Over my years of competitive wrestling, training, and “cutting weight”, I have been highly attuned to and fascinated by how nutrition affects performance. Serious wrestlers and martial artists tend to be fanatical about every part of their training and preparation, and have a reputation for having very odd and strict diets. An outsider may observe this and think “wow, those guys must be miserable”. And perhaps, the night before weigh-ins, they are. However, I have always found that when I am in the middle of a season and laser focused on my long term goals, I don’t feel as though I am sacrificing, or giving anything up. Rather, in those times, deciding what to put in my body becomes more like a game. And it’s a game of inches. On one hand, wrestlers go through grueling practices, and compete at high levels of intensity that require all the resources their bodies can offer. Every small decision in what you can eat, at what times, and in which proportions can be the difference in whether you perform your best or feel like a sack of turds.
While everyone is different in how they respond to different types of food and eating habits, I would like to share some basic principles that have helped me. This is not a meal plan or medical advice, instead, I am offering a way to think about the way you utilize food as a tool to help you perform your best, as it relates to wrestling. Keep in mind, this is a broad overview meant to introduce you to some universal concepts. We will provide some more goal-specific information in future articles. For example, down the road we will cover nutrition for cutting weight vs. building muscle to get to your ideal body composition for performance.
If you paid attention in biology or physiology class, you should be familiar with the concept of homeostasis, which can be defined as any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival. In other words, your body is constantly trying to keep doing exactly what it’s doing in order to avoid death, and avoid spending extra energy. That is why it can be very difficult to form new eating or exercise habits, particularly when you are trying to gain or lose weight or pack on muscle. Simply being aware of this phenomenon can put you at a huge advantage and help you break through mental barriers preventing you from meeting your goals. For example, if you are trying to go up a weight class and add muscle, you’ll have to work out hard and eat much more than you’re comfortable eating because your body would prefer to maintain its current size. The opposite would apply for losing weight. For this reason, it is extremely important to get as close to your competition weight as early in the season as possible and stay there. When you’re in season, you’ll want to be focused on becoming a better wrestler, not on losing or gaining weight. That’s a major distraction that far too many wrestlers suffer from.
When you don’t have a solid nutrition plan or strategy, it’s very easy to fall victim to being “reactive” in your eating habits. You can probably think of a time when you had an extremely grueling practice and were so tired and hungry after, you went and found the biggest cheeseburger and fries you could find. Or maybe you find yourself randomly snacking throughout the day, eating whatever sounds appealing at the time. Don’t be that guy. Or girl. Learn to ask yourself “what fuel does my body need?” and “how will this help me perform better in my next practice or competition?”. It’s important to understand which types of nutrients you need at different times of the day. You won’t eat the same thing at breakfast as you do right before a workout, or after a workout for that matter.
I wish every wrestler everywhere could truly understand how vital this is. I can remember having teammates who seemed to take pride in how long they could go without eating because they were so damn “mentally tough”. Ok, dude. Those were the same teammates that gassed out after the first round and simply did not have the energy to wrestle a full match or practice. You know the ones – always wearing sweats, always in a bitter mood, and always letting people know how much easier they have it. The sad thing is – when you skip meals, your body thinks it’s starving. When you’re starving, your body will do everything in its power to save energy, and avoid burning fat. In fact, it will use muscle tissue as energy before it uses fat in those conditions. This doesn’t mean you have to gorge yourself with three course meals at all times of the day. You just have to eat something. Breakfast is arguably the most important because that sets the course for the rest of your day. When you give yourself fuel in the morning, it kick-starts your metabolism and lets your body know that it is not starving. Here’s an unofficial list of meals/snacks to consider including in your day: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, pre-workout, post workout, dinner.
Just like any other part of your training, or part of your everyday activities, routines and habits make everything much easier. Do you have to remember to brush your teeth? Or do you have to constantly use your smartphone to remember how to get home from work or school? I sure hope not. Once you’ve done it consistently for awhile, it becomes automatic. The way you eat should be the same way. Yes, it will take some “setup” time to develop a meal plan and convince your body and mind to change. However, you’ll want to aim for being on autopilot once you find what works. Your brain creates habits from your regular activities you do over and over to help save energy and be more efficient. Furthermore, you’ll experience far less mental stress when you don’t have to constantly be thinking about what to eat next.
Remember Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy”? If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and get caught up so you understand this silly reference. Basically, the character Bobby Boucher is spot on when it comes to proper hydration: plain, pure, clean water is the absolute best form of hydration. Most sports drinks are full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, etc. which are really unnecessary and often harmful to your health. Also be careful with anything caffeinated, because caffeine will dehydrate you fast, and end up draining your energy if you don’t also drink extra water with it. While last minute dehydration is sometimes called for to get down to weight, it is not a strategy for long term weight loss, and should not be done outside of 24 hours before competition. In fact, drinking water regularly will help you lose fat over time with the right training and diet plan in place. More importantly, you’ll be more energized and get through training with less fatigue and fewer injuries and cramps. A good rule of thumb is to drink a gallon of water for every 100 grams of protein you consume.
Another factor in the water category is sodium (salt) consumption. I won’t go into too much detail here, but just know that too much sodium will make you retain more water than you need (excess weight), without it actually being readily available for your muscles to use while training.
Sorry calorie counters, but there’s more to life than obsessing over every little calorie and crumb. The content and quality of the food you eat has a far greater impact on your health, energy, and ability to lose or gain weight than calories do. Think about this: a well-balanced meal with some organic meat and raw veggies may have the same calorie count as a couple candy bars. Which one do you think will help you recover or perform better? I’ll give you hint: it’s not the candy bars. When you focus on eating a variety more natural, whole foods, you’ll find that you can train harder, recover faster, be more alert, and satisfy your cravings with fewer overall calories than if you eat processed junk food.
As you work to improve your diet and training, notice how you feel and how your body reacts to different foods and pay attention to the size and frequency of your meals. I would highly advise keeping some type of journal. When you feel great and energized, take note of what and when you ate. Likewise, keep track of when you feel fatigued, unfocused, or weak. The way you feel is almost always directly correlated with your diet, sleep, and the way you train. Learn to be a student of your own health, or even a detective. Try to collect as much information as possible so you can begin to recognize patterns. From there, you can eliminate negative habits, and reinforce the ones that make you perform better.
Photo credit to John Sachs. Tech-fall.com