How to Develop Endurance for Grappling

I used to think that all the people I saw running or using cardio machines for minutes on end were such idiots. I consider myself a warrior and warriors only lift heavy weights, spar and drill combat techniques or perform intense sprints. I mean, how cool is it to run or bike for 45 minutes?

Well it turns out that I was the idiot. I’ve always been explosive and fairly strong for a grappler, but I’ve also suffered from a serious lack of endurance.

Okay, so it wasn’t a serious lack, but I never had the type of endurance that got me through round after round of sparring in the gym or going through the 4-6 matches in my weight bracket in grappling competitions.

The reason? Poor aerobic conditioning.

The Aerobic System

Your aerobic system is the part of your fitness engine that allows marathon runners, triathlon competitors and other endurance athletes to have the energy to exercise for hours without having to stop.

Why is this important for you? Well, if you want to have the type of conditioning that makes you an unstoppable beast on the mat then you have to build some solid aerobic conditioning. Period.

I never had the type of conditioning I wanted until I learned this important fact. In this article, I’ll show you how to measure your aerobic fitness and how to improve it so let’s get started.

Anaerobic Threshold

I won’t burden you with scientific details of your aerobic system but one important concept you should understand is your anaerobic threshold.

It’s a fancy name that simply means the point, determined by a specific heart rate, at which your body switches over from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism. Why is this important? Once your body switches over to anaerobic, you start running out of energy fast until you have to stop exercising.

Everyone’s anaerobic threshold is different depending on genetics and training regimen. The higher this point is for you, the more intense pace you can keep up without having to slow down or stop.

The best way to test this is to find a place that does metabolic and exercise performance testing. However, this can be expensive and some people may not have access to a testing facility where they live so I’ll give you an alternative way in the “Measuring Your Aerobic Fitness” section below.

Get A Heart Rate Monitor

Rule #1 of aerobic fitness: Get a heart rate monitor. Rule # 2 of aerobic fitness: Get a heart rate monitor. I hope I’m making myself clear!

There tends to be a lot of tough guy attitude in our sport – I may or may not have been guilty of this at one time… *ahem*… where wearing a monitor isn’t that cool or manly. I suggest you forget about your ego and do what works. Nobody will be making fun of you when they’re huffing and puffing for air and you’re still coming at them with plenty of gas left in your tank.

Doing cardio or intervals without a heart rate monitor is like doing squats or bench presses without knowing how much weight you are lifting. It’s that big of a deal.

I personally use the Polar RS100. There are cheaper and more expensive ones but any Polar monitor will do as long as it gives you real-time feedback of your heart rate.

Measuring Your Aerobic Fitness

So now that you have a heart rate monitor, we are going to use a few tests to determine how aerobically fit you are.

Test #1 – Resting Heart Rate

Your resting heart rate is one of the most valuable pieces of information you have regarding your fitness and state of recovery. When you wake up in the morning, put on your heart rate monitor and take your resting heart rate. It’s important that you take it under the same conditions every time as you will get inconsistent data if you take it standing one day then laying down the next. I do this right after I wake up and lying in bed.

Having a resting heart rate in the 50s is what you should shoot for. You may notice your resting heart rate is elevated following a hard workout from the previous day. That’s normal but if it start rising consistently, then you should back off on your training and take a rest day.

I personally feel best when my heart rate is in the 50s. I find my endurance, sex drive, and general sense of wellbeing is on these days. Conversely, if my resting heart rate is in the high 60s or low 70s then I know I better back off on whatever I decide to do that day.

Test # 2 One Minute Heart Rate Recovery

This is another great test. Basically you wear a heart rate monitor during grappling training or intervals and see how fast your heart rate comes down in one minute after you stop. Personally, don’t track this on paper, but I take note of how well I’m recovering from any particular exercise or drill I’m doing.

If your heart rate is dropping 30-40 beats in one minute after and intense bout of exercise, you’re recovering well. If your heart rate stays elevated and only seems to come down a little, you may aerobically unfit, training too hard or possibly not fully recovered from your last workout.

Test # 3 Anaerobic Threshold

This is the test I spoke about in the above section. It may cost you a bit of time and money to test and retest so that you know it is improving. If you are motivated and have the funds then go for it!

And if you are a professional MMA fighter then you better get this done. Multi-million dollar athletes in soccer, basketball, etc get it done so treat yourself like a multi-million dollar athlete!

