Episode 151 of the Institute of Performance Nutrition's "We Do Science" podcast! In this episode, I (Laurent Bannock) discuss "Making Weight in Combat Sports" with Dr Carl Langan-Evans (Liverpool John Moores University, UK) and Joseph Matthews PhD(c) (Nottingham Trent University / Birmingham City University, UK).
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JAN. 23, 2021
"Making Weight in Combat Sports"
[00:00:00] LB: Hi, and welcome to Episode 151 of the Institute of Performance Nutrition’s We Do Science Podcast. This is the first episode of 2021. Although I wish I could say that 2021 has been off to a great start, I can’t of course. But what I can say is that with regards to the podcast, I’ve got huge plans and I’m going to bring to you many episodes this year. That’s good news for you I hope.
To start with today’s recording, Episode 151 as I said, we talked about making weight, primarily in combat sports. My guest today were Dr. Carl Langan-Evans from Liverpool John Moores University and Joe Matthews, a PhD researcher from Nottingham Trent University, also a lecturer at Birmingham City University. And boy, was it a great conversation if I do say so myself. I really enjoyed talking for what felt like a good hour and a half. I haven’t checked how long the episode was yet. But we talked about what making weight actually means, to be differentiated from losing weight for example, but also why just simply achieving that magic number on the scale on fight day is not the best way to achieve weight when it comes to being a highly effective combat athlete.
We unravel all sorts of components of the science and I guess the practical side of making weight for combat athletes. We talked about nutrition primarily of course, but we do talk to a certain extent about some of the training and other lifestyle components that will play a role in this. And we get into factors like, I guess the fine line that exist between achieving rapid weight loss and rapid weight gain that is such a crucial and critical issue. When it comes to making weight, we talked about the implications of not getting it right. Factors such as energy availability and relative energy deficient in sport in the male athlete triad of course. We talked about the impact of feeding and hydration strategies, and we just generally talked about what we know and what we don’t know.
As you’ll hear from the guys in today’s conversation, still a new area despite boxing or martial arts, UFC, et cetera being many decades old. Especially with boxing, when it comes to the science on what we know in that regard, it’s still pretty new stuff. There’s much to be getting from both sides of those spectrums and we really get into that. So I hope you really enjoy that conversation that you are about to hear, the main recording for. But before I do that, just a couple of bits of news. Of course, you’ll know if you have been following us on social media, that we are very excited to announce that Professor Kevin Tipton has joined us at the IOPN as our director of science in research. He was of course the last guest I had on the podcast, in December 2020. I will be featuring Kevin regularly on this podcast series, so you’re in for a real treat there. Loads to be learned from Kev.
I have a variety of other things that I will announce in the coming weeks and episodes, but just a quick plug of course for what we do at the IOPN. We’re not just about this podcast of course. We really are focused and training and educating practitioners, people who are focused on applying the science into practice when it comes to sports and exercise nutrition. There of course is our main program, our diploma in performance nutrition, 100% online and is very much practice-focused as I said. You can check that information out on our website at theiopn.com. Where you also can find our practice management and nutrition coaching software platform. That is called SENPRO.
That is being designed to assist sport and exercise nutritionist., performance nutritionist and nutrition coaches working with active people, with both the tools that they need to actually run their practices, scheduling appointment, charging fees, all that sort of stuff. But in particular, the tools you need to actually work with your clients, particularly in an online coaching environment, which many of us are currently doing. We provide you with tools to be the best that you can be. Everything from habit and behavioral change tools to meal planning. Our new performance plate features all sorts of stuff. Go check that out via our website under the SENPRO tag.
Of course, We Do Science Podcast. You can find the links to the podcast website, where you will find transcript to all of our episodes, all links, resources, papers and so on. And all the relevant podcast that I’ve done over the years that relate to each episode. You can now find a link under the relevant podcast episodes. Anyway, that’s enough about that and all the things that we do at The IOPN. You can now enjoy my conversation with Carl and Joe, all about making weight. Enjoy.
[00:05:18] LB: Hi and welcome back to the Institute Performance Nutrition’s We Do Science Podcast. Today, I am going to have what I know will be a fascinating conversation, which I will tease you as being about making weight. But before I get into the topic in more detail and why I feel this would make for a great discussion, I’ve got two experts for you today in the form of Dr. Carl Langan-Evans and Joe Matthews. You guys know yourselves better, so Carl, why don’t you give us a quick intro as to who you are and then we’ll move onto Joe and we’ll get on with this.
[00:05:56] CLE: Thanks, Laurent. Yeah. I’m Dr. Carl Langan-Evans. I’m a postdoctoral research fellow based at Liverpool John Moores. Currently, I’m working as part of their science and sports performance solutions team with Professor James Morton. I have a background predominantly in combat sports when it comes to making weight as a former athlete, former coach. Then I completed my PhD in and around that area and I’ve been very fortunate to publish over the past decades around that as well.
[00:06:26] LB: Brilliant. Joe, tell us about yourself.
[00:06:29] JM: Yeah. Thanks, Laurent. I’m a researcher and lecturer at Birmingham City University in the Midlands, doing my PhD part-time with Craig Sale and Kirsty Elliot-Sale, NTU. But away from a PhD work, I’ve been working as a sports nutritionist in combat sports for just under a decade. Like I’ve been fortunate to publish a few papers in the field and contribute to few changes that have occurred in the last few years, so I think as a concise summary.
[00:06:56] LB: Brilliant. Well, I’ll extract as much as I can out of you guys, because you’re both well placed, and you’re both well placed for this conversation for several reasons, not just because you’re both doing research in the are that we’re going to discuss but also, you both work with athletes in this. Also Carl, if I remember correctly, there was a time when you were probably more flexible than you are now, correct.
[00:07:19] CLE: Definitely, yeah. That’s true. I used to compete in a combat sport called Taekwondo. I was relatively successful as a junior. I was lucky to represent Great Britain at the Junior Olympic Games, where I won gold. And then it all went downhill from there, a lot of — yeah, in and around that, I suppose where my interest for this area peaked into the academic now. As a former athlete, I used to have some major struggles with making weight, as I’m sure I’ll look into later on. It was becoming increasingly difficult in the later parts of my career, so I’ve kind of made it almost personal mission to be on the opposite side of the coin and try to help those who are in similar situations.
[00:07:58] LB: I’ll come back to that, because I think that’s particularly relevant to why I wanted to talk to you guys in particular. Joe, do you have any particular interest on the other side of the manuscript or the microscope biopsy needle with combat sports?
[00:08:12] JM: Yes, and no junior gold medals for me unfortunately, but I did try my best. I started working with combat sports, mainly from a fan of boxing, which I followed pretty much in my life and grown up on the south coast. I was based in Portsmouth and Portsmouth University have a pretty decent boxing team. I started working with them as soon as I possibly could, then I gradually transitioned from the amateur boxers into the amateur pro MMA. Really lucky in my early stage to have some good coaches and people around me that really helped me do work in the field a little bit ahead of where I should have been. It’s a steep learning curve and from then, carried on with the MMA, some kick boxing, some Muay Thai. Worked with some Muay Thai athletes, pretty much spread across the board now.
[00:08:56] LB: Brilliant. I’ve worked with fighter over the years. I’m retired from practice now, but I just have really quite incredible memories of working with some heavy weight boxers and some light and heavy weight UFC fighters. Which for me at the time was just such an eye-opening experience, because I personally have — unlike you, seasoned combat athlete in some form or whatever. I have really no combat athlete background myself, other than I like watching it on television or movies. That’s about it. But I think from your perspective as researchers and practitioners and my obsession with trying to find knowledge that it’s truly the best source of knowledge or the most appropriate or relevant source of knowledge to inform practice as a performance nutritionist or to help inform researchers wanting to help inform practice through their work.
Just quickly — I know it’s certainly not a prerequisite to spend any time necessarily undertaking a particular sport to be able to research or understand it or work with athletes. I’ve certainly worked very successfully with all kinds of athletes. I’ve never actually done those sports myself. But it does give you a unique perspective. Carl, given your background, how has that informed your work to date?
