Wrestling with Nutrition: A Grappler's Guide to Making Weight and Fueling Their Performance

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When it comes to wrestling, training and nutrition are key factors that determine a wrestler’s performance. It’s said that “nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good”, and this becomes especially true when discussing wrestling – since nutrition is critical in weight management, weight cutting, and overall performance.

Wrestling has three seasons: Off-season, pre-season, and in-season – with each having different goals and nutritional demands.  A wrestler’s energy expenditure, and thus nutritional needs, will change as the training intensity and duration of each season adjusts. By understanding and applying the following nutritional guidelines, wrestlers will be able to take their performance to the next level.

Off-Season:

The goal during this time is to lay a foundation for healthy eating, which can then be built upon and adjusted throughout the year. This foundation can be broken down into six fueling fundamentals:

  1. Purpose: Wrestlers are ultimately fueling for overall performance, but they may also want to focus on a specific goal, such as: Increasing energy or endurance, injury recovery or prevention, or better mental focus –on or off the mat. Defining a fueling purpose will help guide a wrestler’s eating habits.

  2. Quality: High-quality foods will help wrestlers reach their goals, while poor choices will hurt their wrestling performance.  Therefore, wrestlers must focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods instead of empty calories. Nutrient-dense foods provide more nutrients per calorie consumed, while calorie-dense foods provide less nutrients per calorie consumed. Examples of nutrient-dense swaps include:

    1. Choosing nuts over a bag of chips
    2. Choosing a sweet fruit (berries, peaches, apples) over a cookie or candy
    3. Choosing whole grains (brown rice) over refined grains (white rice)

  3. Quantity: Effective training, recovery, and improved performance rely upon matching calorie consumption to expenditure. It is important to consistently provide your body with adequate fuel to support your training. A consistent failure to meet energy demands results in a blunted metabolism, which my impact:

    1. Immune function, leading to illness
    2. Tissue repair, prolonging the time needed to recover from exercise
    3. Performance, leading to excessive fatigue

  4. Timing: When you eat is as important as what you eat. A strategic fueling plan is crucial for optimizing training, recovery, and performance. This is especially important when a wrestler is in a calorie deficit during weight management. Implementing strategies to effectively fuel your workouts through pre and post workout nutrition can minimize muscle breakdown when trying to reduce body weight.

  5. Consistency: Use the off-season to develop sustainable eating habits that can be carried over into fueling weight cuts or maintenance in the pre-season. Focus on supplying your body with adequate amounts of lean protein, carbohydrates to fuel training, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Avoid the temptation of allowing for “cheat days.” Instead, allow for a “cheat meal” if needed and get back on track when it is time for the next meal. A whole day of suboptimal fueling can interfere with your weight management plan, so it is important to stay consistent.  

  6. Hydration: While important in all sports, hydration is especially critical in wrestling.  Athletes who are not properly hydrated are at a greater risk of experiencing declines in performance and greater fatigue. In addition, the body is 75% water, so it is especially important for wrestlers to pay attention to as it is an effective tool for weight cutting.

Pre-Season:

This is the optimal time to focus on weight management. At the beginning of this season, a wrestler should identify a realistic target weight, and then develop a progressive weight loss plan to reach it.  During this time, it is important to keep the following factors in mind:

  • Target weight: The target weight should include a buffer for the wrestler to be well fueled and hydrated while training, which will allow for any needed weight cut.  The target weight is dependent upon age and experience. As wrestlers become more physically mature, they can safely lose a moderately greater amount of weight in a short amount of time.

    • Youth - 0-2% bodyweight over weight class
      • Correlates to amount of weight lost from 1 practice
    • High School – 2-3% bodyweight over weight class
      • Correlates to amount of weight lost from 1-1.5 practices
    • College- 3-5% bodyweight over weight class
      • Correlates to amount of weight lost from 1.5-2 practices
  • Weight loss: Effective weight loss happens in a progressive manner in order to enable body fat to be used for energy. Only about 1.5% of total body weight can be lost as body fat over a 7-day period. Therefore, losing more than 1.5% of one’s total body weight in a week’s time is likely the result of a loss in muscle mass.

For example, the maximum weight loss per week for a 150lb wrestler should be between 2-2.5 lbs per week (150lb x 1.5% or 0.015 = 2.25 lb). This information can then be used to determine the minimum amount of time needed to reach the target weight.

  • Fueling balance: Fueling balance can be defined as strategically distributing both macro- and micro- nutrients throughout each day based on one’s wrestling goals, training, and schedule. It is critical to balance carbohydrates and protein evenly during the day – this will ensure that the body has adequate energy and building blocks to repair and retain muscle. 

  • Athlete Energy Deficit (AED): AED is when calorie intake is insufficient to meet total energy expenditure for an athlete. When this occurs for a prolonged period of time, the body protects itself by adjusting calorie expenditure and reducing metabolic rate – thus slowing any attempted weight loss and causing increased fat retention. To avoid this, athletes should avoid excessive calorie restriction and dieting for an extended period of time. 

In-Season:

During the wrestling season, fueling practices must be adjusted again – as a wrestler’s goal becomes weight maintenance rather than weight loss. Ideally, wrestlers will reach their target weight at the end of pre-season, and then fuel to optimize their training in-season; this is accomplished by being in a neutral calorie balance.  By training at their target weight, wrestlers can use weight cutting as an effective and safe method to make weight for a match.

A simple definition of weight cutting is: The shifting of food and fluids for a short period of time for the purpose of making weight. When cutting weight, the following three components are crucial, and should always be focused upon:

  1. Maintaining proper fueling and hydration through the competition week and up to 24-hours before weigh-ins. This allows the body to be ready to perform optimally for competition, rather than dehydrated and fatigued from excessive weight cutting.
  2. Commitment to work the weight down in a scalable and practical way.
  3. Faith in the process, and support from coaches and parents.

By understanding the demands and goals of each of the three distinct wrestling seasons, a wrestler can use his or her fueling and hydration as tools to enhance performance. Proper fueling ensures that a wrestler will be able to perform optimally on the mat, make weight safely and effectively, and have the energy off the mats to take care of academic demands. To gain more knowledge and specific details on how you can tailor a nutrition and hydration plan to meet your needs, be sure to check out the full My Sports Dietitian eBook for wrestling, which can be found exclusively at www.mywrestlingnutrition.com.  

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