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Running, Crossfit, and Jiu Jitsu: What is the Common Ground?

Posted by on Mar 4, 2013 | 5 Comments

It should come as no surprise that I’m quickly becoming obsessed with jiu jitsu. I went from taking one or two classes per week to obsessively searching the ‘Webz, watching videos, reading books, creating a journal, blogging, and training 4-5 times per week.

What’s the appeal?

I tend to be drawn to difficult physical tasks. When I started barefoot running, Crossfit, and ultrarunning a few years ago, I was attracted to the inherent challenges. Not only are all three physically difficult, they required the mastering of techniques, the development of physical and mental “toughness”, and endless opportunities for experimentation.

Like those other three endeavors, I also feel a strong desire to promote this one.


If you’re attracted to any of the other three, you’ll probably love this one, too. I’m a big fan of general fitness, which is why I’m a huge promoter of functional fitness (like Kemme Fitness and Crossfit.) I always strive to be as well-rounded as possible. I want to have the physical capacity to do anything that may be required. Running alone gives you great endurance but physically weak. Barefoot running gives you bodily awareness, some flexibility, and balance, but has the same drawbacks as all forms of running.  Functional fitness gives you great strength, balance, and explosiveness, but poor endurance. None of these activities gives you the ability to defend yourself.

What happens if you’re suddenly attacked? Running can help you… well, run away. That’s good as it should be the first response to danger- if possible. If you can’t escape, the strength gains from functional fitness may help you fight someone off, but strength is mostly useless if you don’t have accompanying technique.

Enter jiu jitsu.

This is a great way to round out fitness. When combined with the others, it gives you the ability to run and the ability to fight long enough until you can run.

What exactly IS jiu jitsu?

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about jiu jitsu before starting. I knew it was a type of martial art. I knew it was often referred to as Brazilian jiu jitsu (or bjj.) I knew it was popular in the mma world.

The Quick and Dirty History

The Brazilian part turns out to be significant. The form of fighting started as a form of judo in Japan and was brought over to Brazil early in the 20th century. There it was modified to be a little more practical for self-defense. The Gracie family is best known for developing bjj, then bringing it to the United States. It spread slowly until Royce Gracie used bjj to win three of the first four UFC tournaments. He was a rather small, skinny dude that beat MUCH bigger opponents, which is the reason why it’s gaining in popularity. It has since been adopted by the US military and many police departments for hand-to-hand combat training.

Basic Elements

The premise is simple- defending yourself against a bigger, stronger, or faster opponent is nearly impossible as long as they can use those traits to their advantage. They will be able to use those traits as an advantage as long as they are on their feet. If they can be taken off their feet to the ground (known appropriately as ground fighting), all of those traits can be trumped by an opponent with superior technique.

Bjj teaches the use of body position, leverage, chokes, and joint locks to neutralize the strength, speed, and size advantages. Indeed, I’ve learned these lessons after only two months. It’s surprisingly easy to “tap out” people with far superior physical skills.

It’s a practical art. There is little pageantry, no silly board-breaking, no glorified dancing. It’s quite similar to wrestling, only with the “submission” element. It’s a little like Krav Maga (self-defense the Israeli army utilizes) on the ground.

What are the Similarities Between BJJ, Barefoot Running, Ultrarunning, and Crossfit?

Each of these activities has quite a bit in common with each other. Here are a few similarities:

  • All offer endless challenges. You learn the basic movements. You refine the movements to increase efficiency. You introduce new elements that require adjustments in techniques. This process is not only challenging, but also connects you to your body through awareness. In running, progress is measured by faster times and/or longer distances. In Crossfit, progress is measured by more weight, higher reps, or better scores on named workouts. In bjj, progress is measured by a formal belt/stripe system. If you enjoy the progressive challenges of kinesthetic experience of the others, you’ll enjoy bjj.
  • All are humbling. New barefoot runners can be humbled by requiring you to relearn running form. Ultrarunnign humbles you by the sheer difficulty of traversing difficult trails for hours and hours. Crossfit humbles you be reminding you of muscles you probably didn’t know you have. Bjj humbles you through technique- those that have studied longer can pretty much have their way with you. No matter how athletic, strong, or explosive you are, you’ll get submitted quickly and often in the beginning.
  • All offer the paradox of relaxation and physical exertion. This one is a little odd, but barefoot and ultrarunning both require relaxation while moving to be effective. Crossfit requires the ability to explosively contract then relax muscles. Jiu jitsu requires the same control. You learn to “turn it on” when needed, but also when to conserve energy. For me, this helps when not exercising. If I’m stressed, the ability to consciously relax is invaluable.

Those are the basic similarities. Bjj is a good method to round out overall fitness for runners and Crossfitters. It adds a few more physical movements coupled with the ability to defend yourself. Many of my friends would really dig it. Check it out. There are a lot of gyms in pretty much any area. Stop by and watch a class. You won’t regret it.

If you happen to be in the San Diego area, shoot me a message. I’ll give you info on the gym Shelly and I use.







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  1. Juha Myllylä
    March 5, 2013

    Well, I wouldn’t consider bjj as a self defence specific art, I think it’s more about dueling.

    Personally I think it’s quite sad that all martial arts tend to be ranked how useful they are in self defence or real fighting situations.. In a way it’s logical but there’s so much more in martial arts. There’s fun stuff especially, for example nice game of fighting. Don’t need to be anywhere near reality to be fun. Personally I liked some kind of combination of fancy kicking in format of point stop fighting with light contact. Not very close to real fighting, lots of funnier than grappling or continuous full contact fighting, which I have also shortly tried out.

    Other hobbies like running or team games are not really practised because you would learn useful skills from them, but because of fitness and fun. Atleast I have never seen anyone asking in running forums how one should train for self defence getaway situation… 😉

    But with martial arts efficiency in self defence always tends to come up and then starts the bashing of other arts – something that is uncommonly seen in other sports.

  2. Bare Lee
    March 5, 2013

    It’s funny. I used to run barefoot 20 years ago as part of my Ashihara karate training in Japan. I didn’t realize I was BFR-ing at the time though. Everything we did in karate was barefoot, so why would running be any different?

    Now you’ve brought it full circle.

    In the style of karate I learned, we were taught to defeat bigger, stronger opponents by getting to the side or back of them while closing the distance, and quickly taking them out with knees, elbows, and low kicks.

    Grapplers tend to defeat strikers, but the advantage of striking arts like karate is that you can potentially take on two or more attackers (our style was predicated on this, as it arose from street fighting on the streets of Tokyo in the 1960s), whereas in grappling arts like Jujitsu, you’re kind of screwed if there’s more than one of them, right?

    • Nick J
      March 11, 2013

      I did Ju-Jitsu in the UK when I was a kid and we learnt that it was something of the mother art in Japan – what Karate and Judo came from. Indeed the Ju-Jitsu that I practiced included striking, grappling and weapon training. Here’s the wiki link:

      • Bare Lee
        March 12, 2013

        Point well-taken. I wasn’t clear but I was referring to Jason’s endorsement of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which focuses more on grappling than striking:

        • Nick J
          March 12, 2013

          Ah-ha. Good stuff. I think I prefer the Japanese version, you get to use tonfa’s after-all 😉