Jan 29, 2015Preparing for Battle
The yearly training cycle for wrestlers includes three distinct phases, and an optimal nutrition strategy should target specific goals for each one.
By Susan Kundrat
Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is President of Nutrition on the Move, Inc., based in Urbana, Ill., and consults with athletes from the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and Bradley University. She and sports dietitian Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, CSSD, recently launched RK Team Nutrition (www.rkteamnutrition.net), providing sports nutrition handouts, training, and workshops for health professionals who work with athletes.
At first glance, wrestling seems like such a simple sport: It’s just you, your opponent, and the mat, and the objective is very straightforward. But anyone who has worked with wrestlers knows it’s much more complicated than that. Success depends on a special combination of strength, power, agility, quickness, coordination, endurance, mental toughness, and tactical skill.
Nutrition planning for wrestlers has a very similar dynamic–what seems basic can actually be quite complex. To support optimal performance, a wrestling nutrition program must be versatile enough to account for different phases of the training year–“bulking up” versus “leaning out”–and managed closely enough to deliver desired weight loss without sacrificing valuable lean muscle.
In my 15 years of experience planning nutrition programs for wrestlers at successful NCAA Division I programs, I have developed strategies to help wrestlers go into every match well nourished, well hydrated, and fully energized. In this article, I’ll lay out my goals for each phase of the training year, explain what dietary adjustments can be made to achieve them, and provide some sample menus and meal ideas that have worked well for my athletes.
OFF-SEASON: BULKING UP
During the off-season and the months leading up to fall workouts, wrestlers generally focus on making strength gains by maximizing lean muscle mass. They typically spend fewer hours on the mat and more in the weightroom. From a nutrition perspective, that means they must consume enough total calories to support muscular hypertrophy, with a special emphasis on protein consumption every day.
Let’s take a closer look at the top priorities for this time of year:
Calories. When looking to add muscle, wrestlers should take in at least 500 calories per day above their standard maintenance needs. For example, if a wrestler is training two hours per day in the off-season, he would require at least 20 calories per pound of body weight per day (3,300 calories for a 165-pound wrestler). Add 500 to that for lean muscle building, and you get a total of 3,800 calories per day.
An intense strength training program typically results in a robust appetite, so this energy intake goal shouldn’t be difficult for most wrestlers to achieve. I recommend eating several small meals throughout the day, and supplementing with snacks before and after workouts to maximize lean muscle gains.
Protein. Wrestlers can benefit from up to one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day when training to add strength. Protein consumption should be spread throughout the day to maximize muscle building, with the greatest attention paid to foods eaten before and after hard workouts–consuming protein at these times minimizes natural protein loss and maximizes muscle recovery.
Including proteins from a wide variety of whole food sources ensures that athletes take in a broad spectrum of amino acids, creatine (which occurs naturally in many foods), and other key nutrients. Some excellent protein sources are eggs, milk products, red meats, white meats, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Carbohydrates. Wrestlers should consume at least 50 to 55 percent of their energy in the form of carbohydrates (2.0 to 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day), especially during periods of heavy training. For a 165-pound wrestler eating 3,800 calories per day, this means a minimum of 1,900 calories of carbs (475 grams) on a daily basis. There are many well-known and healthy sources of carbs, including whole wheat pasta, fruits and vegetables, lean dairy products, and legumes.
Fat. During strength building, wrestlers should get at least 15 to 20 percent of their energy from fat–for our 165-pound wrestler, that means 63 to 84 grams of fat and 570 to 760 calories from fat per day. With an adequate training volume, this amount won’t lead to unwanted fatty weight gain, but it will support optimum muscle growth and overall health. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are the best choices, since they can help decrease inflammation (which may result from heavy training) and aid in muscle recovery. Some good examples include salmon, tuna, walnuts, and flax seeds.
Phase One in the “On the Menu” sidebar (at the end of this article) shows a sample day’s meal plan that would allow a typical 165-pound wrestler to meet all the nutrition goals I’ve outlined for muscle building. Note that protein-rich choices are included pre- and post-workout, and that I’ve added “extra water” with each meal to emphasize proper hydration.
PRESEASON: LEANING OUT
In the two months or so before the start of the competitive season, it’s critical for wrestlers who need to lose weight to follow a practical, sound plan for dropping body fat. This should begin with an initial weigh-in and body composition analysis. Based on the athlete’s starting weight, you can then set specific goals and benchmarks that can help ensure safe weight loss.
