Arguably the worlds fastest growing sport today is that of Mixed Martial Arts, within the last year alone sports media giant ESPN has seceded to the growing popularity of the sport by having a show after every major event and including more and more of it’s promos in their regular rotation of advertisements.
Not too long ago sports journalists were arguing the legitimacy of MMA because of its brutality and if it would stick around in the long run. What they failed to realize is that martial arts have been apart of the culture of many countries for hundreds of years and the art of fighting is as old as any sport. Its popularity today and the businesses that are involved in apparel, MMA gyms, and fighting promotions (famous boxing promotion companies are now putting their money into MMA) have cemented it as a sport that’s here to stay.
This sport's immense popularity brings with it a countless number of amateur participants, many of whom are training to one day become a pro. What will be discussed in this article are the key components to a fighter’s diet that could be keeping them from competing at the highest level. When it comes to research specific to nutrition in mixed martial arts, you won’t find much because of how relatively new the sport is on the world wide stage.
However, when it comes to training and making weight for competitions, the nutritional aspect for this sport can easily be compared to Olympic/Collegiate wrestling. Not to mention the fact that many of today’s most successful Mixed Martial Artists are former collegiate wrestlers who competed on a national amateur level.
In a study done on the eating behaviors of amateur and high school wrestlers, it was determined that because they lost weight so frequently, and practiced poor nutrition; they were prone to binge eating and rapid weight gain (1). For wrestling and mixed martial arts where weight control is key, it’s unfortunate that the practices of many athletes actually lead them to lose control of their weight which leads to a decrease in performance. One of the primary things a mixed martial artist must remember in terms of his/her approach to their diet is keeping their total caloric intake under control since the sport itself is very weight class oriented.
Before we get into the specifics of where your macronutrients need to be, one of the biggest topics in terms of competitive sports with weight divisions is that of water loss. There are many who are against it when it comes to preparing for competition but the fact of the matter is that if your competition has mastered it (they must also master the art of re-hydration as well) they will compete against you with significantly more lean body mass than they otherwise would have had.
The mixed martial artist most notable for his mastery of water manipulation is George St. Pierre. In an interview he did with a Canadian Newspaper he mentioned he has lost up to 15 lbs of water coming into a fight (2). Although he is a specimen and this may not be a realistic goal to reach for, there is a take home lesson from his strategy. Here are the key things to keep in mind:
Don’t let your weight get out of Control
Elite level fighters who are able to make weight on a regular basis without issues already have a pre conceived notion of how long it will take for them to lose a certain amount of weight, and how much water they can lose in a short period of time. Strength and muscle mass are best maintained when you lose weight gradually. So if a 205 pound fighter knows he can lose 10 lbs of fat in 6 weeks, and another 10 lbs of water in 1 week; then he knows he has to be at 205lbs 6-7 weeks out from any given competition at a 185lb weight class.
Don’t go through a period of water loss for more than a few days
Outside of the serious risk of dehydration, interrupting the amount of fluid your body holds for extended periods of time will disrupt the mineral balance in your body which is responsible for muscle contractions. Fluid loss of only 2 percent will decrease exercise performance. Avoid attempting fluid loss until the days leading up to the fight when your training volume has decreased or non-existent.
Don’t stop drinking water
During the days in which you are attempting to drop your water, you will need to limit sodium as much as possible. But DON’T stop drinking water in an attempt to lose water. Not only will you dehydrate too early but your body will respond by trying to hold on to as much water as possible. During the water loss period you will also be dropping your carbohydrates and exercising in an attempt to reduce muscle glycogen which holds water as well.
However, to get your body to excrete water, you must continue to take it in. The only time to consider limiting water intake is the 24 hours before weigh-ins; this is the time many competitors use to relax and sit in a sauna. This is not a weight loss tactic that can be used for anything else other than reducing your weight for a few moments.
Many people like to exercise in sweat suits in an attempt to cut weight, but what they don’t realize is that the pounds lost will easily be regained once they replace the fluids they lost, and exercising with these suits is not proven to be safe. You will run the risk of the adverse effects of dehydration, relaxing in a sauna the day before the fight is the safest approach.
Herbs can help you
An herbal diuretic (preferably one with potassium and magnesium, these are minerals you will need to support muscle contractions while losing water) will aid in your water loss goals. Ingredients to keep in mind are Dandelion leaf, Uva Ursi leaf, Buchu leaf, and Parsley leaf. Caffeine also has a diuretic effect; using caffeine will not only motivate you for your workouts while under caloric restriction but using it throughout the day will help you to excrete water more readily.
The best thing to do in conjunction with your water loss regimen is to drop starchy carbohydrates at least a week before your competition. Lower muscle glycogen levels means less water weight when you step on the scale, this is the reason people will lose large amounts of weight in the first few weeks of a low carbohydrate diet.
When it comes to offseason training, it is very important to consume enough calories to support your training volume so that you recover from one workout to the next. What many fighters miss out on is the fact that the macronutrient makeup of their calories is important as well. Just because your training volume is high, and your workouts are intense does not mean that you can consume fatty meals on a regular basis (unless you have great genetics).
