HAMSTRING TEAR: AN ODESSEY THROUGH INJURY

by Tom Deters DC

“A Black Belt is just a White Belt who wouldn’t quit!”

Injury happens.  If you roll Brazilian jiu jitsu hard enough and long enough, it’s inevitable. Whether fighting off submissions like armbars, keylocks, omoplatas and ankle locks or whether you are scrambling to establish a position, you’re bound to tweak something. Maybe it’s a finger, wrist, knee, shoulder, neck or some other minor injury that costs you a workout or two, or it might be a touch more serious: torn ligament, cartilage, dislocation, broken bone or torn muscle.  Since beginning training in the fall of 2007, I’ve had my share of injuries (shoulder and neck strains, torn ligaments in my wrist etc.) but nothing like what happened to me this past December when I blew a hamstring. I share my story in the hopes that the information offered can be a source of both hope and help to someone dealing with a severe muscle tear. While I was trained as a chiropractor and acupuncturist and served as Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness for nearly 15 years, I was extremely frustrated by the lack of good, complete information on healing and rehabilitating hamstring tears. I’ve tried to put together information that hit all the major areas in terms of scope and depth of content for someone dealing with this kind of tear.

To get the disclaimer issues out of the way up front: I am just telling my story and thought process. I am not offering medical advice. What you do is up to you and your doctor. Much of how aggressively I was treated might raise some eyebrows or ruffle some feathers. While that’s not my goal, I think that’s actually a good thing to get people to re-think how to treat injuries and the limitations most people face when dealing with the medical system (as dictated by the insurance companies and “dogma”).  Nonetheless, the results I obtained were, in the words of many, “incredible”.  An injury that most docs, including the surgeon whom I consulted with, said would mess me up and keep me out of the gym for up to a year, only kept me off the mat for a couple of months  and even then I was able to do many technique drills and teach some beginner’s classes.

WHAT HAPPENED?

One night, I was rolling with the 2010 World Superheavyweight Champ Rodrigo Cavaca. I was doing a standing pass and had him lifted up off the ground when he suddenly opened his guard to drop down and as soon as his butt hit the ground he thrust it forward into the front of my right knee in a sweep attempt. Given his size and weight (6’4” 255) and mine (6’0” 220) and the fact that my knee was almost straight at the time and my balance forward, something had to give. Either my knee was going to hyper-extend backward (blowing and ACL) or my hamstring was gonna tear. The hamstring lost out. It sounded like a branch of a tree snapping off. Guys rolling 15 feet away heard it (and went “ooohhh”!) and I went down like a headshot goose.  Being my first major muscle tear, it felt really weird (a bad weird) and I knew what happened was BAD, but it took about fifteen seconds for it to really start to, ah….HURT!  The more interesting aspect was that my leg (thigh, calf, foot) was totally dead, like somebody had neurologically pulled the plug. An involuntary up-chuck soon followed once they carried me into the locker room to grab my stuff.  Long story short, I got loaded in the back of the van and carted home (Cavaca felt terrible and literally helped carry me into my bed along with another of my training buddies). I was lying in bed and had an icepack strapped to my leg with a 6” ace bandage within 5 minutes of getting home and 45 minutes of the injury. It was gonna be a long night.

GOTTA HAVE A PLAN

It was a long night indeed. But, by midnight I was already four hours into R-I-C-E (rest, ice, compression and elevation. I had done three 30 minutes ice pack sessions, had a pulsed (20%) ultrasound treatment, took 1 gram of vitamin C for three consecutive hours, took proteolytic enzymes (Sorenzyme) and oral anti-inflammatories (naproxen).  All of this was in an effort to control my biggest enemy – inflammation, which can cause swelling and reduce blood flow, damaging way more tissue due to hypoxia (oxygen starvation from lack of blood flow) than the tear itself.

My mind was racing. The thought that bothered me the most was “Are my days of training BJJ over?” Yet I had to push that out of my mind. I had a pad of paper next to my bed and was furiously writing away that night, making notes and laying out a plan to get me assessed, healed up, rehabilitated, strengthened and back on the mat – with as little chance of re-injury as possible. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, nor was I trying to be foolishly impatient.

