A 6 weeks programme to prepare for competition: training, conditioning, dieting and mindset

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This article written by Thomas Johannessen for BJJ Scandinavia. Thomas is a Norwegian physiotherapist, personal trainer and BJJ Black belt competitor from Frontline Academy in Oslo (Norway). Some of his latest BJJ achievements include gold at Nice Open 2015, gold at Rome Open 2015 and gold at Nordic Open 2014 and 2015. As a brown belt, Thomas won silver at the Pan Ams 2013, gold at the Abu Dhabi Pro trials in Warzaw in 2013 and gold at the Swedish Open in 2012 and 2013. You can follow him on Instagram @thojohan

PREPARING FOR A COMPETITION

For beginners, preparing for a competition is not easy. You will get a lot of different advice on how to train, how to think and what to eat, and it’s not given that the advice you get is compatible with your BJJ style, body, mindset or even schedule. I’m not going to pretend I have all the right answers for everyone, but rather give some insight on what I find to be helpful for myself, and from feedback I’ve got from other competitors.

Prior to the 6 weeks programme

This phase starts approximately 12 weeks before the competition and I usually focus on getting a large amount of training in. I’m not putting 12 weeks out as a definite starting point, but rather a general measure of the time to put in a lot of work. If you compete often, you might have a shorter time where you can only focus on high amount of training. In this phase I train BJJ about 10-12 hours a week in 5 sessions, just under half of the time is sparring. I also have 4 strength sessions (two short upper body sessions with weighted chins/dips, military presses and TRX rows. And two longer compound sessions with deadlifts, squats and olympic lifts. Rep range 2-5, about 3 sets), so total about 14-16 hours training a week. My mindset is still fairly open with learning new technique, and also filling in holes in my competition game. The sparring is about 50/50 between short and intense rounds with focus on quality, and longer rounds with lots of grinding just to push myself to work the mental part of the game when you are exhausted.

Between 6 and 2 weeks out

So here is when the real change of focus starts. First of all, the drilling I do beyond this point is very competition specific. I want to work only on what I plan on achieving in the fight. I’m not learning much new stuff, except working new solutions to the specific weaknesses I see in my training. At this point I start doing the drills from stand up, and work whole sequences that I want to achieve in the fight. Also I want to have shorter and more intense sessions. In general I want at least 3/4 of my sparring to be done with high quality, maximum 1/4 of the sparring to be grinding rounds where I go more on will than on skill. So I might skip a round if I see the quality of the previous round being really bad, I don’t want to pick up bad habits now, but rather get rid of them!
I like to maintain my strength training in this phase, but I might reduce the weights and the number of sets, and increase resting times. If I cut to a lower weight class, I would reduce the number of strength session to 2 a week in this phase.

Keep in mind the total load on the body. If the BJJ training is tough and you feel more and more tired every day, cutting the number of strength sessions would be smart. If you have a lot of obligations outside of training with work and family, you might need to decrease the total load. Try to get in enough sleep and decent food, it will also affect the total amount of training your body can handle. For me, if I have to cut weight I have to cut back on the training amount with about 20-25% to maintain intensity without getting tired. The BJJ training should always be first priority.

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The last 2 weeks

At this point you want to focus on getting your mind sharp, and your body full of energy. If you have to travel for the competition it might complicate things a bit. Here’s the general guidelines to how I like to do it:

2 weeks out
• Two weeks out I start to focus on really short and efficient sessions. Maximum 75-90 minutes including warm up, maximum 4-5 sparring rounds each session, but with high intensity.
• 5 sessions with sparring that week.
• 2 full body strength sessions during the week, the last one 8-10 days before competition day

1 week out
• Depending on the day of travel I put in 2-3 rest days the week of the competition.
• I ideally want at least 2 sparring sessions as well that week, short (60-75 minutes) and with high intensity
• I NEVER put the days of rest just before the competition. I see a lot of people for example train until Tuesday, and then rest all week until competition day (usually Saturday or Sunday). For me, that just makes me feel “turned off” from competition mode.
• If possible I want a light sessions the day before competition. Not necessarily BJJ, but running, stretching, swimming, some light weight training etc. Just to awake the body, and get it ready. Also I want to work on getting the adrenaline up.

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On weight cutting

Since the weight ins are just before the fight in BJJ, there really is no optimal way of cutting weight on a short term. If you start early you should focus on reducing your body fat-%. For men, you should aim for 8-12%, and for women between 18 and 23% (please consult a professional before dieting, especially if you have a history of eating disorder or known physical issues that might interfere with cutting). If you’re forced to do short term cutting anyway, it’s smart to start 6 weeks out by reducing carbohydrates (1 gram of carbs tie up about 2,7 grams of water in the body as muscle glycogen). The easiest way is to eat meat, fish, lentils, beans, nuts and other protein/fat sources combines with salad, vegetables, fruits and berries for fibers, vitamins/minerals and a limited amount of carbohydrates (avoid dried fruit, and eat a limited amount of carb-heavy fruit like banana and pinapple). This is by no means a complete program, but a general guideline. It’s not impossible to cut and still eat grain, potatoes, rice and pasta, but it does take more discipline and active control on the amount you eat when the carb density in the food is high.

