By Nick Berlin
Weight sensitive athletes commonly reduce bodyweight to compete in weight divisions below their day-to-day training weight. Both chronic and acute weight loss strategies (AWL) are commonly used to “make weight’ as athletes strive for competitive success.
Restrictive weight-loss strategies (RWLS) can correlate with competitive success in certain sports but, if not implemented appropriately, can become detrimental to an athlete’s health and absolute physical performance.
Long term Strategies
Q. What should an athlete consider long term?
A: During periods away from competition, the athlete should aim to remain within a certain percentage of the competition weight.
An early period of muscle hypertrophy may be beneficial to maximize lean body mass and therefore performance
Q. What weight range is appropriate for the offseason?
A: There should be discussions with coaches and multidisciplinary health teams during training camps to calculate suitable weight loss goals over time without affecting health and performance.
A general rule of thumb can be anywhere between 5-10% of competition weight.
Q. How much weight should an athlete aim to lose?
A: A recommended guideline for weight loss of 0.5kg/week would be sufficient for long term gradual dieting. This is a reduction in 500 calories or 2000kj/day from the athlete’s maintenance energy balance.
Studies have consistently shown that gradual weight loss vs substantial weight loss prior to competition retains greater lean mass accumulation and performance bouts.
Short term (acute) strategies
AWL strategies usually refer to the week of or days prior to competition
Under some conditions, achieving between 5 – 8% BM loss can be safe, practical and have minimal impacts on health and performance (1).
The available recovery time post-weigh-in will determine whether the AWL strategy is achievable for the athlete to compete in an acceptable state.
AWL Strategy 1 – Manipulation of Gut Content
Fasting or a reduction of total food volume will result in reduced mass in the gut and therefore total body weight.
Laxatives are common in weight category sports and whilst this method is effective in removing intestinal bulk it will also impact energy and macronutrient absorption and has been shown to reduce exercise capacity (2) which is NOT desirable prior to competition.
Q. How can an athlete reduce the bulk of their gut content?
A. Reduction in the consumption of ‘fibre-rich foods’ in the gut shows a total reduction in food weight and water. This decreases faecal bulk, total gut content and body weight.
Fibre is commonly found in whole grains, vegetables and skins on fruit!
Q. When should athletes apply this strategy?
A. This strategy can be implemented <48hrs of competition. There are individual variances and some athletes may benefit from a longer period of time using this strategy.
AWL Strategy 2 – Manipulation of Glycogen Content
Glycogen (glucose bundles) binds to water and is stored as extra weight in our muscles and liver.
Given the large capacity for athletes to store glycogen in these areas, manipulating glycogen content can be an effective AWL strategy if done appropriately and fuel demands for the competition are considered.
Q. How should athletes implement this strategy?
A. Prior to weigh-in/competition, athletes tend to decrease training load and therefore reducing CHO intake would be a logical strategy if appropriate.
It has been shown that a low CHO diet (<50g/d) combined with training can achieve a reduction of 2%BM whilst maintaining performance (2).
A general recommendation of < 50 g/d for 3-7 d for combat sports athletes wanting to deplete glycogen prior to weigh-in may be appropriate (1).
Q. What is important for the athlete to consider?
A. Athletes should consider:
The time available post-weigh-in to refuel.
The requirements of their sport regarding fuel demands for the competition. This is essential as entering competition with depleted glycogen stores could be detrimental to performance.
Repeated weigh-ins. An increase in CHO intake will result in an increase in body weight relatively quickly, which may not be desirable if multiple weigh-ins are needed.
AWL Strategy 3 – Manipulation of Body Water
Total body water consists of roughly 60% of total mass, and manipulating body water content has always been a popular AWL strategy used by many weight-sensitive athletes.
Q. How much Body Water can an athlete safely lose?
A. A mild fluid deficit (<2%BM loss) is unlikely to affect performance, however, a fluid deficit of larger magnitude may be problematic especially if time is limited to rehydrate post-weigh-in
Q. What methods are used to lose Total Body Water?
A. Athletes have two methods available to them to decrease body water; consume less fluid and/or excrete more fluid.
Q. What is Water Loading?
A. Water loading is as it sounds, loading up on water. Water loading prior to fluid restriction can increase total fluid output and therefore weight loss and total body mass.
General recommendations suggest that a water loading protocol be performed during the week prior to the competition.
