Feb 2, 2018
Gradual Loss
Michelle Rockwell

Losing weight is tough. It can be even tougher when you are an athlete in-season. That’s because dieting can very easily jeopardize energy and nutrients critical for training and performance. In addition, the mental stress of restricting calories can become all-encompassing and turn into a performance-distracter.

However, sometimes an athlete desperately wants to lose weight during the season. When that’s the case, it’s important to put a weight-loss plan in place, with some strict guidelines.

The first is to communicate often. Remind the athlete that there is a reason why the regular season is not the preferred time to focus on weight loss. Low energy levels, poor recovery, and poor concentration may occur on any restricted-calorie diet. Any physical or mental changes should be consistently communicated with the sports medicine team.

The second guideline is to start immediately. Initiate the weight-loss program as early in the season as possible, ideally in the early preseason when training volume and intensity are high and before competition begins. This will allow more time to space out the weight loss and lessen the chance it will have detrimental effects.

Third, keep it gradual. Athletes should lose no more than one to two pounds per week, and even that may be too fast in-season. Losing weight more rapidly is likely to cause loss of muscle tissue and potentially strength, speed, and power. Emphasize that drastic and rapid weight loss is always a health risk, but it is even riskier during intense training. Watch out for symptoms of inappropriately fast weight loss or excessive calorie-restriction, including increased injury or illness, decreased energy levels, poor recovery, and decreased performance.

Low-calorie diets are also more likely to lead to low intakes of important vitamins and minerals which can affect an athlete. For example, it is well known that iron deficiency impairs performance. Research has also shown a strong relationship between chronically inadequate calories (“energy drain”) and amenorrhea (loss of the regular menstrual cycle). Amenorrhea can be a concern in terms of reproductive health, but also in terms of bone health. Athletes with amenorrhea are more likely to have low bone mineral density, which predisposes them to fractures and eventually osteoporosis.

Even athletes in sports with weight classifications should shed pounds gradually. A wrestler who is 10 pounds over his weight class is much better off losing two pounds per week throughout the beginning of the season than crash dieting to lose it all at the last minute. The best scenario is when you can convince these athletes to stick to low-fat, but consistent diets.

If you need to make a specific calorie recommendation to the athlete striving to lose weight, I recommend assessing what they currently eat on a typical day (not a “good day” but a “typical day”), and reducing that amount by 10 to 20 percent. For example, a female swimmer who currently eats about 3,200 calories per day should be able to achieve weight loss without jeopardizing training and performance by cutting down to 2,500 to 2,700 calories per day.

Image by Luca Boldrini

Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, CSSD, is a private sports nutrition consultant based in Durham, N.C. She works with athletes and teams throughout the country ranging from recreational to professional.

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