The last week I cut in sodium (which ties up extracellular water in the body), you would be surprised how much sodium is in ham, minced meat, sausages, taco seasoning etc. But keep in mind to eat potassium and magnesium even if you cut sodium, or else you might end up with bad cramping. And remember to drink enough water, without it you won’t be able to flush the sodium out of your body. Last resort is sauna or hut tub, but in my opinion if you cut carbs and salt and still need to use the sauna/hot tub, you should have fought in the next weight division!

The most I’ve cut for a BJJ competition is 7 kilos in under week, but as I said it’s not optimal. Fighting with low levels of muscle glycogen will lead to quicker fatigue and slower recovery rate between fights. Remember to bring plenty of isotonic sport drinks to the competition, and try to get in proper balanced meal if you have a long break or an open weight division later in the day.

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Right Before the competition

A couple more points on food first. A lot of first time competitors will try to do fancy stuff on the day of the competition. Just. Don’t. Eat a breakfast as normal as possible, food as familiar as possible, drink a cup of coffee if you usually do. Forget about energy gells, bars and other fancy products if you don’t usually use them! This is NOT the time to experiment with what your stomach can handle. Personally I struggle to eat much on the day of the competition, so I make sure to eat a big meal the night before. But again, try to do what you would’ve done at home if you were preparing for a training at the same time of the day.

The warm up is another important point. A lot of times you won’t have a mat, there’s not a whole lot of space etc. Again try to keep it as familiar as possible. Personally I run, stretch, use my foam roller and listen to music. This routine takes about 30 minutes. After that I try to get my heart rate really high. Either by doing a warm up roll, or by doing 20 burpess x2, or something similar. This is to avoid the shock of getting a really high heart rate in the beginning of the fight. Ideally I want 10-15 minutes to calm down and stretch after this before the fight.

On tactics

In a competition you want to have a game plan. Ideally you want to have a plan A and a plan B, and you want to have a plan you can control. For example, planning for the opponent to pull guard is not optimal. It might happen, but if he/she doesn’t, you have to be prepared to take a judo fight. So plan A in that case should be to dominate the stand up, in which case you will get a throw or provoke the guard pull. If you can’t dominate the stand up game, you don’t have a plan anymore.

If you want to pull guard, you should always have a plan for which guard to pull, and what sweeps or submissions to go to. It might happen that the opponent pulls first, so you should be ready to pass as well. That way you can build your sparring and drilling around the most likely scenarios, and not both starting on your knees or in some position you’ll never get to. Practice the plan A and plan B from your strength and weaknesses, and even different scenarios from there, ask your professor for help with troubleshooting. When you walk on the mat you want a clear idea on what you want and how to get it, not thinking on what the opponent is planning to do.

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On the mental game

As a black belt competitor I know everything about seeing a big name and a reputation on the mat across me, rather than a human being with strength and weaknesses for me to exploit. My best tip is to be 100% sure of your tactics so you don’t waste energy on the day of the competition (worst case: you might get the brilliant idea of trying that one takedown or flying armbar you’ve trained for 10 minutes the week before). Try to find the right level of tension, the adrenaline can get overwhelming if you have not competed before. If you have a person who calms you – your professor, your significant other etc., have a small chat with them to get the nervousness out of the system.

When you are in the bull pen just before the fight, try to have a sensory cue to put you in the right state of mind. I like to have music I listen to on my way to training, and I use the same music just before the fight to put me in that familiar and controllable state of mind. I also have a routine of smelling the mat just before I step onto it, it smells just the same way the tateme in the academy, and it puts me in a state of comfort and gives me familiar circumstances to relate to. It’s not necessary to have music or smell, it can be closing your eyes and picturing yourself on the top of the podium on that last competition you won, or anything else that gives you a certain feeling. However, it’s important to practice the cue before the fight, try to do it before training some times to reinforce it and practice finding the good feeling while still being offensive.

Support and coaching is important. And more so for some people. Some need a lot of verbal feedback before and during the fight, other disappears into their own bubble and perform best there. Will there be someone from your team available to coach you, if your professor is busy who else can you ask? What kind of feedback do you need from your coach? Will there be a display with the score and the time you can see from the mat, or do you need time keeping? Some times the distance from the coaching zone to the mat will be too big to hear anything, in that case make sure you get all the instructions before you go to the bull pen. Remember a small bag for your water bottle, IBJJF membership card or other ID (do NOT bring your passport, driver’s licence is less of a crisis to lose), headset, phone/music-player etc. Try to get all the “unknowns” above out of the way as early as possible on competition day.

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The important points

• The trainings should be shorter and more intense the closer you are to the comp.
• Enough sleep and enough food. If you cut weight, you should probably cut back on the training volume if you feel you’re already balancing on the edge.
• Have a plan A and a plan B, and work on troubleshooting from there.
• The closer you get to the competition, the more you want to focus on the specific game plan and techniques you plan on using.
• Get feedback from you professor on what specific game plan suits you.
• The breakfast and the warm up should be familiar. The warm up should include at least one interval with really high HR to get you ready for the intensity of the fight.
• Use sensory cues to get in the right mental state. Practice the cues before the competition!
• Agree on the feedback you want from your coach before and during the fight. Will you need time keeping or not? Do you want specific technical or motivational feedback, or both?

“The more you train, the luckier you get!”

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