In short, my goals were:  1) To heal my hamstring tear completely with minimal scar tissue 2) rehabilitate the injury in terms of both muscular strength and neurological function and 3) to return to the mat stronger, more flexible with better cardio, mentally stronger and with a more efficient (effective) game than ever.  I was not in a “hurry to get back on the mat” by trying to be a hero. Healing with a minimum amount of scar tissue is important as scar tissue has neither the elastic property nor the tensile capacity (load limit) of healthy muscle tissue (think of it as dried bubble gum). The last thing I wanted was to heal, rehab and then….re-tear!

To achieve my goals, I planned on bringing every bit of knowledge and experience I had gather as a former health and fitness publisher and Editor in Chief (Muscle & Fitness) as well as my background as a chiropractor and performance nutritionist, along with my friends who are docs and contacts I have in the field from across the country. Not that I was planning to “shotgun” everything under the sun, but I wasn’t going to take anything that had at least some credible science behind it, off the table (especially if there was no downside).  I also wanted to take a chapter out of the NFL’s playbook in that they get million dollar athletes back on the field fast after an injury. They do this by aggressive (frequent) treatments. In my case, I had access to the treatment resources (equipment and docs), I had the schedule flexibility to work out of my home office while we were developing and launching www.jiujitsumani.com and could get treated or do rehab 3-5 times per day, and, I had the knowledge and experience.

ENEMY #1: INFLAMMATION

The first and most important part of planning a treatment program is making a complete, accurate and very specific diagnosis. There’s a big difference in terms of treatment plan (physio-therapy modalities, nutritional support etc.) depending on whether the injured structure is a muscle vs. a bone vs. a ligament vs. cartilage. In my case, that was going to require and MRI to determine the location of the tear and if surgery was, or was not, going to give the best prognosis.

As mentioned above, my first mission was to control inflammation to avoid further damage as well as promote healing (and also offer a clearer MRI image). This really boiled down to increasing blood flow (pumping nutrients in and removing metabolic debris) without increasing capillary permeability (or “leakiness”). What’s that mean? The teeny-tiny blood vessels (capillaries) are not small “pieces of tubing”, but rather lined with membranes that can open and close (to become more or less leaky). This is why heat is not good to use whenever inflammation is present – while heat increases blood flow (a good thing), it also causes capillaries to become more “leaky” which can actually increase swelling (as fluids leak out from the bloodstream through the leaky capillary wall into the tissue).

Compare heat to using ice (an ice pack) for 20-30 minutes. Ice will cool the area (duh!) and decrease blood flow, but also tighten up leaky capillaries and reduce pain. But here is the payoff with ice – when you take it off, the body tries to rewarm the tissue by dramatically increasing blood flow with less-leaky capillaries. In fact, there are studies that suggest that the “rebound hyper-emia” (blood flow) to rewarm the tissue is greater than the increase in blood flow that you would get from using a heating pad! So you get the upside without the downside. In my opinion, ice is definitely the way to go when trying to decrease inflammation and promote healing. In my case it was mega-ice, about six thirty minute treatments a day, religiously, for months.

What else did I have up my sleeve to minimize inflammation and promote healing? A bunch.  After R.I.C.E., ultrasound – pulsed ultrasound to be specific. Continuous ultrasound is great for soft tissue (muscle) strains, but can generate heat. Pulsed ultrasound penetrates in to the muscle and “pumps” out metabolic debris. I used ultrasound twice a day. I also wore a flat magnet, that measured about 4” x 6”. In my opinion, as viewed through the literature, magnets can increase blood flow, decrease muscle spasm and decrease pain. I was interested in blood flow, blood flow, blood flow so I was wrapping with an ace-type bandage and wearing the magnet any time I didn’t have the ice on. Every little bit helps. Downside? Zero.

