Wash your belt, folks

There’s not a lot that I can add to this post, wherein a microbiologist tells you why it’s important to wash your belt. Instead, I made a silly comic expressing the same sentiments.

WashYourBeltcomic

This was just some quick doodling when I had 5 minutes, but I had fun doing it, so maybe I’ll make more comics. If anybody has suggested topics, let me know.

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It Takes A Very Steady Hand, Or Foot

If you’ve trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu for any appreciable amount of time, you’ve had injuries.

Personally, I consider myself one of the more fortunate. Sure, I’ve had the occasional malady, but I have been lucky to avoid a major injury that would require surgery. Besides the pain and expense — as much it galls me to admit this — I don’t want to take the time off from training that a major injury would require.

One of the first pieces of advice I try to tell the new guys who go too hard is that injury is the real enemy: if you want to get better at jiu-jitsu, staying on the mats is job one. Especially for a guy who weighs 138, turns 40 this year and trains regularly, I’ve been very lucky.

It takes a very steady hand ...

It takes a very steady hand … and believe me, the “Skill Game Where You’re The Doctor” bit from the original game applies to our community’s rampant self-diagnosis.

That’s what I keep telling myself this month. Leading up to the New York Open, I had a nagging foot injury that I trained through. At the tournament, I re-injured it during my finals match. Now, every time it gets manipulated in the wrong way — even gently — it becomes debilitating.

But there’s the Catch-22: you can’t train without risking injury, but part of the reason you want to avoid injury is so you can keep training, especially with a tournament (like, say, the Mundials) coming up. Where is the line between being tough and being stupid?

The answer I’ve come to is that you must evaluate two factors: risk of re-injury and reward of training. When you’re nicked up, which is how I’d classify my current injury, you can still train some things. For example, one of my training partners hurt his knee and spent his healing time working half-guard. You also must evaluate your ability to protect yourself while drilling and rolling, and figure out whether you’re taking too great a chance on setting yourself back.

Naturally, figuring this out depends on the severity of an injury. I’ve had back injuries that were simple stiffness and would loosen up once I got moving, and back injuries that I’d have had to be a lunatic to train through.

Given my various experiences with being nicked up, I’ve often been surprised at how easy some injuries are to train with and how hard others are. I do a lot with gi grips, for example, but finger and hand injuries are relatively simple to train with. You can wrap ’em up and hide the injured hand. (In fact, at least one person reading this has choked me using only one hand).

The opposite end of the spectrum: rib injuries. I’ve had two ribs pop out. You use your core for everything, in jiu-jitsu and in life. One of my rib injuries was extremely painful and fairly debilitating. The other one didn’t hurt much. But then I tried to sit up and couldn’t. This foot injury has shown me — again, stupid as it sounds — just how much you use your foot, both in guard and on top. It’s harder to hide than you’d think.

After musing on which of my little bumps and bruises were hardest to train with, I made this graphic rating the injuries on a scale of 0 (a cakewalk) to 10 (sweet merciful crap, maybe we’ll stay in bed and watch videos).

This is just my own experience and is not meant to be taken very seriously. The only medical advice I feel comfortable giving is “you should eat right and train jiu-jitsu.”

This is a super-scientific image from my most recent x-ray and MRI. They combined them into an MRX.

This is a super-scientific image from my most recent x-ray and MRI. They combined them into an MRX.

There shouldn’t be many surprises here. The big muscles and joints are always big problems. I also always think it’s worth noting that if you have an infection, that’s a 10 and you should stay home, period: I raise an eyebrow at how many folks don’t get this.

One notable rating, and this might be a function of the severity of the injury: I personally found it easier to train with a messed-up knee than with a messed-up foot. Obviously, my knee injury wasn’t a major thing, but I was able to change up the things I was doing fairly effectively to protect the knee.

With the foot? Can’t be on top, you’ve got to stand on it. Can’t really keep the guard closed, and with open guard, you either have to step on hips and biceps (ouch!) or try to hide that foot by putting it further away from your opponent — which means you need to shrimp off of it (also ouch).

We all have strengths and weaknesses. In terms of the old remedy of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation, my ICE game is tight, and the rest I have a problem with. (See what I did there?)

The old saying goes, “If you wake up one morning after training and nothing hurts, you died.” My hope is we all start to prove that saying wrong. Happy and healthy training to all of you.

Jiu Jitsu May Be Saving My Life. Really.

