Acute Weight Loss and Recovery Strategies in Weight Class Sports
Stephanie Xavier, Dietetic Intern for the University of Houston.
Meredith Sorensen, MS, RD, LD for Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute
Mark Pryer, Senior Applied Performance Coach at Athlete Training at Health
Weight class sports place athletes in categories based on their weight in order to provide a more equal level of competition. Some of the most common weight class sports are combat sports like wrestling, mixed martial arts, and boxing where having a large weight difference between competitors would provide the larger athlete with a distinct advantage. In these sports, athletes will often try to “cut weight” or quickly lose enough weight to compete in a lower weight class than where their body weight naturally sits when they are fully hydrated and nourished. Many athletes choose to compete in a lower weight class because of the physical advantages they have against smaller opponents and the mental advantage some perceive related to feeling focused and committed to being an athlete1.
While there certainly is an advantage competing against smaller competitors, there is a threshold where additional weight loss and the methods used to achieve it are detrimental to overall performance and can lead to more serious and long-term health problems. Larger weight cuts ( ~5% body mass in under 24 hours has been shown to negatively impact repeat effort performance10. Losing greater amounts of weight is often achieved through food and fluid restriction. Chronic food restriction increases the risk of developing relative energy deficiency syndrome and disordered eating patterns, and it can have negative effects on cardiovascular and bone health as well as immunity2,3. Some signs and symptoms athletes, coaches, and parents should look for related to these issues are irritability, depression, injuries, decreased concentration, and decreased performance2. When fluids are not adequately replaced prior to competition, athletes are at a greater risk of cardiovascular complications, heat stroke, and a decline in cognitive functions like decision making and motor control1.
Finding the Right Weight Class
To try and avoid negative outcomes, athletes and their coaches should first determine the appropriate competition weight class during the pre-season. To get an accurate and safe starting point, baseline weight should be measured when the athlete is well-nourished and fully hydrated -- not from an already restricted or deprived state. A general rule of thumb is that the athlete’s competition weight class should not require them to lose more than 5% of their baseline weight4. Going beyond this limit increases the risk of negative health consequences. Determining the appropriate weight class before the season starts can also help prevent needing to employ a weight cutting strategy that is too aggressive and that does not allow for adequate recovery before competing. Prior weight history and trends should be considered. Once the competition weight class is chosen, the athlete’s performance and energy levels should be monitored during competitions throughout the season to determine if that weight class is still appropriate. Especially if the athlete is still growing, it may be difficult for them to stay in a lower weight class, without being overly restrictive.
Safe Weight Cutting Strategies
Once athletes have determined which weight class is appropriate, there are some acute weight loss strategies they can employ to safely reach their competition weight. These include fluid restriction, reducing sodium and fiber intake, and decreasing carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to competition. One of the most common strategies is fluid manipulation. This can be achieved through restriction and reduced sodium intake. In the days leading up to competition, reducing sodium intake can help prevent fluid retention and decrease the amount of weight coming from body water5. Some simple ways to do this are by not using the salt shaker at meals and cutting out salty foods like soy sauce, bacon, deli meat, salted nuts, pickles, and chips. Decreasing fluid intake in the 1-2 days leading up to competition and increasing the amount of body water lost through sweating during exercise can also be effective ways to help weight class athletes reach their competition weight. Limiting fluid intake the 24 hours before competition to 10-34 oz can result in 1-2% weight loss4. Many athletes can also easily lose about 2-3% of their body weight during a sweaty workout, so this can be a simple way to decrease weight through activities that the athlete is already doing. However, when fluid losses are greater than 2% of body weight, regardless of if they are from limiting intake or sweating, performance starts to decline. Therefore, the athlete will need to focus on rehydrating during the recovery period.
The best way to know how much fluid an athlete loses in a typical session is by having them weigh-in without clothes and after using the restroom before the session and again without clothes and towel dried after the session. If they drink any fluids during the workout, they should note how much was consumed and add 1lb for every 16oz they drank to the difference in pre and post workout weights. It may be beneficial to repeat this process leading up to a competition, but once the athlete has a general idea of how much they will lose in a single session, they can use that information when developing their weight cutting plan.
Another simple strategy athletes can follow is decreasing their fiber intake in the 2-3 days leading up to competition4. High fiber foods can stay in the digestive tract for extended periods of time, adding weight without adding to performance. Increasing calorie dense, lower volume foods can be one way for an athlete to consume adequate energy while decreasing the amount of volume in their gastrointestinal (GI) system that contributes to total body weight1. Typically, this would include limiting or swapping foods like oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, and beans for seeds, nuts, nut butters, cheese, and yogurt.
Manipulation of Carbohydrate Stores
One other way to achieve acute weight loss is through limiting carbohydrate consumption the 3-7 days before competition day. During training and high intensity exercise carbohydrates are used for energy. When carbohydrates are not replaced, the weight of the stored carbohydrates and the water bound to them is reduced 5. However, it is important to consider that when carbohydrate restriction is too great leading up to competition, there is not enough time to replenish this energy source prior to competition and performance may be negatively impacted.