On the nutritional side of the battle against inflammation (a critical element to healing), I took things very seriously. I believe (there are tons of studies and books out there – please look it up further) that a “Caveman” style or Paleo Diet approach can help decrease the inflammatory components in your body. I went strict on the Paleo Diet the first month after injury. I ate a ton of protein (lots of literature out to support increased healing rates with increased protein intake – beef, pork chicken, turkey and fish), lots of vegetables and some fruits. That’s it – period. I truly believe that it helped significantly. I also have done a bunch of reading and chose to invest in an alkaline water machine for my home. The good news was that I got this machine a couple of weeks before my injury, believing that drinking alkaline water decreases overall systemic inflammation and can help normalize “acidic” levels, which are associated with lots of “bad” processes. Again, tons of literature is out there and a fair share of nay-sayers, but I felt a difference (less muscle soreness, fewer trigger points etc.) So when I got hurt, I ratcheted up my intake to a gallon of 9.5 pH water per day. Downside?  What if alkaline water doesn’t really have all these benefits? In that case, I would just be drinking super pure water with no chlorine.  I’ll take that deal.

I also hammered the nutritional supplements that were related to controlling inflammation and supporting the healing process. First and foremost that meant lots of Vitamin C. When I was Editor in Chief at Muscle & Fitness we did an interview with Linus Pauling – a Nobel Prize winner who firmly believed that humans needed way more Vitamin C then people thought – like between 10-15 grams per day. Humans are one of the few mammals that don’t naturally produce Vitamin C, but his point was that a 90 lb goat produced about 11 grams per day, so we need more. Given that Vitamin C functions as an anti-inflammatory agent and is one of the main components in connective tissue repair, healing and maintenance (tendons, ligaments, arterial walls), I took at least 3 grams per day, spread out, no more than 1 gram at a time with meals (almost all supplements should be taken with meals for better absorption).

I also took proteolytic enzymes (brand name Sorenzyme by Labrada Nutrition), as these enzymes again deal with inflammation and muscle repair (workout recovery deals a lot with tissue micro-trauma). Tons of literature out there again on proteolytic enzymes. I also regularly take, and have for years, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) which also deals with some inflammatory pathways and is involved in cartilage support. Many other essential nutrients are critical to healing and repair (you can’t rebuild a wall unless you have the right bricks). I have been a heavy supplement user for many years so I believe I was a step ahead. Additionally, while my leg was fully immobilized in a brace, I was working out almost every day with surgical tubing, weights and whatever else I could come up with (more on that below). My full supplement program (a topic for a more in-depth future article) is as follows:

  • Beta carotene 25,000 IU per day
  • Vit B complex 1x per day
  • Vit C – 3 g per day
  • Vit D – 4000 IU per day
  • Vit E – 400 IU per day
  • Selenium – 200 mcg per day
  • Zinc – 50 mg per day
  • Iodine
  • Cal / Mag 1500 mg per day
  • CoQ10 – 30 mcg per day
  • Probiotics
  • MSM
  • Multi-mineral 1x per day
  • Omega 3’s –
  • Carnitine
  • Lipoic acid
  • Glutamine 5 g / day
  • Protein drinks
  • BCAA’s

How well did all this work? While there was obviously no control group (I couldn’t find anybody to volunteer and shred their hammy for the purposes of a comparison!), the MRI did show the tear of the Biceps Femoris (lateral side of the hamstring group) and after a couple of consults and lots of discussion it was concluded that surgery was not going to help me heal better than if I let the tear heal on its own (assuming I did my part). I believe that all the above efforts, in concert, helped my recovery tremendously. For a guy who literally had part of his hamstring ripped in half six months ago (as verified by MRI), I had very little visible swelling, almost no bruising and I can’t really see a defect in the muscle today! Every doc I saw thought that given the severity of the tear, my progress was “crazy fast” and they wanted to know what I was doing! Factor in that, at age 51, I ain’t no spring chicken, so the benefits of the multi-pronged plan might become even more significant. Read on.

