For those who practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), mat burn might seem like an inevitable part of the sport. While I don’t believe that they have to be expected, these minor injuries do tend to affect many practitioners at some point or another. Understanding how and why they occur, what you can do to prevent yourself from getting them, and how to treat them if you do end up with them, is an important part of keeping yourself on the Jiu Jitsu mats.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what mat burn is, how to proactively prevent it, and what to do if you unfortunately end up with one of your own.
What is Mat Burn?
Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a mat burn? Mat burn is a burn-like injury that occurs on the skin and is caused by, you guessed it, the mats. As your exposed skin meets the mats, and the two rub against each other, friction causes a burn to appear on the skin. These can range from a small red mark or line, to broken and exposed skin, and can range from being slightly uncomfortable to extremely painful.
Which Areas of Your Body Are More Prone to Mat Burn?
While these tend to occur more often on areas of the body that touch the mat most, such as your knees, elbows, toes, or ankle bones, they can also occur on any part of the body that has exposed skin, including your face. As a general rule, if your skin is exposed, you can get a burn there. Utilizing some simple preventative measures will help you to greatly reduce your risk of getting mat burns.
Rash Guards as a Preventative Measure
When training no-gi, a rash guard will easily become your primary go-to for prevention. Rash guards are great for showing your style on the mats, but they are also highly functional and necessary for Jiu Jitsu athletes. You can buy rash guards in both short and long sleeved options. Keep in mind, however, that a short sleeved rash guard does equal more exposed skin, and, as we discussed previously, any exposed skin means potential for friction with the mat. If you are looking for the most coverage for prevention from these minor abrasions, a long sleeved rash guard is going to be your best bet. If you are looking for the most coverage for prevention from mat burns, a long sleeved rash guard like the one from Xmartial here is going to be your best bet.
Lower Body Preventative Measures
If we can utilize a nice long sleeved rash guard to cover and protect our upper body, it then begs the question, “What about our lower body?” The lower body, particularly our knees and ankle bones (which stick out a bit more, therefore seeming to be more prone to mat burn) need protection, as well. Prevention in the first place is far better than needing to treat occurrences after-the-fact, so taking care of our lower body is an important part of our gear choices.
In no-gi, you will find a few options for preventative protection when it comes to your lower body. The first option is to utilize a pair of spats. Spats can be found in specific cuts for both men and women. They come in various lengths, offering you the ability to cover up as much of your lower body as you’d like. While it’s unusual to find spats that cover your ankle bones, you will definitely be able to find an abundance of options for covering your knees with spats.
The second option is to throw on a pair of knee pads. If you are someone who prefers to roll in shorts, then knee pads might be an ideal option for you. Knee pads give your knees some solid protection against friction, with the added benefit of some padding to protect against bumps and bruises from utilizing your knees throughout your rolls. Since we utilize our knees so much in Jiu Jitsu, knee pads are an excellent option.
The third option for lower body protection is the utilization of athletic tape. This is especially ideal for your toes, feet, and ankle bones, as they cannot generally be covered by your clothing. If you find that you tend to get burns in the same spots each time you roll, you might want to throw a layer of tape on it to avoid the issue. Wrapping your tape in a full circle around the commonly affected spot will help keep the tape in place through your rolls.
Training in the Gi
Training in the gi provides a natural barrier for friction between your body and the mat. Your gi will have long sleeve and pants, meaning much of your skin will be covered by your uniform, and your risk for injury will be lower. Using your rash guard during your gi training is still beneficial, however, as it gives some protection from abrasions between your gi and skin, as well. If you are like me and end up taking your gi top off for some no-gi rounds after gi classes, you’ll already be ready to go with your upper body protection.
The Role Your Flooring Plays in Preventing Skin Burn
Jiu Jitsu flooring varies greatly from gym to gym. Like me, you might have found yourself with burns after visiting a different location that happened to have different mats than you are used to rolling on for class. So, what gives? Why do you seem to get more of them at a particular gym or on a certain type of mat than on others?
Mats have come a long way in their development over the years. Not surprisingly, everyone seems to develop a preference for one style of mat or another. While “tatami” mats have long been the go-to at most BJJ gyms, they are notorious for marking practitioners with mat burns. Tatami mats have a texture to them. This is great for friction when it’s needed to plant your foot to bridge during a roll, but not so great when your elbow drags against it. For this reason, many gyms have ditched tatami style mats.
