Wrestling is physically and mentally demanding. So is one of the most challenging aspects of wrestling:
Making weight—the right way.
Morris Bird, Program Director for Beat the Streets Los Angeles, a program that provides youth development through sports for wrestlers in the Greater Los Angeles area, says making weight the right way starts well in advance of shedding a few extra pounds before a meet or tournament.
It starts by eating right, focusing on maintaining peak physical shape, and maintaining healthy body fat percentage, such as that outlined by the NWCA Optimal Performance Calculator for weight management.
“If an athlete doesn’t start with these things, they should not be cutting at all,” Bird says.
So, start with the basics, such as emphasizing weight management.
“Our focus isn’t on cutting weight, but managing it,” says Joe Block, head coach of the Prior Lake High School wrestling team in Minnesota. Block emphasizes these points with wrestlers when discussing nutrition and weight management:
- Wrestlers may have some extra weight they can afford to lose, but the number of pounds for everyone differs depending on the size of the athlete. Determining the optimal weight for each wrestler helps create a plan that fits each individual need.
- During the season, eliminate all fast food and sugary drinks, including energy drinks and fruit juices.
- Ask yourself if what you are putting into your mouth is food or fuel.
- Do not skip breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day, even if it’s something small like a granola bar and a piece of fruit.
- Try to eat four or five smaller meals throughout the day. It’s better to snack throughout the day than to have a big lunch.
- Whatever you do, don’t cut out water. As a matter of fact, do the opposite. Increase your water intake as it helps with all kinds of things and makes it easier to manage your weight.
“This is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a start for most kids,” Block says.
Make discussing nutrition and weight management part of practice routine
Making and monitoring weight is one thing; making good food choices and eating right is another, says Danny Struck, head coach of the Jeffersonville High School wrestling team in Indiana. But the two combined are necessary to succeed at making weight the right way. Never take for granted what a kid knows about nutrition, Struck says. He once was emphasizing the nutritional value of eating chicken breasts as a healthy food choice, but then found out an athlete was eating breaded chicken breasts. So, find out what athletes are eating, and find out what type of resources they have to eat right. Anyone can create a food plan, but not all athletes can follow it.
“Many times, coaches hand kids food plans, but they have no idea what the kid was already eating,” says Struck says. “They have no idea what other workouts the kids are doing, they have no idea the financial support the kid has at home. So, what I do is have the kids give me a three-to-five-day log of what they ate, along with the workouts they completed. This way I can adjust what they are doing instead of handing them a meal plan that they can't afford or doesn't fit their life. Some people write meal plans for kids and the kid gains weight because that person’s weight management plan is more than what the kid already does, or vice versa."
Crunch time: Making weight before a meet or tournament
When it comes to crunch time—to make weight before a meet or tournament, each team has different strategies to find success. At Jeffersonville, they monitor weight daily, and set weekly weight management goals. But two days out from an event, no athlete can leave practice more than two pounds over their competition weight. And nobody can leave practice the night before a meet without making weight. Because weight management strategies have been implemented and worked on over a long period time, no one is forced to make a drastic, or unhealthy late-night push to make weight an unhealthy way (such as through starving, dehydration or sweating in a sauna).
"This strategy also allows them to go home and have some room for a meal the night before a Saturday meet without starving themselves," says Struck.
On meet days, the Jeffersonville coaching staff shops for food for team members. All kids pitch in $7 and the coaching staff fills a "weekend cooler" with nutritional food.
“This also teaches kids what to eat on their own,” Struck says.
Michelle Harreld is an instructor with Portland Community College’s Institute for Health Professionals and has a Master of Science in Nutrition. She works closely with the Forest Grove High School wrestling team in Oregon (coached by former University of Iowa wrestler Chad Beatty), providing nutrition and weight management education and seminars to wrestlers, parents and coaches. Harreld stresses the importance of a big breakfast that includes protein and healthy fat, because of its importance for efficient metabolism. She also recommends water intake first thing in the morning, and throughout the day—if you’re thirsty, you're already dehydrated—balanced snacks throughout the day (avocados, hard-boiled eggs, celery or apples with nut butters) and having healthy foods available for competition days.
At Forest Grove, parents also help put together several coolers of food during competition and create a healthy food sign-up sheet that circulates to parents each week, so they can chip in and/or donate.
“Having more of a community approach to nutrition and weight management makes it easier on everyone and helps to keep everyone on track,” Harreld says.
A positive trend in wrestling is that more coaches are focusing on kids competing at more natural weights, versus the old days of drastic cuts, sucking down, and taking out the joy of the sport for a young wrestler. But at times, it may be inevitable that an athlete will struggle to make weight. Think twice before considering bending weight management rules and guidelines. “Ideally, the wrestler would not wrestle if put into a “cutting” situation and a new weight management plan would be made to help keep him/her on track for the next competition,” Harreld says. Any “cutting” practices will have detrimental results on the health of the athlete as well as their performance on the mat. It’s important to remember that winning should not come at the cost of an athlete's health.”
“The right weight class for a wrestler is the one in which the athlete feels the strongest mentally and physically,” Bird says. “If it’s too taxing on the mind and body to drop to a lower class, they shouldn’t do it. Parents and coaches should err on the side of encouraging the athlete to not drop to a lower class.”
In fact, no wrestler should ever cut weight before high school, Bird says.
If youth coaches require kids to shed more than a few pounds, parents should ask questions and bring this up with a coach. Shedding a pound or two is considered okay, but until a kid is a freshman in high school, cutting weight should not be done, Bird says.
“Parents should put their foot down with a coach who encourages unhealthy weight cutting or encourages a young athlete to cut weight,’ he says. “If the desire to cut weight doesn’t start with the kid, you are doing a disservice to the kid to encourage it. Just let the kid wrestle and as he or she develops in the sport, they can decide their best weight and whether they can drop .5 or 2 or 5 pounds.”
Additional nutritional tips
As Director of Performance Nutrition with the University of Nebraska Athletics program, Lindsey Remmers works with Division I athletes in all sports, including members of the Huskers wrestling team. She provides tips to help make weight the right way:
- Walk around hydrated: Walk around hydrated at 5–8 percent of your scratch weight during the season. This will make cuts less stressful on your body.
- Food is fuel: Eat consistently, especially when training, and even when trying to lose weight. Example meal cycle:
- 600–700 calorie breakfast
- 600–700 calorie lunch
- 200 calorie snack before practice
- 200–300 calorie recovery drink after practice (chocolate milk, for example, but not an energy or juice drink)
- 500–600 calorie dinner
- Optional 100–200 calorie snack if hungry after dinner.
- Start cutting calories 48 hours prior to a competition if more weight loss is needed.
“Don’t start cutting water too early,” Remmers says. “If you do, your body will actually try to hang on to fluids as much as it can. Start cutting salt intake 48 hours prior to competition, as well as fiber to help eliminate excess waste without adding more.”
Additional weight management tips
On Sundays, for example, a typical off day during the wrestling season, encourage an “active rest day,” Struck says. If a wrestler goes for a run, or walk, or participates in an outdoor or indoor activity that’s not a planned workout, but still gets the body moving, that can help keep weight manageable after a meet or weekend competition, helping to resist the urge to splurge until the next weigh-in.
“You have to get to know your kids, and find out what they know,” Struck says. “Just as coaching is about relationships, building relationships on nutrition knowledge is part of that relationship; it will allow you to know how much support that child has at home in following your nutritional plan.”
Put these ideas together, and you have the foundation and education to make weight—the right way.