Generally, I shy away from hyperbole, so kindly forgive the subject line. It’s a claim I don’t make lightly.

Don’t worry, I promise that the post doesn’t get emo. But it must start with this basic fact: I’ve never known my biological father. This is just fine with me, but means that I lack knowledge about family medical history.

A few months back, a friend of mine in a similar situation decided to sign up for 23 And Me. 23 and Me is a genetic testing service that (in exchange for $99 and a copious amount of your spit) reports on your genetic traits, potential inherited conditions, ancestry and more.

My friend said that her results were fascinating. She also said that she accidentally ordered two of the “spit kits” that they use to collect your DNA, and could use someone to take it off her hands. Sold!

It's a commercial! 23 and Me needs to sponsor me. Hit me up for a gi patch, guys.

It’s a commercial! 23 and Me needs to sponsor me. Hit me up for a gi patch, guys.

Frankly, I was much more interested in the ancestry aspect of the service. Like I said, half of my genealogy is a complete unknown, and due to immigration and a rumored family name change a few generations ago, it’s nigh impossible to find out much of anything further back than a century or so. But genetic markers can tell us a lot about where we come from, and I was excited to see just how Neanderthal I am, among other things (3 percent, in case you were wondering).

As I write this, my ancestry results are still incomplete. I can’t say anything about that. The health results came in today, and my jaw dropped.

Now, I’ve always been a healthy person. It’s extremely rare that I get sick and I’ve been fortunate in my life to avoid most major maladies. It sounds foolish — and it is foolish — but I think I started to take that as a given.

Then I saw this:

Two out of three Jeffs are gonna get heart disease. I'm trying to find something flippant to say and coming up dry.

Two out of three Jeffs are gonna get heart disease. I’m trying to find something flippant to say and coming up dry.

Whoa. I’m 150 percent more likely than the average person to have heart disease. More than 66 percent of guys with my genes will have coronary problems.

Look, coronary heart disease isn’t rare. It’s the leading cause of death in America for men and women alike. But when you see something that says two-thirds of the people with your genotype are going to get it between 45 and 79, well, you’re forced to take notice.

I turn 40 next year. You can see why that might be sobering.

What you might not see, as yet, is what this has to do with jiu-jitsu. Don’t worry, we’re there now.

I started training about three years ago. As I said, I’ve always been on-balance a healthy person. But I also enjoy the occasional beer and the temptation of dessert. I’d never have called myself fat, but when I walked into the gym, I weighed more than I ever had in my life: 167 pounds. I was exercising, but infrequently, doing yoga when I could find the time.

Three months after I started training, I had caught the grappling bug. I started training five times a week, more if I could. I have never been focused on weight in and of itself, since that’s not a good metric of health, but the pounds started to melt off. Fast.

X-rays of my body reveal changes in my mind's focus ...

X-rays of my body reveal changes in my mind’s focus …

There was more. My conditioning was improving rapidly, but I felt a ceiling there. I noticed that there were days when I felt better than other days, and those days strongly correlated with how well I ate, hydrated and otherwise took care of myself.

I started researching nutrition. Nobody wants to feel like garbage and perform like garbage during training, so I stopped putting garbage in my body. Plus, if I was going to compete — and I decided early on that I wanted to compete — I needed to get a handle on this aspect of preparation.

Soon I was eating several small meals a day composed mostly of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and grilled fish. I started drinking water constantly — a gallon a day on a standard day, more if a tournament was coming up.

I hadn’t been a real drinker in many years, and I found myself consuming alcohol very infrequently. Instead, I was drinking Acai and taking protein shakes, and supplementing those beverages with vitamins.

... and nutritional habits.

… and nutritional habits.

I felt great. Gradually, all the exercise in my life became jiu-jitsu training, and I worked into a cycle of training six or seven times a week, eating well, hydrating and getting lots of rest.

I wasn’t trying to “diet” — just to eat healthy. Still, I found myself naturally between 145 and 149 pounds. I knew that my new habits were healthier than my old habits, but that’s not why I made the changes: I just wanted to get better at jiu-jitsu.

This matters to the topic at hand because genes are only part of the story — 39-56% of the story, to be precise — in deciding someone will get heart disease. Your lifestyle matters a great deal, too!

Flash forward to yesterday morning. I get the news about my elevated heart disease risk. Shocked, I start researching what I could do to keep myself healthy. That included taking this questionnaire  from the Washington University School of Medicine about lifestyle and heart disease.

