Hey look, Jason isn’t dead! Yes, I know this is my first post in almost four months, but the lack of running makes it tricky to write about… well, running. However, a reader that also follows me on Facebook asked an intriguing question a few days ago: Having experienced both hundred mile training and MMA training, how do they compare? Which one is more difficult?
For the last seventeen months or so, Shelly and I more or less stopped running in favor of training at San Diego Fight Club in San Diego. Our focus for the first year was mostly Brazilian jiu jitsu with some boxing and muay Thai kickboxing mixed in. The MMA gym experience provided new challenges, especially since we more or less mastered the art of snot rockets, eating Gu while maintaining pace, and shitting anywhere and everywhere.
Our gym didn’t regularly offer MMA classes, but did have an MMA fight team that would organize training camps whenever one or several of the team members started a training camp for upcoming fights. About a year ago, I started joining the training camps as a training partner for the guys that were prepping for fights. I’m currently in the middle of my third fight camp. Over the course of the three camps, I’ve gotten a good feel for the required training to the point where I can give a reasonable comparison to ultramarathon training.
For those that aren’t familiar, I ran ultras for about seven years, which included five hundred mile finishes at Hallucination, Burning River, Western States (managed sub-24), Bighorn, and Grindstone. I ran a host of shorter distances and timed races, also. Those experiences culminated in the writing of Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel and the tamer published version The Ultimate Guide to Train Running and Ultramarathons.
Both sports have definite similarities and differences. Some are pretty obvious, others quite surprising. Let’s start with the required prerequisites – what qualities do you need to do both.
Before You Start
Both sports require a willingness to work hard, courage and mental toughness to risk great bodily harm, knowing your body enough to know when to back off training, and the physical ability to endure the physical grind of constant abuse. Hundred milers require a willingness to continue despite pain, fatigue, sleep deprivation, dehydration, hunger, and extreme temperatures… for hours and hours and hours. MMA requires a willingness to inflict pain on others and a willingness to have pain inflicted on you, the ability to calm yourself in a terrifying, adrenaline-fueled situation, and the ability to learn an extremely wide range of offensive and defensive skills.
Physically, the different sports are polar opposites as far as metabolic requirements. Ultrarunning requires a low level of intensity for an extremely long period of time. Foot injuries are exceedingly common. MMA requires a high level of extremely intense activity for a very short period of time. Ultra training is brutal on the joints and soft tissue of the lower body, whereas MMA is brutal on the joints and soft tissue of the entire body. Hand injuries are exceedingly common. MMA is also tough on the brain as training consists of a fair amount of blows to the head.
The Skill Set
Both sports, in order to be successful, require a specific skill set. Some level of technical proficiency can be overcome with athleticism in both sports, but only to a degree.
Ultrarunning requires good running form, the ability to traverse technical trails and run up and down mountains (for the good races anyway), the ability to fuel, hydrate, prevent chafing, do basic first aid, run at night using lights, stay focused despite sleepiness and fatigue, poop in the woods, understand thermoregulation and the implications of clothing choices, and the ability to eat a large number of calories while engaging in fairly rigorous physical activity.
MMA requires a working knowledge of at least a few disciplines, including wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu, boxing, and muay Thai. While these are the most common martial arts found in MMA, many other variations could be used. This includes a huge repository of specific skills like punching, kicking, the use of angles, distance, and timing, takedowns, takedown defense, the ability to fight from a clinch, the ability to fight against the cage, ground striking, ground striking defense, submissions, and submission defense.
Both sports are surprisingly cerebral and intelligence is a major advantage in both. Both also require the ability to remain calm and relaxed while under stress. Pacing and breathing are also skills shared by both.
Both sports require a serious time commitment. Training for hundred milers can be done with relatively low mileage, but most would need to run at least fifty miles per week plus crosstraining. Minimally, it would take at least ten hours per week in the “off season” and twelve to twenty when prepping for a specific race.
MMA will have the same variability. Shelly and normally train about seven or eight hours per week if we’re not helping with a training camp. During the peak of the training camp, we spend roughly the same twelve to twenty hours per week training and conditioning.
In both personal experiences and observation, MMA training tends to have a slightly higher injury rate, which also requires a little more recovery time.
Can Anyone Do It?
The short answer: No. As much as I would like to believe anyone can do anything, both sports require a degree of toughness not everyone possesses. I’ve yet to meet an ultrarunner or a mixed martial artist that’s 100% healthy. Ever. In both sports, you ore or less live with some sort of minor injury or injuries all the time. After a while, you just sort of accept that and do what needs to be done. When I was ultrarunning, I just accepted the fact that walking up and down stairs usually sucked. Or my ass-crack chafing would burn like a motherfucker whenever I showered. Or my toenails fell off regularly. In MMA, I just accept that I can’t straighten both arms at the same time, turn my head more than 30°, or chew food without consciously thinking about how my jaws are supposed to align. For both, sleeping becomes an exercise in finding that one position where things no longer hurt enough to fall asleep.
Physical toughness aside, both require the willingness to work ridiculously hard for virtually nothing. A handful of MMA fighters worldwide make enough money to live comfortably. Most are too poor to afford luxuries like hot meals or health insurance. Ultrarunning is even worse as there is no riches even for the world’s elite. Participation in both sports almost always results in a net financial loss.
Both sports have a fan base that truly understands and appreciates the efforts of participants, the vast majority of the population just views you as a masochistic weirdo. “I run stupid-long distances” and “I fight with 4 ounce gloves” elicits the same basic response almost all the time. And it’s not a positive response.
Finally, there are some sport-specific reasons not everyone could do each sport. Hundos require the ability to keep going looooong after your brain tells you to stop, which is a fuck-ton harder than most assume. The darkest moments of my life emotionally and physically have come at 3AM in the darkness on a desolate trail in the middle of BFE. Continuing past that chasm does require something that’s probably not universal. MMA requires a different but equally “sort-of-rare” skill of being able to call on ferocious but controlled rage that enables you to hurt someone else badly. You also need to be willing to be the recipient of said rage, which may be even ore rare. A strong sadomasochist demeanor is needed.
Which One Is Tougher?
Back to that original question. Both are exceedingly difficult. Both require lots of training. Both take a serious physical toll. Both require mental toughness. Is it possible to determine which is tougher? I’m not sure. I do know that, being a person of limited athletic ability AND approaching 40, I could not successfully train for both simultaneously. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t even be able to cycle the two with any regularity. The need for recovery is just too important. Even at my peak, I’m barely mediocre at both.
The toughness question is made even more difficult by the fact that so few people dabble in both worlds. To date, I’ve met maybe ten people that have trained for MMA and trained for 100 milers… and all do one or the other.
Despite that, I’d love to see ore people that do one to try the other. Given they both require a lot of the same fundamental dispositional characteristics, people that experience any success at one would probably be successful at the other.
Have any questions or comments? Leave them in the comments section!