The most important thing to monitor for wrestlers’ weight management is the rate of loss: An athlete should never lose more than 1.5 percent of their body weight per week. Shedding pounds faster than that can raise serious health concerns, and once the season begins, both the NFHS and the NCAA have rules prohibiting weekly weight loss beyond 1.5 percent. There are also limits in both high school and college for minimum body fat percentage: High school wrestlers at NFHS-governed schools cannot drop below seven percent overall body fat during the season, and NCAA wrestlers must stay at or above five percent.
Returning to our 165-pound wrestler, let’s assume his body composition analysis reveals 12 percent body fat. Since he is a college student, he wants to be near the NCAA minimum of five percent, which would set his minimum weight at 153 pounds. By losing between one percent and 1.5 percent of his body fat per week over an eight-week preseason, he could easily achieve his goal and compete in the 157-pound class.
One important note: Five percent is the minimum healthy body fat percentage for college-age wrestlers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the goal most wrestlers should strive for. Many find they have more energy and perform better at a higher body fat percentage–in fact, one study of NCAA champion wrestlers found their average body fat to be around 8.5 percent. Rather than focus on a set minimum, it’s much better to talk with athletes regularly about their energy level, their overall performance, and how they feel while they’re losing weight. This can help them find their own optimal body fat percentage.
So how can a wrestler safely lose weight? The goal is to drop adipose tissue (fat) while retaining muscle mass and lean tissue, so the best strategy is to lower caloric intake but maintain adequate protein consumption. Using the formula introduced earlier, the 165-pound wrestler would need 3,300 calories for maintenance–but now, instead of adding calories for muscle growth, we’ll take some away for weight loss. Subtracting 750 calories per day, for a total of 2,550, would result in about 1.5 pounds of weight loss per week. Over the course of two months, that would bring our athlete down to his legal minimum of 153 pounds.
The calorie reduction should come from adjustments to carbohydrate and fat intake, with protein consumption holding steady at about one gram per pound of body weight per day. In addition to preventing lean muscle loss, protein also enhances feelings of satiety, making the athlete less likely to feel chronically hungry as he scales back his daily caloric intake.
Phase Two in the “On the Menu” sidebar (at the end of this article) is a sample day’s meal plan for fat loss. Post-workout fueling remains unchanged, since a quality recovery shake at this time can help protect lean muscle mass.
IN-SEASON: MAKING WEIGHT
During the season, wrestlers can optimize their nutrient stores and perform at a higher level by avoiding large fluctuations in weight. Because hydration status accounts for most weight change in a typical week, athletes should aim for consistency in hydration at all times.
Short-term weight loss (“weight cutting”) through dehydration causes losses in glycogen and lean muscle tissue, which can have several negative health and performance effects–it may take 24 to 48 hours after a period of dehydration to replenish muscle glycogen and body fluid levels. This is another area where governing bodies have stepped in to help keep athletes safe: At both the college and high school levels, weigh-ins must occur when the wrestler is in a hydrated state as measured by a urine test of specific gravity.
It’s easy to teach athletes to self-assess hydration status by monitoring their urine throughout the day. Frequent trips to the bathroom and relatively clear urine is good, while infrequent trips and darker color is a sign they need to drink more fluids. Encourage wrestlers to drink on a schedule before and during workouts, as fluid loss through sweat may exceed two liters per hour during hard exercise. Carrying a water bottle to classes and refilling it throughout the day is one simple and effective way to improve hydration habits.
Aside from consistent hydration status, weight maintenance should be the primary goal for in-season wrestlers. Addressing any weight issues in the preseason eliminates the burden of attempting weight loss during competitive cycles, so the athlete can focus simply on avoiding unwanted weight gain or loss.
One of the best ways to maintain weight consistency during the season is to avoid binge eating, so I encourage wrestlers to eat smaller meals several times a day. In addition to helping prevent overeating, this strategy maximizes available energy for workouts and matches. It also enhances recovery, especially if the athlete is working out (training, competing, or otherwise physically active) more than once a day. Going into every workout with fuel on board is essential for optimal performance, and that can be achieved by eating a snack or small meal every three hours or so throughout the day.