[00:10:14] CLE: Yeah. I think some very good points. Me and Joe have actually talked about this before in the past. You almost get a little bit of immediate respect because you’ve invested and gone through the process yourself. You kind of have an affinity and understanding. You’ve done it rightly. You’ve done it wrongly. Which is a bit unfair I think personally, because as you’ve said, I don’t necessarily think a good practitioner needs to have worked in that sport. So I suppose I get a more ingratiated with athletes a bit quicker just purely because of my previous background. Whereas, it might take another practitioner a little bit more time. But as with every sport, it could be insular, it could cultural, burden amount. I’ve also had people, particularly cultures who don’t trust you whether you’ve been involved in it or not and you still have to go through those processes of working with them, as suppose to highlight how you can help their athletes. Certainly, in the context of making way to help to have had the former background.
[00:11:14] LB: Sure. Joe, did you have the same experience?
[00:11:16] JM: So mine would be different and as Carl suggests, probably have to earn the respect a little bit more in the early phase. And the thing that made a big difference is, spending time in the gym as much as possible. When I first started working on the south coast, I’d spend a whole day in the gym just watching training sessions, interact with fighters, interact with coaches. So the work I did would be nutrition related, other would be other personal stuff. And I would just park up in the gym and spend the entire day there. That gave me a decent grounding and understanding the environment of a combat sport gym and understanding the fighters and athletes themselves. I think that step is a difficult one to overcome, but probably the most important. Because after that point, you earn respect and your advice will be heeded a bit more than it would do without that, for sure.
[00:12:01] LB: You make a great point there, Joe, and that’s one that I have definitely delve in my own practice and have seen many other people’s practices. Indeed, on this podcast, many people have mentioned this, that something they found valuable or invaluable even was, when you’re working with an athlete, researcher of being a practitioner to truly understand that athlete goes beyond just understanding their sport. Understanding the individual could be anything from environmental to cultural issues, socioeconomic issues. There’s a lot it, isn’t it? Particularly with fighting sports, I just mentioned the socioeconomical thing. That is a factor. They don’t necessarily have the money, or the background or even the understanding of what, I guess that have lived luckier lives, accessibility to food, the idea of sitting down and eating properly prepared cooked food. It’s a very interesting thing, which all goes to influencing what our athletes do and don’t do and why they’re doing what they’re doing and what we have to try and — I don’t want to use the word fight against, but it seems almost relevant in the context of this conversation. It makes for a pretty fascinating area of work.
I guess it would help here I think if we get into this idea of a combat athlete. It’s not just a case of them punching or receiving punches or kicks or whatever form of combat sport we’re particularly focused on. There’s a lot to that. Carl, maybe you could by way of introducing or defining this topic of making weight, what’s weight got to do with it? Yes, we want to lose weight or look good in the ring or whatever, but why making weight? What does that term actual mean and why is it important?
[00:13:50] CLE: Yeah, it’s an interesting one because I think, one of the best papers that I tend to like to use as a definition for this is the Aklem paper, so the IOC paper from 2012, which basically states that you have obviously different types of events who are involved in the business of making weights. So making weights is a reduction in body mass. And that can aid in terms of performance benefits in relation to events that require proportion. So gravitational sports, sports that have I suppose an aesthetic judgment. Then obviously, more so mine, mine and Joe’s remit, it’s weight categorized sports where athletes are defined by specific weight categories or defined by body mass in order to make the competition fairer.
On that basis, like as I always say, when you look at sports these days and you’ll be able to comment from your experience. And I know I’m very fortunate working with Graeme Close and James Morton. I don’t particularly know many sports who aren’t in the business of making weight these days in some shape or whatever. I suppose they’re more nuanced and interesting side of this is the weight categorized sports because it is a direct mediator of their performance outcomes.
It stems from the whole idea and I know Joe will expand on this. The lower category you get to in terms if either being bigger than your opponent in terms of overall size or having longer levers, so longer limbs give you an actual advantage in terms of performing within that event. Even though as I’m sure Joe will testify, there’s no tangible scientific evidence to highlight that that is actually the case. In fact, there’s some evidence highlighting. That’s the contrary, but it culturally stems from the fact that if you’re able to get to a lower category, you’re going to be a better athlete, you’re going to be able to perform. There’s also the flip side, which I’m sure Joe is probably actually better place than me, of the fact that certain sports are regulated by the divisioning categories or the amounts of categories.
Actually, some athletes don’t have a choice. Using me as an example, when I used to compete in taekwondo at the Olympic events, the weight categories were 58, 68, 80 and plus 80 kilograms. As an average weight of 67, 68 kilograms, my only real choice was to go to 58. It wasn’t necessarily necessitated by — well, it was necessitated by the desire to perform, but if I had a choice not to do that, then I certainly wouldn’t have engaged in it.
[00:16:16] LB: Joe, I’m going to bring this over you in a second. As we talk in nutrition or sports nutrition or performance nutrition, we do talk a lot about weight, weight loss, weight reduction. And for the more recreational individuals, even if it very much has the health implications, it’s still got very much an aesthetic component to it. Whereas, when we’re talking about combat athletes, there is certainly an aesthetic component, but that’s more of a side effect of everything else that goes before it. I guess the way I like to think of this, which is best, I guess summed up by the word functional. It’s not about being aesthetic or even healthy necessarily, although we will come back to that concept. But it’s very much about the functionality, how functional that athlete is.
Joe, from a functional perspective, we’re not just talking about making weight in an athlete, we’re talking specifically about combat sport or a combat athlete. What does that actually? Just so we’re all totally clear.
[00:17:16] JM: It’s a good question and it’s going to mean something different for each individual fighter. If you’ve got a combat sport fighter who predominates as a striking athlete, they might well want to be lighter and more agile. Whereas you have a mixed martial artist or a wrestler and they’re grappler, they might want to be heaviest so they can use that mass and size against their opponent.
What that process of weight loss looks like could be very different. After the weigh in, as you know, there’ll be a rehydration period. Some fighters might gain a little bit more, some fighters might gain a little bit less. That could be linked into the tactics, but also their own strengths as a fighter as well. I’m not sure if this directly answer your question, but as a nice fighter said to me once. I’ll give him a name check, it’s Chris Miah. He said, “There’s something to be said for being in the body that you compete it.” So fighters actually spending some time training at the weight they’re likely to be on the mat or in the cage. Thinking less of combat sport as a battle of sort of strength or force, and more about the rhythm of how you control your center of mass, which I think is quite nice.
If you start to try and get fighters on the side a little bit when you’re talking about how to plan that journey, but the process is going to be so different from sport to sport, but also within a sport from fighter to fighter, depending on how they see that they can win the competition or win the battle.
[00:18:36] LB: And it has an immense amount of complexity of course. I mean, I have worked a bit in this area, but when I look at the different weight categories, there are different weight titles for different weight classes in different sports. Indeed, you’ve got actual different weight ranges that can be applied to those different weight classes and titles. Then we’ve also got differences between professional and amateur, and male, and female. We’ll come to some of that because I think that’s relevant. But if we were to differentiate sort of combat in a more natural environment, where people couldn’t care less about how much you weight. These are two adversaries who meet each other in a state of conflict of some form, and they get down to it and there’s a victor and there’s a loser or somebody’s going to leg it because they realized they don’t like the size. The guy is huge or feels confident because that person is small.
But here, we actually have something whereby an athlete is going to turn up and Carl, I’ll have you explain how this work in a second. But they train for ages and then they turn up in this event and they either are or not the right way. And if they aren’t the right way, well, they can be told to go home again. Or worst, they might not make it because their efforts to make weight kills them off before they even get punched. I think that’s what makes this so interesting, and of course, we then get the difference between, what if you like the folklore. What people have done for centuries and has been influenced by just doing it, practice, if you like. Then the influence of former athletes and coaches and so on. Then we’ve got you guys or us guys, scientists and we’re sticking our fingers in on it and going, “Well, hang on. Actually, what a lot of you guys have been doing isn’t necessarily right. It needs to be this way, because of the evidence that we’ve now discovered.”
