When you’re a mixed martial arts (MMA) athlete, the actual fight is the fun part. It’s the culmination of all the hard work you’ve done in the last few months. It’s the highlight reel, so to speak. In contrast, your Rocky-type training montage is probably not as exciting. But it’s also more likely to punish your body more than the 15-25 minutes of official Octagon time.
The truth is MMA is a grueling sport. It taxes the body heavily. And this is most apparent while training. Point in fact – UFC Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre got his career-sidelining ACL injury in training, not in actual competition.
MMA can hurt like nothing else. One training session can result in headaches, bumps, bruises, sprains, and worse, breaks. The injuries can be spread across body parts – face, body, hands, torso, legs, even toes. With fighters clocking in gym time four hours per day minimum, five days a week, the day after can feel like you’ve been run through a meat grinder.
UFC lightweight Scott Holtzman once summarized how it felt post-fight: “I think the thing that stands out the most is just being so sore that I can’t tie my own shoes.”
Professional fighter or not, post-training muscles aches and pains can make even the simplest of daily tasks feel monumental. And if you’re all sore, how are you supposed to go back for more gym time?
Well, we got you covered. We list down all the ways to recover from muscle soreness like a true MMA champ.
#1 Say NO to Overtraining
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? No pain, no gain. Shut up and train. Or so the saying goes. Sticking to a training regimen takes dedication and responsibility. But you are not doing yourself any favors by doing too much, too fast.
One of the major problems of combat sports and other fitness activities is overtraining.
Defined as “training more than your body can recover from,” overtraining can lead to, among others:
· Decreased performance
The simplest way to take care of your body is just to make sure you’re not overexerting yourself. How do you do that?
Plan your training routine accordingly. Do not work the same muscle groups every session. Every day is NOT leg day. You want to make sure that each muscle group is allowed sufficient rest before you stress them again.
And on that note, let’s talk about another often-overlooked, but very important part of training and recovery: rest.
Some athletes will tell you that there’s no such thing as overtraining, there’s only under-recovery. We don’t really believe in the first part of that statement (see #1), but we wholeheartedly agree with the latter.
In the pursuit of better sports performance, athletes have been known to push themselves harder and harder. Many then forego rest days. This is a mistake. Recovery time is vital because it’s only during rest periods that the body is allowed to refresh energy stores. It’s also the time for damaged tissues to repair themselves.
Without enough time for repair and replenishment, the human body will break down.
But rest does not mean simply doing nothing. There are ways to maximize rest days to help further your fitness goals.
Short-term recovery refers to the rest period between exercise sets. This is the most common form of recovery. A 2005 study found that 120 seconds of active recovery provides balance between cellular repair and oxygen level.
Of course, rest periods can still vary depending on your fitness goals. If you’re strength training for example, the recommended minimum rest period is 3 minutes between sets. This is because much of the energy used in strength training comes from the ATP-PC system (adenosine triphosphate phosphocreatine). It generally takes the body around 3 minutes to replenish phosphagen supply.
So the general rule of thumb when it comes to short-term recovery between sets: limit to a minimum of 2 minutes but never more than 5 minutes, or you’ll start cooling down.
Ironically, the best way to recover from intense physical activity is not by remaining still but rather, through lower intensity exercises. What are the benefits of active recovery?
· Reduces soreness
· Increases blood flow to muscles and joints
How do you do active recovery right?
· Participate in light intensity activities.
Go on a walk. Take a bike ride. Join a spin class. Go swimming. Take a hike. Rollerblade. There are so many options you can choose from. The key is to keep moving.
· Try yoga.
Yoga helps increase flexibility and teaches proper breathing techniques, among many other benefits. It also promotes blood flow which is needed in cell repair.
· Dynamic stretching
This refers to active movements where joints and muscles are made to go through a full range of motion. It usually helps for warm ups before workouts but can also be used to stay limber during rest and recovery days.
Dynamic stretches should mimic the movement of exercises you’re performing. For example, jumping rope helps increase heart rate and blood flow while loosening the shoulders, legs and arms. It’s a staple in many MMA training regimens.
· Get a massage.
A 20- to 30-minute massage session done immediately after exercise has been proven to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from between 24 to 96 hours after exercise.
