How Should Wrestlers Eat During The Season? | 5 Diet & Nutrition Tips For Wrestling
Who hasn’t heard a horror story of a wrestler cutting weight? The stories come across as part demonic possession mixed with zombie slithering. Wrestlers projectile vomiting prior to crawling across the floor to stand on the scale, eyes glazed as if in death throes, all to make weight for the match. High school coaches, children’s own parents even, force their kids to run around in trash bags, covered in sweats, while in a sauna, only to chastise the athlete’s poor performance on the mat.
What type of expectation is that? The kid just did some survival horror type of shenanigans and they didn’t perform as expected in competition? Spoilers, could’a told ya how that one was gonna end.
Or how about this scenario: the coach tells the wrestler to cut down two weight classes, because the coach says they’ll dominate the lighter weight class with their superior strength. Glad to break it to ya coach, but these theories hanging around from the 1960s and 1970s forgot to mention about the deterioration of strength that takes place with such a drastic weight cut.
Throw out the ancient and archaic theories and practices and start to recognize the scientifically proven nutrition practices that have materialized in the last two decades to help parents, coaches and athletes to help understand what needs to be done during the wrestling season with nutrition.
What Do Wrestlers Need?
When competing in the sport of wrestling, a wrestler needs to be fully hydrated. Fully hydrated wrestlers have more energy, can react faster and their muscles are going to fire a little bit faster because their muscles are going to utilize ATP more effectively. Wrestlers who are dehydrated will perform poorer. The wrestler will feel sluggish, hindering the athlete’s mental game and slowing down reaction time.
Wrestlers also need to make sure their muscles are saturated with glucose. Glucose is the key to creating ATP. ATP helps during high intensity training and activities. Trying not to give too much away here, but wrestling is a pretty high intensity sport. Keep that on the D.L.
Besides having the body hydrated and the muscles saturated with glucose, wrestlers need to be strong with solid relative strength and absolute strength (especially for the upper weight classes). Wrestlers also need to have exceptional strength endurance. All of these are important from a training perspective, but what good are they if the wrestler is malnourished?
A malnourished wrestler is not getting enough micronutrients. They haven’t cut weight properly. A malnourished wrestler isn’t getting enough macronutrients. The malnourished wrestler is then feeling sluggish, devoid of energy and all the key elements of sports performance go by the wayside.
Recognize that the key behind sports performance is proper nutrition for recovery. We have another secret to share. Keep this one quiet, too. Wrestling is one of the most grueling sports on the planet.
Own it: to recover effectively a wrestler needs to be eating optimally for their specified weight class.
5. Thermic Effect Of Food
The thermic effect of food can be thought of this way. Think of a fire pit out in the backyard and there needs to be a fire burning outside in that pit. But to get the fire going, a large log that is waterlogged needs to be used to keep the fire going. Now to pull the energy out of that log, a lot of energy needs to be expended to get it torched. Conversely, using dry kindling, a few leaves, takes a quick strike of a match and the fire is burning up energy, easy peasy.
This is where protein comes into play. Let’s say 30% of a diet’s daily intake of calories comes from protein, for every gram of protein, out of those 4 calories in that gram of protein, the body will use about a quarter of those calories to get the other calories out. It is important to understand this because in the sport of wrestling athletes may have to count calories and be very precise. Fiber has a pretty good thermic effect of food ratio, too.
Fats on the other hand, not so thermally effective. The thermic effect of fat is only about 2-3%. Meaning the athlete barely burns calories to get the other calories out. Protein is a lot more effective (as well as those higher, fibrous foods) when comprehending the thermic effect of food to help in weight cuts.
