Monday, February 13, 2017

Discipline, obsession, freedom, and 1% better

Originally published in 2014, a story entitled "Tom Brady explains why he goes to sleep at 8:30" recently come across my social media feed. I haven't watched a football game in many years, and I didn't even know Brady was still playing football, but I couldn't resist the clickbait headline.

I'm glad I did, because I feel like I found a kindred spirit.

I think that the decisions that I make always center around performance enhancement, if that makes sense. So whether that's what I eat or what decisions I make or whether I drink or don't drink, it's always football-centric. I want to be the best I can be every day. I want to be the best I can be every week. I want to be the best I can be for my teammates. I love the game and I want to do it for a long time. But I also know that if I want to do it for a long time, I have to do things differently than the way guys have always done it. 
I have to take a different approach. Strength training and conditioning and how I really treat my body is important to me, because there's really nothing else that I enjoy like playing football. I want to do it as long as I can.
I wanted to bold every sentence in that paragraph. Finally, someone who gets me. Replace all instances of "football" with "MMA" and this is my attitude. Tom Brady is an elite, world-class athlete. I am far from it. But in this way, we are the same.

People often give me great tips for amazing restaurants all over the world. I thank them politely and never end up eating there. Because I know the ingredients they use, while assuredly delicious, won't be as healthful as the ones I have in my kitchen.

My girlfriend generally wants to watch "just one more episode" of Netflix in bed. Unfortunately for her, she almost always loses this battle, because I know how losing an hour of sleep affects the next day's performance.

Do I enjoy the treadmill, the rower, the exercise bike, or the elliptical? Nope. Neither do I particularly love squats, chin-ups, bench presses, medicine ball throws, or box jumps. It's all boring to me. And mobility work is even more tedious.

I sure as hell don't love jumping in ice-cold baths or pushing to discomfort in hot saunas.

But it's all essential to what I love to do, which is to train and compete in mixed martial arts.

I crave a big gooey pizza or a hot chocolate brownie out of the oven just as much as anyone else. But if not eating it will make me 1% better in training the next day, then it's an easy decision for me. Turning off all the electronics at 9pm and taping up the blackout shades in our hotel room is an inconvenience, but it will make me better.

People laud me for my discipline. It's not discipline. It's merely a choice. Choices are easy when you realize what's important.

I spend 2-4 hours a day with some kind of coach: an MMA coach, a wrestling coach, a kickboxing coach, or a jiujitsu coach, or a strength coach. But the other 20-22 hours a day, I'm the coach. If I have poor technique on a head-inside single or my left hook/right low kick, I need them to fix it. But if there's any part of my physical and mental conditioning that's subpar -- that's on me.

Does this sound obsessive? You bet it does. Obsessive is the only way in this sport, and even more so if you're an aging athlete like me - or Tom Brady - trying to keep up with competitors 10-15 years younger. Young athletes are very good at being very obsessive in the gym or on the field. But generally aren't as disciplined those other 20 hours a day. They also don't need to be.

Every time I give an MMA-related interview, the interviewer asks me: What's my goal? What am I training for?

Here's my answer.

My goal is to know -- not believe, but know -- that if I fail, there is absolutely nothing else I could have done.


I need to be able to say, "I couldn't have done anything more. I couldn't have done anything better."

This is my great truth. It's my code. It's empowering. And it's what sets me free.

This is beauty to me. Fighting is more than just facing your opponent in combat. It's about yourself. Can I be the best possible me?

And no chocolate brownie, no episode of television, and no night of debauchery can compete with that beauty and that truth.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

On losing and lessons learned

So I lost yesterday in the first round of the WMMAA world championships. In the preliminaries, all fights are two 3-minute rounds with an overtime round if the first two rounds are scored a draw. I thought I did enough to win the first round, but after two rounds the decision was given to my opponent, meaning that at least two judges saw it 2-0 for him. I’m disappointed in that decision and I definitely felt strong enough to go out and win the third round (I felt my opponent getting quite tired towards the end, and heard him gasping a lot) but it’s my fault for not doing enough to sway the judges.

The obvious question might be “how do I feel about taking my first loss,” but the truth is that I don’t feel any different today than I did yesterday. I might have been an undefeated fighter before yesterday but I was never under the false notion that I was invincible or the best in the world. I’ve trained against enough elite guys to know better than that.

