Krista Scott-Dixon is a fitness professional, nutrition coach, and the founder of Stumptuous.com, a website geared towards women’s fitness and nutrition. As well as a fitness guru, Krista is also an avid grappler of four years and has invaluable firsthand knowledge of what it means to be a female combat athlete. I asked her to give us the lowdown on one of the most misunderstood and overlooked aspects of the fight game: Conditioning.
FG: Tell me about yourself.
KS-D: I got into weight training in the late 1980s, but not seriously until the mid-1990s when I ended up as a fat, grumpy, sore, stressed out grad student. Since I sucked at most sports, weight training was an obvious choice. I started my website in the mid-1990s as a way to help out other women who were also searching for good-quality, non-sexist, non-fluffy fitness information about serious training. It grew into the giant monster that it is today.
In 2005, I took my first boxing course. Loved it. In 2006, I was having a very rough year with career, etc. I saw an ad for a women’s self defense/grappling course. I booked a private lesson with the instructor and on the first day I learned how to guillotine. I was hooked instantly.
Over the summer of 2006, that grappling course — just one day a week — along with some women’s boxing classes, offered me an outlet for all my stress and frustrations. It was a place I could go where I couldn’t think about work or anything else bothering me. I had to be in the moment. And that’s what I love about fighting. You must be in
the moment. I started training grappling seriously in 2007 when I quit my job as a university researcher and added judo to the roster in 2008. I left my research career entirely in 2008 and now work as a nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition, the research director for the Healthy Food Bank, and the editor of Spezzatino magazine (a food magazine that supports the HFB). I purposely found myself flexible work so I would have time for fitness and training!
FG: Why is conditioning important?
KS-D: Conditioning is what determines how you survive a match… and all your subsequent matches. And it can give you a strong advantage over someone who might be your technical match. Skill often trumps enthusiasm, but if you’re too gassed out to execute your skill, you’d better be way better than your opponent in order to have a chance of winning.
Conditioning keeps you safe. Being strong, fit, and able to execute techniques rapidly helps keep you from getting injured.
FG: What is a good formula for conditioning when gearing up for competition? On the flip side, what should one’s focus be on in between competitions?
KS-D: A lot depends on what the competition involves. If it’s a single bout (like an event fight), then focus a lot on surviving a single, incredibly intense several minutes, or set of rounds. If it’s a
tournament, you’re going to need to have energy for multiple iterations of those 5-8 min intense fights. If you’re a grappler, you need different types of strength (such as the ability to isometrically
hold a wriggling opponent) than a striker (who needs to explode consistently).
Train for what your event actually involves in terms of the tasks you need to do, and the energy you need to produce.
I’d say that in the weeks leading up to a competition, you want 2 sessions of heavy weight training, 2 sessions of conditioning (that focuses on speed, endurance, and overall “weighted cardio”), and 2 interval training sessions per week. Now, that sounds like a lot, but these should be short, intense, sessions. Get in, get ‘er done, get out. No more than 45 min for weight training and conditioning, no more than 15-20 min for intervals (plus 5-10 min mobility warmup and cooldown).
2-3 weeks before competition, start paring back your training volume. No peak/max training during the week beforehand. And if your fight is on a Saturday, your last semi-challenging workout should be Tuesday or Wednesday.
Between competitions focus also on injury prevention and rehab, and overall recovery. Schedule time for sympathetic nervous system
recovery — relaxation, massage, meditation, etc.
Plus don’t neglect the mental aspect of training. Before competition you should be visualizing your game plan and competition scenario in as much detail as you can manage, right down to how your opponent’s gi smells, or how the grips feel in your hands. Between competitions you should be visualizing particular, highly specific technique elements that you want to refine (e.g. the placement of your hands for a certain throw).
FG: What is the ideal ratio of cardio to strength training in a conditioning program?
KS-D: I don’t really think in terms of “cardio”. I think in terms of energy systems. What are you using during fights? Well, you need a couple of things.
a) You need to be able to produce single powerful, explosive movements, over and over and over again. This taxes the ATP/anaerobic
b) You need to be able to go at a fairly high level of intensity for a relatively longer time (several minutes). This taxes the anaerobic system.