Which is what we’re going to delve into today. But Carl, again, I don’t know if everyone truly appreciates how complicated this concept of why they need to make weight. What’s that all about?
[00:20:39] CLE: I think you gave a good overview there really, but it’s a complicated issue in the sense that as Joe has alluded to, there are certain reasons why a fighter wants to make this specific weight category. That can be mediated by a desire to be more competitive, or as we said before, some of the research that I’ve done, which is published at the moment. It’s highlighted that we’ve kind of been — forced is probably the wrong word, but directed into needing to do it. As you said before, based on number of categories or divisioning categories and things like that.
Basically, you’re looking at a reduction in body mass through both chronic and acute means. That’s obviously dependent on timeframe. Again, I’m sure we’ll talk about that a little bit later on. But certain events have different, I suppose inverted commerce camps. Some professional MMA guys might get a short as three to four weeks, whereas you look at classically in pro-boxing, there’s going to be as long as 12 weeks. You’re basically trying to reduce body mass through chronic means, i.e., manipulation of body tissues, predominantly if you can body fats if that’s available or maybe lean tissues to a certain degree.
Then you have probably the most, I’ll say interesting, but also probably the most nerve-racking, dangerous part which is the acute part where you’re trying to artificially manipulate that body mass as well, in order to lower it through, I suppose means that we understand from a scientific perspective, from the points of view of liberating total body water. Whether that be reduction in muscle glycogen content, which is bound to water or good content, which is bound to interstitial fluids and things like this. Then there’s obviously trying to reduce those compartments of total body water through means of dehydration.
And yet, I suppose going to your early point, it’s an interesting process. It’s one that probably as far as I’m concerned, it’s on par with any nutritional intervention that needs an Nth degree understanding of what you do and why you’re doing it. At the end of the day, as you mentioned earlier, Laurent, if it’s done incorrectly, it can kill someone. So quite an interesting process to be involved in.
[00:22:47] LB: Joe, I mentioned earlier, there’s tradition and culture, which is being there for a long, long time. We all grown up watching things like Rock movies and so on and you see, it’s all about the tradition and the culture, and why they do what they do. Then the new kid on the block is science, and you guys are very well to performing the science and trying to understand this from that different perspective where you’ve got to tease out the good and the bad, if you like, and the ugly. That there is from this tradition and culture.
I remember a lecture that James Morton gave us on our program. This is years ago now. He was talking about boxers making weight. I think part of that conversation or context was about bro-science actually, how we got to be carefully with how we position some of the things that people have been doing for years, and are still winning medals and maybe we’re thinking, there’s a problem with that with our very limited understanding of where science is now. But yesterday’s bro-science might be tomorrow’s highly respected science. We just got to be careful there. Where are we in that spectrum of tradition, culture and science, Joe?
What I’m trying to say here is, just how new is the science relative to all these tradition and culture? While as you’re looking at that as scientist and as people like myself as practitioners are looking at that, how should be position all of this at this point you think?
[00:24:20] JM: Yes, another good point. I think it’s important that the science isn’t at all in opposition to tradition. These aren’t two separate things. These are sides at the same coin and science is trying to validate aspects of the tradition that people have found to be successful or not. If you went to a gym and say, “I’m a sports nutritionist, here’s what our paper say, this is what I’m going to do.” You’re probably going to struggle a little bit to be honest.
We know that when it comes to reducing body fat, maintaining muscle mass, kind of chronic body composition strategies. We know there are certain principles you can apply, and it’s about conveying that to the athlete, but also understanding what do they currently do. If you come to a fight and say, “Well, I normally follow a ketogenic diet for my whole fight count.” You can explain how that might be affecting some of the adaptations to training. But also that when they get to the fight week, they’re leaving less tools in the toolbox, and then we’re going to make that final five or seven days a lot harder as well.
Now, if that athlete chooses to continue with what they normally do, that’s not a problem at all from my perspective. We just structure it so it can be as effective as possible within those constraints. Over time and once you’ve done a few fight counts, you tend to find that people are more willing to change. If they see someone else having success with a different approach, that’s normally a good buy-in. So if you’ve got some senior fighters who can act as role models, the message coming from them can help shift those traditions a little bit more towards the science where you want them.
You don’t get rid of older traditions and Carl can probably add a couple more to this. I’ve had fighters who do things that I expect to be completely ineffective. But if there’s no detriment and they’re happier keeping that in, fine by me. I’d rather have somebody’s happy and doing many things properly. In terms of specific strategies, Carl, you’re free to jump in and add some. But something that — I don’t know if it’s a bit of bro-science or definitely a myth that propagates among some fighters during the rehydration period. They’ll slam a load of creatine. After the weigh in, performing the sport, they might have 10 hours, they might have 32 hours depending on the weigh in structure. They’ll take loads and loads of creatine and the idea that’s going to draw water into the muscle and rehydrate the muscle. I personally don’t think that’s having any effect acutely. But if that’s what’s something you do, fantastic, keep on doing it.
[00:26:40] CLE: Yeah. Joe has highlighted some really good stuff there. Probably going back to the original question. So a point, it’s a little bit like everything in life, Laurent, that there is a lot of really — it’s improving. I have to admit being involved in this, probably some of us and Joe over the past decade as fighters are coming through. Now, I think they are probably a little bit more informed rightly or wrongly. There’s a lot more access to social media and things like that. Again, that can have its pros and cons, because sometimes they’re following things that are completely bro-science, probably when propagated by the tradition, which may have been correct. But research wise, I think a lot of this stuff is in its absolute infancy. There’s a hell of a lot to do.
Again, like everything in life, as you know, we’re all shackled by who cares enough to really form the research to examine this stuff. We’re fortunate now that you get institutions like the UFC Performance Institute and things who are trying to look into this and make things a lot more professional. But there are certain things that are established that work, and as Joe said, might work that are necessarily not backed by evidence but you’d be happy as long as it’s not causing a detriment. But then there are other factors as well that I tend to see, where as you’ve said, it’s culturally driven and led. A fighter who becomes a coach, this is what I did so that’s what you’re going to do. So it’s a lot like everything in sports, it’s perpetuated by previous practice.
So I suppose, our job is just try to permeate into that and make sure that we give examples of, “Okay. That might work and it’s resulted in success, but you could do this. The process is probably a lot better, and will spill result in the same success. That’s kind of the mitigating factor sometimes. But no, from a research and practice perspective, I think everyone who me and Joe speak to, top level practitioners, researchers, anybody who’s worked this out will say that this is in its absolute infancy. I don’t think a single person in the world can call themselves an expert in this space.
[00:28:34] LB: Yeah. That’s a great point that you make. That’s why I do try and mention on this podcast one of the recurrent things is about understanding the limits of your knowledge. If you don’t know and you’re trying to fix something you don’t really know, chances are you might break something. But also, you need to know more than just nutrition for example. You’re going to need to have an understanding of the physical demands of that athlete. By that, I don’t mean just the training but also the impact of the various strategies that they take to result in achieving that weight, that target that we’ll come back to, because this is an area I want to explore in more detail with you guys.
But if we just quickly, Carl, focus on what I said about for a combat athlete, their weight has a relevance to their functionality as an effective combat athlete. Could you just explore that for us in a bit more detail? It’s not just weight specifically, because obviously, that’s a term that covers a number of factors. What are those factors that are relevant to a combat athlete, and those which we are going to impact for nutrition and training? Which we’ll explore in this conversation obviously.
[00:29:46] CLE: Yeah. So Joe mentioned earlier on, I think he made a great point that in getting down to a specific weight category, you’re generally trying to do that to be more competitive. Joe made a great point that those tend to be discipline or sport specific in the sense that grappling sport, if you are a lot larger than your opponent, just think of basic force. Force times velocity, horsepower. You have a lot more mass to be able to generate those movements, you’re going to be more competitive and adding to any technical, tactical powers. For striking combat athletes, and again, this is very, very individual. It’s based on the fact that those longer levers, a lot taller, a lot leaner, able to get down to a weight category and then I have longer levers, my reach is able to strike you before yours is able to strike me. It’s just all about I suppose increasing that percentage in that likelihood of success from a physical capacity added onto the technical capacity.