There are many different types of massage you can do, among the more popular ones are:
o Swedish – uses long strokes and kneading patterns to help flush metabolic waste
o Deep Tissue – targets deeper muscle layers to release muscle tightness
o Reflexology – a Chinese practice that relaxes the central nervous system by targeting reflex areas in the feet
o Sports Massage – the aim is to break up scar tissue to improve mobility and reduce soreness and tension
o Thai – blends yoga, acupressure, stretching and massage to reduce stress and promote flexibility
There are also many different tools you can use if you can’t schedule a massage session in a spa, or simply do not want to go out for one. You can use foam rollers or lacrosse balls to stretch tight muscles. Or you can opt for percussive therapy using a massage gun.
How does percussive massage therapy work? Percussive therapy makes use of rapid bursts of pressure into the muscle tissues to increase blood flow in the area. This results in reduced inflammation and muscle tension.
The tool of choice is a massage gun like the HYDRAGUN. Unlike other myofascial release tools such as foam rollers, it lets you target a specific area. It’s also generally a more comfortable, automatic solution compared to foam rollers.
Sleep still falls under the rest category but it’s such a wide topic it deserves its own section.
So, how important is sleep as part of a training program? Muscles relax during REM sleep. This means tension is released. It can also help alleviate symptoms of chronic pain.
Many other critical bodily functions occur while we’re sleeping – including tissue repair and muscle growth. Together with dietary proteins and muscle-building hormones (like the human growth hormone or HGH), sleep can even help add on muscles.
To ensure you’re getting the full restorative effects of sleep, aim for 7-9 hours of shut-eye every night.
Water speeds up recovery time by helping the body get rid of toxins. It also prevents muscle dehydration which can be quite painful.
An hour or two before working out – 15 to 20 ounces of water (440-600ml)
15 minutes before – 8 to 10 ounces of water (235-300ml)
During workout – 8 ounces (235ml) every 15 minutes, more if you’re sweating heavily
After workout, you’ll need to drink 150% of the water weight lost. Weigh yourself. If you lose, say, 1 pound (0.45kg), you’ll need to drink 1.5 pounds (0.68kg) of water, or around 700ml (3 cups).
What about sports drinks? Glad you asked.
Sports drinks contain water. But on top of that, each bottle can also contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium, as well as carbohydrates in the form of sugars (glucose, sucrose and fructose). All of those are utilized during workouts so getting them replenished ASAP is beneficial.
However, even with various studies conducted, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence to show sports drinks are better than water for hydration.
Bottom line: you can opt for sports drinks, but water, for the most part, does the same thing.
#5 Diet and Nutrition
As you can probably tell already, when it comes to MMA, or any other sport for that matter, the battle does not happen in the Octagon or the gym alone. Half the fight occurs outside, primarily in the kitchen. Therefore, you also need to pay attention to your diet and nutrition.
Here are all the different foods and supplements to help you recover faster:
· Nutrient-Dense Diet
MMA demands high intensity workouts. The body will consume a lot of nutrients during this time. Therefore, a quality nutrient-dense diet is recommended to ensure faster recovery as well as decrease inflammation and jumpstart the muscle repair and rebuilding process.
As an MMA fighter, the two kinds of diet you need to consider are:
o Vegan or Vegetarian
Yes, a plant-based diet can help build and rebuild muscles.
To do so, you need to ensure you have adequate protein. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends a daily intake of 0.8g of protein for every kilogram of body weight. To increase muscle growth, the protein intake should be around 1g to 1.2g per kilogram of body weight.
Protein is not exclusive to animal products. High-protein vegan foods include:
§ Soy products
§ Oats, quinoa, whole grain rice
o Paleo, Caveman, Primal, Ketogenic
These diets may have different methods but the concept is the same: eating only animal and earth-grown products. Grains are replaced with healthy fats and processed foods and refined sugars are eliminated from the diet.
Pro-tip: Spread the protein evenly across four meals. Studies show doing so is more likely to stimulate muscle growth.
· Protein Shakes
These are great if there are no high-quality protein sources available, if you prefer your protein in liquid form, or to supplement your daily protein needs.
Protein powders can also come in plant-based options if you’re following a vegan diet. They’re mostly made from soy, pea or brown rice protein. And while the more popular brands are derived from cow’s milk (whey and casein), athletes with milk allergies also have the option to get an egg white protein-based one.
· Vitamin C
One of the easiest vitamins to include in your diet, vitamin C helps the body produce collagen. This is essential in rebuilding tissue and preventing excess inflammation.
· Anti-inflammatory food
Regardless of the diet you choose to follow, your daily menu should include food that has anti-inflammatory properties to help lessen after-workout pain and soreness.
