Aikido of San Diego, training in the park during the Covid pandemic

Outdoor Aikido Training, Part 1 — Rolling On Grass. Hard Grass.

Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic we have been training remotely on Zoom, and also outdoors, masked, in a lovely public park. For the classes at the park, to maintain social distancing, we initially worked with the wooden staff, or jo:

  • Solo practices: suburi and kata
  • Partner practices with two jo: kumi-jo and jo awase
  • Throws: jo nage
  • Takeaways: jo dori

It’s been great being able to continue training together throughout this disaster. A grounding experience when everything has been in flux. Now those who are vaccinated can train hands-on, still masked for the time being. Some folks are have only been doing Zoom, but as things calmed down more members started participating in the park classes.

There have been a few challenges to overcome, and I’ve discovered some tips and products you might find helpful, too. I spent hours searching, reading reviews, and even trying a few things that didn’t work out. But I have not exhaustively tested or compared these solutions. I don’t know that the equipment I’ve purchased is the best out there. But they work well for me. You might find something better. Or save yourself a lot of time and just buy the items below.

The links in this article and the next go to Amazon, GameBreaker, Columbia Sportswear, eBags, Etsy, and others, just for convenience. You can probably find these items elsewhere, too. These are not affiliate links. I don’t get a kickback. Maybe someday I’ll bother. Right now these are just things I and others have used, and they work. I thought you might like to know about them.

Problem: Bony Shoulders Versus The Hard Ground

Let’s talk about the biggest challenge first: Equipping yourself to roll on the hard ground without getting bruised or busted up. (Part 2 will be about other helpful things.)

You might have lush, thick, soft grass in your park. Here in sunny (drought-ridden) southern California we have thin, patchy grass with prickly Burr Medic, over dry, hard-packed soil. It’s a little better than rolling on concrete, but not by much.

I know it’s not a problem for everyone. I have dojo mates who can roll on the grass just fine.

Maybe I have especially bony shoulders, or just lack enough muscle there to pad them, but those little bony points on the top-back of my shoulders (the scapular spine and acromion) seem to get ground into the hard dirt when I roll on grass. I first tried it slowly, from my hands and knees, like a new student just starting out, just one time, and had a tender bruise on that side that hurt for two weeks. No thank you. I’ve had enough shoulder troubles, including congenital problems, surgery, injuries, and physical therapy, to last a lifetime. Plus I don’t want to add tension in my ukemi, in anticipation of pain.

(It’s possible I may be able to improve my form, or develop more strength in my arms, and then rolling wouldn’t hurt. Fair point. While I’m working on that, however, I don’t want to get beat up or injured, and I don’t want to shy away from rolling. The more I can train freely, without pain, the more I’ll be able to improve.)

Solution: A Wearable Mat

What I needed was a mat everywhere I might want to roll. Since it’s not feasible to cover the park with mats I decided to get a mat I could wear!

Motorcycle jacket

I ordered an inexpensive women’s motorcycle jacket on Amazon. I got the idea from a thread on Aiki Web many years ago, about practicing rolling at home. Someone suggested wearing a motorcycle jacket.

This one was well made, cute, and light enough to be cool when training in hot weather, with a mesh fabric that should breathe well (and maybe pick up burrs). It did not fit me (not enough room in the hips, in spite of fitting correctly otherwise), but in addition the shoulder padding was primarily on the top-front of the shoulder, and I needed more on the top-back. So it got returned immediately.

A motorcycle jacket might be an excellent solution for you. This one didn’t work for me.

Padded Rugby (etc.) Shirts

I bought a couple kinds of padded shirts. They were reasonably priced, and seemed light and flexible.

The first is supposedly by Adidas, but Amazon is the only place I’ve found it:a Rugby Protection Top. It doesn’t say “Women’s,” but it sure looks and fits like it is. This didn’t work for me. The pads, which are only on the tops of the shoulders, set too far forward, protecting my collarbone, but not the bones I was hitting on the ground. I gave it to a much smaller friend, and it works great for her!

