Ground Cardio for Jiu Jitsu

So here is a harsh truth a lot of people find out when they try Jiu Jitsu for the first time: ground cardio is totally different from regular cardio. Big facts. Even for athletic people, who run all the time or play basketball or volleyball or whatever… these people are all amazed at how tired they are after only a few minutes into a Jiu Jitsu sparring session (average round for sparring or “rolling” as we call it, is about 6 minutes, most newbies gas out somewhere between the 2 to 3 minute mark). Granted, the inverse is true as well: a guy like me who spends his time rolling around on the ground choking people like a jerk is not going to go run any marathons, so I may personally have great ground cardio but barely mediocre running cardio. But this article isn’t about my shortcomings when it comes to running or chasing balls. Nor is it about how awesome I am on the ground – well, okay, it kinda is. A little bit. What this is really about is the how and why of developing good ground cardio for Jiu Jitsu.

Photo courtesy of I stole it from the internet

The most important aspect of ground cardio is mental in my opinion, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First, I’m going to briefly discuss the physical aspect. So ground cardio is different from running or ball chasing, because a) bipedal movement is more efficient and uses less calories than quadrupedal movement b) in grappling, be it Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Judo, Sambo, etc you are not just supporting your own body weight, but you are attempting to control the body weight of another individual c) gravity is a cruel mistress. Another thing that I suspect is happening with people new to Jiu Jitsu, even athletically conditioned people, is nerves/adrenalin dump. Getting thrown into an unfamiliar situation where someone is actively trying to control your body and strangle you can be nerve wracking, especially if you have little to no idea of what to do. So in defense of many of these athletic newbies, I think it’s fair to assume there’s some premature adrenalin spiking going on. But, even though that’s a physical phenomena, it pertains to the mental aspect of the game.

I’ve long held that the BIGGEST difference between a white belt and a colored belt in Jiu Jitsu is the ability to breathe and stay totally calm under pressure. I say this all the time, and I’ll say it again: If you cannot control yourself, how can you expect to control your opponent? Please reread that last sentence, and take a few extra seconds to let it sink in and resonate. Okay thank you and good job.

So, to build good ground cardio for Jiu Jitsu: 1) show up consistently and do the thing. Repetition and consistency are the only way to get good at anything, and more Jiu Jitsu is the best way to build ground cardio. 2) adjust your mentality. There’s an element of stoicism to this, in that instead of complaining, we welcome the burden and allow it to transform us. I’ll give you an example, something that happened recently (and the basis of why I wrote this article).

It was week or so ago, towards the end of class, last roll of the hour. I was already tired from my previous rounds, but that is to be expected towards the end of class. Coach asked me to roll with a new guy for my final round. The guy in question was young, muscular and athletic, but looked like he hadn’t really been rolling hard, he wasn’t tired or sweaty. He seemed like he was properly warmed up and eager to try this Jiu Jitsu thing out, but somehow either skipped the previous rounds or something. So anyway, the bell sounded, he hopped around, tried to engage, and being the crusty old mat curmudgeon that I am, I basically dragged him to the mat and used my body weight and good technique to stifle his every movement. I probably choked him a good 2 or 3 times, until he paused with just under 2 minutes left on the clock.

“Why aren’t you tired?” He asked between breaths. A part of me is always amused when I hear this from younger athletic guys.

“I am tired. Now let’s roll.” I said, breathing normally.

He seemed confused by my response. I was also getting irritated because I wanted to finish out the round and this dude was about to quit with less than 2 minutes to go. Something inside me found this completely unacceptable. But I also saw an opportunity for a teachable moment. So I clarified my statement.

“See, this is my time to do Jiu Jitsu. There are only a few times per day this can happen. I can’t just up and roll whenever I feel like it, I can only do that during this specific window of time. So when I am here, I am all in. It doesn’t matter if I am tired, I will make every minute here count. My day is structured in part around me coming here to do this thing.” 

Something clicked in this young man’s brain, I could see it in his face. He was still tired, but the gears were turning. “Wow, that… makes sense.”

“Now come on, let’s continue this round. Finish strong!”

So he did. He finished the round with whatever he had left in him, and then afterwards thanked me for the pep talk. There was a paradigm shift from “holy shit I’m tired and this mean old man is relentlessly fucking me up,” to “I need to keep going and finish strong if I’m going to get any good at this.” It was interesting to witness the shift in real time. 

This incident got me thinking a lot about using perspective to overcome physical obstacles, such as poor ground cardio. Look, Combat Sports are difficult. Jiu Jitsu is not easy, not only is it physically demanding, but it has a great deal of technical depth, and it is extremely abusive to the human ego. People put themselves through this for transformative reasons. It may be a little different for everybody: the hobbyist. The competitor. The person who wants to learn self defense. The person who wants to develop confidence, or overcome a fear of people. Etc. The common trait of all who succeed at Jiu Jitsu: mindset. You will be tired no matter what. No matter how good you get, there will be nights where you feel off. There will be times when your strength or technique feel nonexistent, and when you feel like you have no gas left in the tank. When you come to this place, where you feel exhausted and helpless, finish out the class. Finish out the round. Finish it out anyways, because at the end of class, you will still feel tired and broken, but you will feel 100% better about yourself for pushing through. Not only will this improve your ground cardio, but it will also improve your strength of character and your willpower. I promise this. If you’re tired, finish out the round anyway.

So that’s my rant on ground cardio. As always, train well, remember to breathe, be good to each other.


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