Let me hit you with some samples of the questions they ask.

* Do you eat fish 2 or more times per week?

* Do you eat 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day? 

* Do you eat 3 or more servings of whole grains per day?  

* Do you usually eat 3 servings of nuts per week?

* How many servings of alcohol do you have on a typical day? 

* Do you take a multivitamin or a B complex supplement on most days?

* Do you walk (or do other moderate activity) for at least 30 minutes on most days, or at least 3 hours per week?

The point, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed: I’d changed all of these things for the better, without thinking about it, just by virtue of training jiu-jitsu. When I finished the survey, it came out like this:

Keep Yourself Alive!

Keep Yourself Alive!

There are lots of things in your life that are out of your control. You can’t change your genes. You can’t change who your family is.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to make fundamental, overarching changes on a number of issues all at once. If you tell someone they have to change their whole diet, and start exercising, and take vitamins, and pay attention to these other matters too … well, that can get overwhelming. And being overwhelmed can lead to paralysis of action. Ever had so many projects due you just feel daunted and take a nap? Same concept.

It’s better to find that one lifestyle change that fosters change in all the other stuff. I train because I love it, not because I’m trying to exercise. But training is exercise. And because I love to train, I drink lots of water instead of lots of booze, eat healthy snacks instead of donuts, and — all  since I don’t want to feel like death when I’m doing what I love.

Of course, it’s still possible that heart disease is how I will go. I’m at peace with that, and I’d still make the same decisions about diet and exercise even if I knew they wouldn’t make a difference in my health outcome.

I’ve found one component of my life that inspires me to make better choices in many other aspects of my life. For me, that’s jiu-jitsu. Maybe it is for you, too.

And now for some MMA GIFs

Although I don’t train for MMA fights myself, a lot of my good friends and training partners do. It’s exciting for me to take part in their camps. It feels amazing when they win and like I’ve been punched in the gut when they don’t.

Fortunately, two of my friends finished their fights by TKO this week. This is always going to be a primarily jiu-jitsu blog, but I thought this was worth noting (and I expect to write about MMA again when three of my teammates fight in the Bull City Brawl on Oct. 12.) For more regular MMA stuff, check out Carolina MMA.

Both fought on the InkaFC card in Peru. Harold Hubbard was making his MMA debut, and D’Juan Owens, an active pro, was looking for another win. Me, I was watching the Internet for video so I could make animated GIFs like these:

Harold wins by ground and pound.

Harold wins by ground and pound.

Harold simply outclassed his opponent, standing and on the ground. The guy took him down (which is hard to do), but Harold’s jiu-jitsu meant he couldn’t do much afterward. And once Harold got on top, well, you see the GIF.

D’Juan had a tough fight against a skilled opponent, but managed to get the TKO finish in round three.

D'Juan knocks the taste, and mouthpiece, out of the guy's mouth.

D’Juan knocks the taste, and mouthpiece, out of the guy’s mouth.

Since this is a BJJ blog, I really should have made GIFs out of D’Juan’s two omoplata sweeps. But everyone wants to see finishes, so here y’go.

Only slightly sped up.

Only slightly sped up.

Good News: My Finger Hurts

Jiu-jitsu really changes your standards for what constitutes an injury. If you can train, you’re not really injured.

On the other hand — literally — I nicked myself up in what seemed like the most innocuous way yesterday. Doing some drills with the gi, I jammed my index finger. Overnight it swelled up, and now I can only close my hand to about 50 percent of a fist.

Luckily, tonight is no-gi night, so I don’t have to worry about grips. On the down side, I have to wait until Friday to really try this:

Hopefully my finger will still hurt by then.

Don’t Get Staph

The headline summarizes my advice to you, the reader. After wrestling in middle school and a year in high school — and after 18 months of training BJJ — I finally zigged when staph zagged.

It’s frustrating, because I’ve been training really hard for the Pans at the end of the month, and when the infection hit I felt like I was better than ever in terms of technique, timing and conditioning. Making matters doubly vexing, I’m the guy who takes every precaution: I always wash all my gear after every use, even my belt; we mop our mats after every class; I use Athletic Body Care body wash and lotion.

Ultimately, no matter how many precautions you take, mat-borne illness can get you. It’s just part of the price of admission to this great sport of ours. (I’m particularly at risk, I must acknowledge, because I have eczema, so I have more breaks in my skin than most people on average).

