This article was written by Marc Barton, who is a 2nd degree Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt under Mauricio Gomes. Marc is the head instructor at Kingston Jiu Jitsu and is also a qualified medical doctor. Marc has also contributed articles for a medical education website. Header image used on license from Shutterstock.
For the last few months, I have been rehabbing my right knee after suffering a meniscal tear and PCL sprain. I have suffered numerous injuries over the 17 or so years I have been training, but this one has been particularly frustrating and a bit of a rollercoaster. I’m around the six months point in the recovery process now and have started doing some sensible adjusted rolling with trusted training partners, which has been great. But I’m probably still at least three months away from having a fully functioning, pain-free knee again.
This sort of knee injury requires tremendous patience and has had, by far, the longest road to recovery of any jiu-jitsu-related injury that I have suffered. The initial stages were challenging, and at times I felt very down. Jiu-jitsu is not only my livelihood, but it is also something that I love doing. Not being able to train and roll with my students and friends leaves a massive hole in my life that is hard to fill. Over the past few months, however, I have learned a lot about dealing with injuries, and I would like to share some of my insights with you.
Get professional advice ASAP
If you suffer any significant injury, the first thing you should do is seek professional advice from an appropriate healthcare professional. I was very fortunate to be able to discuss my knee injury the same day it occurred with my friend Miad Najafi who is not only an excellent osteopath but also a 3rd-degree jiu-jitsu black belt. Because of this, he has excellent insight into jiu-jitsu-related injuries. After listening to his words of wisdom, I then sought advice from an Orthopaedic surgeon and was able to discuss the pros and cons of the different treatment options that are available and what the months ahead would hold in store for me. I realised very early on that this was going to be a lengthy process, and I was able to start working on rehab very soon after the injury after the initial swelling and pain had begun to settle down.
Accept that you are injured and do your rehab
I have to admit that when it dawned on me that this wasn’t a minor sprain that I would be able to shake off quickly, I got pretty down. My motivation to follow the rehab exercises was initially quite low, and it took a few days to fully accept the fact that I was injured and make peace with the situation. I had to remind myself on several occasions that getting injured in jiu-jitsu is inevitable and part of the game. It is easy to get discouraged, but once I had gotten to grips with the situation, I started to feel better about things and felt like I was constructively working towards getting back on the mats.
Find new ways to stay fit and active
You will get better and get back to training at some point down the line. You will, of course, lose mat fitness, but you can minimise the losses by finding ways to work around your injury. There are usually ways that you can keep exercising and stay fit without having too much of an impact on the area that is injured. Swimming is often a good option, as well as weight training targeting other parts of your body. For my specific type of knee injury, once the initial pain had settled, I was advised to start doing some cycling, as it is an excellent way of building strength and mobility in and around the knee joint safely, as well as speeding up the recovery process by circulating the synovial fluid around the injured area. It can be hard to find positives in being injured, but I have grown to really enjoy the sessions I do on the stationary bike at home, and it has kept my cardio at a reasonable level.
Keep your head in the game
Watching instructional videos, narrated rolls, competition matches etc., is clearly less effective than getting on the mats and training. It will, however, allow you to gain insights on positions and techniques, help prevent you from completely forgetting techniques that you have learned, and perhaps even pick up some new concepts you can use when you get back to training. Visualisation is also an excellent tool that can be used. Visualisation is a technique that is used by many professional athletes, and several scientific studies have proved its efficiency. There is an excellent article on how to use it here.
You will likely reach a point in the rehab process where things are starting to improve, but your recovery is not yet at the stage where you can begin to roll again. It can be very tempting at this point to rush back and start full-on training again. This is a precarious stage in the rehab process, and more often than not, it will result in you aggravating the injury or possibly even making it worse. This can set you back weeks or months and be devastating. I have witnessed this happen several times over the years in training partners and students and have seen first-hand what an awful situation it is. In fact, one of my students had suffered a very similar knee injury to the one I have about a year and a half earlier. He had rushed back, re-injured the knee and made the meniscal tear significantly worse. He ended up having surgery, resetting the clock on his recovery, and it took him many more months before he could get back to training from that point. I was very grateful to hear this story, which has made me much more cautious about handling things myself.
Adjust your training
When you finally get the go-ahead from a medical professional to return to the mats, you may need to adjust your training to work around your injury. I have heard stories of people with knee injuries tying a belt around their legs when rolling and just using their arms. I have trained with one arm tucked in my belt when I have had an arm injury. You won’t be at your best in your rolls for sure, but you will be rolling again, and this will undoubtedly feel fantastic after any significant period off the mats. If you are going to do some sort of ‘adjusted rolling’, it is vital that you train with people that understand your situation and who your trust. I have a small group of trusted training partners I have been training with over the past few weeks, including my 17-year-old son, who is a very technical blue belt and is around my size. You will also need to roll without any ego. I have only one fully functioning leg at the moment, so certain positions will be challenging. Guard retention is close to impossible against higher-level belts. I am, however, getting to work my defence from the bottom a lot more than usual, so every cloud has a silver lining.
I teach jiu-jitsu for a living and had to teach again very soon after the injury. This was a double edge sword because, on the one hand, I was still directly involved in jiu-jitsu and teaching gave me the ability to demonstrate and drill techniques safely and under my control. On the other hand, teaching those early classes was often painful and caused the knee to swell. I also had a couple of occasions when, despite my best efforts to protect the knee with a brace and work positions that were relatively ‘knee safe’, I still inadvertently aggravated things slightly. On one occasion, my knee gave way just from standing up too quickly from a squat while showing a technique.
I personally never mind if students recovering from injuries come to classes just to drill techniques and then sit out the rolls at the end of the sessions, and I would much rather they had the opportunity to do some training than none at all. If you are recovering from an injury, then chat with your instructor to see if this is something they are also happy with.
Take some time to reflect
The recovery period from an injury is also a great time to reflect on why the injury happened. Was there anything that you could have done to have avoided the injury? I have suffered a few injuries over the years, particularly at the white and blue belt levels, that were undoubtedly avoidable. I could have tapped earlier or given up on a position that was putting my body in a vulnerable position. With time, you become more adept at recognising these situations, and the risk of injury will decrease. Perhaps your conditioning was sub-optimal, and adding in some sensible strength and conditioning work is something that you should consider moving forward. Was the injury due to your training partner rolling in an unsafe way? If so, consider chatting with them or the instructor and avoid training with them in future. Obviously, jiu-jitsu is a contact sport and not all injuries are avoidable. Some are just down to bad luck, but it is always worthwhile taking steps to avoid future injuries if at all possible.
If you are currently dealing with an injury like myself, you have my sincerest sympathies. I hope this article can help you, even in some small way and that you can get back to training safely soon.