What we don’t really know from this is, what kind of interplay between the technical and the physical I suppose really perpetuate success. Because as we know, there’s plenty of guys in combat sports who are the smaller guy who had amazing success just based on the fact that they’re outstandingly technically fighter. But that’s the aim, that’s why a lot of these guys do this. They’re trying to increase their success.
In terms of how they do it, like you were saying culturally and traditionally. A lot of this has come down from, they’re doing it in mind so just get the number on the scales. They’re not necessarily considering how to get that number on the scales. The one that fascinates me a lot of the time working with fighters, sometimes a lot — I’m sure Joe can testify to this. Making weight sometimes is almost a bigger objective than the actual fight itself. You often hear with some of them, “Oh, I’ve made weight. Now is the easy part, the fight” and you’re like, “That’s a very bizarre way to look at this.”
When we think of classical sport, nutrition performance, nutrition, the idea — the focus for us isn’t necessarily the weight that’s getting you to the fighters as prepared as you possibly can be, which is what some of the most successful practitioners and researchers do. But yeah, a lot of these guys culturally will just focus on getting to that weight. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. My coach was my nutritionist, and my mom was my personal chef. I could tell you about some of the stuff I did in the past prior to having any nutritional help. I look at it now and shudder.
I remember one time when I was 15, my expert nutritionist and my coach, I think I had to lose six kilos in a week. He put me on a diet of one bowl of carrot and turnip a day, with some OXO sprinkled on top. So as you can see from that diet, very well periodized with plenty of protein and fuel for the work required plan. It was just abysmal. Thankfully, I actually failed the weight by 0.1 of a kilo because I was in a no-fit state to compete whatsoever and bizarrely psychologically as well. I haven’t even considered the context of the fight. I think the only focus was making weight. How they have made the weight, I probably would have gone, “Oh! Now I have to fight.” Yeah, it’s a strange one. I understand the desire and the needs. Joe will testify to this as well. There isn’t any solid scientific evidence from our own practice generally, it does help to be bigger. So I understand why they want to do it. I just don’t think a lot of them understand how to do it with the context of actually performing after they’ve made weight.
[00:33:06] LB: Okay. There’s a hornet’s nest of issues or a can of worms that we’re about to open, because first, I think — I remember one fighter I was working with, who was explaining to me that his anxiety, his worries, his concerns were that his greatest adversary was not who he was going to fight. It was that number on the scale and himself in trying to get there, and you witness torture going for an amazing amount of time. Like you say also, and this is what we will tease out in this conversation today, this discussion is the speed at which they achieve that number and the strategies or the methods that they use to get there without necessarily a consideration for the quality of what that weight is. Or I guess the deleterious effects that that could have, not just on their performance but indeed on their health or their survival even as you mentioned before.
But also, just from a basic sort of nutritional perspective, it’s also this focus that people get into. When they think about sport nutrition, they start going back to things like calories and macros, and they don’t talk about food and what food actually does for a person. Which yes, feeds them but it nourishes them in many other ways. For somebody who embarks on something that is so extreme, where they make such great sacrifices, food becomes the enemy, and therein lies some psychological issues. You see this in physique sports of course, where they don’t just achieve that weight, that number or that look, they also achieve an eating disorder and or some other condition that we’ve talked about on this podcast in other episodes, like relative energy deficiency in sport. And what is more recently been termed for male combat athlete for example is the male athlete triad. We’re familiar with the female athlete triad, what about the male one?
It’s all very fascinating and very relevant to this conversation. But Joe, let’s just — because we’re sort of coming at this from different angles. I want to just bring this back to this concept of approaching making weight. What are the ways in which people approach making weight? I guess starting with the most common once. Nine times out of 10, what are you expecting to hear from an athlete that you’re working or studying and how they try and achieve weight, and maybe some of the other areas if they’re particularly novel that you might want to mention.
[00:35:44] JM: Yeah, sure. I think the athletes who haven’t had any sports nutrition support, the things that happen nine times out of ten is, there will be trying to lose the weight over far too short a time period. There’ll be no day by day or week by week plan of how they’re going to do that. Normally, they’ll just go to it clean eating. We look at broscience clean eating approach and hope that that will work. It’s certainly in the early phase. There’s no plan for the actual fight week itself. Sometimes there’s a plan for the acute dehydration, but there’s no plan on percentage of body mass they’re going to reduce. There’s just a plan that they know they’re going to use a certain method and they’ll use it until it works.
Then again, nine times out of ten, there’s no clear structure for what happens after the weight in. So you’ve got four main issues that you’ve got the, time is too short, there’s no structure and plan for the gradual weight loss period. There’s no structure of the amounts of body mass to manipulate in the acute weight loss period. Then there’s no plan in place for the rehydration. That kind of in making weight, your four main parts. This will vary depending on the combat sport. As Carl mentioned, if it’s sort of amateur boxing, they’ll compete quite regularly, sort of weekly or forth nightly. But if it’s more mixed martial arts, professional boxing, you have a longer breaks in between. So straightaway, you need a longer fight count if possible. If you can get up to a sort of 10-week fight count, then that’s far better. It means you can gradually lose body mass over that nine-week period and that might be a percent or a percent and a half per week, depending on the starting period.
But all of this comes back too — not to go too far forward. As a sports nutritionist, your initial risk assessment. So what’s this person’s competition weight, what’s their current body composition, can they actually make that weight through losing body fat alone or what’s their dehydration buffer at the end of the fight count going to look like. You start piecing together some of these different parts. Then also, the fighter themselves, what’s their competitive level, are they experienced, is this a high-level fight. By the time you’ve drawn in some of those strands, it might be, “Well actually, this person doesn’t need to lose awful lot of weight” or “This person needs to lose far more than what they actually can so it’s not going to be safe.” Or what’s normally the case, somewhere in the middle, “Okay. We can get this person to their competition weight. We can do it in the safest way possible. We can try to maximize performance, but it’s going to take quite a lot of master shift and then put back on.” Which is normally where the guys will fall into.
[00:38:15] LB: Look, there’s going to be a limit to how much of the, I guess the physiology, the science that we can get into in this sort of hour, hour and a half and there’s all sorts of resources I’m going to include with the podcast notes, including papers you both published and contributed too. Including actually one paper that one could argue it’s a bit old, which is you’re making way in combat sports that was in one of the NSCA journals that Joe and I probably both read back in the day. But of course, Carl, that’s also I was joking. That’s ten years ago and pictures of you where when you were still a young lad, doing your MSC and all that stuff.
[00:38:56] CLE: I had a lot less weight and I think James and Graeme had a lot more hair.
[00:39:01] LB: We better skip past that particular risk factor there. What I wanted to just quickly focus on, because they can read a lot of this background stuff in those papers you covered it all. You talked about risk analysis, Joe. There’s a need analysis that we’re thinking about. What is it that this combat athlete needs? I’ve mentioned, I’ve used the term, they’ve got to be functional. There’s a whole point to why they step into the ring. Yes, they’ve got to achieve a weight, but they’ve also got to achieve a result. Carl, what’s necessary to achieve that result? Because it’s not just about brute force or whatever. There’s a variety of factors that’s going to influence that. Just give us a quick idea of what those considerations would be.
[00:39:40] CLE: Yeah, I think Joe has teed perfectly there. So what we tend to do — I’ll probably use the making weight paper, Laurent as a little bit context for this. As Joe has said, like anything in sport nutrition, I think you’d want to perform some plan of objective assessment to understand whether the individual has the capacity to make the weight that they want to achieve. The first things that you want to do is through at least some sort of body composition assessment. As suppose in an ideal world, you would want to use an assessment that would give you a wider body compartment view as you possibly could, some of assessments of those different issues in the sense of bone mass, fat-free mass or lean mass, however you want to categorize that fat mass.