Obviously, it sucks to lose, especially in a very close fight. It sucked to look at the video (poor quality but Part 1 / Part 2) and see how close I was to winning. and to see that a few small adjustments would have been the difference. The fight was very much there for the taking, and I simply didn't take it. I didn't fight intelligently enough, and I didn't execute. I simultaneously fought too aggressively (looking for the finish) and without enough urgency (not scrambling to keep top position). An MMA fight that’s just 2 rounds x 3 minutes is more like a wrestling match where you’re allowed to hit the other guy, and that should’ve been my approach.

I think I will do well with a couple weeks off, but I have lots to learn from this fight, and I’m motivated to take the lessons I learned yesterday and come back stronger in the next one.

Congrats to this dude on the win. He has a mean left hook.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fight announcement - 16-man tournament in Macau!

They say to do something that scares you a little.

My next fight is the toughest fight I've had to date, because it's not a fight. It's a 16-man tournament, meaning that to win, I'll have to defeat four opponents in two days, each progressively more difficult than the next.

I (somewhat unwittingly) signed up for the 16-man World MMA Championship tournament in Macau next week. The tournament features fighters — professionals and amateurs — from 16 different countries. In my weight class Russia, Korea, China, Spain, France, and a lot of tough countries ending with “-stan” are all represented.

There’s no doubt this will be the toughest challenge of my MMA career. On Saturday the 26th, we fight three times in one night, and if I win those three fights I will advance to the finals on Sunday. The fights until the finals are only two 3-minute rounds (finals are 5-minute) and elbows are not allowed, but there is no doubt this will be extremely tough.

When I first signed up for this event, I thought I was just going to be matched up against one opponent. When I found out it was a 16-man tournament I was at first a little nervous. But why did I get into this sport? Not for money or fame — there is not much of either — but to see what I am made out of. I have spent years in this sport now and dedicated myself to it fully. I’ve had tough fights and gutted out tough wins, but nothing I’ve done will be as tough as this, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.

It’s a little crazy but I’m excited for the challenge. The fights are at Studio City Casino in Macau so I encourage anyone local to come out and support!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Illusions of control and superstitions of the non-superstitious

This morning at 9am, like most mornings, I went down to the gym in my building for some cardio. As the door to the elevator opened, I prepared to smile, nod, and wish good morning to the person already in the elevator. I'm not naturally an outgoing or friendly person, so this is one of those micro-improvements of the self that I've decided to undertake.

Vancouver is one of the least friendly/neighbourly cities in North America, so maybe 30% of the time, I do the smile/nod/greet thing, and people awkwardly avert eye contact, or rush to mash the "Close Door" button. I nevertheless am committed to smiling/nodding/greeting not just as a micro-improvement exercise, but also because I believe in a world where people should be -- at a minimum -- cordial with their neighbours. It's not like I feel we need to invite one another over for dinner parties or anything like that; but if we are staying in the same building, we are at least going to see one another regularly, so there might as well be some modicum of positivity in these interactions, right? Right.

So imagine my surprise when as the elevator door opened, the lady in the elevator immediately started mashing the Close Door button. I mean her finger was on the button not just before my vocal cords could warm to form the first syllable of my greeting, but before I had even began my motion to walk through the threshold of the elevator. She didn't so much jump the gun as jumped before the invention of gunpowder.  I am not generally good at hiding my emotions, so I imagine I was quite the sight with my mouth agape and eyes wide open in disbelief. Indeed, when the elevator arrived at the gym floor, she was noticeably slower in putting her finger on the trigger.

The funny thing is that the elevator in this building is actually fairly quick. The lag between the door fully opening and the door auto-closing is perhaps 2-3 seconds, which I consider a solid time. The close door button is functional (as typically the case in newer elevators) but the benefit of pushing is mostly psychological given the short lag time. As I mentioned in a previous entry on elevator manners, it's unlikely that all the elevator button mashing in the world could save much more than one minute per day.  Considering how blatantly unneighbourly and downright stressful trying to mash that button is, it hardly seems like the benefit is worth the cost.

In the end, elevator button mashing (and its cousin, pedestrian crosslight button mashing) is one of those weird illusion-of-control things. It's almost like modern-day superstition for people who aren't superstitious. I don't think that any of the people who mash buttons are say, fearful of black cats, throw salt over their shoulders, or buy balance bracelets. Yet they do this, because it's a tick that makes them feel like they have control, when they really don't.

What are other modern examples of tedious illusions-of-control, or superstitions for the non-superstitious?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Country air, sustainability, and the end of the world

I'm a city boy, born and raised. I've always loved the city, and the bigger the better. The first time I was old enough and had enough money to travel (age 24), I did as so many do: I went to the big cities of Western Europe. Then I started to see the big cities of the USA, Asia, and Latin America. I've been to a few dozen major metropolises now.