A study showed that water loading 4 days before the competition (100ml/kg/BM) followed by a one-day water restriction, the day prior to competition, (15ml/kg/BM) substantially increased urinary output and resulted in a decreased total body mass.
Q. Are there any other methods to manipulate body water?
A. Urinary output is not the only strategy used to excrete more fluid. Sweating through saunas, hot showers or active sweating is also used
Passive sweating prior to exercise decreases plasma volume, sweat rate and stroke volume, contributing to increased serum osmolality, heart rate and body heat storage. But this happens to a lesser extent following active sweating and be less harmful (3).
Q. What should an athlete do with TBW?
A. A combination of fluid restriction and active sweating may be the most pragmatic and least detrimental to performance in terms of an AWL strategy.
Q. Does Sodium play a role in this AWL Strategy?
A. Reductions in sodium intake may also result in body water losses due to the renal system trying to remain balanced by both excreting and retaining electrolytes and fluid.
BM losses of 1-2% have been reported in hypertensive subjects who switched to a low sodium (< 500 mg) diet for 5 days (He et al., 2001).
A reduction in sodium intake may not influence total body water per se, when used in combination with other fluid manipulation strategies it may “release” more body water and allow a reduction in BM (1).
Recovery Strategies Post Weigh-in at Competition
Priorities following weigh-in include rehydration, glycogen restoration and GI management.
Combat sport athletes should aim to restore fluid losses to within ~2% of “pre-hypohydration” BM to minimize negative performance effects
Q. How much fluid does the athlete consume to get that number?
A. Recommendations suggest 125-150% of any fluid deficit needs to be ingested to compensate for continued urine losses and rehydration.
Q. Are there any other considerations with rehydration?
A. Replacing electrolytes (particularly sodium) will promote restoration of plasma osmolality and volume. Consuming beverages with additional sodium may be the best option when rehydration is the priority.
Consuming salty snacks or oral rehydration solutions could also be a valuable option when considering the time post-weigh-in for competition
2. Restoring Glycogen
Having glycogen stores fully repleted may not be required for optimal performance in combat sports. The aim of the sport is to be better than the opponent in front of you and performing to the best of your ability in the post-weigh-in state.
Q. Does this mean not to worry about CHO post-weigh-in?
A. No. Low glycogen stores have been shown to impair anaerobic performance lasting greater than 5 minutes (1).
Post-weigh-in recovery nutrition should include enough carbohydrates to at least provide adequate fuel for competition needs, and potentially maximize glycogen stores
Q. How much CHO should an athlete aim for post-weigh-in?
A. Once again this will come down to how much time the athlete has to recover post-weigh-in.
If there is a short amount of time between weigh in and competition then an athlete should focus on rehydration and consuming adequate CHO that will not induce GI distress.
Guidelines suggest carbohydrate intakes of 5-7 g/kg/BM/d for athletes engaged in moderate volume training and up to 7-10g/kg/BM/d to maximize glycogen storage
Taking into consideration tapered training and allowing for potential CHO restoration, a post-weigh-in recommendation of 5-10 g/kg BM encompasses both goals
3. Managing GI Distress
Post-weigh-in intake should aim to fully recover nutritional status while avoiding GI distress.
High glycaemic index carbohydrate and/or carbohydrate-rich fluids may reduce GI discomfort associated with the consumption of solid foods close to competition
Q. Is there anything that should be avoided?
A. Dietary fibre and fat should be limited post-weigh-in as it can displace other important nutrients and impair competition performance. This consideration is heightened when the recovery period is limited.
Q. Any other tips athletes can try?
A. Rinsing the mouth for ~10 seconds with a sports drink pre-competition may enhance performance. This represents a low-risk strategy potentially providing increased drive, due to the activation of the central nervous system which may increase corticomotor activity and/or reduce the perception of effort, at a time when athletes may want to avoid swallowing foods or fluids.
Avoiding excessive magnitudes of AWL strategies (particularly body water manipulation) will best preserve performance and health.
Exact requirements will vary based on the magnitude of weight loss required, recovery time frame post-weigh-in, and fuel demands of the sport.
Athletes should trial AWL strategies during training and prior to competitions and further evaluate and refine their weight making and recovery practices between competitions.
Summary Table of Practical AWL Strategies and Post weigh-in strategies
*Adapted from R. Reale (2018) Acute Weight Management in Combat Sports: Pre-Weigh-In Weight Loss, Post Weigh-In Recovery and Pre-Competition Nutrition Strategies. Gatorade Sports Science.