Sports  Weighing in on health

Trying to balance low weight and high performance

For athletes, whose bodies are their lives, food and good nutrition are essential. This is especially true of sports, where weight and appearance are factors, as is the case with wrestling. In higher-level competitions, wrestlers are divided into pre-determined weight categories, usually two to four kilograms in range. Weigh-ins determine each wrestler’s weight prior to a meet, and the time leading up to this critical event is often used to cut weight in order to avoid being ruled ineligible for competition. Maintaining weight is a fundamental part of all wrestlers’ lives, but entering lower weight classes is widely seen as a strategic way to significantly raise your chances of winning. There are many methods for cutting weight: some are harmless and idiosyncratic – like wearing no clothing or standing on your head right before stepping on the scale – while others are widely used and more serious, like wearing rubber suits while running, working out in sauna rooms, and simply eating little to nothing. Despite their intense weight-loss regiments, wrestlers maintain extremely high levels of activity, especially during competition season. If we examine other world-class athletes – like Michael Phelps who allegedly eats 12,000 calories a day – and compare them to wrestlers trying to make weight by eating only a few thousand calories a day, the question arises: is this healthy?

Everything we eat goes through a series of chemical reactions and, depending on what is lacking or in excess, our body’s metabolic pathways are constantly changing. When we need energy, the first thing to be metabolized are carbohydrates, starting with simple ones, like sugar, and ending with more complex ones, like starch and fat. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies. Simple carbohydrates are metabolized very quickly and only provide energy for a short amount of time. Complex one’s are metabolized more slowly and provide energy for much longer periods of time. This is why athletes like marathon runners, will eat a huge amount of complex carbohydrates for long lasting energy. If our bodies have insufficient amounts of carbohydrates, they will start to metabolize their own proteins, essentially eating themselves. This is what happens during starvation and, given enough time, will lead to death.

Bodies are extremely complex. Proteins, fats, glucose – all the molecules within the major metabolic pathways can all be interconverted. If too much sugar is consumed it will be converted into fat. This is why many fat-free diets do not succeed, because without the long-lasting energy fat provides, dieters eat an excess of other carbohydrates, like sugar, which are then converted into fat. Similarly, all-protein diets create an excess of protein, which also ultimately ends up as fat. Basically, what you eat is less important than how much you eat, and counting calories is the most popular way of restricting how much is eaten.

Still, losing weight is a process more complex than counting calories. Muscle is much denser than fat; so if a fat cell shrinks and the muscle cells grow the same amount, overall weight will actually increase.

For athletes who already have extremely low body fat, however, losing weight usually means losing muscle mass. Losing muscle means lowered performance, and finding the balance between weight loss and sports performance is very tricky.

“When people are restricting calories they don’t fully recover in time for their event or competition,” said Ross Andersen, professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education at McGill. “Would they be better fighting up a weight class and not having to reduce their calories? Probably.”

He also stresses the importance of psychological health. “A lot of times, athletes who are severely restricting calories will eat pure protein to pee a lot and shed weight quickly. And we know that when they do that they feel cranky, they don’t feel good. But, psychologically, part of what we want to do, especially with elite athletes, is have them coming into a competition … raring to go. But when a wrestler has had to lose five pounds in a few days they don’t feel like that.”

In addition to counting calories, wrestlers – and other athletes trying to lose weight – frequently try to lower the amount of water in their bodies. Some benign suggestions include chewing gum and spitting a lot. But many athletes do this by exercising in plastic suits, or in other environments that will cause them to sweat more. Wrestlers like Rory Ewing, U3 Mechanical Engineering, recognize the dangers of this, but concede that sometimes drastic measures are necessary. “It’s bad for you and it’s really hard on your body,” said Ewing, “But it is a way to lose those last couple of pounds.”

Both Andersen and Ewing, however, stress the importance of maintaining health throughout the year and not just before weigh-ins. “I would focus more on overall health and weight management,” said Andersen. “For athletes in the combative sports, trying to make weight classes – trying to find a weight at which they are fairly lean but can manage – will help them perform better in the long run.”

Ewing agreed, explaining how he and other athletes who are more deeply invested will maintain their weight throughout the year, so that come competition time, they can cut weight without taking drastic measures. “There is a right and wrong way to do it,” said Ewing. “Sacrifice doesn’t necessarily yield good performance. If you do it the wrong way you can give a whole bunch but not get any back.”

Both agree on the importance of being well informed. Andersen suggested working with dieticians, nutritionists, and coaches to come up with a plan.

“If I knew someone who was going to get into it I would say do your homework,” said Ewing. “It will be more effective and less damaging to your body.”

Despite health ramifications, wrestlers acknowledge that this sacrifice is part of the game. “As with any combat sport, performance does not just concern being sleep deprived, food deprived, water deprived. It’s not just that,” said Ewing. “It’s that wrestling is not a comfortable sport. Six minutes may not seem like a long time when you’re sitting on the bench but it is six minutes of the hardest effort you’ve ever put in. And it’s those last couple minutes, seconds even, that will determine whether or not you win the match.”

Although it is undeniable that cutting weight is not the healthiest thing for your body, it is an inextricable part of wrestling, as well as other sports. We must also keep in mind that those involved are not necessarily in it for the health benefits. All athletes get hurt, and almost every sport has some kind of health risk. However, athletes are there for the love of the game – and there are definitely benefits to doing something you love.