I bought a home and moved to Hong Kong in 2008, taking advantage of residency opportunities there. I loved living in central Hong Kong, despite the constant noise and air pollution. When visiting Vancouver, I strongly prefer to stay downtown despite higher rents and less space. Not only is my gym there, I think it's really the best part of Vancouver. Tremendously walkable. All the amenities you could ask for. And yes, insanely expensive, but you can see why.

But in the last year or so, I've been yearning for a simpler and greener lifestyle. I've never lived in the country, or even spent more than a few days there. I don't know how I would enjoy it. But lately I have been fantasizing about acres of sprawling farmland, chickens, goats, vegetables, clean water, and country air. And my antisocial side likes the idea too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On fighting hurt

This post was written on Friday, September 9, but will not be published until a later date, for reasons that are about to be obvious. I've mentally committed to myself that I will hit the publish button on this post whether I win or lose this fight, and regardless of whether or not it happens.

Friday, September 9:

On Wednesday - two days ago - I sprained my ankle in practice. It was an unlucky accident. My partner and I were doing fairly light wrestling drills with only 50% resistance. He attempted a takedown and I stumbled backwards and just fell with all of my weight on my bad ankle.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A strange weight cutting decision

Today I woke up to a strange announcement for the promotion I'm fighting for in two days:

Summary: In the last 18 months they have had three fighters hospitalized due to weight cuts. So for this card they have decided, with about 30 hours before weigh-ins, to increase everyone's weight amount by 3.5%. Instead of fighting at 125 lbs, I am now fighting at 129 lbs. Guys scheduled to fight at 155 are now fighting at 160, and so on.

This is really bizarre. If you watch the video it's a claim about fighter safety, but if they just start implementing this policy frequently, you'll simply have people moving down two weight classes instead of one. What I suspect has actually happened here is that there are a small number of individuals on this card who expressed that it will be difficult to make the weight, and that they were worried about those fighters' specifically having to cut a bunch of weight.

On one hand, I'm always happy to cut less weight. It means I won't have to be in the sauna tonight, and 129 is a very easy weight for me to make. On the other hand, it encourages guys who should certainly be fighting at 135 to drop even further. On the gripping hand, if other organizations aren't following suit, then I might not get fights at my proper weight class.

Weird stuff. In general I'm very happy to see a movement towards less weight cutting in MMA, but this is a very bizarre way to go about it. Will be interested to see how it goes forward.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The perils of fighting a winless fighter

As a fighter at the regional level, there's tremendous variance in whom you might fight. The range is huge. First, record-keeping is also not great at the regional level. My opponent back in April was listed on Sherdog at 0-1 (now 0-2), but I've seen videos of him winning by both KO and submission, and a saw a poster listing him as 10-6, so clearly there are fights that aren't on his record.

There's also a tremendous range is skill and dedication at the regional level. You might get some wannabe tough guy who just wants to say he was in a cage fight. Or you might get a superstar in the making whom nobody knows about just yet.

I know that my next opponent isn't either of these. Fighting since 2011, his Sherdog record is 0-2. On paper I should be a favourite given that I am 2-0. But his losses are to legitimate regional fighters, and his last fight was up a weight class at 135 against a former Battlefield titleholder.

When you're fighting an 0-2 fighter, it can mean you're fighting a wannabe who doesn't take it seriously (like when I fought this guy), or it can mean he is very hungry but has just had tough opponents. I'm assuming that it's the latter; based on his Twitter, he's in the gym, and even travelled to Montreal recently to train at Tristar under Firas Zahabi.

Every day that I haven't wanted to show up, and every day that I haven't felt like training hard, I remember that he is desperate. I think about what I would do and how I would be training if I were the winless fighter taking on the undefeated fighter. I am training like am the one who is winless. I am training for him like his record is 15-0.

I can honestly say that I have put my full 100% into this training camp. It's 12 days away, and they can't come fast enough.

It's a fight. Never, ever, underestimate anyone in a fight.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

How I lose weight and keep energy up during fight camp

Professional poker player Dan Smith, gave me the following feedback on Twitter as to what he'd like to read about:

It's a great question -- how can a person who is already fairly lean lose 10-20% of his bodyweight in 4-8 weeks and still manage to fuel something as demanding as an MMA training camp?

