Running and MMA Athletes



The nature of mixed martial arts (MMA) is primal. There’s controversy whether MMA athletes should jog for conditioning – commonly adopted for cardio conditioning and to drop weight – or whether hard metabolic circuits and sprint training should replace this, to some, ‘useless’ form of conditioning.

There’s no doubt that MMA athletes need to be absolute machines. They are required to train all energy systems (phosphagen, glycolytic/lactic and aerobic), develop a high level of endurance, strength, speed, agility, explosiveness, bone/ligament/tendon and muscle development, flexibility and technical drills.  When you look at the human response to running and how we got here, the question is, are we really meant to jog at all??

The Palaeolithic approach will tell you that to jog for hours in a primitive environment is lack of common sense, that we would have evolved from either sprinting or walking long distances in search for food/shelter, stating confidently that it is too energy consuming to jog for hours and also too noisy to be huffing and puffing in the wild. However, and this will be a new concept to some, jogging has allowed us to be the dominant species because chasing a jogging animal ultimately wins. The animal cannot pant while jogging, therefore eventually keels over with body overheating. Jogging was how we hunted.

That was the conclusion of a study published in the Nov. 18 issue of the journal Nature by University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman. Humans are poor sprinters compared with other running animals, which is partly why many scientists have dismissed running as a factor in human evolution. Human endurance running ability has been inadequately appreciated because of a failure to recognize that “high speed is not always important,” Bramble says. “What is important is combining reasonable speed with exceptional endurance.”


Initially, most people will have a small to moderate weight loss with aerobic exercise. Thereafter their bodies adapt, becoming more efficient and so fewer calories are burnt. So why are distance runners so skinny and more importantly, why does jogging help an MMA athlete drop weight? Lots of aerobic exercise stimulates the production of cortisol and other stress hormones which are catabolic (tissue breakdown) in nature. With chronic exposure, cortisol breaks down muscle tissue, as well as other tissues including bone and can lead to metabolic, digestive and hormonal problems. Luckily, most MMA athletes use long jogging training in relatively short time frames, and only when wishing to drop weight. The problems above relate more seriously to long distance athletes.

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Body type adaptations in a Sprinter vs. Marathoner.

Elite endurance athletes have, by no doubt, a lower percentage of body fat compared to the rest of the population, however sprinters and other anaerobic athletes are certainly number one. The marathoner is a “skinny-fat” compared to a sprinter. Since anaerobic and strength training exposes the body to anabolic hormones to counter the catabolic effects of cortisol, these athletes have less inflammation and negative cortisol-related effects. So should MMA athletes just up their sprint training before a fight to drop weight instead?



Humans are the only primates that can run for extended periods of time; chimpanzees and gorillas are incapable of running upright for more than a few minutes. We are pretty darn slow than either the predator or prey animals, however we can outrun them by jogging over a long distance.  Physically, humans are the most vulnerable, needy species there is, but what sets us apart is that we have big brains, clever hands and we jog. Humans can efficiently shed heat by sweating which animals struggle with, having big fur coats. This means that endurance hunters don’t have to outrun an animal, they just have to chase it until it drops dead from heat exhaustion – it may take you half the day, but at least you can replenish the energy used by hunting the damn thing.

Humans evolved three ingenious adaptations that are remarkably well-suited to endurance running, allowing us to compete with the other mammals: our upright skeletal structure, our ability to breathe, and our ability to sweat. By standing upright, the movement of our legs as we walk and run does not affect the expansion of our lungs. Unlike cheetahs, we can breathe faster than we can move our legs, getting the maximum amount of oxygen to our muscles when we jog. Most animals cool themselves by seeking the shade or by panting to release hot, moist air through their mouths. However, animals cannot cool themselves and run simultaneously like we can, via sweating.

A study article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2011, revealed that antioxidant pills prevent major mitochondrial benefits of endurance training. In this study, those that were given vitamin E and alpha-lipoic-acid did not increase the aerobic enzymes necessary to increase the size and number of mitochondria. In other words, not all free radicals (created by endurance exercise) may be harmful and in fact can be beneficial – they target gene induction, insulin sensitivity and are used in the immune system to destroy bacteria and viruses.


The Verdict

So which train of thought is correct? Is aerobic training beneficial to stress the aerobic system, create free radicals to target gene induction, strengthen the immune system and subsequently adaptations to become a fit beast? Or is it best to avoid all that oxidative-stress, inflammation and hormonal disruptions and stick to strength training and high-intensity intervals? In my opinion, in terms with creating all-round fitness-machine-of-a-body, completely avoiding cardio can be detrimental to performance and including it in your strength training schedule would serve to enhance general physical fitness or competitive preparedness for a given sport.

Tips for becomming a Fit-Beast

  1. STRENGTH TRAIN. Correct any imbalances, work on your weaknesses, learn how to lift correctly and use smart periodisation. Done correctly, strength training will ensure an MMA athlete is developing efficient force and power – generating movement patterns.
  2. Train with intermittent sprints or metabolic resistance/bodyweight strength circuits. Metabolic training is particularly good for fat loss whilst sparing muscle since the lactic acid accumulation stimulates insulin-like growth factors. Hard metabolic circuits can be used, for example, as 5 sets of 5min rounds with 1min rest for energy systems conditioning.
  3. If you want to get lean, look at your diet. Eat a balanced, unprocessed, wholesome diet with enough nutrients to fuel your training and enough vitamins/minerals for health and repair. Manipulating the ratio of carbohydrates to protein/fat, there are also many different fasting, cheat meal/day and fast/feast techniques which are emerging at a rapid rate, something for a future article post.
  4. It is better to do long duration aerobic exercise such as jogging, than sitting on your arse and doing absolutely nothing at all. Initially there will be some weight loss as the body is adapting to a new stimulus. For MMA athletes who are running in the last few weeks to drop weight, this could effectively achieve this.


I do not believe that long duration aerobic exercise is inherently bad. Fitness is very specific and to not include any form of aerobic training will eventually reduce the size and number of mitochondria and aerobic enzymes. This, for example, can lead to the ‘gassing’ out of MMA fighters when all they focus on is anaerobic high-intensity interval training and dismiss other aerobic conditioning. It is important to train all energy systems in MMA.

For a balanced yet scientific approach to training, check out my online strength and conditioning coaching.


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