Calls for sporting organisations to improve education for coaches and athletes
The practice of rapid weight loss (RWL) in order to “make weight” for competition is common across a range of weight category sports; however the sources of information in support of these practices, specifically among mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes and powerlifters, is a cause for concern, according to research from Dublin City University.
The research, involving lead academics Dr Brendan Egan, David Nolan and John Connor from the School of Health and Human Performance profiled over 260 athletes engaging in RWL prior to competing.
They found that the practices varied considerably between sports in terms of both methods and magnitude; but common to both sports was that much of the practices were influenced by coaches and fellow athletes, whereas medical and health professionals including dietitians had minimal contributions.
The findings have prompted calls for a more comprehensive examination of the trends, with a view to establishing protocols to safeguard athlete wellbeing and also for governing sports bodies to assume a role in advising athletes and coaches.
Rapid weight loss is frequently carried out in sports that have weight class restrictions, and includes wrestling, judo, boxing, taekwondo,horse riding, rowing, and the aforementioned MMA and powerlifting.
Generally speaking, it involves athletes cutting weight in the 48 hours before competition through a variety of means that reduce food contents from the gut and overall body water content through dehydration.
The practices vary between sports, depending on factors such as the time from weigh-in to competition and the historical/cultural practices of the sport.
Drinking up to ten litres of water per day in a process known as water loading, lengthy fasting periods, immersion in hot salt water baths, and time in the sauna were some of the most frequent methods employed for rapid weight loss by these athletes.
A major difference between powerlifters and MMA fighters is the time from weigh-in to competition being two hours versus thirty hours respectively.
Therefore, the difference in time to adequately replenish fuel and fluid stores after weigh-in (termed Rapid Weight Gain) may explain why MMA fighters lose on average 8% of their body weight shortly before weigh-in whereas this is closer to 3% of body weight for powerlifters.
Dr Brendan Egan, DCU School of Health and Human Performance said:
“Rapid weight loss practices have been around for a long time in these sports, and as long as there are weight categories, athletes will look to gain a competitive advantage using these practices.
It is important to understand which methods are being used, and how widely they are being used, and in turn understand which individuals are most influential in providing information to athletes about these practices.
Clearly there is scope to improve the quality of information provided to athletes across a range of sports, but there is also a lot more research needed on the effectiveness and safety of the methods presently being used”.
The prevalence of RWL in the sample cohort of MMA athletes is generally greater than 95% while in the sample of powerlifters it stood at 86%.
The prevalence of RWL in female powerlifters is over 90% and 83% for their male counterparts.
The body mass loss in RWL for powerlifters scored quite low at less than 3% body mass in contrast to MMA being less than 8%.
The body mass loss as part of the RWL process is greater in MMA than other sports and RWL is generally greater in MMA than other combat sport athletes.
The opportunity for recovery in powerlifting is reduced by the fact that weigh-in before competition is usually two hours beforehand, leaving little time for recovery of fuel and fluid stores reduced by RWL and thus impacting strength; a key element of powerlifting.
The methods used most commonly by Irish MMA athletes were those that reduced body water stores i.e; water loading, fluid restriction and hot salt baths. Winter or plastic suits, spitting, laxatives, diuretics, diet pills and vomiting (all RWL methods) are not commonly used in the MMA or powerlifters sample cohort.
There were higher RWL scores in professional athletes compared to amateur fights indicating greater severity of RWL by professional fighters.
The differences in methods of RWL between other combat and weight category sports remain to be explored.
Several factors are at play including the culture of the sport, the number of weigh-ins and the duration of the time period from weigh-in to competition.
Fellow fighters and coaches were the most influential sources of information in both powerlifters and MMA athletes whereas health and fitness professionals such as doctors and dietitians had limited influence.
Self Reported Prevalence, Magnitude and Methods of Rapid Weight Loss in Male and Female Powerlifters authored by David Nolan, DCU School of Health and Human Performance, Arthur E Lynch, Dept of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Limerick and Brendan Egan, DCU School of Health and Human Performance and Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, Pensacola, Florida was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in January 2020.
Prevalence, magnitude and methods of rapid weight loss reported by mixed martial arts athletes in Ireland authored by John Connor and Brendan Egan of the DCU School of Health and Human Performance is published in the Journal, Sports (Basel) in September 2019