Well, I've been messing with this stuff for a while and put a lot of thought into it. But first a disclaimer: in the past I've been accused of broscience and being sloppy with "shit i read on internet". What follows is just what has worked very well for me when we're talking specifically about diet and nutrition the context of a mixed martial arts camp.  Now I've studied and read and re-read obsessively. But I'm lazy and this is just a personal blog, so I'm not going to be providing citations. This is all simply the result of n=1 experimentation and yes, it involves shit I read on the internet. People are free to disagree and tell me I'm an idiot for doing what I'm doing, and I'm very much open to the possibility I'm wrong about things (which I have been on many occasions in the past).

Okay first up, BMR (basal metabolic rate). The calculator suggests 1557 calories for a person of my size and age. Estimates of my daily caloric burn in a day (even with the "heavy" exercise multiplier) usually fall way below my usual intake, and yet I don't gain weight. Caloric burn is a function of so many things going on inside bodies that until they actually start putting microchips inside our bodies, I don't worry about it too much. But I would say on a typical training day I'm eating/burning between 3000-3500 calories.

Cutting weight over a training camp

Anyone will tell you that it's better to shed weight throughout camp than it is to simply cut a ton of weight. Losing 15 pounds in the sauna is a terrible experience: it's dangerous, it hinders performance, it creates the potential for getting sick on fight day. All kinds of bad stuff. And yet there is basically no one at the elite level competing without some form of water manipulation in the last 24-72 hours. And that's because if you've dieted down to a point where you are losing zero water, you're going to come in as the much smaller guy, simple as that.

But yeah, back to cutting weight. My philosophy is that prevention is better than solution. As a 125-pound fighter, I'm never letting myself get over 145. Ever, ever. This is rare. I know many 135ers who are hovering around 170 when they're not near a fight, and 170 lb fighters peaking well over 200. I pretty much never eat garbage and let myself go completely because I don't want to be the guy running a huge caloric deficit during a tough camp.

Most of my vegetable intake is organic and all of my meat intake is grass-fed/pasture-raised. When I'm eating out a lot and being social, I have some cheats but I'm still being reasonably selective off the menu. My girlfriend jokes that I am orthorexic. I don't actually think that I am, but I admit I'm more strict than basically anyone I know. Something like pizza or cake is around a once-a-year proposition for me, which even I have to admit is a bit strict.

Eating like this keeps me between 141-145 most of the time. When it's fight camp, becoming even more strict gets me usually about 1-2 lb of weight loss per couple of weeks. So ideally i'm around 135-137 when i'm 7 days out while doing not much caloric restriction. I don't count calories at all until the final two weeks, although I'll make some small adjustments (I'll talk about that shortly).

Beyond Calories: Winning at the Micros

Everyone is obsessed about calories, but here I want to focus more on micronutrients than macronutrients. For the uninitiated, micronutrients are basically the vitamins and minerals that make the body work. When you see a label like the one below, the micronutrients are in the bottom section:

There are a shit-ton of important micronutrients, many of which are presented here in a word cloud for some reason:

Compared to micronutrients, macronutrients are simpler for most people to understand because they know them all: protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol.

Macronutrients get all the play because they are generally easier to talk about in sound bites and blog posts, but micronutrients are massively important and I focus way more on getting micronutrients in a bioavailable form. (This is the tricky thing about micronutrients; basically every micronutrient is available in a bottle, but it may or may not be well-absorbed by the body.)

I don't pay too much attention to calories and macros. I don't really care if I'm 40/40/20 or 50/35/15 or whatever. But I do pay attention to micronutrients and if I'm going to do a food log, it's mostly to ensure I'm getting enough minerals and vitamins. Usually I do a pretty great job; here's a randomly selected day out of my food log:

(Hope it was sunny outside today.)

Regardless of what my protein/fat/carb looks like, if I'm hitting well over 100% RDA on most vitamins and minerals and my digestion feels good, I think everything is dandy. And I feel great and energetic.

I make it a goal to choose really nutrient-dense foods, which is usually in the food department. The biggest single thing I do is choosing vegetables over grains, since gram-per-gram and calorie-per-calorie, vegetables destroy grains. Note the comparison of the three leftmost columns to the three on the right.

Even in the case of more similar comparisons, sweet potato and squash destroy rice and pasta.

Another thing that sets me apart from most athletes is that I tend to avoid over-reliance on sports drinks. Not drinking calories is one of the best things you can do for nutrient density, since liquid carbs in general are very low in nutrients.