Another way to promote weight consistency is by adjusting the energy density of an athlete’s meals. Wrestlers are very physically active during their sport season, so they may be tempted to turn those frequent, smaller meals into frequent, larger ones. To avoid excess calorie consumption, you can help them find ways to boost total food volume without piling on too many calories.
Low-calorie fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach are inexpensive and can be eaten in larger quantities without breaking the calorie budget. Foods with high water content, such as oranges, melons, green beans, and celery are also great choices.
Lastly, smart protein consumption throughout the day can also boost satiety and prevent overeating to assist in weight maintenance. Keeping the goal of one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, wrestlers should focus on spreading that protein out across several meals. For instance, they might have an egg or two with breakfast, choose lunchtime sandwiches with moderate amounts of meat, have a handful of nuts with a post-workout snack, and eat an evening meal with a serving of beans as a side dish. Protein in liquid form, such as that found in protein shakes, is less effective than solid protein in promoting satiety, so I recommend that athletes focus on whole food sources whenever possible.
A FINAL WARNING
Strength building and weight management–the two major emphases of nutrition planning for wrestlers–are perennial hot topics in the nutritional supplement marketplace. There are literally hundreds of products available on store shelves and over the Internet claiming to offer a shortcut to fat loss, bigger muscles, and extra energy. So when talking to wrestlers about their nutrition and performance goals, supplements and their risks should always be part of the discussion.
Nutritional supplements raise concerns ranging from safety to effectiveness to contamination, but for a wrestler looking for fast results, the marketing hype may be difficult to resist. Your message needs to be clear: Virtually every performance or body goal the athlete wants to take a supplement for can be achieved more naturally through a sound dietary plan.
In most cases, once athletes see their performance improving after making appropriate nutritional changes, the allure of supplements is much less of a problem. With a comprehensive nutritional strategy tailored for each phase of wrestlers’ yearly calendar, they’ll find themselves fueled, energized, and ready to perform at their best.
Sidebar: ON THE MENU
Below are sample menus for two different phases of a wrestler’s year: muscle building, which typically occurs in the off-season; and weight loss, which, if necessary, should occur in the two months leading up to the start of the competitive season.
The menu for Phase One contains roughly 3,800 calories, 550 grams of carbohydrates, and 100 grams of fat. The menu for Phase Two contains roughly 2,550 calories, 380 grams of carbohydrates, and 45 grams of fat. Both menus contain about 165 grams of protein or one gram of protein per pound of body weight (these were prepared for a 165-pound wrestler), since consistent protein intake is a key to building and protecting lean muscle.
Phase One: Muscle Building
Breakfast: 2 whole wheat bagels with peanut butter 1 small banana 2 cups of 100 percent orange juice Extra water
Lunch: 3 soft tacos 1 side of beans 1 side of rice Extra water
Pre-Workout Snack: 1 cup of homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and granola Extra water
Post-Workout Snack: 1 recovery shake (250-300 calories) Extra water
Dinner: High-Protein Salad Dinner* 2 slices of whole grain bread 2 chocolate chip cookies Extra water
Snack: 2 cups of whole grain cereal 1 cup of skim milk Extra water
*High-Protein Salad Dinner: 3 cups baby spinach salad + 4 boiled egg whites + Ω cup cooked chicken breast + 1 cup mandarin oranges + 1 cup shredded carrots + 2 tablespoons fat-free Italian dressing.
Phase Two: Weight Loss
Breakfast: Egg Scramble Breakfast* Extra water
Lunch: 1 grilled hamburger on a bun 1 single-serving bag of baked chips 1 apple Iced tea or water
Pre-workout snack: 1 light yogurt cup 1 small banana Extra water
Post-workout: 1 recovery shake (250-300 calories) Extra water
Dinner: “Super” Vegetable Soup Dinner** Extra water
Snack: Peach smoothie: 2 cups skim milk + Ω cup light frozen yogurt + 1 cup unsweetened frozen peaches + ice Extra water
*Egg Scramble Breakfast: 1 cup egg substitute + 2 cups chopped green peppers, onions, and tomatoes + 1 slice whole grain toast with jam + 1 cup fresh strawberries.
**”Super” Vegetable Soup Dinner: 1 can (2 cups) low-fat vegetable bean soup + 2 cups canned green beans (added to soup) + 1 mini whole grain bagel, toasted with 1 ounce mozzarella cheese + 4 ounces shaved deli turkey + 1 orange.