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Wrestling Weight Management: Safe Practices for Weight Loss and Weight Gain

Posted March 17, 2016

By Claudia Curtis, MS, ATC, LAT

Gone are the days of wrestlers using rubber suits to condition in order to lose weight. The wrestling community recognizes now how unsafe this practice is and that there are more appropriate ways to manage weight. So why is it that as Athletic Trainers (ATs), we continue to hear our wrestlers are running themselves ragged just hours before weigh-ins to make weight? Why is it that with all of the resources we have about nutrition, we still hear of athletes eating bizarre things or starving themselves to make weight? Don’t these practices go against everything we know about hydration and nutrition’s contributions to performance?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and many high school associations require hydration and body fat testing to determine the minimum weight safe for an athlete to participate, calculated at the beginning of the season. While this is a great way to establish a baseline for safety, many wrestlers are uninterested or uneducated in the safest way to achieve, and more importantly, maintain a weight throughout the season. There is no requirement to maintain hydration status throughout the season, so frequently the first thing athletes do to lose weight is to restrict water intake. Losing even 2 percent of body weight due to dehydration is enough to show performance deficits.1 Continuing beyond that level increases the effects on multiple body systems, leading to losses in strength and endurance.2 At 5 percent dehydration, research indicates the body’s capacity for work output can decrease by up to 30 percent.1 Hydration is encouraged in many sports; it is important that it be viewed the same way in wrestling.

Encouraging high school and collegiate wrestlers to focus on an appropriate diet to maintain a healthy weight can be more challenging. Wrestlers frequently look at the quantity of what they’re putting into their body as a way of management, not the quality. Not all calories are created equal, and focusing on nourishment that will leave the athlete feeling full and allowing their body to recover from the rigors of a very demanding sport is an important key to success. The Cleveland Clinic’s tips for athletes include focusing on a diet filled with lean protein (chicken and fish), paired with healthy fats (found in many seeds, nuts and avocado) and high fiber fruits and vegetables. Blood sugar remains more stable and the body feels full for longer. Other tips include looking for unneeded sources of sugar in the diet and focusing on refueling the body within an hour after a workout.3 Making sure to refuel after workouts keeps the body from wanting to overindulge at the next meal. When athletes are looking to lose weight, they need to be encouraged not to restrict calorie intake, as they often over restrict. This can lead to decreases in metabolism, and eventually decreases in training intensity and performance.4

The most important thing to remember is the majority of the wrestling population is still developing, both physically and cognitively, and the things these athletes put in their body have a direct effect on their ability to fully develop. Not only does diet have an effect on their physical performance, but also on their ability to remain alert in the classroom. As ATs, we realize we are not dietitians, but we can encourage them to find the most appropriate ways to manage their weight, avoiding yo-yo diets and dehydration, to allow for proper weight management and optimal performance.

Resources

1Excerpt from Sports Nutrition 2nd Edition, accessed at: http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/dehydration-and-its-effects-on-performance

2 The Wrestler’s Diet: A Guide to Healthy Weight Control. Accessed at: https://www.wiaawi.org/Portals/0/PDF/Sports/Wrestling/wrestlersdiet.pdf

3 “6 Do’s and Don’ts for Athletes Losing Weight.” Accessed at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/07/losing-weight-while-maintaining-athletic-performance/

4 “Safe Weight Loss and Gain for Young Athletes.” Accessed at:  https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sports/Pages/Safe-Weight-Loss-and-Weight-Gain-for-Young-Athletes.aspx