Basically you need both muscular output (what we might call strength, or power, or endurance) and cardiovascular tolerance (what we might think of as “cardio endurance” or “gas”). You need to be able to tolerate a temporary state of elevated CO2 production, lactate production, etc. So how do we get that? Certainly not through standard methods of “cardio” like long slow distance running (although I like lower-intensity cardio in moderate amounts for active recovery). You train this via interval or lactate threshold training (in other words, with stuff like sprints, or longer sprintish-type activities such as 200-400 m runs where you’re still hauling ass but can’t go as quickly as you could with, say, a 50-100 m run). And you train it with what I call “weighted cardio” — long-duration, high-intensity sets done with
resistance. An example of weighted cardio would be something like dumbbell swings, fast runs with a weighted sled, swinging a heavy sledgehammer for speed, or high-rep sets of front squat + overhead press.
I count both the conditioning and interval days as “cardio” in this framework. So that’s about 2/3.
But a lot also depends on the individual needs of the athlete. Some folks are just cardio machines — it’s not the limiting factor in their outcome. You have to take each athlete and identify their unique
I know Energizer Bunnies who lose fights because their skill isn’t up to par. Given the same number of training sessions per week, they’d be better served by cutting down the “cardio”-related activities in favor of skill training. I know technical ninjas who keep getting injured. In their case we’d focus more on injury prevention/rehab and figuring out where their strength deficits might be contributing to their injury rate.
It’s easy to assume that every athlete in a sport needs the same thing but that’s certainly not true. Figure out — realistically — what is holding YOU back from advancing.
FG: Are there any exercises or components to a program that women especially should include in their regular training?
KS-D: Anything lower-body/hip-dominant for starters. Hips are the power centre for women in fighting. This means stuff like one- and two-legged squats, jumps, weighted or explosive hip bridging and hip thrusts, deadlifts, swings, Olympic lifts, etc.
However, women should train upper body as well to compensate for their typically weaker upper body (relative to their lower body). In particular they should focus on integrating upper body and torso, especially in rotation. An example of this would be the Turkish getup, which involves a press and shoulder stabilization while turning the
torso. You have to be strong in the press while also stabilizing the midsection and shoulder girdle.
Women tend to have looser joints, which means they can’t be as easily submitted by things like shoulder locks. However, it also means that
when they do injure those joints it can be very damaging. So they need to work on joint stability in unstable situations, e.g. knee stability when shooting for/defending takedowns (being on one leg).
Train asymmetrically and one-sided. And don’t train just front-back (e.g. a regular squat). Most fighting happens in diagonals, circles, or side-to-side, and in weird positions. So, to use our squat example, you should also include one-legged squats, perhaps a back breakfall roll back up into a pistol squat (make this one end in an explosive
one-leg jump for even more fun!), Cossack squats or lateral squats, side-to-side hops or step-ups, “shoot squats” (training the wrestling stance to shoot), etc. etc.
FG: What general nutrition guidelines should female competitors follow?
KS-D: Female competitors tend to be body conscious and may cut calories and nutrients (esp. fat and protein) too stringently. They risk anemia from blood loss thru bruising, especially if they are vegetarian. They also over-consume sugary stuff, including things like Gatorade, thinking (mistakenly) that it helps their performance.
Make sure to eat:
-lean protein with every meal
-the bulk of your daily carbs around training (1-2 h before and after)
-“the rainbow” — tons of colourful fruit and veggies, especially dark leafy greens such as kale for your minerals
-adequate good fats from nuts, seeds, cold pressed virgin oils, coconut, avocado, olives
If you eat meat, make sure you eat red meat or dark poultry (dark meat, or ostrich, which looks like red meat) at least a few times a week.
Don’t rehydrate or refuel with sugary crap. Eat real food. Starchy veg such as yams are great for this. If you can’t tolerate solid food around training or matches, at least make something like a protein
shake with coconut water and some fruit. Dilute it so your stomach can deal with it.
Take 10-15 mL liquid fish oil (not fish liver oil) daily to help with inflammation.
FG: What rules should you follow to prevent overtraining?
KS-D: Don’t waste time on too much endurance-based work. Forget the daily long-distance run. Women love their endurance cardio and it almost
never helps them.
Keep your sessions relatively intense and short.
Think about recovery as part of training, not something you accidentally get. Make sleep and other recovery activities (e.g. massage) priorities, not afterthoughts.
Mix up your hard training with skills training. Don’t pound the hell out of yourself at every session. If you roll or spar hard in one session, make the next session a slower, more careful, highly technical session.
(Check out more information on Krista and serious women’s fitness at http://www.fightergirls.com