Include the following in the menu:
o Olive oil
o Spinach, kale and other green leafy vegetables
o Almonds and walnuts
o Fatty fish like salmon and tuna
o Fruits like strawberries, cherries and oranges
o Refined carbohydrates as in white bread
o Fried food
o Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
o Red meat
o Processed meat
There are many supplements in the market that claim to do so many different things. We’re listing down only those that have been studied to back up the claims.
o Rosehip – this is an herbal medication that comes in capsule form. It’s said to be effective in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. It helps ease joint inflammation.
o Tart Cherry juice – full of antioxidant anthocyanin to help minimize swelling in post-exercise muscles. The American Chemical Society claims it may be better than aspirin.
o Turmeric – contains curcumin, long known to help manage exercise-induced inflammation and soreness.
o Apple cider vinegar – has alkalizing and anti-inflammatory properties that reduces muscles pain and inflammation and is also good for gut health. It can both be applied directly to sore areas or mixed with water and consumed.
Improved immune response:
o Krill Oil – while it does not enhance performance, krill oil (which is a rich source of Omega-3) was shown to increase immune response after exercise
o Magnesium – has a relaxing effect and lowers lactic acid accumulation. It also reduces resting and post-exercise blood pressure.
o Glutamine – an amino acid that serves as a building block for protein as well as an essential molecule for immune response and intestinal health, glutamine is produced by the body. But when the body is stressed (like after work out), its requirement is greater than what’s produced. Hence, supplementation is essential.
Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body adapt to the three stages of stress – alarm, resistance and exhaustion. They’re considered to have a normalizing effect on bodily functions. These include:
· Ginkgo biloba
· Maca root
· Tulsi Basil
#6 Other Modalities
Apart from sleep and nutrition, there are a few other things you can use to boost recovery after a brutal workout.
· Muscle creams - Topical creams are effective in soothing sore muscles.
· Contrast Shower – Take one after a workout or during rest days. Start with hot water for 2-3 minutes to dilate blood vessels and increase blood circulation. Then slowly lower the temperature and take another minute under cold water. Repeat for 5-10 minutes. This should flush out lactic acid and other toxins from the body.
· Ice Bath – freezing cold water reduces temperature and blood flow and in effect, also reduces inflammation and boosts recovery. But do not spend too much time doing this. Limit the bath to 10-15 minutes.
· Epsom Salt Bath – Epsom salt is a rich source of magnesium sulfate. It helps draw the fluid out of tissues to relax sore muscles.
· Cryotherapy – This entails being exposed to extreme cold for up to 3 minutes to force the body to maintain core temperature and redirect blood flow to deeper areas. The effect is less swelling and pain.
· Compression Therapy – Pneumatic compression devices (PCD) as well as compression sleeves (CS) were both shown to help decrease DOMS-related swelling, although in varying degrees. In general, PCDs are better than CS, but the latter is still better than not doing compression therapy at all.
#7 Deep Breathing
Breathing is rarely mentioned when talking about rest and recovery. But it’s actually the easiest to do (you breathe, don’t you?)
Slow, deep breathing decreases blood pressure by producing a calming effect on the body. What does it mean for MMA fighters and athletes? A relaxed body is a body that recovers faster, one that will respond better to future stressors.
What exercises can you do to improve your breathing?
· Crocodile Breathing – this makes use of the diaphragm to breathe and is also known to enhance the core. Watch how it’s done here:
· Grounding/Earthing – means lying on the ground and tapping into the Earth’s natural energy to improve blood flow, energy, sleep and general well-being. This may sound New Age-y, but research does show positive effects.
Bonus: Chocolate Milk
Because we all deserve a treat every now and then. And a study actually proved chocolate to be an effective recovery aid between exercise bouts. For a healthy version-
- 2 cups 1% organic milk
- 2.5 T raw organic cocoa powder
- 1 T honey (or stevia)
Just combine everything in a blender on high for 20 seconds. Ice optional.
Don’t slack on rest and recovery. To summarize:
1) Do not overtrain.
2) Opt for active recovery on your rest days – do light exercises, get a massage gun, try yoga.
3) Make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night.
5) Get proper nutrition.
6) Invest in proper cool down methods after workouts and during rest days.
7) Breathe and relax.
MMA fans and followers rarely get to see what goes on before the big match. And once the lights go out and the fighter leaves the ring, most won’t really pay much time thinking about the cuts and bruises, the sprains and worse, breaks that the athlete incurred, either.
But a true MMA athlete knows the fight is ever-present, in and out of the ring. And one of your greatest weapons to achieving MMA success is by taking care of yourself and making sure your body is given the rest it deserves to fight another day.