However, if you aren’t in a financial situation to get tested regularly, then you can follow this test I learned from the book “Heart Rate Training” by Roy Benson:

The Talk Test:

  • Plan a 30 minute cardio session with a friend (or be prepared to sing or talk to yourself if you’re alone lol)
  • Start slow and hold that pace for five minutes while maintaining a conversation and monitoring your heart rate
  • After 5 minutes, increase the pace slightly while maintaining a conversation and monitoring your heart rate
  • Repeat the last step every 5 minutes until you notice that your conversation is difficult to maintain; at this point you are around your anaerobic threshold; make a not of the heart rate wear this is happening

Either running or using a cardio machine side-by-side is a good way of doing this

It’s not super scientific but will give you a general idea of where this point is. There are other methods as well. Whatever method you use, make sure to re-assess every 8 weeks so that you know if you’re improving or not.

Aerobic Training Methods

I’m going to list the training methods in order of intensity starting with the least intense then progressing from there:

Method # 1 – Recovery Cardio

This is for recovering from a hard workout session. It turns out it is better to do some light work then sit around on the couch and watch tv.

Here is how to do it:

  • Use any piece of cardio equipment; you can also use shadowboxing or grappling drills
  • Keep your heart rate in between 100-130; the more fatigued you are, then lower you should keep your heart rate; strictly follow this guideline
  • 20-45 minutes of continuous work

Method # 2 – Aerobic Endurance

This is an actual training session on it’s own. Use this when you need to lower your resting heart rate and develop aerobic conditioning.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Use any piece of cardio equipment; you can also use shadowboxing, grappling drills or light circuit training
  • Keep your heart rate in between 130-150; the better your fitness, then higher you should keep your heart rate; strictly follow this guideline
  • Use this as a training session on it’s own when you are developing your aerobic conditioning
  • 20-60 minutes of work

Method # 3 – Fartlek

“Fartlek” is roughly translated from Swedish to mean, “speed play.” You literally “play” with your pace to raise and lower your heart rate throughout the session. This is a more intense, and entertaining, version of the aerobic endurance method and one of my favorites.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Use same guideline of work and exercises as the Aerobic Endurance method
  • Start exercising and bring your heart rate up to 130
  • Slowly increase your pace while monitoring your heart rate until you reach 150
  • Gradually slow down your pace while monitoring your heart rate until you reach 130
  • Repeat for 20-60 minutes

Method # 4 – Aerobic Power Intervals

This is another one of my favorite methods to use. It involves getting your heart rate up as high as you can and keeping it there for a minute or two.

How to do it:

  • Warm up well (5-10 minutes) as you will be pushing your body deep into fatigue
  • Use running on a track, any cardio machine, or grappling specific drills
  • Each interval should last 1-2 minutes; start with 1 minute then each week add more time
  • Push your heart rate to your limit using your monitor to make sure you are working hard enough; if your heart rate is only 160 then you’re not working hard enough or you chose improper exercises
  • Rest 2-5 minutes between intervals or until your heart rate gets down to 120-130; make sure you recover completely so that you can push your self to the limit on each interval
  • Do 5-15 intervals but keep total workout time under 45 minutes(not including warm up)

Sample Program

Weeks 1-2 – Developing Your Aerobic Base

  • Do 1-2 sessions of Aerobic endurance training on non-grappling days or morning before grappling (or evening if you train in the morning)
  • Do Recovery Cardio after hard training sessions and on days where you feel to fatigued to workout intensely

Weeks 3-4 – Pushing the Pace

  • Do 1-2 sessions of Fartlek training on non-grappling days or morning before grappling (or evening if you train in the morning)
  • Do Recovery Cardio after hard training sessions and on days where you feel to fatigued to workout intensely

Weeks 5-6 – Aerobic Power

  • Do 1-2 sessions of Aerobic Power Intervals on non-grappling days
  • Do 1 session of Aerobic Endurance or Fartlek training towards the end of the week
  • Do low volume (i.e. 20 minutes) Recovery Cardio after hard training sessions and on days where you feel to fatigued to workout intensely

Program Guidelines

I give guidelines because I don’t know you personally. For all my training clients, I individualize their programs based on their fitness level and recovery ability. If they recover well, then we do more intensity and more volume. If they recover poorly, we focus more on lower intensity and volume while trying to gradually work them up to higher levels of work.

What I’m saying is that more is NOT always better. Start with the least amount of volume and intensity then work up from there. If your test scores improve and you feel in better shape during training, then your are on the right track! However, if you feel like you are getting even more tired in training and feel like you’re actually in worse shape, then you need to re-evaluate your training program. Start backing off until you begin to feel better.

Remember what I always say… Your workout is only as good as your ability to recover from it!