The obvious answer to “I hurt my knee while training. What should I do?” is to take a break from training, but let’s be real here: we’re jiu jitsu people. We don’t “do” breaks unless mandated by our doctor or we believe that our jiu jitsu careers may be in jeopardy if we don’t. If your injury isn’t bad enough to keep you off the mats, but is bad enough to make rolling (and possibly living) less than comfortable, don’t worry— there are some ways you can keep training while avoiding getting even more hurt.
Before you even think about putting on that gi, you need to make sure that your injured body part is properly prepared for jiu jitsu. If it needs to be wrapped, wrap it. If you gotta tape it, tape it up. And if you have a wound that needs to be covered, for the love of all that is holy, cover it. Not only will an open wound hurt you and put you at risk for illness, but it also puts your teammates (and their clean gis) at risk.
Once you’re at the gym, be honest with your coach and teammates about your injury. It’s not wimpy to ask your drill partner to only practice kimuras on your right arm because your left shoulder is hurt— it’s smart. Anyone who has done jiu jitsu for more than a few months is guaranteed to have had at least one injury, so they’ll understand if you can’t train at 100 percent for a while. Even while you’re rolling, don’t be afraid to ask your teammates to try to avoid aggravating the afflicted body part, or just tap out the moment they scoop up your bad arm for an armbar rather than letting it extend.
As much as it sucks to be hurt, it can also be a learning experience if you let it. A guard puller with an injured rib can use the fear of getting passed (or worse, knee-on-bellied) to spend some more time on their top game. On the other hand, a passer might transform into a puller overnight when they realize that it hurts to stand on a hurt toe. You’ll also be amazed at how much your defense improves when you’re focused on protecting a certain body part; I attribute my stellar armbar defense to the fact that I’m terrified to subject my poor elbows to any more punishment than they’ve already been dealt. Even if your partner is already going easy on you (since you’ve already told them about your injury, right?), training smart rather than training hard can ensure that you’re protecting yourself while still improving your jiu jitsu game.
Post-training care is one of the best things you can do to make sure that your injury doesn’t leave you down for the count. If you’ve been prescribed medication, make sure you’re taking or applying it. Don’t skip out on icing or stretching right after class if that’s what you need to do, regardless of how worried you are about traffic on the way home. Rest the afflicted area for as long as possible, and if you need to, don’t be afraid to pop some ibuprofen. No matter how much you protect yourself during training, it will all be for naught if you neglect to care for yourself after it’s all over.
While none of us want to stop training just because we get hurt, please listen to your body. If you can’t walk from your car to the door without assistance, you shouldn’t be training. If every single movement makes you cry out in pain, you shouldn’t be training. If you think you can make it through class, but your gut feeling is telling you not to risk it, you shouldn’t be training. A permanent injury is even less fun than a temporary one. Jiu jitsu is all about anticipating how the things we do now will affect us in the future, and just as we need to weigh the risks of giving up our backs to our opponents on the mat, we also need to determine whether an hour or two of BJJ practice could leave us with permanent damage to our bodies. We tap out because we know that our pride is less valuable than our health, and we sometimes need to make similar sacrifices by staying home even when we really want to train.
Jiu jiteiros really are a different breed. We’re hard-headed problem solvers, which means that we will find just about any way and excuse to train even when our bodies beg us not to. If nothing short of certain and immediate death can convince you to stay away from the gym, at least take some precautions to make sure that you’re not going to get even more hurt than you already are. If you do things right, you’ll be training without that annoying injury before you know it.