Quick weight-loss strategies that rely on forced dehydration — often used by athletes in combat sports to shed pounds to compete against lighter opponents — have been found to cause larger mental and physical problems.
The findings, based on a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, suggests the human body has a limited ability to quickly recover following such drastic short-term weight loss strategies.
Lead researcher Stefan Pettersson studied the impact of quick weight-loss techniques in 70 elite Swedish athletes in wrestling, taekwondo, judo, and boxing. He conducted interviews with athletes on the Swedish national teams and studied their hydration status and food intake on match day.
In combat sports, Pettersson noted, it is generally considered beneficial to first lose a lot of weight prior to weigh-in and then drink and eat a lot before the match, in order to fight a shorter and lighter opponent than would otherwise be possible. Previous research shows that 80-90 percent of all athletes in sports with weight classes adhere to this practice.
Athletes may abstain from food and drink for up to 24 hours prior to a weigh-in and reduce their food intake for 96 hours to deplete stored carbohydrates. This dietary regimen is sometimes combined with sauna sessions to rid the body of even more water.
But Pettersson’s research found that almost half of the 70 athletes studied were severely dehydrated on the morning of their matches because of such practices.
“This could mean that their endurance, explosiveness and strength are reduced in their first fights,” said Pettersson, a nutritionist on the Swedish Olympic Committee's team for several years. “Previous research has also shown that their mental performance may suffer, which could imply a poor perception and ability to make quick decisions.”
He suggested that athletes receive nutritional counseling and long-term weight management, but also that rulebooks be reviewed to reduce dramatic short-term weight loss in weight class sports.
“One way to deal with the problem would be to schedule the weigh-ins right before a match, or to do weigh-ins like today but add a second weigh-in right before a match with a rule for how much weight an athlete is allowed to gain in between,” he said. “Yet new rules would probably not be enough. To make up for any lost mental advantages, the athletes may need some good mental coaching.”
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