Nutrition for wrestling: Weight loss the healthy way

Rapid weight loss can hurt wrestlers more than help.

By: Sanford Health News .

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Wrestling integrates both mental and physical skills while demanding a high level of strength, aerobic fitness, flexibility, speed, agility, explosiveness, anticipation, quick reaction, and concentration.

As a weight category sport, wrestling requires athletes to attain an appropriate body composition to compete in a desired and appropriate weight class. However, “making weight” just prior to each competition often is achieved by unhealthy rapid weight loss practices that are risky and likely to decrease performance on the mat.

Many wrestlers believe that competing at a much lower weight class than their off-season weight will improve their chances of winning. Scientific and clinical evidence has clearly shown that short-term rapid weight loss can readily decrease performance and endanger one’s health.

Dangers of rapid weight loss

Weight-loss techniques to “make weight” before a weigh-in include fasting, vomiting, bingeing, diuretics, laxatives, saunas, rubber suits, steam rooms, and strict avoidance of foods and fluids.

Some wrestlers believe they can promptly drink water and other beverages to rehydrate after a weigh-in; but a minimum of six hours is necessary to get back to normal hydration.

All wrestlers should be strongly discouraged from using these methods, as rapid weight loss may cause:

  • significant nutrient deficiencies
  • excessive and earlier-onset fatigue
  • poor muscle function and a loss in lean muscle
  • reduced strength, power, and endurance
  • poor concentration
  • lack of motivation
  • increased risk of injury
  • increased risk for developing an eating disorder
  • impaired growth and development in younger athletes

In the late 1990s, the NCAA implemented a minimum weight program to control the not-so-healthy rapid weight loss techniques collegiate wrestlers were using.

The program included assessing body fat and hydration levels at the beginning of the season to determine an individual wrestler’s minimum competitive weight class. The NCAA also started holding weigh-ins close to the start of the competition.

The National Federation of State High School Associations followed suit with a similar weight-control program in 2006.

Proper nutrition and good health

Proper nutrition is essential to fuel your body and should be a key priority in your training program and overall health maintenance strategy. Keep in mind –- what’s good for health is good for performance! You should base appropriate energy intake on your needs to meet your short- and long-term development, training and competition goals and demands.

A focus on performance and health, not just weight, will help you view energy intake in a more positive way. During the competitive and off-season, it is important that you maintain energy balance.

A diet that is higher in carbohydrates is beneficial to your performance. It is because it is the fuel that your muscles store for energy. Eating 3-4 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight each day will fuel your muscles and replenish your energy stores.

Wrestling requires a high level of muscular strength and power, and adequate protein intake is crucial for building and repairing lean muscle tissue. Accordingly, a goal range for daily protein intake is 0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight.

Moreover, sufficient daily calorie (energy) intake, with the majority of calories being provided by carbohydrates and a moderate level of fat, has a protein-sparing effect. This permits your body to use protein more effectively for muscle growth and repair.

Dietary fat plays an important role in the absorption of vitamins, insulation and protection of organs, and the production of hormones. Fat intake also creates the feeling of fullness and adds flavor to your food. Fat should make up no more than 30 percent of your total calories for the day. Be sure to focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats because of their added heart healthy benefits.

Tips for making weight safely

  • Become familiar with the NCAA’s Wrestling Weight Management Program and your individual state high school athletic association policies. During your initial weight assessment, coaches will determine a minimum wrestling weight. This will be the lowest weight class that you can compete in.
  • If you need to lose weight, it is still important that health and the demands of the sport are supported through appropriate nutrient and fluid intake. A weight-loss program should begin early to allow for slow and steady weight loss over a longer period of time. Moderate energy restriction of 450-950 calories per day can help a wrestler reach a loss of up to 1 pound per week. Appropriate complementary training and conditioning strategies will also help in achieving a target weight.
  • Weight loss should be gradual and should not exceed 1.5 percent of total body weight (1-2 pounds) each week.
  • To adequately fuel and repair your body, focus on nutrient-dense foods and eat a well-balanced diet that provides sufficient carbohydrate (3-4 grams per pound of body weight), protein (0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight) and fat that is no more than 30 percent of total calories. Including protein sources at most of your meals will help you stay fuller longer and reduce the loss of lean muscle.
  • Reduce your intake of high-calorie, low nutrient foods and fluids such as high saturated fat foods, alcohol and soda.
  • Hydration is crucial for performance. A simple way to determine proper hydration is to look at urine color before each practice and match. It should be a light  color (like lemonade).  Hydrate regularly throughout the day. Regular fluid intake during practice is also recommended (6-8 fluid ounces every 15 minutes).
  • If you are losing more than 2 percent of your body weight during practice, you are not drinking enough fluids throughout practice. Remember to rehydrate. Drink about 16 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight lost after training or competition over the course of the next 12-24 hours.