It is a part of getting ready for the fight. The most dreaded part. Every fighter knows about it. No fighter wants to do it. So why do they do it? Why do the fighters save the weight loss for the last minute? It’s similar to that final exam that you know you have to take. You put off studying until the last possible minute and then you of hope for the best. Deep down inside you know you could have done more and done it sooner. This is often the mindset of the fighter. How many times do we hear fighters comment that they cut too much weight at the end and it really affected their performance? We hear it way too much. As a dietitian working with fighters, it is my number one priority to teach them how to not cut weight. The goal is to actually cut it out entirely.
Many fighters don’t fully understand the impact that cutting weight can have on their bodies and their long term health. It is a practice they have been doing since they were young, and it most likely was encouraged by both coaches and parents. To tell a fighter to stop cutting weight is almost like asking someone to just quit smoking. You have to retrain the brain.
The most common techniques for cutting weight are starvation, dehydration training, limiting fluid and sodium intake, and diuretic use. There are certainly other more severe techniques, but these seem to be somewhat universal. I am going to review each one briefly and identify some of the risks that accompany each.
Starvation, or severe calorie restriction, is supposed to induce weight loss. It will do this, but at a physical expense to the fighter. Naturally, the fighter will be hungry (and therefore distracted) but he or she will also be fatigued and less able to focus. The lack of carbohydrate in the diet makes it impossible for the muscles to stay adequately fueled. It also greatly affects the quality of sleep. The majority of the weight that is lost is water, with some being muscle. The end result is a fighter that has no gas in the tank, has less muscle mass, is irritable, poorly recovered and sleep deprived. Sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it?
Dehydration training is perhaps the most dangerous. The fighter trains with a sauna suit in order to increase perspiration and therefore weight loss. Often the room temperature is also increased while the sauna suit is being used. The fighter does not take in fluids during this time as well. The increase in core body temperature that occurs as a result is extremely dangerous and can cause heart problems and death. Any fluid that is lost during this training session is fluid that must be replaced. Fluid losses that are greater than 2% of total body weight are considered excessive and dangerous. If this fluid is not replaced, the body is at risk for heart, kidney, and blood pressure problems. Again, it sounds like a winning strategy, right?
Fluid and Sodium Restriction
Restricting fluids can be dangerous when done excessively. When fluids are not readily available, basic bodily functions are compromised. The body needs fluid for cells to function, for body temperature to be regulated, to clean the blood, to maintain blood pressure, and more! To limit fluid intake while the body is under stress (like training) is dangerous. The shift of electrolytes that occurs when the body is dehydrated is the primary concern. It can cause cardiac arrhythmias, drop in blood pressure, kidney problems, or death.
This can be anything that promotes going to the bathroom. It generally involves an over the counter product, but large amounts of caffeine will have the same effect. This is usually used in conjunction with some or all of the above techniques and can be dangerous for the same reasons that have already been mentioned. Anytime you are promoting fluid loss, you run the risk of messing up your electrolyte balance (that little sodium and potassium stuff). If it gets really messed up, your heart can stop. I know, it sounds a little extreme, but it is the truth. You only have one heart and you need to be careful with it.
When cutting weight, many fighters are trying to lose anywhere from 5 to 30 lbs. This repeated weight cycling with each fight preparation certainly takes a toll on the body, the effects of which may not show up for years. The yo-yoing is similar to the long term effects of an eating disorder. The stress of losing weight under extreme conditions can weaken the heart, the immune system, and the body’s ability to heal and recover. Each weight cutting generally requires more and more extreme measures to accomplish the same weight loss, which is even more stressful on the body and results in more and more loss of lean body mass. This loss of muscle mass ultimately puts on more weight later, making it even harder to cut the next time. As a fighter ages, it also becomes more challenging to cut as much weight in the same short amount of time. This only encourages taking more drastic measures. It’s a vicious cycle and one that is very difficult to stop.
The best strategy for a fighter to use is to NOT need to cut weight. The goal should be for the fighter to maintain his or her weight within 5 lbs of the desired fight weight all the time. This allows the fighter to be fight -ready all the time. The muscles are properly fueled and the body is physically prepared for the stress that will be endured at that weight. I feel so strongly about this that I have declined to work with fighters who are trying to cut too much weight in too little time. I generally ask that they contact me after the fight so we can begin preparing for the next one.
Things are starting to change and there is definitely an increased interest in diet and how it can improve performance. My hope is that rather than thinking about diet only when preparing for a fight, fighters will focus on how they eat year round. This will not only produce a better and healthier fighter, it will produce a fighter with a longer career and a much healthier post-career.