Additionally, this isn’t included in the original paper but it’s very important now. Some assessments of total body water, because as Joe mentioned earlier on, that’s very important from the standard in the acute phases and how you can manipulate that. What we tend to do, whether you look in John Moores and I know you had discussion about this in previous podcast, but we are both DXA and medical grade BIA, so biological imprudence. We’ll do an assessment on both of those units, and I’m sure everybody is aware of the level of standardization that has to go into that in order to be as effective as possible. But we’ll assess that, and that what we basically do is we’ll calculate a minimum body fat percentage at the target weight that the individual is trying to get to.
That then allows you to understand how much fat mass they’re able to lose in the context of the total mass that they need to lose. That then gives you an idea of okay, well, actually, you’re already quite lean. You want to lose 10 kilos, so 12% possibly mass. But you’re already quite lien, you’ve only got two kilos to lose. That’s means we have enough to lose way in above 10% of your overall mass or eight kilos in lean tissues and dehydration. It’s not feasible, it’s not ethical, it’s not safe, it’s not feasible. So in that instance, that would probably be a no.
Then for me, there’s also kind of — Joe will probably agree with this, maybe situations as he mentioned earlier on. Where you’re probably looking at it going, “Well, if it’s for a major event or it’s going to have a great burden on the fighter’s career where you might potentially push the boundaries, they’re able to lose a bit more fat mass or you’re going to the upper end of what you’d be less comfortable with in the acute factors.” To be fair, there are the easier cases where, you assess that, you look at their minimum body fat and you’ve actually got quite decent level of body fat to manipulate on a chronic time period. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s easy, but those are the ones that you can have a bit more of a relaxed nuanced approach to making weight. So that’s the first approach.
If you establish that they’re actually able to make their target weight, the next thing you want to do is try and decide what level of energetic intake you’re going to try and utilize to achieve that. Within that paper, we still kind of stick to this at the moment. This was again showing how old I am Laurent but this was a pre-energy availability craze.
[00:42:38] LB: Black and white days.
[00:42:40] CLE: Black and white days, yeah. We’ve always advised that you want to at least target a minimum energetic intake of the athlete’s RMR. Predominantly being as you guys both know, those metabolic functions that are utilized by RMR are really key to I suppose offset any of the effects that you get from a low energy availability state, which leads to things like athlete triad and RED-S and things like that. I know you’ll put this up. We’ve kind of tested that hypothesis in a recent case study, which is in MedSci. Showing that being on an energy intake of RMR even though you’re in low energy availability seems to sustain a lot of factors in and around the health and performance consequences of RED-S, the teams to offset those. It’s when you go below RMR that you rarely see some effects. But again, one case study and a lot more works to be done in that space.
So you want to base the diet in and around resting metabolic rate and we tend to take an approach of one gram per kilo of fats, two grams per kilo of protein and three grams per kilo of carbohydrates. That’s definitely not a set rule, those are kind of general targets that we go for. Because as we know, we do need dietary fats to protect the whole range of metabolic functions. As Joe said before, a lot of these fighters will try and go zero fat and the opposite end, they’ll go ketogenic, high fat. It’s all about that balance. That level of protein from all the research that we’re all aware of and I know you’ve had this on former podcast, Laurent. It’s appropriate to either maintain and protect or even in some instances, gradually increase lean mass. Then in that level of carbohydrate, which is periodized. So we follow the fuel for the rate required model, which is periodized in and around training is enough to sustain the level of intensity and activity that they need.
Finally, added onto that. We also do some kind of substrate utilization in cardiovascular assessment, where — so what we’ve got is, we’ve got the means as Joe said to objectively quantify how they’re going to make the weight. The dietary modulation that we’re going to periodize and put in place in order to make the weight. Then we also assess, say like substrate utilization and cardiovascular capacity on the basis of looking at, “Okay. What different types of training zones can we create individually for you that will help support those goals?” Because as you both know, it’s energy in versus energy out and how we’re able to do that.
So some of the things we advised on that paper and they’re open for debate and contention is faster training. Me and James are great believers in this. Graeme Close isn’t. But we advised that once you’re able to establish, if you think of Asker Jeukendrup’s classic fat max zone and you do that in a fasted state. So you’ve got energy modulation versus training modulation. You deliberately target in fats. Whereas maybe in the middle of the afternoon where they’re doing a high-intensity sport specific session, you want to go higher carbohydrates in order to support that. When they do an S&C, you want to make sure they’ve got adequate protein in and around that. So rightly or wrongly, that’s kind of the approach that we’ve taken.
I wouldn’t debate with anybody around whether that’s correct or not, because there’s a lot of different ways to approach this. But the first two for me are definitely key objective information to establish the capacity to make weight and then the diet that you’re going to put in place to the individual. Don’t you got anything to add on that, Joe?
[00:45:59] JM: Yeah. I was going to jump in actually on the — when you mentioned that fasted training. I think this is a nice combination of where the science can meet the practice. We don’t have conclusive evidence that it’s going to promote superior adaptation, but it might do. But when you go into practice, a lot of these athletes are training their morning session, particularly the guys that I worked with all train at 6:00 AM. So fasted training becomes a logical approach because it’s normally a lower intensity — it’s a lower intensity session and they’re quite happy not to get up and eat and train in a full stomach. You’re hypocaloric, so you have to remove calories from somewhere. It’s just a really easy strategy to follow and I would couple that with sleep low as well.
So the evening or after the evening training session quite often, unless the fighter has an objection to it and really wants it the other way, then fine. But after the evening training session, that would also be a carbohydrate free or a very low carbohydrate meal. If there is a benefit to sleep low and train low in the morning, perfect. We’re getting that as well. But if not, it’s just a really easy way to pull some of the weight out of diet.
[00:47:02] CLE: That’s a brilliant way of looking at it, because they’re already training fasted predominantly any way, so it’s not a hard sell. You’re just going to the other side. Just to add a bit of context to this. I think the hardest part Joe is actually convincing them to eat that amounts of food. Because if you starve themselves up to this point, you come in this cowboy and you say, “Right. You’re going to need 1,800 calories on a diet now, split into whether that be three larger, four, five, six meals.” And a lot of them just panic and they go, “I can’t eat that level of food.” So something as Joe said from a scientific perspective, the fasted training is something they’re already doing.
Scientifically, when you think of the adaptations that we can get from that and support in the actual chronic body mass loss is brilliant. You decide when you say to them, “But I want you to eat carbohydrates.” I want you to eat a decent meal prior to a hard session. They look at you like you’re some kind of lunatic. And again, just using that case study that we published in MSSC as an example. We talked a little about that, because we measured the psychology of the athletes of that going through. I remember we then, because we employed the similar methodology, they were just like, “This is insane. I can’t eat this much food and lose body mass. It’s not possible.” Joe will probably testify to this, that almost religious experience they get when they realize that they’re losing weight and eating food is like — it’s a brilliant feeling, because they come and say, “Oh, this is life changing. It’s amazing. I’ve got so much energy. I’m losing weight.” So that’s kind of a nicer side of things as well.
[00:48:28] JM: Yeah, and it’s so rare prior to any support, it’s quite unusual for the fighter to be really genuinely fully fueled for a training session. So if I’m removing some of those carbohydrates from the areas in which they might not have as much benefit, you can have a really high carbohydrate meal couple of hours before a hard sparing session. They’re so happy with the results they get from training. Mentally, they concentrate a little bit better. They’re fueled to last the whole session, so you’re taking advantage in the sessions that really need the fuel you’ve go there to use.
[00:49:00] LB: I think this is a fantastic discussion. I’m enjoying this as I’m sure the listeners are. You illustrate just how blunt an instrument that weight, that number on that scale is and the implications that has for everyone’s decision making. It is true, there has to be a practical consideration to this as well. There’s a lot of things this people do for their training, which in many cases is considerable amounts of training, but also there’s very much a personal preference.