I was lucky. I was also paranoid. These two factors enabled me to catch it early. I tell this story so others will know the warning signs. Hopefully you’ll never need to know these signs, but if you have the misfortune to get the illness, the sooner you get after it, the better.

Training the previous night had gone great. It was my 24th straight day training, but I didn’t feel run down or sore. But when I went to bed, my shin was sore. “Huh,” I thought. “I must’ve clashed shins with someone and not realized it.” I didn’t see a bruise, but you don’t always turn black and blue when you get whacked.

About a half-hour later, I noticed a small patch of my skin had turned red. I raised an eyebrow at this.

About a half-hour after that, a portion of my shin about 3.5 inches by one inch was red and swollen. My skin felt stretched out, and the ara felt warm to the touch. Uh oh.

I called the doctor.

Fortunately, they were able to see me just two hours later (if they had put me off, I would have gone to the emergency room). I was amazed to hear that most people my doctor sees that have staph wait until it starts to weep before they make an appointment. By this point, you’re a raging mess of contagion and it takes much more work to get the infection under control.

Since I have no illusions that I am stronger than a bunch of microbes, I eagerly accepted the powerful antibiotics she prescribed and gobbled those suckers down.

As if you needed convincing, having staph (even a mild case) is awful. There’s the pain, of course: mine felt about twice as sore as the worst bruise I’ve ever had. The antibiotics themselves mess you up, too, and take my advice: do not gobble these on an empty stomach. If you’ve been given the right medicine, you will get sick.

Far and away the worst part for me, though, was just not being able to train. I feel the same way about injuries: being off the mat drives me crazy, and retards my progress. Injuries are the enemy.

Infections are worse, though, because if you’re honest about what you’ve got (and you MUST be, unless you’re a real prick), a lot of people will balk at training with you. This is totally understandable: nobody wants this stuff, and with good reason.

So I played it safe. I was told on Thursday that I wasn’t contagious, but I waited four days after that to get back on the mat. No reason to take unnecessary risks, and even though it was driving me crazy not to train, I wanted to be certain I wasn’t putting anyone else in danger.

Needless to say, it was a big setback. I took time off from training, missed a US Grappling tournament (I’d signed up to do all eight divisions again), and generally had to sit inside and sleep a lot. And it could have been a lot worse.

So now, several days after that, I only have one more day in my antibiotic regimen. Hopefully, this will end both the staph and the “feeling like crap from antibiotics” portion of this training camp.

Fortunately, I have implemented a new anti-staph strategy in my training.

Rainbow tights: is there anything they can’t do?

The rainbow scares away the microbes, you see.

Our Friend the Shoulder

Ah, the noble shoulder: integral part of brawny tasks.

Atlas used his to hold up the (mythical) world, Leonardo drew the (real) joint in detail, and modern English users have metaphor-ed and verb-ed what was originally a noun. We shoulder burdens and put our shoulders to the wheel: you wouldn’t do that with a pinky toe or a navel. When Carl Sandburg wanted to tell you how burly the city of Chicago was, he talked about the town’s shoulders.

And mine hurt, especially the right one.

Mine look like this on the inside, too. I hope. I also have more hair than the model. But not on my shoulders. I hope.

Important disclaimer: getting nicked up is a part of training. Everyone knows this. Call it “The Gentle art” all you want (and that’s really a misleading translation, but that’s a topic for another day), you’ll still be icing something every once in a while.

Why write about this now? Again, injuries are a part of training, and I want to be honest with myself about what jiu-jitsu does to my body — the good and the bad.

The pain’s not much: it only hurts appreciably when I move it horizontally from right to left, as if I were at the end of a ZZ Top music video. But when I do that, I find myself hearing Groucho Marx’s voice telling me not to.

Apart from that, there seems to be a good deal of soreness and much less range of motion. I decided at the start of the vacation that I was only going to train a little bit, substituting yoga and deep-tissue massage for shoulder activities.

I’ll be frank: I’m disappointed that my six-week strategy for recovery hasn’t succeeded to the level I expected. It has improved, but it’s far from fixed.

Granted, that six-week strategy of rest, relaxation, and massage took a bit of a diversion into training judo with the Palau team, but hey, let’s not nitpick.

I’d like to say that I’m going to take it easy for another couple of weeks. But training camp for the no-gi Pans is starting, and, well, you know how it is.

My shoulders might be half as brawny as normal, but they’ll do. I’m not from Chicago anyway.