A LOT is being made in combat sports of being “big for the weight”. Boxers will obviously aim to weigh in their leanest state, after having shed every last ounce of surplus fat that may be more permissible in other professional sports. However, there are many things that influence an athlete’s daily fluctuation in weight, and even food and water in an athlete’s stomach (“gut weight”) can make an impact of a couple of pounds. However, being 70% water, an athlete can make serious headway towards their target weight by manipulating their hydration. It is reported that the majority of MMA fighters, with day-before weigh-in schedules and an experience of American high-school wrestling, are immersed in this culture. However, we’ve been told for years that dehydration is bad for performance, while many deaths in boxing have been attributed to drastic weight-loss. I’m going to briefly cover some of the risks, rewards, and reported effects of “drying out”…
The Pros of Sweating Down
The advantage of losing water weight is obvious. Boxers aim to bend the rules to fight smaller people, and to enjoy a weight advantage. The sad fact is that in reality it will be just minimising your opponent’s advantage – if everyone is sweating down, many feel they also must do so in order to compete. HBO’s unofficial fight-night weigh-ins demonstrate that most fighters gain at least 10lbs after weigh-in, while many may put on far more. Brandon Rios was noted as rebounding 20lbs before his lightweight match against John Murray (15% of his body mass), whilst MMA exponents of this strategy like Georges St Pierre have been reported to put on in excess of 25lbs before entering the octagon. Now, the debate begins when we start weighing up this reward versus the risk… Some fighters believe that given 24 hours to rehydrate, the risk to performance and health will be outweighed by the reward of being bigger. Evidence that would go at least some way to supporting this view can be found in studies done on lightweight rowers, who preserved their performance after dehydrating by 4-5% body-weight (e.g. 3kg for a welterweight). Given only 2 hours for rehydration, consuming high carbohydrate electrolyte solutions restored performance to previous values. Interestingly, Derry Matthews’ second training camp with nutrition expert Dr James Morton allowed Derry to maintain 2kg more lean mass, his strength being 10% greater throughout his training camp before using a pre-weigh-in dehydration strategy. More recently, Vasyl Lomachenko’s first loss was inflected at the hands of experienced pro Orlando Salido, who held, spoiled and outmuscled the skilled amateur star. This gamesmanship also extended to weight-making, as Salido came in almost a stone heavier than Lomachenko on fight night. We’ve talked about the rewards… but what of the risks. Well, we know that in combat sport, the risks don’t get any bigger…
The faster an athlete loses weight, the faster they lose performance. Athletes such as Carl Froch and the GB Elite Amateurs based in Sheffield stay within 5% of their body weight year round, and demonstrate high levels of fitness and power that may be explained by their ability to focus on fitness rather than weight issues. Floyd Mayweather famously gives away weight to opponents, compensating with razor sharp reflexes that would be dulled by dehydration. Faster weight loss is also more likely to result in weight loss from muscle and bone, rather than the fat stores one would ideally target. Rapid weight-making has shown a negative impact on boxing-specific measures of skill, speed and accuracy and power. Put simply, boxers are less able to defend themselves. To add to this increased risk from their opponent, rapid weight-loss and dehydration may also amplify the damage inflicted by a punch. A 3kgs loss of sweat has been associated with a reduction of 30% of the liquid round the brain. This may explain why so many boxing causalities have been at the lower weights. I’ve read reports that Paul Ingle, Leavander Jonson were suspected as struggling with weight, while Joey Gamache was pummelled into retirement by a replenished version of Arturo Gatti, who bore little resemblance to the shell who weighed-in 21 lbs lighter. While it has been suggested that rehydration can rapidly restore muscular performance after drying-out, the speed at which the brain is rehydrated is not known. Judging from some of the catastrophes in the ring, we may assume that it takes longer than 24hr.
Some of the recent water-loss strategies to be publicised have become increasingly sophisticated as athletes gradually hone their methods of dehydration. By flushing the system with excessive amounts of water in the lead up to a fight, fighters are able to lose tens of pounds in a few days by eliminating salts from the body that increase water retention. This state, reported as “flushing mode” on some MMA forums is known by a more established term in the scientific community; hyponatremia. This state of water-intoxication has been associated with many deaths amongst marathon runners, who have drunk excessive amounts to inadvertently dilute their bodily fluids. Weakness and cerebral dehydration will undoubtedly increase the risk of injury in the ring; if the athlete makes it that far. In 1998, three American college wrestlers died from the effects of dehydration before they even got on the mat.
So to compare the risks versus rewards, the possibility of death and brain injury would have to add to the weight of the argument against dehydration. However, an athlete may need to weigh-in at their lightest, for example after a sweaty training session and with an empty stomach. If there is no option, an athlete should consider the following:
Monitor your weight pre and post training to know what you lose comfortably – keep a note of how you feel in this state
Be organised; plan your weight-loss in advance to lose a maximum of 1% of your body weight per week
Never aim to weigh in more than 3-5% below you normal hydrated weight
If you have had to “dry-out” (only in the last day or so – sweat suits should be banned at all other times!), consume 1.5 x water losses between weigh in and competition, aiming for a salty, moderately sweet drink (40mM sodium and 4-6% sugar can be achieved with diarolyte and sports drinks)