You use Graeme and James there as an example and I know that James is perfectly happy to train fasted and Graeme is extremely grumpy if he hasn’t had breakfast. There lies a perfect example. But going back to that blunt instrument, which is the weight on the scale and or the target of that weight they have to achieve, brings us back to this issue of time. Time and timing. Joe, I know you’ve done some work in this area. We’ll come back to this concept of rapid weight loss and rapid weight gain. But there is a time span in which these targets are achieved, and there’s a magnitude of effect there. There’s quite a lot involved in that process, which is believed rightly or wrongly to be an advantage, where yes, they might lose a certain amount of weight usually in a very short period of time. Weight, not body composition but weight. Then they will regain that weight rapidly. What have you discovered about the implications of that in terms of how quickly those things are achieved?
[00:50:34] JM: So we’re talking just the rapid weight loss phase.
[00:50:39] LB: Well, I mean it’s all going to be relevant. Feel free to comment on where you feel.
[00:50:41] JM: Sure. If we work back from the competition day. Let’s say the event is going to take place on a Saturday, the weigh in is either going to be on a Saturday morning or a Friday beforehand, either the afternoon or the evening. You’re really looking at the Sunday before that Saturday as the body composition that they have when they wake up on that Saturday or Sunday from the week before, that’s probably what they’re going to enter the competition as the following week. So you’re coming in there with sort of five or six days of which you’re going to reduce weight primarily through glycogen for body of water and from any water balance or food waste in the intestines as well.
Carl mentioned about doing your assessment and body composition assessment and the gradual dieting. I think if you’re mapping out your plan that week before the fight is the end of your gradual dieting phase. That’s where you need to factor in what the minimum body fat is it and the weight they can achieve and work backwards in the weeks from that. Once we’re into that final week, it’s some of the more — and you got to be clever with the approaches.
Before we talk about the methods, one thing I will say is, if a fighter comes into that final week and they’re not well nourished. So let’s say they’ve already been on a low carbohydrate diet or they have already been eating below their RMR is going to make those final few days an awful lot tougher because you don’t have tools to play with that you can use. Carl’s mentioned a few of these already, so things like low fiber and low carbohydrate and maybe some dehydration methods in those final few days.
Reid Reale published a couple of nice studies on this where he looks at what could safely be manipulated in those final few days. He’s put a range of 5% to 8% in terms of what the acute weight loss of what we call rapid weight loss could be on that period. There was a case study published last year that wasn’t too technical. It was more of like a practical guide to making weight in a fighter with a fighter I worked with the year before. The rapid weight loss in that phase was 7.4% and that’s odd percent made up from each of the categories. So a couple of percent from glycogen depletion, maybe a percent from fiber restriction and the lost of food waste. A percent maybe from using something like water loading and then a couple of percent from passive dehydration.
That the more different avenues you have to take odd percent off of that weight in the final week, an awful lot safer it’s going to be. If you get to the Saturday or Sunday, where I’ve got 10% to lose. I’m already glycogen depleted, I’m already hungry, I’ve been training hard. If you’re not going to do 10% through — well, you can attempt to do 10% through dehydration alone, but now we’re getting into the high risk, unsafe health problem and worst areas. Is there anything you —
[00:53:30] LB: You did exactly where I was going, because now I want to discuss the difference between acute and chronic approaches to this. This brings me to you, Carl. Over the course of this podcast, which is the number of years old now. Going back six plus years I think, five, six years. I can’t remember how long I’ve been doing this. But pretty much the first ever podcast was with James Morton. Even by then, he was talking about the consequences of chronic energy deficiency states and the impact that he presumes back then, because this predates what we now know about relative energy deficiency. By then, he had a lot of experiences working with boxers and so on.
But if you fast forward it to where we are now and I know Carl, you’ve done research in this and a number of episodes back, I had Jose Areta on here when we were colleagues, very much a world-renowned expert in this concept. What is this I guess long-term chronic consequence of this blunt instrument of, “I’ve got to lose weight and I’ve got quite a lot of weight to lose in some cases and I’m just going to come at this hard and do this so I can lose as much weight as possible.” What are the implications of that from your own perspective?
[00:54:46] CLE: Yeah, I’ll probably break it down in sort of three phases, if that’s okay, Laurent. I spoke about the chronic phase and the effect of that. Torching a little bit on what Joe said around the acute. Then the one that I’m getting quite interested in now is the post events as well, so the kind of the effect of that. The big thing and Joe will probably agree is, given the general time scales that you get with a lot of these folks, is even if it’s as long as 12 weeks. You mentioned earlier on aesthetics. Athletes like bodybuilders or physique athletes were not doing this over six months. It’s not a really transient, gradual approach, day by day. You can regard that it’s shorter or longer, it depends on your perspective as you go but it’s not a large science frame.
These guys have to be in a low energy availability state in order to achieve the weight. I think if you follow the classical guidelines of between 13 to 45 kilo calories per kilogram of fat and mass, you just wouldn’t gradually lose that weight any time. Also, bear in mind that a lot of research that we would probably like to conduct in this area, ethically, you’ll just never going to get the status to be able to do that. From my mind, there’s never been a study that actually looked at that, but a lot of the time, you need to be in low energy availability.
From my own practice and then from that paper we recently published again, we make this explicit. It’s only out of one case study, so it’s got to be approached with caution. You don’t necessarily see the deleterious effects of male athlete triads or RED-S. They seem to quite — male seems to be quite robust for that. And as long as it, as Joe mentions, his plan is periodized, it’s done in the context of trying to make weight within day and between with an insistent, thought-out strategy if you seem to do okay.
I have to add on that, where I’m very fortunate at the at the moment that literally next week, I’ll be concluding a two-year long case study with the same design but in female athletes who are in the UFC. So repetitive camps. Again, you’re looking at an individual losing low energy availability for 50% of the whole time. Again, individualized but very robust. We haven’t seen any menstrual cycle effects, we haven’t seen any kind of effects on performance or classic response or the RED-S. I know this is something that Nancy William and Mary Jane De Souza out of Penn State are kind of saying, when you look at the effects of a model light triad or RED-S, energy availability is a factor. It’s a lot wider than that. It’s considered in the context of everything.
The chronic elements for me I think when it’s planned and when it’s well designed. The effects are quite minimal, and it can be constructed in a way and I suppose modulated in a way where there’s not really that many effects. In the acute as Joe said, it’s really about a certain level of objectivity and there’s a lot of strategies that we can follow as Joe has mentioned to get down there. What I do find fascinating is, me and Joe can certainly from our own practice, we know this stuff works. But if you look at the research and literature around say good content manipulation for example, that doesn’t come from combat sport research. It comes from medical colonoscopy papers.
When we look at things like glycogen manipulation, it’s not been done in a combat sport realm, it’s your classic Bergstrom papers from back in the ’60s, where we know if you exercise like this, you get a reduction. So we’re not necessarily following any methodology that’s being proposed within the area. It’s more just classical science. And for me, I think that’s definitely the part where you objectively need some measure. I know some of the better guys now, when we do this and we highlight this in our case study. A reduction is minimal as only 2% to 3% can have pronounced physiological effects on things like cardiac function, cognitive functions, specific performance. You need to measure things like heart rate, blood pressure. You need to consider the context of how you’re making the weight acutely, whether that’d be actively passively heated environment or something else. That’s the key point.
When you’re doing it with females, understanding, is there an oral contraception, what phase of the menstrual cycle they’re in, even changes in body temperature. That one for me, the acute phase is where a lot of things, even if you’ve got it planned well can go very, very wrong unless you’re objectively monitoring. The big effect for me, the one where we’ve seen the most effect, and this is probably articulated best in our case study is the post. Because as with most things in life, they’ve made weight, they performed, they don’t need you anymore and they just basically go off and do their own thing.
You see this from literature as far back as the early 1900s. A classic response to energy deficiency is this rebound hyperphagia. So basically an overheating, where there’s a lot of I suppose open interpretation to this at the moment. A lot on about whether it’s psychologically regulated or physiologically. Personally, I think it’s both. Where you’re trying to recover that energy deficient state by eating as many calories as you can in shorter periods of time. What a lot of fighters do is, they don’t rebound often on both the baseline weight that they started, and that will be concurrent with an increase in fat mass.