HEALING AND REHAB PHASE I – THE NEUROLOGICAL COMPONENT

Some of my approach admittedly falls in the realm of “theory” but I spent hours on the phone with friends (other docs), trainers and physical therapists and you know what? No one had any firm answers regarding rehab protocols – even people with 20 years clinical experience. It seems that injury rehab protocols are all about “opinions”, what “established medical procedure” and dogma (read outdated, non-cutting edge) dictates and – here’s the kicker – what insurance companies will pay for!  Typically, with an injury like this and after a period of healing, physical therapy would be prescribed three times per week. Why three times? Why not two times or five times or seven times? While you may not want to be doing exercises every day due to soreness, I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to get ultrasound, interferential, and employ other means to neurologically “turn things back on” on a daily basis. Problem is, insurance companies won’t pay for that. The unfortunate reality is, that it’s not about the best, most cutting edge care, it’s about doing the minimum to get people back to “normal” – whatever that means.

By the way, I’ve always had issues with the whole “normal” thing. Who the heck wants to be “normal”? Normal in our society means having your first heart attack at age 64. Normal means being 25 pounds overweight. Normal means not rolling BJJ! Who want’s to be “normal”? Normal doesn’t cut it, so how about we shoot for “optimal”? That’s much better. That’s what I strived for when developing my hamstring rehab program.

It may sound a little crazy, but I started rehabbing my hamstring the day after I tore it. Say what? As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “Let me ‘splain.”  Rehabbing an injury consists of a healing component, a muscular strengthening component and a neurological “re-education” component. Too many people ignore the latter aspect, which ultimately is extremely critical for performance and the risk of re-injury in the future.

When a muscle (or joint for that matter) is injured, the brain shuts it down and inhibits neurological output to the affected (and adjacent) muscles so that it can be “left alone” to heal. Too often people heal and “rehab” or strengthen the muscle with resistance exercises and can even get really “strong” again. That’s great, but that is only half the battle. Re-educating the various smaller stabilizing muscle groups to work in concert with the powerful prime-movers on a neurological level is critical to performance, and more importantly in my book, reducing the risk of re-injury.  For example, over the past 20 years I’ve trained with and interviewed the biggest names in bodybuilding and powerlifting – all strong guys. I’ve known of more than a few shoulder reconstructions amongst this group as a result of years of cumulative micro-trauma and tears of the rotator cuff. So, big/strong guy gets his shoulder reconstructed, and “rehabs” it using…guess what….resistance exercise (surprise!), and inside of a year he is bench pressing over 400 pounds again. His pecs, delts and triceps are way strong. I’ve seen it. Wow. Great job, right? Not necessarily. The problem is that the same guy can’t balance an inverted broom- standing on end- in the palm of his hand, with his hand in front of his body. Why? Neurologically, he can’t fire the smaller stabilizers (the rotator cuff muscles which hold the shoulder joint together) fast enough in a coordinated fashion to balance a 3 pound broom!  That also means that during sports movements he isn’t able to fire stabilizers as he should either, so the prime-movers can literally end up ripping up these smaller muscles and damaging the joint.

So the next day, multiple times during the day, I closed my eyes and tried to voluntarily contract my hamstring without actually increasing the tension in the muscle – in other words my “contractions” drove neurological input to the muscle to keep those pathways alive, but at the same time, did not cause the muscle to contract per se. There was never any pain involved (pain is a warning that I pay close attention to). I also, as mentioned above, was treated with interferential current at a very low intensity setting so that I felt the current, but it wasn’t strong enough to contract the muscle. Interferential or IF has always been one of my favorite treatment choices because of its many physiological effects in terms of increasing blood flow, penetrating deep through tissues, pain reduction etc.. Again, my goal while controlling inflammation and healing was to keep the muscle as neurologically “alive” as possible.  Again, I never did anything that caused any pain whatsoever.

I also received chiropratic adjustments every 5 days during the first month as I knew that the protective splinting in my hips and glutes was going to impact the function of my lumbar spine and pelvis. I wanted to ensure that I had the best biomechanically sound functioning to facilitate healing and ensure maximum nerve flow through my sciatic nerve (amongst others) to promote healing.

