How I cured my post-training swelling

BJJ Ian Connel with Rickson Gracie
BJJ Ian Connel with Rickson Gracie

​​About forty minutes after returning from two hours of mixed martial arts training, my joints and muscles would start to petrify.

It wasn’t quite Hogwarts style Petrificus ​Totalus, but it was close.

My fingers became pink balloon animals, my knees would start to stiffen like a Barbie doll, and my lower back throbbed like I had been suplexed.

This happened a lot. I assumed the petrification was caused by the intensity of the training. The hardest I ever trained before MMA was in middle-school basketball, where I wheezed my way through “suicides” and got yelled at for failing my layups.

My personal prescription was Ibuprofen, some grumbling, and a stretching routine. It seemed to help – enough to eventually sleep, anyway. I would struggle into pajamas and then catch up with my bride while sitting in a hip stretch and holding on to the bed for balance.

The swelling went on for at least a year, maybe two, and I never thought it could be fixable. But I had already met the guy who unintentionally found the solution for me. We trained BJJ together and, between matches, talked about ideas.

When he started at our dojo he weighed close to 300 pounds, and he could throw my 210 pound frame with one arm (until I got over my amazement and armbarred him). One day he came in looking less like an elephant and more like an ox, and I asked him about it

“I went paleo. All I eat now is meat and veggies. And I only eat a couple of times a day,” he said.

He lost 65 pounds in fourteen weeks. His blood pressure dropped from prehypertension to average. How I hadn’t noticed him shrinking earlier – well, I live in my head a lot. But I was curious.

Around the same time, a coworker dropped his extra pudge and suggested I read Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It. So I did. Taubes put forth a compelling argument. He explained the biology, and he chronicled examples of cultures that were healthy and largely free of chronic disease until the introduction of sugar and grains.

​Paleo vs Petrified Pudge

It sounded plausible, and I was ready to try it. My dojo friend told me to check out his favorite paleo blog. I read deeply taking notes, eager to jump in, not concerned if I got it all right the first time. The central premise was straightforward enough: cut the sugar and remove the grains.

So I did as Gary Taubes prescribed:

  1. I filled up on fat. Coconut oil by the spoonful, butter by the chunk, cottage cheese by the heap, meat by the hunk.
  2. I also banned a few former staples, including my bedtime snack of oatmeal with peanut butter or maple syrup, pasta, bread, tortilla chips, pop, juice, even Jelly Belly jelly beans.
  3. I even replaced my sugary whey protein powder with unflavored stuff and sweetened it with stevia and cocoa powder.

Two weeks later one of my instructors asked me if I was hitting the gym. I looked down at my chest, wearing the same same black Under Armor rash guard as always, and I wondered if I really looked cut all of a sudden. Certainly I wanted to.

“Well, not really,” I told the instructor. “I did change up my diet though.”

​Diet vs Inflammation

I lost weight, but not quite like my heavy friend. But much of the weight loss came from water retained by inflammation. The bread, the oatmeal, the granola, the sugar, and even the corn tortilla chips were all conspirators in my previous misery

After delving into the science, I found they all contained one or more of the following substances:

  • Lectins are plant compounds that can damage the parts of the intestines that absorb nutrients. When the damaged intestines absorb large, undigested protein molecules into the bloodstream, the body’s immune system responds to those molecules the same way it responds to invaders. Inflammation is among the symptoms.
  • Gluten is a plant protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and even beans. It acts the same way as the proteins mentioned above: the body confuses it for an intruder and increases inflammation. Not everybody is gluten sensitive, but cutting it out was how I discovered that I am.
  • Advanced glycation end products is a fancy way of describing how sugars combine with fats and proteins in the bloodstream and also cause the body’s natural security guards to sound the alert, also causing inflammation.
  • Phytates are acids found in plants that bind to minerals in the digestive tract – minerals the body needs. For this reason phytates are linked to chronic disease, though not necessarily to inflammation

I knew the grains had been tapping out my autoimmune system because when I stopped eating them, my evening stiffness disappeared. Sure, I was still sore and tired after sparring, but I wasn’t a shambling corpse before bed. On those weekends when my wife and I visited family and I succumbed to eating pizza, I would pay – my weight would spike, I felt gross, and I would get stiff again

When I told my dad about my diet, his response was basically “But muh CARBS!” Yet I don’t avoid carbohydrates completely. As with Rob Wolff, one of the founders of the Paleo movement and a long-time student of BJJ, I find that a sweet potato works well to provide the fast energy from glycogen needed to stay focused when training

As for martial arts, I was able to train more frequently, train better, and recover faster. With the weight loss I moved into the next weight class down, and that helped me rank up faster. And overall I simply felt better. I was proud of myself for having the discipline to achieve stripes on my belt and better health

​Gone With The Wind

There was one other, somewhat miraculous benefit: my chronic flatulence faded in the wind.

Prior to removing grains, the ghosts of my food howled and groaned at all hours of my waking life. Sometimes somebody noticed at the dojo, too: one day a guy shouted, “Somebody dropped some DEATH!”

That was mortifying enough to want to stay one of those paleo weirdos.

Ian Connel is a father, writer, nutrition enthusiast, and MMA hobbyist in Little Canada, Minnesota. He holds a third-degree red belt in Shinbudo MMA at Warrior’s Cove and a blue belt under Rickson Gracie.

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