and functioning together as a team. However, one of the most profound benefits of BJJ is that it is a profound tool for introspection and personal development. We share with our training partners an intensely personal struggle which enables us to form bonds with our teammates that’s similar to those who experience fraternal rituals together, participate in sports teams, or undergo severe physical or mental hardship together.

I often find that when I try to explain how wonderful the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community is, and the intensely positive energy we experience in our Jiu Jitsu academy, people who have never trained any martial art look at me with a blank stare. As martial artists, we share an experience that is unique that only those of us who participate in it can truly understand. This creates an intense bond between all practitioners whether they’ve trained together for years or have only just met.

And of course there’s the BJJ community, which I find to be comprised of some of the nicest, kindest, most helpful people one could ever meet. Being surrounded by that positive energy, it’s nearly impossible not to feel uplifted after training. I find myself leaving the BJJ academy feeling like a better person, and wanting to continue to evolve.

As we all know, BJJ is an intensely physical activity which releases tons of endorphins. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most of us experience an endorphin high just like the famous runner’s high. Exercise has been shown to reduce depression, improve memory, and to some degree prevent the onset of dementia. Therefore, it’s no wonder that thirty minutes of drilling followed by another thirty minutes or more of rolling should produce such extreme feelings of euphoria.

One of my favorite benefits of Jiu Jitsu is the meditative aspect of the sport. When you’re rolling, there’s no time to think; there’s only time to react. Otherwise, reflexes become too slow to be effective. This has the result of freeing the mind to become a blank slate while we act solely on instinct. Learning to exist in such a situation for periods of five minutes or more at a time allow us to clear our minds of any superfluous thoughts and simply exist. Those minutes of rolling are pure meditation. In today’s fast paced world, it’s so rare to an opportunity to truly tune out the static of the outside world and focus only on one simple task. In our case, it’s to submit or be submitted. I live for those rolls when the only thing I hear is the sound of my breathing and my opponent’s breathing, and our roll becomes a conversation. Even working out at the gym isn’t nearly as meditative as there’s often background music, waiting for equipment, moving out of people’s way, etc.

Lastly, there’s the self-growth aspect of BJJ. I love knowing that at 48 years old, I’m a beginner to a discipline that’s brand new to me. It’s absolutely thrilling to approach it as a child and to absorb the material and to learn a new skill that’s so rich and deep. It keeps the mind fresh, alert, and awake. Each training session is every bit as much a mental workout as it is physical. It’s also a great way to stay humble and to keep one’s ego in check!

I’m looking forward to continuing to training BJJ beyond my 40 plus years, and for many years to come. Though I still do strength training at the gym several days a week, I can’t think of a better workout than BJJ. Most importantly, I appreciate the peace of mind it gives me from the meditation of the drilling and the rolling. It’s tempting to measure my progress by the stripes on my belt or my performance on the mat, but sometimes I need to remind myself that if my training is helping me to stay focused, relaxed, and in a good mood, I’m still progressing just fine.

Nutrition: A Constant Conundrum

Nutrition for BJJ

As someone who travels frequently for work, it’s often very difficult to maintain a good diet, especially one that will support the nutritional demands of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is something I’ve been struggling with throughout my journey. I’ve tried calorie counting, Weight Watchers, various iOS apps, and reading a number of books. I think I’ve finally found something that works, provided that I maintain a certain amount of willpower. There’s a lot of discussion about nutrition for BJJ. I don’t claim to be an expert, but rather, I’m simply sharing my personal experience.

Calorie Counting and 10,000 Steps Per Day
At first, I had to make some lifestyle changes. For me, the best way to do this was to quantify my caloric intake. Even though my iOS app of choice, MyFitnessPal, wasn’t always 100% accurate, it forced me to stay accountable for the food I ate. And my Fitbit Charge 2  forced me to commit to leading a more active lifestyle. Fortunately, NYC is a walking city, so it was easy to maintain a regular schedule of long walks, whether to and from work or just while running errands.

The tricky part came when I began doing strength training more often and with increasing intensity. I found that in an effort to meet my calorie cutting goals (at least according to my iOS app), I would begin to see signs of overtraining or undereating. Something had to change.

