London Marathon 2016

My aim was to complete it in around 4h30m. I did it in 4h27m, so pretty pleased.

Couple of things learned:

BJJ does work quite well as a high intensity conditioning exercise. I’m sure this would break down if I was trying to run a better time (and probably also if I was a bit better at BJJ and so expending less energy at it). But for ‘get around without being embarrassingly slow’ combining a long run at the weekend with BJJ in the week did okay.

The long run, however, does a number on your ability to recover. Once I get over the half marathon distance I really feel it during the week. I had to cut the number of BJJ sessions and basically give up on the weights for a bit to make it through (although part of this might also be laziness and lack of organisation). I’m going to try to keep up some running, but I’ll be glad to stay under 21k for a bit.

I picked up a fitbit with a HR monitor recently. It’s fascinating to see how long your heart rate stays elevated post-maraton. Mine was still 100+ hours later and was about 90 when I went to bed. It’s now back to normal.

First submission

This evening I got someone to tap for the first time. It was to a bow and arrow choke from the back.

For reference, I started on 2nd September 2015 and tonight was my 37th class.

So, why did I make it work this time, when I haven’t before? I think there were a number of reasons.

Probably most importantly I’ve simply learnt enough and practiced sufficiently that I was able to do a number of things right in a row, without screwing up too badly. A successful submission is, by definition, the last thing you do in a roll. So you have to get the chain of moves before it right — and any serious mistake will derail you. So — at least at my level — there is a real element of luck in getting everything to line up at the same time.

Closely related to this, I was able to attempt a number of submissions in succession. It was a long roll and I can’t properly recall the exact sequence. But, roughly, after I got to side-control, I attempted a kimura. This didn’t really work, but did allow me to take the back. My opponent was defending the rear naked choke, but I was able to get a lapel grip for the bow and arrow. Something weird was happening with the fabric at the back of his neck, which meant I couldn’t get any real tension. He was trying to escape and I ended up moving to an arm bar — but he’d linked his hand together tight. I felt I was losing the position faster than I was breaking the grip. So, when he tried to escape again, I returned to the back with a body triangle and worked for the bow and arrow until I got it.

This was all a good deal messier and confused than I’m making it sound.

The point is that it wasn’t that I did particularly well on a particular submission. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that with a little more experience I’d have had a good chance of finishing both my original bow and arrow choke and the arm bar. But I’ve learnt enough that having got a positional advantage I could keep trying things until something worked.

Finally, I was able — for pretty much the first time — to split my attention effectively between working for a submission and maintaining my position. In particular, when I was attempting the first bow and arrow I was also working to keep the back. Then, when I was going for the arm bar I correctly kept my legs heavy. And, rather than holding onto that for dear life when it wasn’t working, I was able to recognise the issue and move into a strong back control position.

It’s easy to understand the need for maintaining position in theory, but much harder to focus on everything you need to in practice.

So, an important and satisfying milestone. Now I just have to do it again.

Closed to open to closed

This may be the most obvious BJJ insight ever, but it’s the first one I came to myself, rather than it coming from someone else.

When your closed guard is being passed, you can go to open guard. If you can grip and get your feet on them, you can often get into spider or De La Riva. And, from there, if you like, it’s often possible to go back into closed guard by pulling them forward. This is much better than allowing them to complete the pass.

Since I realised this a couple of months ago I’ve had much more success holding onto guard. And, of course, I now see that everyone else is doing this all the time (or shifting from one open guard to another). But I’m slightly pleased to have worked it out independently. Who knows what I shall reinvent next!

It’s also an example of the general principle that it’s better to move before your opponent completes something than after.

Although I’ve had some success with this when it comes to maintaining guard, I have real problems with the next stage — setting up escapes. What I’d like to be able to do is be able to work to maintain my closed guard, when that fails move into open guard ahead of my opponent and — when, in turn, that fails — move to start my escape from side-control or mount (obviously, I’d also like to be able to avoid this downward spiral altogether as well). Instead, I’m always too late to avoid getting quite deep into their mount / side-control and I get stuck. Something to work on.

2016 Resolutions


Oddly, although this is going to be my main physical focus for the year, I don’t have many clear aims except going to class.

It’s too early for me to say ‘I’m going to focus on this or that in my game’. I don’t have a game yet. I just need to keep turning up. So my main aim is to average 3 classes a week — or 156 in 2016.

Also, I intend to compete at least once.


I’ve neglected lifting since I started BJJ, which is foolish. I don’t need to be strong, but it would help to avoid injury and I feel better when I’m in the gym regularly.

I’ll aim for two days a week, starting with simple linear progression to regain some strength and see where I am. Then I intend to work on Dan John’s set of strength standards from Intervention.