Then as we highlighted in the case study, and this was of huge surprise to even us. There’s a totalization of training. You’ve got this huge increase in energy intake, which comes with a rebounding weight and fat mass. That’s accompanied by things like in that case study, we highlighted 450% increase in fasting insulin, which was on the same level as a type 2 diabetic within a period of only five days. A huge reduction in the capacity for resting fast oxidation, lipid profiles that would be indicative of somebody with poor cardiovascular health and so on.
Me as a practitioner researcher and Joe can answer this. I think we’ve probably got a nice process now for chronic and acute modulation of body mass for weight making in categorizes sports. The one that is starting to really interest me and I’m trying to figure out in my mind of how we cannot reverse, but I suppose deal with this is the post phase, is the hyperphagia phase and Joe might have some stuff to add on that from his own experience.
[01:00:49] JM: I was going to ask actually. I completely agree with the RED-S stuff in fighters who have a well-structured and periodized nutrition camp over a period of weeks. I’ve not seen any evidence of some of the RED-S symptoms that you might expect to occur given their conditions. But do you think rather than sort of the MMA athletes — we’re talking MMA where they compete less frequently. What about some of the amateur boxers who compete or the amateur combat sport athletes who compete more regularly, particularly if they might be around adolescence as well, where they’re trying to constantly maintain a similar weight, while also going through growth and maturation. Have you seen anything that would link more to the RED-S stuff there?
[01:01:29] CLE: Yeah. I think, I mean again, I know Laurent is not focused around RED-S but it’s very important for these guys do.
[01:01:34] JM: Apologies, Laurent, for hijacking the —
[01:01:36] LB: No, it is. That’s why I mentioned in my previous comment, it’s a consequence, isn’t it?
[01:01:41] CLE: For me and I think you’re right, Joe. I’m pretty sure Jose touched on this. It’s either the magnitude of the energy availability deficit loss or low energy availability deficits. So as you see from classic research papers, some of your colleagues you know, so the [inaudible 01:01:58] papers that Craig did and looking at low energy availability over colder days, when it’s very, very low. And we show this in our case study. It can happen in a matter of days. What those become more interesting like you say is, not just the magnitude of deficit but the duration of deficit. As you’re saying, some of these guys who are repetitively doing this over time, I agree, some of that can be more prevalent. But I also think it’s context specific, whereas, in my experience all throughout any combat sport fighter, even the amateurs Joe who might do this more periodically. Because of the osteogenic stimulus of what they do on a day-to-day basis, that offsets any of the effects that you might get on bone metabolism.
Speaking to Craig about this, he’s like, “Well, Graeme said you think of those classical triads and, you know, factors. One of them is low energy, but you’ve got the osteogenic stimulus. You’ve got the fact that they’re probably eating appropriately in and around training.” It’s probably more from a point of view, I would imagine if reductions in lean mass, that would become a bit more - as you know, Joe, probably working with amateurs. Using boxing as an example, amateur boxers. When you compare the amateur boxer, I suppose, frame or classical archetype athlete versus a professional boxer, they’re very lean, they’re very thin, they’re very wiry. Probably because they’re in a state of low energy availability more so than the professionals are camp to camp.
Yeah, I agree. There’s definitely stuff to be said about that. I do know speaking to some colleagues who work with Olympic athletes as well. In the amateur combat sports, thinks like changes in RMR, so metabolic factors and blood profiles becomes a little bit more prevalent. But I suppose the flipside of that is — and again, we showed that in our case study, it’s very easily rescued as well. I think like you said earlier on, Laurent, it’s about objectively recognizing and monitoring these things and then being reactive. Yes, it’s more prevalent. I would definitely agree, Joe. Then I’m sure you can comment from your practice, but fortunately not if it’s quickly rescued, if you’re able to identify that soon enough.
[01:04:02] LB: You mentioned there objectively monitoring and that brings me sort of back an area I just wanted to quickly touch upon is. We’ve got this very blunt instrument that I’ve referred to as that number on that scale, right? There is this other side of it, which is — we talked about weight and we talked about the quality of that weight and the body composition. I’ve talked about the functional components of that athlete. And of course, we looked at different aspect of body composition as being more or less relevant to the requirements of that functionality of that athlete. Because that brings us to not specifically sort of in an aesthetic requirement, but not the less the aesthetic outcome of a leaner, potentially more menacing-looking fighter at the end of that.
For those of us that are working as performance nutritionist or strength and condition coaches or so on, you can’t help but have that as the part of something that you noticed or the athlete themselves gets confidence out of looking a certain way. But there’s been a number of high-profile fights in recent years, where the fighter who looks aesthetically less in shape actually came out the victor in that fight. And in fact, speaking Graeme, I think he even made a comment about that on a recent one where, are we maybe becoming too obsessed with body composition, given all the different factors that result the outcome of the fight. Guys, what do you make of that? Given it is something that we’re researching. You’re mentioning we’re doing skin folds, ISAK or DXA. Body composition seems to be highly relevant. But bearing in mind tradition, culture and then we’re using science to inform our practice. Where should we be positioning that in our focus on all this?
[01:05:51] CLE: It’s okay, Joe. I’ll probably — going back to what we’re talking about earlier on around a lot of fighter’s focus is just on the weigh in and they kind of forget the event. One thing that we’ll say for the weigh in and Joe, I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well. There is a little bit of a competitive elements around the weigh in, Laurent, for the points of view of, you’ve hit the nail on the head, aesthetically looking better than the opponent. I mean, as crazy as this is. It’s something that I used to do. Because in amateur combat sports, it’s obviously not a televised individual weigh in. More people will wait in line, you’ll go in and weigh in.
I used to turn up to the weigh in with a half-eaten Mars bar. I’ll get my coach to take half a bite out of it, I’d stand there. You’ve got all these people dying in the line and I’ll be like, “Oh, what’s going on guys.” Everyone is struggling to make weight, literally smelling this Mars bar from a few inches away, like my God, I would love to eat that. There is actually — I suppose we haven’t made enough focus on that, Joe. There isn’t elements of the weigh in where fights can be won and lost, whether that’s aesthetic, whether that’s tactic.
A most recent example, using Scott Robinson. I know one of his fighters got into a fight when he fought recently. Stand up to the weigh in and kind of like drank a pint of whatever it was. It was something pink to get under his opponent’s skin.
[01:07:09] LB Yeah, and he hasn’t like eat a bar of chocolate.
[01:07:12] CLE: Yeah. [Inaudible 01:07:12] There’s an element of that, but then flipside going to your key points. I’ll take what you mean around the aesthetic. Just to add some interesting context. I’ve got a paper coming out in the next few months, where we’ve done another qualitative assessment of fighters. What we did is, we did a questionnaire and the I suppose that’s to scale it and meat onto the bones. We did some semi-structured interviews. What I found very interesting a lot was when we actually asked a lot of the fighters about, “Are you bothered about body physique and aesthetics?” Because there are some papers, Joe, thinking of the Patterson papers that assess those guy and body image, was quite prevalent. A lot of them are like, “Yeah, I like to look good. It’s important.” The guys that we asked said they didn’t care about how they looked. It was all about the number on the scales. “I don’t care how I look, I just need to make the weight. Making the weight and being competitive.”
The flipside I suppose, paradoxically, Laurent, later on our conversation, they were like, “But I don’t like how I look when I’m making weight.” And you’re like, “So you don’t care about how you look when you make weight, but it is very important on how you look?” They were like, “Yeah. Yeah.” You want to say to them, “That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.” There are convoluted ideas there. So from my perspective as a practitioner, I’m not driven by aesthetics. I actually think personally, and Joe, you’ll be able to comment on this from your experience. That comes from the fighter. I never deliberately focus on what we’re doing this for you is to have abs or for me, the objective numbers that we take is more a case of me understanding how they’re making weight.
They turn and they look fantastic a lot of the times because they’ve ripping up the sit-ups and doing all sorts of crazy stuff to make themselves look fantastic. Well, I don’t know what your though process is on that, Joe, but I never really go in for the aesthetics. It’s just kind of a byproduct.