4. Effective Refeeds
Understand that refeeds can increase an athletes’ basal metabolic rate. Say the wrestler has a dual meet on a Tuesday and a tournament on a Saturday and needs to cut a few pounds. In this hypothetical situation, imagine eating 2k calories daily; and then, for one day, this wrestler decides to effectively refeed and eat 2.4k calories after the dual meet. This causes the basal metabolic rate to rise because bodies like to be in homeostasis. Bodies like to be in homeostasis because it creates the condition for optimal functioning for the body, to the point where the body is constantly adapting to remain in homeostasis. So, by increasing that 2k calorie intake to a 2.4k calorie intake for a day, the body can be triggered to create a slight rise in its basal metabolic rate.
The key now, after the 2.4K refeed day, is to drop the daily calories down to 1.8K daily. What happens is a really positive aspect in the weight drop. The wrestler will still be eating and nourishing the body, but the triggered increase in the basal metabolic rate has them heading into that tourney feeling better, ready to seek and destroy. And because they’re at the tournament, the wrestler can refeed again quite aggressively.
3. Cut Carbs | Last Resort!
We recommend not cutting carbs. However, a lot of coaches are incessant about cutting carbs. And honestly, in some cases, wrestlers are almost forced to cut carbs. Think of cutting carbs as a last resort to be used on the last day of cutting to help get rid of some water weight which might give the athlete that pound or pound and a half for weigh-ins. But be sure post weigh-in, to have a good plan in place to replenish glycogen stores.
The main reason we don’t like cutting carbs prior to the last day before competition is because it can impede the wrestler’s performance in the practice room. If the wrestler’s performance in the practice room is impeded, they will not become a better wrestler! Face it, cutting carbs causes energy levels to drop quite a bit causing the athlete to not feel as powerful and next thing, the athlete is dogging it in training. Not good.
2. Count Calories
We know a lot of people are out there grumbling, complaining how difficult it is counting calories.
Just count them!
The wrestler doesn’t even need to be super, super precise. The wrestler needs to be able to understand what they need to take in throughout the week to recover well and what they need to cut to see a diminishment in weight if they have to make a specific weight class.
The values in counting calories are extreme. The athlete can start to see where they are getting specific macros, understand their thermic effect of food, can see where their protein and fiber are coming from, and next thing they know, the athlete is feeling better and performing on the mat. Why? Because the athlete is counting calories, spending more time and effort into their craft.
We can’t state strongly enough how important it is to track calories as a wrestler. Counting calories can have a dramatic impact on improved performance. To be a champion, state, collegiate or world, start counting calories and begin to understand how important nutrition is for performance.
1. Meal Preparation
More grumbling. We hear it. But remember, a key to succeeding in wrestling is that proper nutrition sparks recovery from every training session.
By laying out all the meals that are going to be eaten throughout the week, knowing how much protein, fat and carbs that are going to be gobbled up each and everyday, the wrestler’s nutrition will be on point. It will be easier to not binge eat and resist the junk food that turns wrestlers into zombies who then have to starve themselves to make weight.
Champion wrestlers meal prep. They execute exercises properly, every rep is crucial for success in the weight room AND every meal prep rep is crucial for recovery! They lay out their meals at the beginning of the week and prepare their meals based on practice intensity, caloric need and ideal nutrient intake. They understand when it is appropriate to refeed based on training intensity. Meal prep showcases preparedness.
Champions put the work in. Not only do wrestling champions work technique, strength and spend ample amounts of time on the mat preparing, they make it a priority to have their nutrition in tip top shape. Champion caliber wrestlers understand the thermic effect of food, making sure to eat plenty of foods rich in protein and fiber. Champions also effectively utilize refeeds within their weekly meal preps to trigger their basal metabolic rate to increase. They also remember that when they are prepping their meals, the calories are being counted to best monitor and ensure optimal performance throughout training and in competition. They are also aware that, if necessary, how many calories need to be cut for proper weight loss. And finally, champions only cut out carbs on the last day, if at all, because they know how important glycogen stores are for performance. At the very least, a champion level wrestler has a strong plan in place to replenish glycogen stores if cutting carbs is necessary.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.