Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Weighty Issue

Boxer Olivia Gerula at her weigh-in last year (left).

Most women think of their weight as a deep, dark secret. Few would be happy about weighing themselves in front of another person, but how about in a room full of people, including media with television cameras, wearing nothing but a bikini?

This is what all professional female fighters go through, and if you plan to fight at all, expect your weight to become common knowledge. When you're training, you'll be obsessing about that little (or not so little) number for weeks or even months.

While it might be tempting to just fight at whatever weight you're at, there's a real advantage to cutting weight. Say, for example, that you're a shorter guy with a stocky, muscular build. You stand 5'6" tall, but you weigh about 185 pounds. In a sport where many men are lean and lanky, your typical opponent will be at least six inches tall, if not taller. Which puts you at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to reach. In this case, dropping twenty or thirty pounds will most likely bring your opponents down to size. The general rule of thumb in fighting (unless you're a heavyweight) is 'the lighter, the better'.

Unfortunately, the weigh-in game has become just that: a game. Fighters will drastically dehydrate and even starve themselves before a weigh-in to make weight--then they binge and drink vast quantities of water in order to regain as much weight as they can before their actual fight a day later. The more muscular you are, the more you're able to play this game successfully, as muscle stores more water. Dehydration can make an athlete weigh-in deceptively light, but drinking plenty of water will bulk him back up again. For example, in the recent MMA match between Chris Stranger and Lindsey Hawkes, both fighters needed to weigh in at 170 pounds. Both were determined to make it to 184-186 pounds before their fight the next evening.

What does this rapid weight gain and loss do to athletic performance? If you're weighed down by heavy meals and excessive hydration right before your fight, doesn't this slow you down, make you sluggish? And what does it do to our health? Studies have shown that losing and regaining as little as ten pounds can be very dangerous to our livers, our hearts, and our metabolisms...and that's just for a start. Consider that most people who lose weight for fitness-related activities (including fitness competitions, boxing, and kickboxing) binge on junk food during the days following their competition, and the risk factors increase. I'm all for eliminating crap from our diets, but if we're going to just overload on it later, what's the point?

There are other dangers as well. We already know that the incidence of eating disorders is very high among women and girls who compete in figure skating, gymnastics, and dance--other activities where weight is seen as important. Females haven't been competing in the fighting arts long enough for there to be any conclusive statistics, but it stands to reason that eating disorders would plague women in these sports as well. And men, while not as frequently effected, should still be concerned. When I trained amid world champions, I certainly knew several men who suffered from severely disordered eating. I remember one guy telling me that he'd eaten chicken teriyaki for lunch, and so would not be eating a thing for the rest of the day. Yikes!

Losing weight by following a healthy diet and training hard is one thing. Losing it through a very unhealthy game of starve and binge is another. We've yet to see what the long-term effects of this will be on the young athletes of today, but I honestly can't imagine them being worth the risks.

Have you ever dropped weight for a competition, or know someone who has? Please share your experience!

** I should add, since I used Olivia's weigh-in photo to illustrate this post, that she does not employ the unhealthy methods of losing/gaining weight as described above. Several weeks before a fight, she eliminates sugary and fatty foods from her diet and steps up her training.

6 comments:

  1. Gain 15lbs overnight? I'd cry...

    Cycling is also a sport where weight is a huge issue. Especially when involves hauling your fat body up hills. I've put on a few pounds this year. That happened for a variety of reasons including less stress, too much alcohol and poor eating choices. How anyone who exercises as much as I do (5-10 hours of cardio a week) could put on as much weight as I have, is baffling to me. And I don't stand on scales, I go by how my clothes fit so it got a bit out of control without my knowing the exact numbers.

    Rapid weight loss confuses your body and diminishes performance. I imagine that rapid weight gain would do the same thing. Also increased activity can confuse the body too and make it believe it is starving and you will start storing fat instead of shedding it.

    I want to lose the pounds I put on but not overnight (as much as I would love for that to happen, it isn't healthy or realistic). My problem is I don't know how many calories is too many calories to eat given how many I burn with activity on a weekly basis. So if any of your readers have advice for me... I would appreaciate that too :-)

    Interesting question though. But you know with all the doping scandals in sport in recent times, that elite level athletes are often willing to sacrifice long term health for winning today.

    Dumb google is giving me grief about posting again as me... so it's KIM... like the cycling thing didn't give that away.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Kim...sorry about the posting issues--and your weight gain! I think it's easy to overestimate the calories burned when you're as active as we are, and then get really lax about what we eat/drink. "I just worked out for two hours! Pass the natchos!"

    And then there's the sad fact that when your body performs the same activity a lot, it adapts to it and therefore burns less calories for the same workout.

    I think changing up your routine with different types of exercise could really help, if you haven't already. I know that when I run, the fat melts off me. Good luck!

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  3. Yep, and I haven't been running for close to a year now too.. It is all associated. That and it sucks to be 40 and female. If I was a man this wouldn't be happening at the same rate. I need to try running again. It isn't like I wanted to stop, my legs haven't been cooperating with running the last few years.

    Oh and I've cut back on bread and I haven't had any beer in about 2.5 weeks. No desserts or tacos or other garbage food.

    As for the posting issue, that has happened a lot. That's part of the reason that I've posted less lately. There was one thing you wrote in the summer that I did comment on and it would never post and eventually I lost what I wrote and said, "forget it. Not writing it again," and moved on. Today it was at my work computer that google kept telling me that my gmail address associated with my google account was not authorized to post on your site. So I tried another (I have two) and it said the same thing. We'll see if the same address works now.

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  4. I read about you cutting out beer and bread on Facebook--good for you! How is it going?

    I find running really tough (especially with my knee injury), but I refuse to give up. I'm trying to run at least a mile most mornings to start with, until I get stronger.

    Sorry about the posting issue. I really don't know what to do. I don't want to leave Blogger, since it makes me so visible and I have a good presence here. I just hope they iron out the kinks sooner rather than later. And please, please copy and save your comments before you try to post them. Many thanks, Kim.

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  5. The posting thing is periodic, but it's happened enought that I've learned my lesson and I always copy what I wrote.

    No beer for 3 weeks. I'm living.
    I did about 2 weeks of no grains. Had a day off in there to carb load for a race. Then I had a day where I was STARVING and broke down and ate cheese bread with my kids. That was bad. But I've cut back a lot still. Trying to make healthier choices. Haven't noticed much difference in the way my pants fit though. Trying to bring some muscle building into my regime to help with the metabolism and calorie burn. Hope to start running again soon.

    Nope same problem posting as yesterday. Might be an issue with work's servers. Kim

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  6. It's frustrating for me, because I feel helpless. Chris, among others, has had the same problems with Blogger, and all I can do is wait them out. I've tried the Help option, but to no avail.

    Mmm...cheese bread. One thing I've always heard about eating healthy: it's impossible to be perfect all the time. Aim for being "perfect" 80% of the time, and you'll be doing better than most. Life is too short to refuse cheese bread! (As long as you're not training for a fight, that is.)

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