Eat To Live
My personal trainer recommended that I read the book Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Furhman. This is when it all began to click for me. Dr. Furhman is a strong advocate for a strictly plant based diet, which is not something that interests me. However, the main takeaway from his book, at least for me, is his emphasis on being mindful of the quality of the nutrients that one puts in their body. In other words, it’s not just a matter of cutting calories, but rather ensuring that the calories one ingests are truly providing useful fuel for the body.

This approach made a lot of sense to me, and I found it quite liberating to finally be free of the calorie cutting model. According to Fuhrman, our bodies naturally know when to tell us to stop eating when what we’re eating is the fuel that nature intended for us. Not having the desire to micro-manage my diet, I broke my nutrition down into a set of several rules: 1) stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, 2) cut down on (and eliminate as much as possible) processed sugar, 3) eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible throughout the day, 4) eat at least one large salad per day with minimal dressing, 5) cut back on animal protein, and 6) keep alcohol to a minimum. And when choosing between two foods for a snack or a meal, I ask myself “which is a better source of fuel?”, and “which will provide better nutrition for my BJJ training?”

Of course there are times when schedule, availability, or emotions get in the way, but if I can stay on track most of the time, I figure that I’m doing okay. And there are times when it seems silly not to indulge a bit. After all, I still have a sweet tooth and a love for steak, so I just keep it to an absolute minimum and allow myself these pleasures when I know I’m in a situation in which I have access to a truly memorable culinary experience. Personally, I’d rather have a great steak or a great dessert only every once in a while, but when I do have them, they’d better be seriously off the charts amazing!

Managing Diet on the Road
Here’s where it gets tricky, although I’ve developed some strategies for staying on track when traveling.

Airports are the most difficult. There are temptations all around, and the healthy choices are usually quite unappealing. These days, it’s usually possible to find a decent salad in an airport, so that’s a big help. Also, the more I can fill up on fruit and nuts (provided that I control the portion size), the less likely I’ll be to make impulsive eating decisions. Continuing to stay hydrated helps stave off the hunger too. If I stop for a meal, I make every effort possible to eat “real” food. No hamburgers, pizza, etc. And if I must have sweets, I’ll pick up a small piece of gourmet chocolate to satisfy the craving. On the airplane, particularly on long haul flights, I allow myself to indulge, which makes the flight much more enjoyable and helps me to stay under control after I land.

Hotels don’t have to be a trap. Restaurant staff in hotel restaurants will usually gladly try to accommodate any reasonable substitution request. And those buffet breakfasts can actually be helpful. I always start with a healthy serving of fruit and a hard-boiled egg or two. Beyond that, I evaluate the quality of the individual items to decide the best choices. Yogurt, granola (in small portions), and potatoes can be options depending upon the freshness, quality, etc. I never drink juice and I always drink a lot of water, especially at breakfast. I’m also not ashamed to admit (well, maybe just a little) that I’ve been known to take an apple and banana or two from the breakfast buffet as a snack later in the day. It’s important to remember that many hotels will provide a refrigerator in your room if you ask. Even if you must pay a fee, this is incredibly helpful as it allows you to keep healthy food options constantly available to you. I find that if I have healthy food to snack on throughout the day, I’m much less likely to let my nutrition go off the rails when I’m eating out. I also recently discovered through the help of a dietician that I’ve not been eating enough carbs. My instinct from my past was to drastically reduce carbs, but it turns out that reducing them too much doesn’t provide adequate nutrition for BJJ and can result in low energy. Though I still avoid processed carbs, it’s nice to know that it’s actually beneficial to enjoy a potato or rice.

Lifestyle Changes
By now, I’ve been doing this for long enough that it’s become part of my lifestyle. I still go off the rails at times, but I’m able to get back on track fairly quickly. The biggest help is having a plan in advance. This eliminates any stress related to unknown situations. It’s still a struggle, but having a plan in place is key. The more I concern myself with my nutrition and not whether or not I’m adhering to a “diet”, the more successful I am.

Fitbit Charge 2

Eat to Live