That said, I sometimes use a few high-end sports drinks, like Superstarch and Vitargo, as well as coconut water. I think it's useful to think of simple processed carbs like sports drinks and white rice as performance-enhancing drugs (except of course, not illegal). They're great for optimizing performance and endurance, but they are not providing much nutritional benefit, and a significant side effect (weight gain/insulin spiking). The regular public doesn't fast carbs at all (in much the same way the public generally doesn't need steroids), but athletes in high-intensity sports benefit from a quick, easily digestible way to shuttle glucose into muscles. So I don't avoid them completely, but as much as possible, I simply drink water. When I need to lose weight quickly, the sugar drinks are the first thing to go.

Talk more about carbs!!11

Carbs are not necessarily the enemy of weight loss when it comes to the high-intensity athlete. As I mentioned, I don't really track this stuff, but I probably used to be too low on the carb side, clocking in around 20-25% carbs. I've increased this to 40-50%, especially deeper into fight camp where I'm doing a higher number of high-intensity rounds and my muscles need this fast fuel.

When do i eat those carbs (and fat)?

On days and weeks where I am not training, or it consists of either low-volume or low-intensity training, my carb consumption is back down near 20-25%. This improves three things for me personally:

a) body comp (I stay leaner)
b) brain function
c) better digestion (slightly)

On days I do train, I will load up on carbs+protein in the 2-3 hours after training, and eat mostly protein+fat the rest of the day. I try not to have very many meals that have fat+carbs together, because those can really cause weight gain (think of most things people overeat -- pizza, ice cream, potato chips -- and it's notable how many of them are this simple fat+carbs combo).

During fight camp, where usually I am mostly doing light workouts in the morning and lengthy high-intensity activity in the evening, I do a cyclical carb or a "carb backload", meaning I eat very few carbs before dinner, but eat a ton of them (and less fat) after training.

This day was 40% carbs, but 80% of those were during/after training.

Final hacks:

I do a daily 12-hour fast, so I do not eat from 10pm to at least 10am, usually past that. Obviously I'm sleeping a lot of this time, but doing a little light aerobic work in the morning in a fasted state helps me burn off a little belly fat.

I also do a 24-hour fast once a week, usually Saturday dinner to Sunday dinner, so I do not eat before 8pm or so once a week. This is just a good practice to give the digestive system a break, and losing weight is just an extra benefit.

So how do I feel?

Losing the first 8-10 pounds in 6-8 weeks, even on a lean frame like mine, requires discipline. But it isn't horribly hard. I feel pretty good most of the time. My energy levels are high most of the time, and when they're not, it's not because of lack of calories but rather because the intensity of the training has worn me down. Fasting, a lack of junk food the rest of the year, going high-carb only after workouts, and keeping nutrient numbers high gives me tons of energy to train at a high level throughout the camp.

The hard part is the last 8-10 pounds on the final week. Once I'm 7 days out from the weigh-in, the carbs and eventually the entire meals start getting reduced, to deplete glycogen from my muscles (which I don't need too much anyway since I am not training intensely in those days). Then we get into sodium loads, saunas, and all the water manipulation. This is the part that really feels awful, and so ideally you do as little of it as possible. In a perfect world, I might be something like 130 with seven days to go, but it's hard to lose that kind of weight and train as hard as I'd really want to.

Questions or comments? Comment below (may require you to click on the title of this post).

Monday, August 22, 2016

A week inside my fight camp

I've trained at a number of gyms throughout the world, but when I'm in Vancouver I train at Lions MMA, where I started training MMA in 2010.

Coach Paulie (he typically only goes by his first name) separates his competition/fight team from his regular clientele. The fight team is on any given day less than 10% of the people who attend classes, but of course they are also the people who have been around a long time and show up the most consistently. Paulie is very tough, and does not allow people to fight who are not willing to train to his standards. We put in a ton of hours on the mat, and today I'll talk about that.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Meta-blog: What would you like to see here?

I'd like to ask for help from the people who read this blog and like the MMA stuff.

I've had people say in casual conversation that they'd like to hear more about my MMA training, but I don't necessarily know how exactly to go about doing that.

So what would you actually like to hear about?

Friday, July 29, 2016

My next fight, and my future in this sport

I'm excited to be returning to the Battlefield Fight League cage on September 10! My opponent this time is Vaz Lep. He trains out of Titan MMA/10th Planet in Coquitlam BC. I know that he's been around for a while; here's an amateur fight of his from 2011.

This is the only video online, but I haven't bothered to study it. It's unlikely that his game in 2011 looks anything like it does in 2016. My first amateur fight was also in 2011, and I know my current game doesn't look anything like the 2011 version. I expect him to be a tough opponent and that's that.