The reason for this is because carbohydrates are your main source of fuel for your sport and not supplying them in a sufficient ratio to your other macronutrients will hinder your training. Your offseason calorie intake should be somewhere in the range of 55-60% carbohydrates, 20-25% protein, and 15-20% fat. As a fighter, you should also look to optimize your recovery by taking advantage of the increased capacity for muscle glycogen replenishment post-exercise.
High glycemic carbohydrates are best (rapidly digesting carbohydrates like sugar), and should be combined with protein to maximize recovery. Some examples of good post-exercise options would be a sugary electrolyte drink or chocolate milk (high in sugar, preserves body water and aids in rehydration, this may not be an option for you if you have a low tolerance for lactose). Your best option post-exercise would be a carbohydrate powder mixed with whey protein powder.
Pre-exercise nutrition should also not be ignored; the most important part of this meal will be the slow digesting/low glycemic carbohydrates that will supply your body with a steadier flow of carbohydrates during your training session. If you don’t have time for a pre-exercise meal (as many people who train after work often don’t), a protein-carbohydrate drink should suffice 45 minutes to an hour before the training session.
When it comes to cutting weight for a fight, not all of us can be like St. Pierre and lose 15lbs of water in less than one week. For most competitors, there will be more dieting involved; and the key to a successful cut for a competition is to maintain as much muscle as possible just like a bodybuilder.
The first step in a successful cut for a competition is to plan ahead and have enough time to lose the necessary weight. To do this, first practice the water loss regime you plan on using for the competition; this will give you a rough estimate in the amount of pounds you will lose at the end of your cut. So if you can lose 5 lbs of water in 5 days, and you need to be 205 for your competition, then you know you at least need to be 210lbs one week out.
As far as knowing how many weeks to diet for, plan on losing 1-2lbs per week in your diet, this is widely considered to be the safest rate of weight loss. Although many wrestlers are famous for living off of cans of tuna and eating next to nothing coming into a competition; this method of dieting will surely decrease your performance and your ability to practice/train leading up to the big day.
To give you an idea of how many calories to take in a day, remember that 1lb of fat is 3,500 calories. To ensure you lose at least one pound a week, find out how many calories your body burns a day including your physical activity levels and reduce it by 600-700. Based on this you will have the potential to lose almost 2lbs a week. The caloric restriction will be tighter than routine weight loss because not reaching your goal comes with drastic ramifications (fines, not being able to fight etc).
The macro nutrient profile for your newly calculated calories should be 40-30-30 (40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat). The reasoning behind this recommendation is based on the carbohydrate requirement that your training brings, and the fact that dietary fats are linked to healthy testosterone levels. However, if you find yourself in a bind, you have two options:
1) Reduce your calories even further and follow a high carb, moderate protein, low fat diet (60-30-10). This will provide you with the carbohydrates needed to cope with the increased caloric restriction from your training, and the reduced fat will allow you to consume a fair amount of protein. Fat is 9 calories per gram, the higher the percentage of fat that is in your diet, the lower the total grams of protein and carbohydrates consumed will be.
2) There are some people who are sensitive to carbohydrates who respond very well to low carbohydrate diets. These individuals will have to utilize a carbohydrate cycling regime. Staying completely low carb will lead to a decrease in performance and recovery. There are many carbohydrate cycling diets with slight variations that employ low carb, no carb, and high carbohydrate days. You can research the different carbohydrate cycling diets to find what works best for you.
What I find works best for sports specific training is to calculate your ratios based on the total calories you are shooting for instead of going through tons of multiplying. Now take the calories you calculated and divide them into ratios of 25-40-35. While this may seem a little higher in carbohydrates than a bodybuilder's low carb diet, you must take into account that a good strength and conditioning program for sports will have you at your highest training intensity leading up to the active rest period you will have just before your event. That way you will peak in performance at the time of the event.
So you will easily drive down your carbohydrates during your sports specific training, conditioning, and weight lifting. The carbohydrate cycle most commonly employed is 3 days low carbohydrates followed by 1 day of increased carbohydrate intake. So after 3 days of a 25-40-35 ratio, the 4th day should be 2X’s the carbohydrates you took in on the previous days, the same amount of protein and less that 1/3rd of the fat. Some carbohydrate diets will employ a cycle consisting of: Day 1- high carb, Day 2- low carb, Day 3- no carb. Find out which one works best for you if you respond well to low carbohydrate dieting.
However, even if you are considered to be a ‘responder’ to this type of regimen, it is still not the best recommendation for this type of training because of the lack of available sources of energy. If you choose to go this route, consume the majority of your carbohydrates either before or after training on low carbohydrate days.
What most fighters seem to be lacking in their diets is the appropriate macronutrient ratios for performance and the ability to cut weight properly to ensure they’re at their best each time they compete.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
- Jean A. Lakin; Suzanne Nelson Steen; Robert A. Oppliger. Eating Behaviors, Weight Loss Methods, and Nutrition Practices Among High School Wrestlers. Journal of Community Health Nursing, Volume 7, Issue 4 December 1990 , pages 223 – 234
- Vince Chan. George St. Pierre On Cutting. www.VinceChan.wordpress.com. March 6, 2006.