So during the first month I kept up with my regimen of:

  • R.I.C.E. (ice pack 5-6 times per day)
  • Chiropractic adjustments
  • Ultrasound (pulsed)
  • Interferential current (only to a sensory threshold)
  • magnets (in between icing)
  • acupuncture (with cold laser)
  • strict Paleo diet
  • a gallon of 9.5 alkaline water per day
  • supplement program (see above)
  • oral anti-inflammatories
  • voluntary “contractions” (which weren’t) – sets of 10 reps, 3 sec each anywhere from 5-10 x per day
  • I was in an immoblizer the first month, but did do passive range of motion 3x per day, laying on my stomach and having my ankle brought up to my butt

So what didn’t I do?  I didn’t do massage. While there a lots of proponents out there, I personally have never been convinced as to its benefits on the rehab side (not on top of everything else I was doing to increase blood flow). I also considered getting in a local hyperbaric chamber (typically use to accelerate healing in burn victims and treat chronic wounds). I am sold on the benefits of hyperbaric chambers and the benefits for healing and anti-aging. However, in my case, again, given all that I was doing I didn’t feel like it would ad that much more and couldn’t justify the 1 ½ – 2 hour travel time, one hour session three times a week for 6 weeks and hundreds of dollars a session.  I also considered PRP (platelet rich plasma) injections whereby they would draw some of my own blood, spin it down in a centrifuge, then draw off the concentrated aspects and inject it right into the tear itself. In my case that decision was to be made six weeks post injury and while PRP has merit, I was doing so well that I didn’t want to re-traumatize the tear and risk a rupture. If I hadn’t been doing so well, I probably would have given PRP a shot (pun intended).

REHAB IN THE GYM

After my trip to the surgeon 4 days after injury (who was amazed that I was even standing let alone walking), I wore a brace/immobilizer from mid-thigh to the middle of my calf for the next month. Her prognosis? Six months before I could get on the mat and a year before I was 100%!  Hmmm.   Anyway, I wore the brace 24/7 taking it off for treatments, therapy, icing etc. Sleeping in that thing was terribly comfortable, but the point was not to stay in a fetal position for hours at a time which could shorten the muscle during healing.

Within about 48 hours after getting the brace, I was “working out” again, albeit very carefully with slow, controlled upper body movements using surgical tubing. By the way, I believe surgical tubing to be one of the best forms of resistance training for athletes in that you can safely perform ballistic, varied, directional type movements, do static holds, partial movements or whatever. And, it’s not for sissies. I have tubing that ranges from 5 pounds of resistance to over 100 lbs. In my case I didn’t want to have to worry about lugging around dumbbells, but rather I could sit, lock myself in and slowly begin movements with little chance of bothering the hamstring. Again, slow controlled movements were key.

To give you an idea, here is a sample adapted workout (mostly done with surgical tubing) I was doing during Phase I (Phase I being from the time of injury to the time that I was out of my soft cast / leg immobilizer):

  • I focused on asymmetrical angles and weights
  • I worked on improving upper body (shoulder) flexibility to resist key locks and kimuras
  • Upper body – complete with Dumbbells or Tubing, differing weights
  •    Push –
    • Chest:
      • presses, incline presses, flies (also with tubing)
      • Shoulders:
        • Shoulder presses, lateral raises, front raises, erratic laterals- both arms and one arm
      • Triceps:
        • Triceps extensions- overhead, push ups
      • Abs:
        • leg raises, crunches, side crunches
      • Neck:  medicine ball- front and side, harness lifts
  •      Pull –
    • Back:
      • Rows- one arm with tubing (sitting), pullovers
      • Rear delt flies
      • Shrugs
    • Biceps: curls, hammer curls
    • Forearms:
      • Grip squeezes / static holds
  • Lower body –
    • Single Leg lifts to front, side and back (standing on a block)
    • leg circles (all from the hip – supported while standing)

Additionally, I always added movements to the above which caused me to fire-off and kick-in my upper body stabilizers as well, such as alternate push-ups on medicine balls and Bosu® balls etc.

REHAB PHASE II

Once the brace was removed during the day (4 weeks post injury) I considered myself in Phase II. I was continuing to do my pain free voluntary isometric contractions and passive motion. I also began slow and gentle standing leg curls which I could do to about 90 degrees the first time I tried. That was good news. I did slow sets of 10 reps standing leg curls five times throughout the day (along with following the continuous therapy regimen described above). I also added more hip work, getting on all fours doing hip circles (forward and backward), side leg lifts (like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant J) and slow extensions. I didn’t do this in a workout per se, but at various times throughout the day in between icing physiotherapy etc. I rarely missed a treatment. It was convenient to work at home and be less than a mile from my chiropractor, all the while working on the launch of this website, www.JiuJitsuMania.com.  Week 5 I continued and added sets of bridges, where I would lay on my back and lift my pelvis up. Every movement was slow and controlled and caused zero pain. Sitting at my desk I would do my “very light” isometric contractions to keep the muscle “alive” as well.

