The Life of a 48-Year Old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competitor

Get an inside look as 48-year-old Paddy Spence trains for the 2016 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Pan Ams.

The Life of a 48-Year Old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competitor

In my 20s and 30s, I had the opportunity to compete in a range of endurance activities: over 40 triathlons, 100-plus road races and trail runs, and various other multi-sport events. Each one was a physical and mental challenge, but for me they paled in comparison to the daunting challenge of facing both myself and another competitor in martial arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing).

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In a race, you're fighting against your own limitations and expectations. If you're not feeling great, you can always slow down, and the only consequence is your own disappointment. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai, on the other hand, you've got an eager, aggressive opponent ready to capitalize on your first sign of weakness. Few things are more unpleasant than being dominated on the mat or in the ring. Therefore, the preparation required to become a better competitor has always driven me to train more intensely.

I'm 48, and though I've been able to improve some aspects of my athleticism through consistent training over the years, particularly in terms of strength and balance, the biggest change I notice is in my body's ability to recover. Almost every sparring session results in some kind of minor trauma—a banged-up knee, a sore elbow or a tweaked neck. Things that used to be fine in a couple of days when I was 25 now linger for 2 or 3 weeks. As a result, much of my routine is figuring out how to push my body but avoid overtraining or exacerbating routine injuries—and also making sure to support my training with good nutrition.

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At the time I'm writing this, I'm two weeks from the Pan Ams of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the largest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) tournament in North America. This week and next week are my last couple of opportunities to enhance my conditioning and refine my technique. Here's what my training schedule looks like this week:

  • Monday: BJJ practice (1 hour of warmup and drills, 20 minutes sparring)
  • Tuesday: Muay Thai (1 hour – warmup plus 12 rounds hitting pads)
  • Wednesday: BJJ practice (1 hour of warmup and drills, 20 minutes sparring)
  • Thursday: Muay Thai (morning); CrossFit intro workout (afternoon)
  • Friday: BJJ practice (1 hour of warmup and drills, 20 minutes sparring)
  • Saturday: Kundalini yoga session
  • Sunday: rest day

I'm as focused on nutrition as I am on my training sessions. For the past 16 years, my wife Jerra and I have led a low/no-sugar lifestyle, and that's my primary dietary rule. We try to keep sugars to 5 percent of our caloric intake, and we don't keep any sugar in our pantry at home. Instead, we use stevia—as a sweetener in coffee or tea, in the Zevia soda we drink, and in protein shakes, baked goods and other "treats" we give our young daughters. We don't consume fruit juice, but we do eat whole fruit for dessert, particularly berries, which are lower in sugar than many other fruits. We also limit sugar-laden condiments like salad dressing and ketchup, and avoid almost all sugary snacks.

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My days typically start with oatmeal for breakfast, ideally with a banana or strawberries and some nonfat organic milk. Lunch is usually a turkey or chicken wrap with no mayonnaise or dressing. In the afternoon I'll have raw cashews or organic turkey jerky for a snack. Dinner is protein like chicken breast, or beef once a week, along with a vegetable like broccoli, spinach or asparagus, and a moderate serving of a starch like pasta or rice.

In terms of hydration, I drink yerba mate, water and Zevia. I start my day with two cups of yerba mate with stevia and nonfat organic milk, to get an initial caffeine kick. Then over the course of the day and evening, I have 8-10 12-ounce cans of Zevia, 1 or 2 of which are caffeinated. Having always had a sweet tooth, I find the sweetness  refreshing, and the carbonation cleanses my palate and re-energizes me, particularly after a workout.

For supplements, I take a multivitamin, fish oil and turmeric. On occasion, I make a protein shake if I need a little more caloric intake, with unflavored organic whey protein, stevia, nonfat organic milk and a banana. In the past, I've also used creatine for recovery, but I find it can cause me to gain a couple of pounds, which isn't ideal given the fact that I need to hit a specific weight for the upcoming BJJ tournament.

The last, and often underappreciated, component of my routine is maximizing sleep. I remember a professional triathlete telling me years ago that he got 10 hours of sleep a night to facilitate post-workout recovery, and I've found the same to be true. For me, 7-8 hours is the best I can do, with a family, job and other life responsibilities, but it makes a tremendous difference.

Some days, I wake up and feel 80 years old. I wonder why my fractured toe is still swollen, five weeks after the injury occurred, or what the heck happened to make my neck ache like it does? But then as my body wakes up, I start to feel better, and realize exactly why I'm doing this. To me, every day that begins with that satisfying post-workout soreness, a great night of sleep, and the mental balance that comes with this lifestyle, is a great day.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: MMA | INJURY RECOVERY | WORKOUT RECOVERY | DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS | MMA TRAINING | SUGARS