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Hygiene and Martial Arts: Caring for Yourself and Your Gi

I am a BJJ blue belt, and have been training for five and a half years. I am an assistant coach, and multiple IBJJF medalist.

How do you care for your Gi?

How do you care for your Gi?

Caring for Yourself and Your Gi

Training in martial arts is hard work, and it’s natural to get very sweaty. If you’re training Judo or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, then you will not only be exercising hard, you will also find yourself getting into close proximity to the people you are training with (and rolling around on matted floors too)!

This all exposes the uniform to a lot of dirt and grime, and that means you need to make extra effort to keep it clean—both so that it looks good, and so that you and your training partners aren’t at risk of infection.

Why Washing Your Kit Matters

It’s vital that you wash your gi, and your belt, after every session. There’s an old myth in the world of traditional martial arts that washing your belt washes out the Qi—the magic that makes you good at the art you are practicing. The story goes that the original martial artists had just one belt, a white one, and it would get darker and darker as you trained and the dirt and sweat from thousands of hours of practice built up on it. Eventually, it would turn black.

The truth is that ranked belts are a comparatively new invention and that for a long time there were only white belts for students and black belts for instructors. Over the years, new belts were added to keep westerners entertained as they learned Judo. Most other belt-based martial arts—Taekwondo and even Karate, have much shorter traditions than the average Sensei would lead you to believe. The “tradition” that they are teaching is not long-standing, and is not safe either!

When you train BJJ or Judo, you are going to be spending a lot of time in close proximity to sweaty people, and picking up whatever is on the mats. If someone walked around barefoot off the matted area, or walked on the mats with their shoes on —something that happens from time to time when unwitting new students visit even the most hygiene conscious of academies—then you’re at risk of infection.

The doubling time for the bacteria on your skin is around 20 minutes. That means if you get some nasty bacteria on your skin, in 20 minutes there’ll be twice as much. Then twenty minutes later there will be twice as much again, exponentially increasing every time. Those bacteria can grow on your gi, too, if it is warm and sweaty, and on your belt. It’s not just bacteria such as impetigo and staph that you have to worry about either. There are fungal infections such as ringworm, and viral infections such as herpes gladiatorum. Catch any of these, and no responsible coach would allow you on the mats until they’ve cleared up.

Infections such as ringworm are simply irritating, but staph can be life-threatening. A simple case looks like an infected pimple, but a serious case can grow to be very large, spread, and lead to blood poisoning. What’s more, there’s a variation of staph called MRSA that is resistant to most common antibiotics. Infections of that variety are no joke.

Considering that stopping the spread of these infections is simply a matter of exercising good hygiene, it makes sense to try to take good care of yourself and your kit.

How to Wash Your BJJ or Judo Gi

You should wash your spats, shorts, rashguard, gi and belt after every session—and keep your gumshield clean too!

Compression gear is quite rugged, and can usually be thrown in the washing machine with decent detergent, and then tumble dried afterwards. Turn your compression gear inside out before washing it, to stop the design on the outside from getting a bobbled-appearance.

Your gi and belt should be washed after every session. It can be a little trickier to keep your gi and belt clean, because they are made from a thicker, heavier material that takes longer to dry. Most gis are not designed to be tumble dried because they will shrink. Many gis have rubber inside the collar, and this will warp and wrinkle if you tumble dry the gi on a high heat. Rather than risk ruining a product which could cost $100–200 or more, it makes sense to simply cold wash and line dry your gi every time.

You can use any washing powder you wish; there is no need to use an expensive martial-arts branded powder. If you get blood on your gi, or a white gi starts to look dingy, try soaking it in cold water before washing it, then washing it with a cup of white vinegar in the detergent dispenser, or with a little baking soda. Do not use bleach on your gi, because this will weaken the fibers and make it more likely to tear. If your gi gets to the stage where it no longer looks white, and nothing you try will make it look gleaming again, then consider dying it to give it a new lease of life.

The golden rules of mat hygiene. No shoes on the mat!

The golden rules of mat hygiene. No shoes on the mat!

Washing Your Judo or BJJ Belt

One common problem that a lot of lower ranked grapplers have is that their stripes keep falling off their belts when they wash them. There are a few ways to get around this. A dab of superglue under the end of a stripe will usually keep it in place, and you can achieve similar results by applying clear nail polish over the top of each stripe.

Another option is to tie a knot in the end of the belt, where the rank bar is. This will ensure that when the belt is in the washing machine, the knotted end will disturb the flow of water around the stripes, reducing the friction and making them less likely to come undone.

You should wash your belt after every class. Yes, it will shrink slightly the first few times it is washed, but after that, it should be fine, and it will gradually get the weathered look that is so desirable from time on the mats.

Caring for Your Skin as a Grappler

One mistake that a lot of people make is attempting to be too clean. While it’s always nice to be clean and fresh before you go to the gym or dojo, it’s possible to be too vigorous. If you’re going to shower, do it an hour or so before going to the gym, not immediately before. Don’t shave your skin before training, either, because this strips away your skin’s natural flora (Which includes good bacteria), and leaves a nice bare site for nasty bacteria to colonise. The good bacteria on your skin serve as a barrier to stop infections from taking hold. Shaving also damages the skin, creating tiny cuts that could serve as an infection site.

Showering an hour or two before training will still remove dirt and grime, but will give your skin’s natural bacteria time to grow back. Of course, if you are a manual labourer and you’ve gotten quite dirty, it makes sense to wash before getting on the mats, but if you must do this then use a mild soap and try not to scrub too hard.

Some people swear by a drop of tea tree oil in their bath, or using tea tree-related shower products. Some people use antibacterial soaps, and some use grappler-specific cleaning products such as Defense Soap. It’s up to you whether you want to spend money on these products. The science behind the ingredients that the soap makers choose is sound—tea tree is an antifungal and antimicrobial, for example. However, for the average person, it is not necessary, and you’ll be just as likely to stay infection free if you wash a couple of hours before training, wash immediately after training, and wash your gi, belt and compression gear after each use.

What to Do if You Think You Have a Skin Infection

If you notice something itchy or sore on your skin, get it checked out by a pharmacist or a doctor, or at the very least talk to your coach. Inflamed, swollen spots could be staph, and are a cause for concern if they appear to be getting bigger. Raised, ring-shaped bumps could be the fungal infection ringworm. Weeping sores could be impetigo. All of these are things that you should not be training with.

Do not rely on the internet for medical advice though. If you think there is something wrong with your skin but aren’t sure what it is, get it checked out, and follow the instructions that your doctor gives you. With infections such as ringworm, you may be told to treat the infected skin and the skin around it for a specified period of time—even if the infection looks like it has gone away. Be sure to follow those instructions, and stay off the mats until the infection has healed. Fungal infections can thrive if there are even a few spores left on your skin, so you could still be contagious for a few days after you look like you have recovered. Take the extra time to make sure you are better before you get back on the mats. Your training partners will thank you for it.

© 2017 Leslie Ann