Six weeks post injury, I added the recumbent bike (the first day was for 5 minutes, 30 RPM with no resistance while wearing tight bicycle type shorts under my sweats to compress the muscle. It felt fine so I added a few minutes a day and within a week was doing 20 minutes, 45 rpm with light resistance. Could I have done more? I think so, but I never wanted to even come close to the pain threshold so I was conservative. Slow and steady would win this race. I also began doing bent legged adductor work (squeezing an exercise ball with static holds like I was holding someone in guard) and heel walking (to develop the tibialis anterior – another muscle to help me maintain guard).

Eight weeks out I started partial (1/3) bodyweight squats for slow sets of 10 reps at multiple times throughout the day. Week Ten I was doing half squats slowly on a Bosu ® ball so that I could really get the proprioception going again (again, on top of everything else I was doing). I also added leg extensions on a machine.

At twelve weeks, I began doing very light resistance seated leg curls, very slow, with partial movement (both legs so the injured side always had support). No problem so things continued rather progressively from there to movements including very light, slow, partial stiff legged deadlifts and light stretching.

Some of the Rehab movements I did include:

  • Isometric contractions (barely perceptible)
  • Standing leg curls
  • bridging
  • Compression wrap or shorts
  • Recumbent bike – knee near extension at bottom
  • Small step ups – going up stairs slowly
  • Isometrics in various degrees of flexion
  • Partial stiff legged deadlifts
  • Doggie hip extensions with bent knee
  • Straight leg lifts (contracting quad)
  • Doggie hip circles
  • Balance / proprioception
  • Balance partial squats – Bosu ball
  • Static / PNF stretches – quads, hams, hips, internal / external

FLEXIBILITY

The issue of flexibility is generally poorly understood, as most people don’t appreciate the value/necessity or the best way to go about gaining flexibility.

If you ask me, total body flexibility in BJJ is essential. Shoulders (key locks, kimura resistance), neck (for when you get stacked) and hip flexibility (for Omoplatas and Rubber guard) are critical. It’s always been amazing to me how hard guys will work on techniques but summarily dismiss a whole bunch of technique opportunities because “I don’t have that kind of flexibility”. So? Everyone can, over time, improve their flexibility (usually dramatically) and become a much more dangerous opponent on the mat (with a much less chance of injury). Thus endith the sermon.

In my case, my lower body and hips have always been flexible (rubber guard and putting my foot on top of my head is not a problem, nor is putting my palms on the ground with straight knee), but my shoulder flexibility has been lacking (I tap very quickly if anyone tries to key lock me). Some flexibility / range of motion is a function of muscular strength balance. Too many bench presses without enough rear delt work will decrease shoulder joint range of motion, “muscle balancing” training programs are key to performance and injury prevention.

I am not a fan of static stretching as it can actually cause micro trauma and increase muscle tone. I did a video on this site about PNF stretching (scroll down this page and you will see me in a video explaining this http://jiujitsumania.com/strength-conditioning/articles-videos/ ). Check it out as it will save me a thousand words of typing here. PNF is the safest, most result-producing stretching there is.

I was doing very light, pain free, PNF stretching at 6 weeks post injury. I was touching my toes by week seven.

HOW I NEVER STOPPED TRAINING BJJ WITH MY INJURY

So how did I navigate my BJJ development / training with the injury? For the first couple of weeks I did nothing physically.  Instead, I spent time reviewing the status of my BJJ development, my strengths and weaknesses in terms of positions and all my technique notes (I have been keeping detailed notes from the very beginning of my training in 2007). The goal was to make my game simpler, more efficient (to conserve my gas tank) and more effective. Given that I believe that 98% of results in BJJ come from those last 2% of technique details, I wanted to be more of an expert on fewer techniques – and be able to hit them more often.

