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What it Takes to Win in the UFC

A summary of the steps UFC Performance Institute is taking to ensure a more integrated approach to physical preparation.

Forrest Griffin is a UFC Hall of Famer but he remains frustrated with one particular aspect his mixed martial arts career. ‘I was surprised by the lack of an established, clear and concise method for how to physically prepare for MMA,’ he writes in the UFC’s 80-page report on the sport of MMA titled A Cross-Sectional Performance Analysis and Projection of the UFC Athlete.

UFC’s Performance Institute in Las Vegas will host The Sport Performance in March 2019. Interested? Click here to find out more and book you place.


By John Portch

Griffin is writing in his capacity as Vice President of Athlete Development at the state-of-the-art 15-acre $14 million UFC Performance Institute. He continues: ‘I knew I had all the right pieces but I was unable to structure them in a cohesive manner that allowed me to perform at an optimal level on a fight night, rather than one or two weeks before.’

The Institute, which opened in May 2017, represented the first step in attempting to deliver an understanding of what it takes to win. The next step is this report: a volume that collates the information gleaned from a 12-month study into MMA. ‘Working with hundreds of UFC athletes since we opened our doors has allowed us to collect and analyze over 30,000 various performance metrics and data points.’

From one Performance Institute to another, Leaders takes a broad look at some of the key findings and what they may suggest for the future of MMA and beyond.

The determinants of performance

In taking a look at factors such as fight duration, win methods, and striking rates, the report goes some way to understanding success in the octagon. ‘Clearly understanding the intricacies of the final competition should ultimately shape the steps an athlete takes to get there,’ says the report. ‘It allows coaches to conduct a gap analysis between “what is needed” and “where their athlete is at currently,” and consequently question what improvements are needed to transcend the desired competition standard.’ With that knowledge, the UFC’s desire for a more integrated approach can come to fruition: ‘Taking the first steps to understand the determinants of performance relating to these tactical aspects (e.g. win methods, KPIs) makes it possible to cascade understanding into additional technical, physical and psychological determinants in an accurate and intentional manner.’

The mechanisms of injury

The study sought an insight into injury characteristics in order to provide better standards of care for UFC fighters. One notable aspect of the chapter detailing their findings looked at injury mechanisms – grappling, striking, submission etc. – in order to begin defining strategies that can minimise the risk of injuries occurring. The report says: ‘When filtering the specific incidences of injury and the mechanisms by which they occur, be they in training, during a fight, or via other mechanisms, we gain great insight into how injuries happen and the stimuli that potentially hold the greatest injury ‘risk’.’

Optimising the training process

The UFC looked at what they term ‘trainability’ in their study. ‘Trainability,’ it says, ‘is the capacity to receive training loads (input) and effectively adapt to them (process). Thereby producing a positive training effect (output).’

It continues: ‘Input is everything thrown at the athlete. It presents the stress load of all training units and how hard they are pushed during those sessions. Output is the athlete’s response to a previous input. When training load is managed well, a certain input should always lead to a certain output. When not managed well, an input has a detrimental effect, rather than a positive effect, which can accumulate if the input continues.’

The study then describes ‘windows of trainability’. Each athlete has a window of trainability, which is: ‘a period of time, based on the current functional state of the athlete, during which a decision needs to be made whether to apply a training load, reduce a training load, or remove it entirely.’

Next is the ‘open window of trainability’: ‘a period of time when the application of a training load will lead to positive adaptations, and thus improved performance. An open window of trainability allows for the application of workouts with a “high cost”.’

Finally, they look at the ‘closed window of trainability’, which is defined as: ‘a period of time when the body is in a state of imbalance, reduced function and/or fatigue that reflects a lack of “readiness” for particular training loads. In this instance “low cost” workouts would perhaps be more beneficial.’

As a consequence of having the UFC Performance Institute up and running, the report says: ‘We have the ability to help any UFC fighter find the most favourable time and preferable condition in which to develop their level of preparedness and sport mastery; including endurance, speed & power, strength, and coordination & skill.’

Benchmarking performance

‘Benchmarking’ is increasingly utilised across elite sport, whether it’s British Athletics detailing what it takes to win a medal at an Olympic Games or Team Sky charting their way to another Tour de France title. ‘“Benchmarking” is the process of measuring performance standards against the standards of others considered to be the best (i.e. “best in class”),’ explains the report. ‘By understanding the superior performance standards of others, breaking down what makes such superior performance possible, and then undertaking a gap analysis to compare how you perform, it becomes possible to define opportunities for improvement.

‘Indeed, benchmarking is the most strategic and intentional way to yield significant improvement in standards that direct an athlete toward “world’s best” status.’

For the UFC, this encourages its athletes to identify their limits and push themselves towards them, whether it is ‘strength quality’ [strength and power attributes], ‘bioenergetic thresholds’ or recoverability.

You can’t diet your way to peak performance

As in other combat sports, UFC athletes face the perennial struggle to ‘make the weight’. ‘Difficult weight cuts at the end of a calorie-restricted fight camp take a toll on a fighter’s body; particularly on their metabolic health,’ says the report. ‘This becomes a critical issue when you consider that a blunted metabolism chronically impairs numerous biological systems and ultimately induces a more extreme weight-rebound.’

The report looked at a range of topics and touches upon some sound nutritional tips for general training in between bouts. It recommends that athletes prioritise nutrition as a critical training variable in order to build a stable and consistent MMS training programme. To this end, the report promotes ‘gut training’ to help adapt tolerance to fuelling strategies – so that might mean athletes unaccustomed to eating in the morning training their gut to tolerate food at such times as training ramps up. At the same time, it advises a ‘balanced fuelling programme that includes even distribution of macro and micronutrients during periods of more generalized training can be impactful in rehabilitating a fighter’s metabolism that may have been damaged during previous weight descents.’ Indeed, ‘finding balance in food choices now and maintaining as much of this perspective through all phases of training can dramatically impact a fighter’s quality of life.’

The UFC performance paradigm

The UFC’s three main ambitions are to provide world-leading expertise and support to UFC, while forging new insights into MMA, and, most significantly, to openly share cutting-edge information with the MMA community. This inaugural performance reviews goes some way to achieving those aims.

‘Adopting a truly integrated, multidisciplinary perspective on MMA performance, we bring together every aspect that goes into that success. From competition analytics to injury audits, physical benchmarks and philosophical strategies, we feel that no piece of the “performance puzzle” has been overlooked, and these insights provide a framework upon which coaches and athletes can take their development to even greater heights.’


Further reading:

Leaders Performance Podcast: Chris Weidman & Ray Longo

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