Have you ever wondered how the athletes of weight category sports ‘make weight’? It is not an easy task, maintaining muscle mass, energy and strength whilst ensuring your body weight meets the weight category you are competing in. Sports such as rowing, boxing, martial arts and even jockeys are constantly having to manage this issue.
Sweat it out
You may have heard athletes talking about running crazily with loads of clothes on and sitting in saunas to sweat off some weight this not a great plan. You might think it is simple to sweat off a few kilograms before the weigh in, but there are downsides. First one who wants to run around to sweat before your event when you are wanting to save energy and follow just your normal warm up routine! The second is losing weight via sweat is just fluid loss (and electrolyte) and fluid is important for athletes, think hydration.
A small amount of fluid can be lost via sweat without causing dehydration that will negatively impact performance, but too much and it will. If this strategy to make weight has been done on the day of competition you would only want to be losing a small amount and an Accredited Practising Sports Dietitian would work with an athlete to decide how much they would rely on this. The weigh in, may be a day before, which gives you a little more time to re-hydrate. The best method is for the athlete to have their body weight to be as close to the cut off limit or under, as possible. This comes with following the right dietary plan for their needs long-term.
Eating to maintain correct weight
It is not an easy feat to successfully keep up your energy levels to train and maintain a restricted body weight. Many athletes are competing in a weight category that is not a natural weight for their body to be at. A light-weight rower for example is often (and advantage for the sport) tall and for men the weight category is only 72.5kg or less and a female 59kg or less. This can cause disordered eating in athletes. An important consideration is choosing food that is nutrient dense- getting as many nutrients in a smaller size as possible. The athlete still needs to ensure they are getting in all the vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats and carbohydrate they need for recovery, immune function, growth and repair.
The athlete will; need to often choose high dietary fibre foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads cereals and legumes to fill them up for longer as fibre slows down the digestion of food helping to reduce the amount they need to eat. The advantage is these foods are very nutritious also. Foods with plenty of water, particularly vegetables will also feature highly in their diet. Many non starchy vegetables are around 80% water, these again will help fill them with loads of vitamins and minerals and also be lower in kilojoules.
Carbohydrates around training
Periodising carbohydrate is a term you may have heard. Athletes who struggle to keep their weight down will change their carbohydrate intake around, including more carbohydrate when they need it most and having less on other days. This may help with maximising muscle mass, by always ensuring enough protein at each meal and controlling the kilojoule intake somewhat by increasing and decreasing the carbohydrate. When a training session that is intense and they want to perform well and at competition time they will plan to make sure there is enough carbohydrate food eaten e.g. bread, fruit, potatoes, rice, quinoa and at other times have a little less. Lighter carb days could be rest, travel days and lighter training days.
If you know it is going to be a tight squeeze to make weight at weigh in time, a day or two before you might be eating lower dietary fibre foods- as fibre goes into your bowel and of course until this exits the body as waste it will be weighed. Some athletes at this time might swap their porridge for a lower fibre cereal, their heavy wholegrain bread for white, brown rice for white. If the athlete is already well within the weight category this wont be required. However most athletes competing at an elite level are sitting close to the category weight limit, why? Because this means they have as much muscle mass as they can to be powerful to compete at their best.
It is certainly a balancing act and one that needs guidance and support from health professionals such as sports dietitians and sports psychologist with the support of training staff and the coach.
Brito, C.J., A.F.C.M. Rosa, I.S.S. Brito, J.C.B. Marins, C. Cordova, and E. Franchini (2012). Methods of body-mass reduction by combat sport athletes. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 22:89-97.