Quixotically I’ve agreed to run the London Marathon again this year for charity. It’s rather opposed to my other physical goals, but it will by my tenth and I couldn’t resist ticking that off.

My main aim is to do it without messing everything else up or damaging myself (and to raise a decent sum of money). But if I can also do it in around 4h30m I’d be happy.

My plan is to focus on doing one long run at the weekend, plus short fast runs in the week. Between BJJ and weights I should be able to maintain a fairly good general level of fitness despite a low volume of running.

I’m getting better, but why?

Of course I’m getting better. Even as a modest and self effacing person, it would be odd if two months or so of class, with no previous experience, hadn’t made me improve. Having said that ‘improvement’ is a relative thing. I’m still objectively pretty bad — even for a white belt.

And, in one sense, of course, I know why I’m getting better. I’ve been attending class! But what’s slightly interesting, is that although I can tell I’m getting better — tapping less to fellow beginners, sometimes able to get them in trouble and less confused generally — it’s hard to put my finger on why.

It’s not that I know more. Although I know a wider range of stuff than I did, I’m not really able to implement anything that isn’t very basic, so the new techniques we’ve learnt in the last month or so aren’t really relevant to my sparring yet (hopefully it’s all sinking in somewhere to reemerge later). For example, from guard I’m basically trying triangles, armbars and scissor sweeps, which I learned fairly early. But they work significantly better than they did four weeks ago.

Given that I’m not deploying new and exciting techniques, I must be getting better at the more familiar ones and just moving better generally. But, to be honest, I can only deduce this from what happens when rolling — I’m not aware that I’m performing the moves better. Most likely this is because it’s a fairly subtle process and it’s hard to notice incremental change day to day. Also, I suspect that part of the change is that I’m just hesitating to think a bit less, as I get more familiar with the positions — again, this is hard to spot.

Goo goo gahhh, Daaa!

People often talk about learning BJJ through the metaphor of learning a new language. In particular, the different between beginner and intermediate is characterised by the ability to form meaningful sentences (combinations and strategy) out of the words (techniques) you’ve learned.

If this is true, thus far I’ve progressed from mere baby noises to occasional word like noises — interspersed with a good deal of gabbling. BJJ has a hell of a lot of vocabulary to learn.

This is an interesting contrast to my previous combat sport, fencing. Although there are a few complicated moves in fencing, it really consists of a few basic techniques: stance, lunge, parry, circular parry, riposte, disengage, beat, envelopment, stop-cut and flèche. You learn these in the first few weeks.

Compare this with BJJ; where there are at least eight basic positions — back mount, mount, side-control, half-guard, north-south, turtle, closed guard and open guard. And then, of course, innumerable submissions, passes and sweeps from each position. It takes many months, if not years, to build up the basic vocabulary.

I don’t mean to suggest that fencing is easier or less complex than BJJ. There is endless refinement of technique and application of strategy within the basic moves. A serious competitive fencer might be doing the same basic lunge that I would, but with many times the accuracy and speed. Not to mention the depths of strategy involved in applying the basic moves at a higher level.

But the difference is vocabulary depth makes the experience of learning very different.

First, most obviously, a great deal more time and effort has to be devoted to learning new techniques.

Second, at the beginning, it’s harder to learn the techniques because you’re having to learn all the stuff adjacent to them and you have no conceptual framework to fit them into. For example, it was only on my second or third class involving a butterfly sweep that I grasped what the butterfly position was or how butterfly hooks worked. Naturally, this meant my early attempts at butterfly sweeps didn’t go well. Conversely, when a recent class focussed on a particular triangle entry, I found it more straightforward. I was just fitting a new set up onto my existing knowledge and practice. As I get more basic knowledge, I hope it will get easier to learn and apply new stuff.1 At the start though, there’s really nothing to be done but dive in and try to keep your head above water until it starts to make sense.

Third, any form of freeform sparring tends to involve flashes of understanding interspersed with periods of fog. If I’m in part of the game I know a bit about, I have some idea of what I’m supposed to try and what my opponent is probably up to. For example, from closed guard, I know a few sweeps and submissions to try — and I’m familiar with the basic guard breaks as well. I’m fairly confident in trying to do something (whether it works or not is an entirely different question).

In other positions, I often won’t know what I’m supposed to try to do or where my opponent is trying to go. I’ve found this particularly applies to any form of open guard, where I often have the sense of being in very deep water. Which grips and hooks are dangerous? Is my partner about to sweep me? Should I be moving towards them or away? Is that an opportunity to pass or a trap? It’s all still arcane. This means that I either try things in a somewhat random fashion (sometimes this works better than other times) or end up slightly frozen (which I’m trying to stop). This is getting better as I learn more. Also, as I get more of a feeling for things, I can sometimes either apply a basic principle (it’s probably not a good idea to let people get directly under your centre of gravity) or bastardise a somewhat analogous technique (this bit looks a bit like a spider-guard hook so I can probably try that thing…) But it still tends to be a relief when the roll returns to something I’m more familiar with.

