Getting hit in the head sucks. Not only is it frustrating, it can do serious damage to a very important part of the body. For those of us involved in combat sports like MMA, Boxing, and Muay Thai, it’s also part of the game.
While recent movies like Concussion are important to raising awareness and advancing our understanding of the long-term dangers of brain trauma, they don’t give us much advice beyond, “Stop any activity that causes trauma.”.
Sound advice from a medical perspective, but let’s face it — whether we’re fighting for a living or just in love with one of these sports, quitting isn’t exactly on the table . So, let’s take a look at steps both fighters and coaches can take to reduce the incidence and long-term dangers of brain trauma.
1. Spar Intelligently
Spar light and spar often. Keep the intensity less than 50% and have some fun with it. Not only does this reduce the number of hard shots taken, it’s the best way to develop a sound defense. Seeing which strikes are coming and reacting calmly is much easier when you aren’t fighting in emergency mode. On top of that, developing proper defense reduces the likelihood of trauma during the future hard spars(should be few and far between) and fights.
Ditch the headgear. While headgear is great for reducing the number of cuts suffered in training and amateur boxing tournaments, it actually increases the incidence of brain trauma. This could be happening for two reasons. First, headgear provides a false sense of security causing fighters to take more shots than they would otherwise. Second, headgear can add an extra two inches diameter to a fighter’s head, causing their defensive movements to fall short, e.g., slipping a punch with headgear on requires more movement than without. This extra material also impedes the fighter’s vision and their ability to see strikes coming.
Leave your ego at the door and choose sparring partners wisely. Sparring sessions, even with light/technical intentions, have a way of quickly turning into full on wars. It could be that your partner doesn’t have any control or that you don’t realize how hard you’re hitting. Either way, accept that you will get hit and silence the urge to fire back harder when you do. If certain fighters at the gym go hard all the time, don’t spar with them. Simple.
* If you ever get wobble, rocked, or see stars during a sparring session, stop. Don’t sit out for a round then get back in or try to fight through it. Give your brain a rest and see a doctor if you have any concussion symptoms. When it comes to the brain, play it safe.
2. Stay Hydrated
Cerebrospinal fluid(CSF) cushions the brain and helps reduce the trauma associated with the brain sloshing against the skull. Dehydration significantly reduces the amount of CSF a person has, raising the risk of brain trauma.
Drink plenty of water and electrolytes. The exact amount depends on individual and environmental factors, but a good rule of thumb is drink enough to avoid getting thirsty. A good way to avoid dehydration during training is to sip an electrolyte drink or pinch of sea salt in water for a few hours leading up to training.
Avoid diuretics before training since they increase the amount of water and sodium in the urine. I love coffee and tea as much as the next guy, but reducing the amount of fluid cushioning for my brain makes them a no go before training.
3. Build an Iron Neck
Having a strong neck reduces the displacement of the brain during head trauma and is strongly correlated with a lower risk of concussion.
The easiest way to start strengthening the neck is with hand-resisted isometrics. Begin with 10 second holds resisting pressure from the front, back, then both sides. Steadily increase to 20 then 30 second holds as you get stronger and soreness decreases.
After putting in some work with the isometrics, graduate to the neck bridge progression. Begin standing up with a slight lean against the wall or against an exercise ball. Steadily increase the lean until you can perform the bridges on a bench or an exercise ball placed on the floor. The final step is to perform the neck bridges directly on the floor.
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