The second one is a PADDED SHIRT Chest Shoulder Collarbone Impact Protection Football Base Layer on Etsy. That’s a mouthful! There’s a single thin-but-dense pad on each side that wraps from the front of your chest up over your shoulder down your back. These pads cover much more real estate than the above shirt. They are stretchy, well made, and available in black or white. This shirt was… OK. It helped. The pads weren’t thick enough for my tastes, but they might be perfect for you. I’m keeping this one as a backup. It’s comfortable, covers all the right spots, and is whole lot better than nothing.

Incidentally (in case you or someone you know might need this), a lot of reviewers said they bought these shirts to protect either their pacemakers or chemo ports when participating in sports. Good to know!

The Ultimate Wearable Mat – Football Practice Pads

Here’s what finally worked for me, and it’s amazing. Seriously like having a really good mat anywhere you might want to roll: GameBreaker Under-Shield Practice Pads. They are designed for football, and are (as of May 2021) selling for $89.99 each. I argued with myself at first about spending that much, and then I remembered that my physical therapy appointments cost $100 each. This is cheaper than one PT appointment – never mind the pain and disappointment of being benched by a shoulder injury.

The sizes are not the same as your ordinary shirt size, and their sizing info is hard to find, so here’s a direct link to GameBreaker’s Fitting Guide. (Reminder: I’m not an affiliate or anything, just a fan.)

The padding material is some kind of non-Newtonian foam-something, that gets firmer when it’s hit hard. The pads go down the front and back about to the bottom of my ribs, and out over the tops of my arms. None of my pointy shoulder bones hit the ground anymore! Those bands around the sides are stretchy, and they attach to the front with Velcro.

I hope GameBreaker will forgive me for stealing this image off their website. I think it’s important that you see what it looks like.

I wear a normal tee shirt to class. If we’re going to be doing rolling that day I can put the pads on over the tee shirt in a few seconds. The surface of the practice pads is some kind of mesh fabric, perfect for weed stickers and burrs to grab onto. Plus I don’t want to get it dirty, because you can’t just toss it in the wash every week. So I also got a couple of men’s 3X tee shirts (huge, for me), and throw one on over the pads.

I already possess what people have tactfully called “swimmer’s shoulders.” Even at 125 pounds in college I still wore size XL shirts — anything less was too small in the shoulders. And that was a long time and a lot of pounds ago. Now add a thick chest-and-shoulder pad and … Well, Sensei says it looks like I’m ready for a middle-aged women’s flag football league. And I do. And that’s fine with me. I can train freely, and my shoulders aren’t getting injured, so I’m happy.

Surprisingly, it’s not as hot to wear as you might think. There’s plenty of room for air to circulate, and the pads hold the bigger outer shirt away from your skin, which keeps the sun off better than just a tee-shirt alone.

The only “con” about this (aside from getting some friendly ribbing for looking like I’m ready to play football) is that when I raise my arms, the front pads around my neck come upward and inward, and pinch the front of my neck a bit. Think of reaching up to blend with a shomen strike, or practicing bokken suburi – raising both arms. It’s like the pads are trying to choke me out. I’m usually only in that position momentarily, so it’s not a big deal, but I thought you should know.

I can roll with impunity now. The world is my mat!

If you’re training outdoors I hope one of these solutions will help you, or give you another idea to try.

p.s. A Friend with a PITA

On a related topic, a friend was finding it painful to fall on her behind. (I’m naturally well-padded there, so that’s not a problem for me!). She’s ordered some padded football shorts that are designed like my shoulder pads, but from a different source. I hope they work out for her.


This is the first part of a two-part article. The next post, from August 2021, is about what else might make your training in the park more comfortable and fun — floppy hats, shoes that bend with your feet, etc. You can find it here: Outdoor Aikido Training, Part 2 — Dressing for Comfort and Safety.