Fourth, in BJJ it’s very common to ‘lose’ a technique, at least as a beginner. For example, one of my early classes covered a basic back escape — bridge into them, use two hands to move their active arm over your head, bring your shoulder down to the floor and come to your knees. But, in a recent class, when my partner took my back I tried to start by bringing my shoulder down to the floor, which obviously didn’t work. It was only when they talked me through what I should have been doing that I remembered the other steps. Again, this just doesn’t happen in fencing. You might be too slow or be fooled by opponent into doing the wrong thing, but you don’t just forget how to parry.

All of which is a long way round of cataloging the total beginner experience. But also to make the point that this extended period of basic vocabulary building is probably longer with BJJ than the vast majority of sports / activities.

I suspect this is one of the reasons that it doesn’t seem to be something anyone does casually. The need to pick up a very wide vocabulary of techniques before you even start to know what you’re doing is a significant barrier to entry. Of course, this is also why some people get sucked in — it’s a deep and fascinating art.

Photo Credit: Alex Groundwater

  1. I also have a theory that at a higher level this goes into reverse to some extent. This is because, once you’re more experienced, your existing techniques have been practiced and polished to a high standard. By comparison, something new may be clumsy and difficult (and, since you’ll be trying it on better opponents, ineffective). I may report back in a few years. 

The advantages of starting BJJ older

I started BJJ a couple of months ago, aged 35. My guess is that quite a few people my age who consider taking up a martial art decide they’re too old. It certainly crossed my mind.

A few months in I’m very glad that I took the general advice that you can start at any age. I can confirm it’s true. If you’ve got any interest, try a lesson or two.

More than that, I think there are some advantages to being a bit older. Nobody should put off starting. But there are compensations for a slight lack of youth and vigour.

Less trouble with your ego

One of the first things everyone told me when I started was ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be confused for at least 6 months. We all go through it.’

Starting is disorientating and sometimes frustrating. You start out being really bad at everything and getting tapped a lot.The most difficult thing though is that, quite often, you won’t even know what you should be trying to do — much less be able to do it.

All of this is hard on the ego. Everyone is very supportive. But partly that reflects the fact that the starting phase of BJJ is difficult, a lot of people drop out and people know you need that support.

Even beyond the very start, reading around and observing, it’s obvious that controlling the ego is a bit part of surviving and progressing in BJJ.

First, you need to keep plugging away until things start to make sense (I’m definitely still in this stage). Second, once things start to make sense you need to keep pushing on and learning. If you get too caught up in winning or belts or otherwise entangled in your sense of self importance you’ll probably get frustrated and quit — or injure yourself.

One of the advantages of starting late is that you’ll probably put less pressure on yourself to perform. Ego is still an issue — BJJ is competitive and we all like to win. But, as a mid-thirties office worker, I don’t feel the same need to prove something that I might have felt 15 years ago. Which means I can relax more and enjoy the journey.

More perspective / experience

Similarly, a decade and change into my adult life, I’ve got a slightly different perspective on time and progress than I might have had in my early 20’s. It will probably take me a few years to feel I’m making real progress. But that’s okay, I’ve got time. And a couple of years doesn’t feel as long as it might have done when I was younger.

More than that, I’ve been through similar learning curves before, particularly in education and in work. I know, if you keep at things, you normally get the hang of them in the end.

More money

We generally have more money when we’re older than when we’re younger. Obviously this isn’t universally true (in fact none of these points is). But I was fortunate enough to be able to join a club, buy a gi and so on without financial worry. That wouldn’t have been true if I’d started 15-20 years ago.

We may benefit more…

This may be nonsense, but I think it’s quite easy to get a bit narrow as we get older. There’s less to learn and we may feel that we’ve got ourselves into a bit of a rut. We meet new people more rarely and most of the people we do meet are quite similar — because they’re drawn from the narrow pool of our work and social circle. We don’t do something totally new very often.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. But learning BJJ has been an opportunity to be a total beginner again and meet a whole bunch of new people who I’d never have got to know otherwise. That feels more important to me now, in my thirties, than it would have been in my twenties when I was doing that anyway by going to university, doing my professional training, starting my first job etc.

Also, on a purely physical level, most of us in our thirties and above probably benefit more from regular exercise than our younger compatriots. We’re reaching the age where we start to put on weight and the advantages of youth start to slip away. So a demanding physical hobby is just the thing. Not least to realise that, while we might have lost a step or two, we’re not quite over the hill yet.