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By Dr. Pamela Fernandes  |  12 October 2020   

You know the drill. You train, you spar, you get injured. Then what? Do you sit still and do nothing? No. You dust yourself off and get back to training. Because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

MMA fighter Keri Melendez did exactly that as she came back from an ACL injury that would have permanently ended careers of others with lesser willpower. In her case, she fought and took her time, training until she got back to fighting shape. You can too, by following a few steps like Keri and training while injured.

1. Marathon Not Sprint: Go Slow

Six months after her injury, Keri was cleared to work out. She didn’t go to full training even though that’s what she wanted to do. She simply dabbled in Jiu-jitsu and boxed a little bit. Keri’s was a major injury.

Maybe yours isn’t as bad or maybe it's worse. Either way, don’t go full throttle on your training as your return from injury. Go slow while you spar. Start with small moves and techniques that stretch you but don’t strain yourself. Your body is in a state of healing.

2. Get Stronger

Keri started running and lifting weights as long as it didn’t cause pain. She built her body for strength and that was her focus. Most martial artists know their bodies. They know how much they can push their bodies and when to stop. Start focusing on getting stronger. Be mindful of your injury.

In her case, it was her knee so she couldn’t kick yet. She worked out to build the supporting muscles. There were times where she developed strains in her opposite leg because she was overcompensating but she continued her workout so that her muscles, ligaments, and joints were stronger and retained muscle memory.

3. Eat Well To Heal Well

Nutrition is key when you’re injured. Don’t skip meals or cut down on calories just because you’re injured. In the early stage of injury, energy expenditure usually increases by 20%. You need all the nutrition you can get. In the beginning, your injury will lead to lots of inflammation.

To help you fight this, eat foods that have anti-inflammatory properties. This includes nuts, fruits, flaxseeds, and fish oils. To build muscle and prevent your muscle from wasting away, eat lots of proteins like meats, fish, chicken, eggs, and legumes. Don’t starve or go on a diet assuming that because you’re not as active you don’t need as much food. If anything, you need more.

4. Water: The 8 x 8 Rule

Many athletes try to cut water especially if they have a deadline set for a fight or a special return to sport date. Cutting out water can reduce weight, keep you light, and less bloated. However, this occurs at the expense of many other body functions. You need water to lubricate many body activities. 

Your body is made of mostly water and so you need to stay hydrated. Remember the 8x8 rule here. While this rule isn’t set in stone, it’s a rough guide for you to drink 8 glasses of 8 oz of water every day. That’s roughly 2 liters.

5. Sleep Through Injury

Do not stay sleeping all the time! But get enough sleep. Sleep will promote faster recovery and will keep you sharp while you train. Your reaction time and attention will improve if you get a minimum of 7 to 9 hours of sleep. You will also find that getting enough sleep will help your brain retain newer techniques better and process attacks faster. Lack of sleep will make you sluggish and so will oversleeping.

6. Don’t Go Crazy

For Keri, one of the hardest things to watch was other fighters who were making progress while she was starting again from scratch. She owned a gym to boot, so every day as she showed up to train, she saw other fighters make advances in their training and bouts. Mentally, it brought her down and injury can cause self-doubt. You might ask yourself, “Is this worth it? Am I ever going to fight again?” It may even make you feel depressed.

That’s why it's important to show up for training and before you train, meditate and find a way to stay motivated. Hang out with other fighters. Chances are they’ve all had an injury experience and they can share some nuggets of wisdom to get you through your dark moments. Whatever you do, don’t wallow alone in self-pity. Show up to the dojo, reflect, train, and stay motivated.

7. Say Yes To Rehab

Don’t make a face if you have to go to rehab, physical therapy, and chiropractors. They’re all helpful in different ways to tone, condition, and retrain your muscles groups and ligaments. If given an opportunity, do all the exercises, no matter how simple or ridiculous.

These exercises usually work on stretching and conditioning the muscles, joint, musculotendinous units, and joints. Occasionally, you may work with resistance bands and balls. Rehab is a good opportunity to conditionally train your body.

8. Stick to Defense

If you’re too injured to move, make your sparring partner approach you and work on defensive techniques. If your right hand is injured, work the left with jabs and hooks. Before you know it, you’re going to have super fast left jabs and hooks.

By overcompensating with other drills and skills you will develop technical abilities that you wouldn’t usually have.  Use the time to work on your strength, your core, shadowboxing, and scenario drills.  Work the double end bag until you are the best at it and pop doubles on the speed bag. In other words, develop the areas you were formerly weak in and finetune them.

9. Understand That It Takes Time

Bruce Lee, says “Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.” Time is all you got while injured. Healing takes time. And so while waiting to heal and during light training, use the time to learn. 

Every injury will teach you something and mature you. Keri says she was a different person after injury. She’d become more resilient, patient, and mature. Your healing won’t happen overnight. Weeks after you train, there will come a day when you feel, like you’re ready for full battle but your body won’t be like it was pre-injury. Instead, the person looking back at you in the mirror is a better fighter than before.

10. Find Your Tribe

Your tribe is your community. This includes other supportive fighters and martial artists that motivate and inspire you, your family, friends, and coaches who push you to crawl and claw your way back up from injury. 

You need them to be able to train even while injured. Injury can feel lonely and it is an uphill battle to get fighting fit. So find your tribe. It could be an online forum, your mates at the dojo, or your well-wishers. 

Set a goal, let them know, and keep fighting. Do not be embarrassed about the injury. It has happened to the best of the best champions. You are no exception.

The odds of injuries double with every year you spend training. However, you can still train despite the injury and come back even harder. The road is not easy but it's certainly worth it. Keri Melendez did, winning two more MMA fights after her comeback match which she crushed in two minutes. Her next goal: Madison Square Garden!

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About the author

Dr. Pamela Q. Fernandes is an author, doctor and medical writer. Born and raised in Kuwait, she graduated from Angeles University College of Medicine, Philippines in 2007. Soon after that, she started her career as a medical writer and physician. Pamela is an advocate of preventive health, rural medicine, women’s health and tele-medicine having been active in these roles for the majority of her decade long career in medicine. She an Aikido practitioner. You can find out more about her at https://www.pamelaqfernandes.com.

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