The Importance of Mat Cardio To Grappling Arts like Wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu and Judo
Very often, when people come to grappling sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo and wrestling, they notice that the cardio that they developed while practicing their other disciplines/sports do not translate as well as expected. Similarly, when a Judoka takes their gi top off to spar without the gi, a ground focused Jiujiteiro stands up with a wrestler or a Judoka or a wrestler sits in a jiujiteiro’s guard.
The key difference between cardio for other sports and cardio for grappling is the stress of potential violence, and, similarly, the cardio required for different grappling disciplines focused on different kinds of play is consistently different and unfamiliar. The unfamiliarity causes stress and the stress causes the practitioner to expend more energy in training.
When someone develops cardio for running, their focus is solely on running and monitoring their breath and technique. The number of extraneous factors (things that can go wrong) is far less than those in jiu-jitsu. Even in a contact sport like basketball or football there is not much imminent threat of another person focusing on causing the practitioner injury through limb manipulation or strangulation, or as in wrestling or judo to forcibly hold the other person down.
Many people describe Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as the art of simulated murder, practitioners practice securing positions that then allow them to choke or break their training partners and opponents.
Of course tapping is an option so most matches or training sessions do not end in injury, but at least at the beginning of training the brain doesn’t know the difference between the simulation and reality.
On the other hand wrestling (and Judo) involve dragging people to the ground in order to forcibly hold them there. This effort is more exhausting than running or lifting weights because in neither of those is the fight or flight instinct triggered like in judo or wrestling.
In combat sports beginners the fight or flight instinct often causes what is called an “adrenaline dump”. The adrenaline dump is a phenomenon in which the body produces a large amount of adrenaline in order to deal with a short term situation, but if the situation lasts for a while it causes severe fatigue. What this means is that in the first couple of minutes of a round a beginner will exert far more energy than an advanced practitioner followed by a sharp drop in output. This happens regardless of the beginners fitness level coming in.
But what about cross training between wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu or Judo and no gi grappling?
Unfamiliarity will bring about the same fight or flight mechanism as in a beginner, however the more advanced grappler will have the tools to handle this better. Still, on a longer run a grappler in an unfamiliar environment/focus will fatigue quicker than those familiar with the environment.
So what are some ways a beginner with a decent fitness level can avoid getting completely exhausted when learning to grapple?
For starters: everyone should remember to relax at least until they understand when and how to be tense. If you are doing any sort of grappling art being tense will not stop a skilled practitioner from defeating you, therefore a focus on NOT being tense but rather feeling what is happening is optimal. Tensing up while a wrestler hits a double leg on, or a judoka hits a foot sweep or a jiujiteiro hits an arm bar won’t stop any of those, but being relaxed while it happens will simultaneously allow a person to feel what is happening and how, and conserve some energy. The overarching challenge here is to learn to exert effort without exerting energy.
Once one has begun training, competition is another way to develop cardio.
No matter what sport you come from, grappling is often considered one of the hardest endeavors on the planet. Most people who dive down the grappling rabbit hole will tell you just how challenging it is. The revelation that whatever cardio you bring to the game is not worth much is a daunting one, but developing mat cardio and then developing different kinds of mat cardio for different kinds of grappling is one of the more rewarding aspects of grappling sports. Embracing this reality makes the experience that much more enjoyable.