Endurance Sports, MMA and Extreme Exercise – Are They Worth the Risks?

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Last year, I asked triathletes “Why Do You *Really* Do Triathlon?”. There's dozens and dozens of very interesting responses to that post, and I think you'd be surprised at the answers, which are everything from…

“I want to look good naked.”


“I wasn't good as sports growing up.”


I'm addicted to the endorphin high.

…and much more.

As I wrote about in “Look, Feel and Perform Like An Ancient Spartan Warrior – How To Become An Absolute Physical Beast“, I personally am venturing into other realms this year as a way to 1) challenge my body and mind; 2) redefine my ceiling of what I truly think I am capable of; 3) satisfy my thirst for the next big physical high; 4) prove to myself and others that I am capable of amazing feats of physical performance and 5) quench my drive for competition and beating others.

But today's guest post from Mark Tullius (pictured above), Ivy League graduate, father, husband, MMA fighter and author of the upcoming book “Unlocking The Cage”, asks an important question: is all this really worth the risk? Let's see what Mark has to say…


Endurance Sports, MMA and Extreme Exercise – Are They Worth the Risks?

MMA athletes, endurance athletes and extreme exercisers alike are often asked the same question: Is it really worth it? Look at what you put yourself through. The diet, the time, all the sacrifice and unnecessary pain. Why do it, why push yourself? Is it worth it?

If the athlete is still competing, they have obviously already answered that question, but friends and family want to make sure they take everything into consideration. What about all the injuries that are bound to happen?

The calluses, broken fingers, jammed toes, wrenched necks, cuts, scrapes, bloody noses. The sprained ankles, shin splints, tweaked knees, lower back pain, torn cartilage, Achilles’ tendon and rotator cuff tears. The tendonitis, the arthritis, and all the pain you’ll suffer to pursue your passion.

How can that be worth it?

Both groups of athletes will shrug off all the above. There’s no guarantee any of those things will happen to them, and, if it does, they’re tough—not some little cry baby who can’t handle it. They’re machines: they get up and walk it off; there’s no need for rest. They’ll say they aren’t just competing in a sport; it’s a lifestyle, and they’ll gladly accept the downside.

Non-athletes must shake their head in disbelief at this, thinking how childish it is to risk harming oneself for a game. MMA fighters get this a lot, especially when they’re working their way through the amateur career, not even getting paid to get punched in the face. With MMA, there is a real danger of suffering serious damage.

Anderson Silva’s leg snapping in half is an image that comes to mind.

Ronda Rousey breaking Miesha Tate’s arm.

Fighters losing parts of their ears.

Fun stuff.

But it can get worse than that. There have been a couple deaths from cerebral hemorrhaging, and, recently, a Brazilian fighter died before weigh-ins after a brutal weight cut. These instances are very rare and not enough to make anyone reconsider their career choice, but there’s a hidden danger that might not rear its head for years after the damage is done.

All fighters experience head trauma, it’s an undeniable part of the game, but, hopefully, only a small percentage will develop dementia and other problems. It does happen, though, and fighters need to be aware of it.

They should read about Gary Goodridge and take a look at T.J. Grant. The brain is not meant to take such a beating.

As a former fighter who had speech problems and many concussions over the years, I’m very interested in the recent research and keep my fingers crossed I don’t wind up with any issues. When I’m interviewing fighters for my study, I am always looking for signs of brain damage, but rarely see any. I just hope that continues and these men and women can walk away without any serious issues.

But I was surprised to learn that endurance athletes face a risk even more severe than MMA athletes.

It seems so counterintuitive, but endurance athletes, the people we think would be in the absolute best shape, may be causing significant damage to their heart and running the risk of sudden death. Studies show a marathon can raise your risk of a heart attack sevenfold. Endurance running can cause heart muscle scarring, the harder and more intense the training, the worse the results. The same goes for increasing calcified plaque in the arteries and other heart problems.

So, after considering all these risks on the downside and not much of an upside, at least financially, why do it?

Why is it worth the risk?

I’ve asked nearly 400 fighters that question, and, while every answer is different, there are many similar themes, most of which I’m sure endurance athletes would understand.

There’s nothing else that makes these athletes feel so alive. It’s not just the endorphins bringing them back, it’s the accomplishment.

It has improved them as people.

They continually step outside their comfort zone, test themselves, make themselves stronger of both body and mind. They’re smashing goals and becoming better every day. They will not be complacent.

Everything else is easy after you’ve stepped into the cage, run your first marathon, or conquered a triathlon.

You’ve done something that not everyone else can do.

This process changes people and seems to make them happier, more well-rounded. I’ve interviewed fighters who’ve thrown away law degrees, family businesses, and lucrative careers. The majority of fighters I’ve interviewed are intelligent men and women who could be doing anything they want, but this is the path they have chosen.

I get it.