I believe that it was very valuable for me to spend time every day “mentally” rolling – actually visualizing a roll in slow motion so that I could “see” more opportunities and plan my moves. To me, that is one of the biggest differences between me and a Black Belt – the Black belt “sees” so many more opportunities for moves and submissions than I do, even when they are right in front of me. Mentally rolling and freezing a position while I looked at it mentally helped. I also was working on building the content for www.JiuJitsuMania.com  so that also helped keep me immersed in BJJ. It was great to interview and film techniques from some of the best in the world!

After about three weeks, I was able to hobble out to the garage and lay on the mat with my Grappling Dummy. I have wanted to improve my guard game for quite some time. I literally spent hours holding the dummy in guard (albeit it open guard because of the leg) working guard game technique series. I wanted to develop an attacking guard game that took advantage of various “triggers” which would then launch me into a bunch of technique set ups. Focusing on my guard game like this paid big dividends.

At six weeks, I was meeting either my partner Joe Mullings or Chad Angelocci at the gym three times a week at 6:00 a.m. to work on slow-motion drills/combinations/series techniques with a partner. I’m a believer that slow becomes smooth and smooth becomes fast. Going slow (due to my injury) gave me time to think about my position, transition and perfect all the details of each technique – this was invaluable and I felt like I was making real gains in my level of BJJ!

At about ten weeks, I began teaching beginners two nights a week (on top of my morning sessions). This was just technique demonstration and instruction (no rolling), but I believe that if you really want to get better at something – teach someone else! It doesn’t get much better than sharing BJJ with others.

At twelve weeks I was doing slow, light rolls with lighter advanced belts (who know how to control their weight and movement) – I never put myself at risk, never tweaked the recovering injury and was able to enjoy getting back in the saddle again.

At sixteen weeks I was attending classes and carefully rolling with guys less than my bodyweight. At the time of this writing I am seven months post injury and am doing great – I have no pain, back to equal strength, have equal flexibility although if I get my leg stretched out (say a guy 285 lbs. tries to power his way out of my half guard), I let him go. Not worth it at this point to torture test an injury that has, by all accounts, healed better, faster and more completely than anyone expected.

One of the most critical aspects of the recovery process is that I was very rarely down, mentally. There are a number of reasons for this. Number one, I felt empowered that I was doing everything I knew to do and was confident that my body was going to respond well. I was so positive about my BJJ and actually think the injury was a huge blessing as it improved my game! Today, I do have a more efficient, effective game and hit more submissions as a result. The hours spent with my Grappling Dummy and on drills, and thinking and visualizing series of techniques has helped immeasurably.  BJJ is so amazing in that it is so highly adaptable, so I felt confident that I could create a game that worked for me. I felt growth (in terms of my BJJ skills and thought process) during my rehab, so that was a real “upper” for me. Never did I feel like a victim. In fact, it was an exciting and hopeful time.

ANYTHING I WOULD DO DIFFERENT?

While I truly feel like I did all that was necessary in terms of nutrition, rehab and healing augmentation, looking back on my injuries, in general a common theme emerges: I should have been more disciplined with more thorough warm ups before rolling. I have trained at 4 different BJJ schools under as many World Champions.  I have had wonderful instructors, but I can uniformly say that the “warm-up” before most classes is woefully inadequate (unless you are a teenager and made out of rubber).  A few push-ups, sit-ups and a handful of cold static stretches is not enough for my (older) body to be prepared for hard training. Nowadays, I make a more dedicated effort to get there at least 30 minutes before class so that I can do a more complete warm up and do a more conscientious job on (PNF) stretching.

At the end of the day though, my injury was the result of a trauma that happened all at once, in a very bad biomechanical condition. Warm up or not, I am almost positive that the hamstring would have torn no matter what.

Injury happens. Like most things in life, 90% of it is how you choose to respond to it. There is a lot one can do to help their body heal physically. Mentally, there is even more we can do to help us come back better than ever – even if that “version” is different than before.  The only limit in BJJ is what you allow yourself to be limited by!  Good luck in your training.

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