It's no secret that proper nutrition and diet are necessary to achieve success in wrestling. But one equally important aspect is often overlooked: proper hydration. Drinking the right fluids at the right time keeps wrestlers performing at peak levels while also keeping them healthy. And parents and coaches play a key role in making sure wrestlers are properly hydrated.
"Don’t wait for your child to announce that they are thirsty," says Sara Fulp-Allen, a seven-time U.S. National team member who is now a coach with Virginia Wrestling Association. “Make sure they are drinking a glass of water each morning with breakfast and packing water for school. Slowly, they will learn to recognize their own thirst and take care of their needs on their own.
Fulp-Allen also encourages other coaches to emphasize water breaks to teach the importance of drinking water.
"It’s not beneficial to the athlete when coaches create a 'water breaks are for wimps' attitude in their wrestling room," she says. "Especially when we are dealing with children. Help them develop good habits. Just as much as the coach and parents want to develop wrestling skills for the future of the athlete, they need to teach good hydration habits.
“When I was training, water was one of my best friends," Fulp-Allen recalls. "I would start out each morning drinking water immediately after I woke up. Depending on what kind of workout I had in the morning, I would drink one to three [8-ounce] glasses before I ate breakfast. Then 30 minutes before each workout I tried to have at least one glass of water. This ensured that I always had enough water to start my training off right.”
Water makes up anywhere from 50 to 65 percent of our bodies, notes Craig Horswill, who is an associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Wrestlers, who are much leaner than the population, tend to be on the high side of that number, he adds. But more importantly, Horswill notes that water comprises around three-quarters of muscle tissue and 80 percent of our bloodstream, which is key to cardiovascular performance. "Water plays a crucial role because it brings good stuff to our muscles, like oxygen and glucose, and takes away the bad stuff, like heat,” he explains. “When we exercise, we sweat, and if we don’t replace those fluids the chance for muscle failure and overheating increases.”
For the most part, Horswill and other experts recommend mostly using water to replenish lost fluids. Still, after strenuous exercise for a prolonged period, replacing electrolytes is also key to good physical recovery. Some sports drinks can fulfill that role, but experts warn against beverages that are heavily laden with sugar or supplements like caffeine, which can reduce sleep and impact muscle recovery, leading to decreased performance and strength.
"What you put into your body is what you will get out," says Fulp-Allen. "You may say to yourself that you don’t feel any difference in your performance when you drink high-sugar drinks versus water. It may not always seem like the sugar and lack of hydration is affecting your body, when in fact it is. Water is the delivery system. Your body uses water to develop energy and deliver it to the muscles that need it. High-sugar drinks slowly dehydrate the athlete and the cheap sugars wear off quickly, leaving the wrestler tired and their muscles deprived."
One of the best ways to track hydration, Horswill points out, involves something that wrestlers already do routinely: weigh themselves. “I used to wrestle and I know that most wrestlers could tell you their weight down to the quarter-pound,” Horswill says. This weight awareness can be very helpful in understanding how much water an athlete needs to replace after a practice or tournament. “You should replace weight lost from sweat, pound for pound,” he says. “So, if after a practice a wrestler is a pound lighter, they should intake 16 ounces of water as part of their recovery.”
Water also serves as critical foundation before a match, according to Horswill. “I know it’s real easy to try to make weight by cutting down on fluids,” he notes, “but it’s far better to reduce body fat, since that’s something that doesn’t affect performance.”
Fulp-Allen agrees, and says she came to understand the importance of staying hydrated while managing her competition weight. "This enabled me to stay hydrated for all my workouts while weight was being lost. It also helps move the food through your system and deliver energy where it is greatly needed. When you are trying to maintain your weight class by eating less, water becomes and even more important factor in your daily routine."
Steve Preston, a strength and conditioning coach who created the Ultimate Wrestling Strength (strength and conditioning program for wrestlers and MMA athletes), echoes this sentiment. "I always explain to wrestlers that they are in a sport where muscular strength is crucial," says Preston. "They don’t have teammates while they are out there. They don’t have special equipment. All they have is themselves and their strength. Muscles are made up of water. A dehydrated muscle is a weak muscle. Keeping hydrated will help you keep strong as well as go the distance in a match."
Hydration 101 tips from experts: