Nutrition for weight making. Boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts and weight category physique athletes.
Combat sport and physique athletes compete at specified weight categories often trying to weigh in at the maximum allowed weight in the lightest category they feel they can compete at. This is perceived to provide a benefit in competition. It is common for these athletes to train at significantly higher weights before following severe nutritional restriction and dehydration practices leading into an event in order to “make weight”. This is quite contrary to most other sports where fueling and nutritional loading strategies predominate leading into competition. Performance in most combat sports is likely to benefit from well fueled, well hydrated and well trained systems and finding the least detrimental practice in achieving a desired weight is suggested.
Limited research is available in this area but some common strategies used to introduce a calorie deficit or severe dehydration include
- skipping meals
- extended fasting
- sweat suits
- diet pills
- induced vomiting
These practices are often followed by a similarly extreme refeeding and rehydrating practice between weigh-in and competition depending on the time available between the two. These pre and post weigh-in strategies can be harmful to both health and performance.
Choosing the most effective weight category to compete at may need more attention for many. Once determined it is advisable that training is maintained at a weight at most 2-3 kg above that which an athlete will weigh-in at. This allows a safe zone for manipulating hydration and fueling around an event. Enough time should be allowed to achieve this weight at a weight loss of 1-1.5 kg per week. In order to limit losses of lean mass (muscle and bone) and to reduce the negative impact of severe calorie restriction on metabolic health and hormonal function the nutritional approach should be carefully considered.
The nutrition for weight making principles we adopt include some of the following:
The overriding aim is to provide sufficient calories according to each individual’s needs. It is crucial that this is never below the resting metabolic rate (RMR). We measure RMR with our athletes using indirect calorimetry instead of relying on prediction equations and often use this as a starting point. If this is not available and population specific equation can be used and adjusted according to progress. Calorie intake can be adjusted upward if the rate of loss is greater than 1.5 kg per week or if regular body composition monitoring suggest a loss of lean mass. Similarly it can be adjusted upward according to training load.
As a vital element in maintaining lean mass athletes should aim to consume at least 1.5-2.0 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This may even go as high as 2.5 g/kg/day at high training volumes, with athletes who cannot afford any lean mass losses at all or those struggling with hunger cues and this over-eating. Ideally protein should be from whole food sources but supplementation can be used effectively. With our clients protein is usually spread out through the day to provide regular 25-30 g doses of protein including one protein rich feed before bed.
Fat is usually provided at roughly 0.7-1.2 g/kg body weight depending on resting metabolic rate and substrate utilization. High RMR and high fat burners may have room for a little more fat in the diet which means protein need not always be lean and additional fats from unsaturated sources can be included regularly. Additional saturated fat intake is limited however and the predominant source of saturated fat will be from food sources of protein.
It is suggested that carbohydrate intake makes up the remainder of total energy needs with a strict focus on low glycemic index foods while reducing weight. We also periodize carbohydrate intake according to volume of training. Total intake is generally reduced although not completely eliminated. Certain training sessions benefit from carbohydrate as a fuel and, in order to maintain immune function in a calorie restricted state, carbohydrate foods can be beneficial. Timing of intake is matched to the goals specific training sessions too. This may mean low intensity (fat burning) sessions or low base cardio will be performed without carbohydrate and higher intensity sessions will use carbohydrate as a pre-workout fuel. Ideally the former will be performed earlier in the day and the latter in the afternoon or evening. The pre workout carbohydrate for high intensity sessions will be low glycemic index and consumed 2-3 hours before training. This allows enough time for carbohydrate to be stored while limiting circulating insulin while training. Finally, depending on total daily needs, this may leave the last meal for the day as a low to moderate carbohydrate containing meal. Occasional very low carbohydrate dinner’s may also enhance aerobic training adaptation to the next morning’s low intensity session which is performed fasted.
Progress should be monitored with continuous assessment of intake, training load, body composition and subjective measures such as fatigue, hunger and sleep quality.
The need for supplementation should be assessed on an individual basis. If calorie intake is very restricted a multi-vitamin may be needed. A protein supplement may assist in achieving necessary intake and should ideally be a whey and casein blend or casein only for pre-bed feeds. Caffeine may be trialed around training particularly when training fasted or without carbohydrate to support the intensity of the session . Branch chain amino acids can also be useful in these situations if training without any recent intake of a protein rich food. A probiotic (or fermented foods such as yoghurt) and glutamine can be considered to assist immune function. Omega 3 oils can also be used to benefit recovery and inflammation if necessary. At all times a safe, independently tested product should be recommended.
Hydration strategies should revolve around ensuring training is always started in a well hydrated state. Pre and post training weight change can guide volume requirements along will urine colour to ensure effective hydration. We now offer testing of our athletes to determine sweat sodium losses and tailor hydration accordingly. Adjusting sodium content of fluids can also be beneficial around weigh in to limit fluid retention. Ideally severe dehydration should not be needed with a gradual reduction to fight weight. The time between weigh-in and event will determine the feasibility of such restriction should it be needed. Should the time allow for effective rehydration and refueling it may not impact performance but it is nonetheless a non-desired outcome. Adjusting fluid, sodium and carbohydrate intake in a low residue diet to allow the (hopefully) small losses needed can be accommodated.
If you are interested in reading further these are a few of the articles and references we rely on and put into practice