Below is a sample timeline of weight cutting strategies leading up to competition:
One important consideration when deciding which acute weight loss strategies to use is the amount of time between the weigh-in and the beginning of the competition. The shorter the amount of time an athlete has to recover after the weigh in, the less aggressive they should be with weight-cutting strategies if they want to perform their best. Since many acute weight loss strategies restrict fluids and some carbohydrates, replacing these between the weigh in and competition are vital for maximizing performance. Recovery recommendations will vary based on the amount of time the athlete has between the weigh-in and the competition and whether they are competing in a multi-day competition with multiple weigh-ins or not. The following recommendations will focus on one day competitions where the athlete only has a few hours to recover after the weigh-in.
Athletes should try to consume about 150% of the fluid they are missing1. One way to calculate this is by taking their weight at the competition weigh-in and subtracting it from their normal, fully hydrated weight. For every pound lost, they should try to consume 24 oz of fluid before the competition starts. Right after the weigh-in, athletes should drink 20-30 oz followed by consistent intake leading up to competition to help keep the volume of fluid in the stomach high. This helps speed up how fast it leaves the stomach so it can be absorbed4.
When recovery time is limited, it may be difficult to drink enough volume to fully account for the deficit, so athletes should try to consume as much of that fluid as possible as long as it does not cause any GI problems. Athletes should consume electrolytes along with fluid especially if they used increased sweating as part of their acute weight loss strategy. This can help retain more of the fluid they are ingesting and help them rehydrate faster compared to drinking plain water6. Some of the easiest ways to consume electrolytes are by drinking sports drinks or eating salty snacks. Combining both strategies can help increase the amount of salt being consumed and speed rehydration7.
The other area of nutrition athletes should focus on during the recovery period is carbohydrate intake. During bouts of high intensity exercise lasting 4-8 minutes, this is going to be the primary fuel source for their activity. Since athletes typically weigh-in before eating anything, providing the necessary energy to fuel them before the start of the competition is important for performance. Athletes should try to consume 1-1.2g of carbohydrates/kg of body weight/hr for about 4 hours after the weigh-in as tolerated8. When time is limited carbohydrate dense, liquid options may be the easiest to consume and digest. Picking foods that have a high glycemic index and that are low in fat and fiber are typically well tolerated and work best1,7. Some good options are things like fruit snacks, Rice Krispie treats, fig bars, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pretzels, and sports drinks. Make sure to include items that are portable and align with the athlete’s preferences to encourage eating.
Below is a sample recovery plan following the weigh-in:
Other Strategies that May Help Performance
Although the strategies mentioned above are most likely to be effective for weight manipulation, there are a few other strategies that can boost performance that may be worth trying. One is ingesting caffeine about an hour before competing. Caffeine can make exercise feel easier and improve exercise performance in activities with similar requirements to most weight class sports7. However, caffeine consumption should be done in moderation and adolescents should limit their intake to no more than 100mg/day9. For reference, an average 8 oz cup of coffee has about 100mg of caffeine and a shot of espresso has about 65mg. Especially when there is not enough time between the weigh in to replace the carbohydrates that were restricted during weight cutting, caffeine may be one way to improve performance.
One other strategy athletes can try when they have a limited amount of recovery time is using a carbohydrate mouth rinse. In this scenario, the athlete would rinse their mouth with something like a sports drink for about 10 seconds and then spit it out. It is unclear if this strategy is effective in most weight class sports, but it is low risk and may be beneficial for athletes who do not have enough time to consume or cannot tolerate the amount of carbs they would need to recover from cutting weight.
Regardless of the acute weight loss and nutritional recovery strategies athletes decide to use, they should test them before and during practice and less important competitions7. There are several factors to consider when developing an effective plan, so determining how many strategies and which ones lead to the best performance for the individual athlete before getting to more important competitions can help prepare the athlete to compete at their best when it matters most.
Have questions? Please feel free to talk to an Athlete Training and Health Performance Coach or Meredith Sorensen, Sports Dietitian, MS, RD, LD with the Memorial Hermann Rockets Sports Medicine Institute. Meredith can be reached at Meredith.Sorensen@memorialhermann.org or can be found on Instagram at @meredithdarcienutrition.
- Burke LM, Slater GJ, Matthews JJ, Langan-Evans C, Horswill CA. ACSM Expert Consensus Statement on Weight Loss in Weight-Category Sports. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2021;20(4):199. doi:10.1249/JSR.0000000000000831
- Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, et al. International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): 2018 Update. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018;28(4):316-331. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0136
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- Reale R. Acute Weight Management in Combat Sports: Pre Weigh-In Weight Loss, Post Weigh-In Recovery and Competition Nutrition Strategies. Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Accessed December 28, 2022. http://www.gssiweb.org:80/en/sports-science-exchange/Article/acute-weight-management-in-combat-sports-pre-weigh-in-weight-loss-post-weigh-in-recovery-and-competition-nutrition-strategies
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- Reale R, Slater G, Burke LM. Individualised dietary strategies for Olympic combat sports: Acute weight loss, recovery and competition nutrition. Eur J Sport Sci. 2017;17(6):727-740. doi:10.1080/17461391.2017.1297489
- Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong SHS, Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sports Sci. 2011;29(sup1):S17-S27. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.585473
- AACAP. Caffeine and Children. Accessed January 6, 2023. https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Caffeine_and_Children-131.aspx
- Barley, O. R., Chapman, D. W., & Abbiss, C. R. (2019). The Current State of Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports-Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(5), 123. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7050123