Smooth styled mats are just as they sound-smooth. The surface lacks the texture found on tatami mats, meaning mat burns are much less likely. The downside, for some, is found in the lack of texture when it comes to planting a foot to bridge, as the smooth surface can make it harder to grip, especially once you and the mat are both covered in sweat. Still, the upside of far fewer friction-related injuries is quite enticing.
Sometimes, as in the case of your gym, mat choice is out of our control. If you are looking to choose mats for a home gym, however, it’s wise to take into consideration the types of mats that might reduce this concern.
Can Mat Burns Cause an Infection?
While it might seem like a little burn is no big deal, on the Jiu Jitsu mats, you might be in for more than you bargained. Jiu Jitsu mats are typically full of people. The combination of sweaty people in close proximity, their gear, and the mats, can result in various bacterias floating around, ready to be picked up by your new open wound, and potentially cause an infection.
This may not typically pose a huge issue if you have a small burn with unbroken skin, but in the instance of an open wound, it becomes a bit more of a concern. Open wounds and bacteria don’t mix well. The result can be a painful, infected burn that may take even longer to treat.
Mat burns that break the skin need to be cleaned immediately. This can help prevent possible infections, and get your burn on the road to healing.
Types of Bacteria Found on the Mats
There are quite a few types of bacterias of concern that can commonly be found and spread via the mats or even through your partner’s clothing or knee pads. Bacterias that like to cling to inanimate objects and spread around your gym mats include impetigo, folliculitis, molluscum, ringworm, staph, and MRSA. Many of these bacterias can additionally spread via skin to skin contact (another great reason for protecting your skin with a rash guard and spats), or through mucus found in the throat or nose.
With all of these potential bacterias found on the mats, it’s important to be vigilant about keeping yourself clean by showering after each class, avoiding class if you happen to catch a bacterial or viral infection to help protect your partners, and clean any wounds immediately, regardless of their severity.
How to Treat Mat Burn
I’m sure like me, you do not want to risk a bacterial infection from such a simple injury. I find myself thinking, “it’s just a small burn!” Considering the potential ramifications of not treating a mat burn, however, it seems wise to proactively prevent any possible infections rather than succumb to an infection due to laziness.
In the unfortunate instance that you do find yourself with a one of these, knowing how to treat it will help keep you on the mat. Depending on the severity, treatment can vary. In general, if the burn is small and isn’t an open wound, you can treat mat burn quite simply.
Start by washing your burn with an anti-bacterial soap. Simple enough, right? You can even apply some anti-bacterial or anti-septic wound spray (you know, the stuff that burns a little bit but ensures you know it’s working?). Once you’ve cleaned the wound, you should cover it up. A band-aid with sticky sides all around or some gauze with tape surrounding it will help you keep bacteria out and away from the wound as you continue to train.
If your wound is open a bit and on the smaller side, you might want to consider liquid bandage. This can easily be placed over the injury to help keep out bacteria while allowing it to heal.
If at any point you are concerned that your mat burn might be infected, it’s a wise choice to reach out to your doctor and get it checked out.
Beyond keeping your actual wound clean, you can help keep the mats as clean as possible with just a few small efforts in cleaning. Wash your gi, belt, knee pads, rash guards, and spats (i.e. wash EVERYTHING) after each and every class, and encourage your teammates to do the same (nobody likes having a stinky gi guy on the mats anyway!).
The actual mats need to be cleaned, as well. If you are unsure whether your gym’s mats are cleaned regularly, I highly suggest offering to help clean the mats once in a while. It’s a great way for you to be a part of the team, and allows you to contribute to the reduction of bacteria being spread around your gym. A clean gym and clean gear equals less risk of infection for mat burns.
Mat Burns in BJJ and Combat Sports
Mat burns, unfortunately, are an injury that comes with the territory of BJJ and combat sports. Keeping your gear clean, ensuring the mats you train on are kept clean, training on smoother styled mats, and covering your body as much as possible will help you to prevent possible skin burns while you train. If you still find yourself with a mat burn, be sure to clean it up right away and seek a doctor if you suspect an infection might be occurring.