They’re living the life on their terms, making the most of it. Even if there’s a heavy price for them to pay at the end of it all, they’d most likely do it all again.

Everyone needs to decide for themselves whether or not it’s worth the risk. Be aware of the dangers and train smart. Do the research and mitigate the damage, prevent and repair the ongoing abuse. Live each day like there’s no tomorrow, but do it intelligently to increase the chances of having a longer and healthier life.

Mark Tullius is a graduate of Brown University with a degree in sociology.  He is also a former MMA fighter who has traveled across the country to 100 MMA gyms to take an in-depth look at the sport, the fighters, and why the fighters compete.  His book chronicling these experiences, Unlocking the Cage is set for release during the summer of 2014.  


What do you think? Do you agree with Mark? What extreme things do you do and why do YOU do them? Leave your thoughts below.

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9 thoughts on “Endurance Sports, MMA and Extreme Exercise – Are They Worth the Risks?

  1. Roman Agresti says:

    Reading this reminded me of one of my favorite documentary films “The Smashing Machine”. Before the UFC was a household name, PRIDE in Japan was shelling out the most money to full contact fighters–and you have to wonder… was the PRICE worth it?? Hearing the deafening cracks as Mark Kerr rocketed his knees into the skulls of his many opponents he dominated during his reign as the unbeatable Champion he was, before they took away his best weapons. Knees to the head of a downed fighter–I wonder what long term damage was done to his many victims? Hopefully it’s not in the same league as Mark Kerr’s Greek tragedy like fall from grace which included opiates and performance enhancing drugs. Besides the Nalbuphine he tossed during his recovery, I saw a ton of Humulin-R insulin that wasn’t even mentioned! I can’t believe I saw someone shooting up synthetic morphine before the whole world and still be “hush hush” about that dirty little secret– performance enhancing hormones.

  2. TriKona says:

    I am 61 and was a former amateur and professional boxer for about 10 years in my earlier life. As a result of running as part of my training I gradually went into marathon running and ultras along with training in the martial arts. I too have a black belt in Jui Jitsu. I have competed in over 20 years of triathlon racing/training from sprints to the Hawaii Ironman. I did take about 10 years off due coaching/supporting my son and daughter in their athletic endeavors. Through that time I continued to trained and kept a solid base. Now that my son and daughter are older and in college I have returned to triathlons but training is my main love and passion. As a result of listening to Ben's podcasts ,and reading of athletes who have had problems or succumbed to health problems due to endurance training, I try to train smarter via HIT and quality over quantity. It is interesting listening (or reading) to some of your guests and their experiences. Some of us are lucky to be where we are in spite of doing all we have done. I treasure my life experiences and look forward to training/competing and continuing my active lifestyle. I appreciate continuing to learn from Ben and others as we all learn how to train smarter and healthier. There are never any guarantees in life with anything you do but I prefer to try to pack as much as I can and do it in a smarter way to help add longevity and passion to my lifestyle. I can't help thinking about things Mike Greer said in an earlier podcast. I believe there are more of us out there like Mike than you might think.

  3. Christine says:

    There are other issues to consider and these are the pathological aspects of consistently damaging the body or brain in pursuit of goals, as well as the issue of sacrifice not only on behalf of self, but on behalf of loved ones.

    Once we have children who are dependent upon us, other considerations need to come into play.

  4. alcazar13 says:

    Wow I have had this issue with myself I been training mma for six years now and I constantly ask myself the same question , is it worth all the trouble grinding it out constantly? From getting tossed, smashed , submitted, choked … I have learned a great amount of skills and Mma is a beautiful art that most people don't realize. It is so much more mental than it is physical. I personally have stopped sparring stand up and only hit the mits and Thai pads..I mostly now do jui jitsu , this has become my new passion and I am focusing on getting my black belt through the Gracie family… This martial art is by far the less brutal and most effective in combating any other art in my opinion, it is so much fun to learn …the mental capabilities to think of a move a position and able to do it physically is a rewarding feeling and plus no more punches to the face it still is physically challenging but I believe there's a real low level of getting injured once you learn the basics… Prevention is the key to everything… I stretch foam roll core foundation training hit the weights diet all the stuff ben recomends pretty much …all this will prepare you to keep up
    and stay healthy…

    1. Grappler275 says:

      Man, this hit so close to home that I registered just so I could comment.
      I have wrestled and coached wrestling for about 30 years. In this time, I have damaged just about every part of my body and received several concussions. While I never got into MMA, (I had the chance to get into it early, but decided to keep wrestling in the Army and college) I understand the drive that it takes to pursue this life.
      I recently discovered BJJ with a Renzo Gracie academy in Portland, Oregon and I now wonder why I didn't start years ago. It's physically and mentally taxing, satisfying and without the risk of body and brain injuries as wrestling or MMA.
      I plan on competing and practicing bjj as long as I can.

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