[01:08:56] JM: Yeah, I agree. The body composition assessment shows you what’s possible in what timeframe. It’s never the focus of the plan. As Laurent, as you said as well, there’s an awful of overlap between nutrition for to improve body composition and a nutrition for dieting for a combat sport athlete. There’s going to be a lot of overlap. But the focus of the nutrition plan is never, we’re trying to reduce fat and maintain muscle at all cost. It’s going to look very different from a builder or physique athlete’s plan. Maybe for a bit of a practical spin, one of the first things I’ll do with the fighters, we map out all of their training sessions in a week in a sort of timetable grid. So write, what are your most important sessions in this week, and then we’re going to maximize the fuel around those and then work back from that with what we’ve got left essentially. It’s never — sure if you’re training, okay. Here’s a nutrition that’s going to help you lose weight. The focus is on the performance aspect. But the nutrition you can apply to maximize performance, they’re just constrained by calories is the only difference to a non — your typical sort of team sport or endurance athlete maybe.
[01:10:02] LB: Look, we’re going to ran out of time here, and there’s so much that we could get into. In a minute, we’ll finish this off with sort of a basic practical overview about strategies for making weight effectively and safely. But you know you mentioned, I think it was Joe. You mentioned about necking some creatine in the drink. I just want to mention supplements, because of course, we’re talking about nutrition primarily. We’ve not talked so much about training and that’s not our focus specifically. But we are talking about energy restriction and getting that right and so on. And maybe we can briefly touch upon the importance of certain micronutrients and so on.
But supplements, I mean, how much do you find supplements play a role? Inevitably, they find their way into the fighter’s bag or into the locker room or whatever. Some of which are dubious at best, some of which of course are totally harmless. What’s your experience on that, guys? Starting with you, Joe.
[01:10:56] JM: Sure. I do use a fair range of supplements for most fight camps. I think they can help you recover some performance loss by being hypocaloric, is where I see the benefit. All of these are personal preference. Some fighters will prefer them, some won’t and I don’t push them to do anything that they’re not happy to do. But using caffeine and carbohydrate mouth rinse before a fasted training session in the morning if energy levels are low. It’s not something we’d necessarily do every single training session. But it’s there as a tool if they’re having a day where their energy levels are a little bit lower. On the competition week, we’d use beetroot supplementation. We normally use beta-alanine throughout the fight camp as well. Wouldn’t use creatine for obvious reasons that the water retention it causes. That’s pretty much the limit, because that’s what we can get batch tested and of course whey protein as well and protein buns.
But that’s what we can get, informed sport and tested. We trust it or we’re pretty confident that it’s not going to get contaminations in, which is super important for these guys. Even the other thing for traveling athletes, we’ve had guys compete around the world is some zinc lozenges. Again, just in the last couple of weeks when calorie intake is low, to try and preserve or maintain immunity as much as possible. There was, I don’t know if people saw. I think it might have been the year before last, quite a prominent fighter in the UFC posted a picture on Instagram when he was looking into a mirror and table full of supplements. There must have been about 50, I’m not exaggerating. Probably 50 or 60 bottles in there. A few weeks later, he tested positive, I believe. I think the sheer number of range of supplements are unnecessary, but also the risk benefit ratio is only there for a few of them, I think.
[01:12:39] LB: That’s why I always say, you can but should you? That’s one of my mantras, but I agree with you when you say, there are things you can take in that may or may not have a major impact, but as long as it’s safe. There’s a mindset there because I know with some athletes, they think they should be taking it. If you take it away from them, that does potentially have a psychological impact. But Carl, when we’re talking about the short-term strategies involved to making weight safely, some supplements might play a role in mitigating some of those potential negative effects, which Joe’s already mentioned a few of them like caffeine obviously can have some impact there. But what are your overall thoughts on that and how — Joe’s mentioned the ones he might use. Do you have anything to add?
[01:13:23] CLE: I mean, the only one that I’d probably have to add and this is something that we played with, but I am yet able to find an ideal combination that doesn’t result in gastrointestinal distresses. So the bicarbonates. We’re really lucky that we’ve got some colleagues up at Edge Hill just up the road who are looking at this and are looking at things like encapsulation. But I’m sure Joe can agree, when you’re working with certain athletes who compete in white uniforms, it’s never a good idea to take sodium bicarbonates. Without a tested strategy strategy. But no way, I totally agree. I would love to rarely have these athletes on creatine. I think we’re all familiar with the additive effects and benefits of creatine, but it just tends to come with that, the additional access of total body water.
Beta-alanine for me is a bit of a mainstay. I encourage many of the combat sport athletes as I can to go in on there, follow on some of the guidelines from Professor Craig Sale and his group. Don’t necessarily play around as much with matrix. I have in the past. I just tend to find that, unless you’re actually with the athlete and you’re giving it to them more directly to them. So probably, similar to you Joe, with more of the pro-guys might use nitrates, but with other guys, not necessarily so.
I suppose the king of all of the above for me is caffeine. It’s just absolutely tremendous to rescue some of the performance decrements that you get during the isocaloric stages Joe said. But I think ultimately, it’s a little bit, it depends on the individual. I work with some guys, probably similar to you, Joe who just don’t want to touch anything, they’re literally not interested. And similar to what you said, Laurent, I am very much food-first approach. So I don’t particularly use whey protein unless there’s a need to top it up or for convenience in certain times. I always try and go food-first as we can.
The opposite side of the coins, the guys who don’t want to touch anything, because you pretty much just have to stop convince to stop taking as much stuff. Again, probably you have an experience with this Joe, that CBD is just rife in combat sports, at the moment, Laurent. I don’t know a single person who isn’t taking it or isn’t inquiring about it or wants to take it. I even saw that Olympic athletes are very highly decorated to combat sport, combat Olympic athlete who’s now sponsored by a CBD company, which I found very surprising, considered that they’re in tested event.
[01:15:45] LB: I did a podcast with Graeme all about this, few episodes back. Fascinating.
[01:15:48] CLE: Yeah, in absolute mind field. I mean, in certain sports you work with, there’s no test and regulation, all the ones you work with. It just shocks me. You have to try and convince them to come off of it because you’re like, look, the potentially benefits that you’re going to get from that far offsets and are outweighed by the fact that you’re probably going to get a positive test at some point in your career if you keep taking it.
I think Joe has hit on every tangent there. But yeah, no, I just tend to find two opposites end of the coin. You’ve got people who listen and follow a strategy after the time, then others who don’t want to take anything because they’re terrified and others who literally concerned and they’re asking, “Have you seen this? Have you seen that? Have you seen it?” And you’re like — you’re just trying to convince them that there’s no efficacy in it all. It’s just a waste of money. It can be a bit problematic.
[01:16:33] LB: Yeah, I like how you say that and frame that. I guess one way of summarizing some of that is. One does these things because there’s a belief that it will help them do better, it will help them win the fight. But the reality is, the risk might far outweigh the perceived benefits by virtue of being banned. And or causing an unwanted effect, which of course reminds us that apart from what Joe has been referring earlier, that they need to make sure that they’re taking products have been screened for banned substances and so one, batch tested and all that. Also, try these things away from competition and practice, because you don’t know how they might affect you. The might not do anything which is okay, but they might do something nasty and cause you some weird unpleasant side effect.
[01:17:20] JM: Laurent, just to jump in on that point, I hope you don’t mind.
[01:17:24] LB: Please do.
[01:17:25] JM: From moving this up to a point of practice. The practice component of being quote persuaded with — Brian Sanders has done some work on this on how you deliver the supplement and maximizing the effects of the supplement, whether that’s through addition of a placebo. I think there’s something that we can do that certainly not going to have — you mentioned there, it’s about trying to minimize some of the negative effects and that’s what tips my head to mention this. If we frame the supplement in a particular way and our language were used when we described that to the athlete, we can maximize all of the benefits and that’s a really a free hit to some extent. Because it’s highly unlikely to be a negative side effect to us promoting it in a particular way for performance. Again, some of the language you use with the athletes can be quite powerful there.
[01:18:12] LB: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I did a podcast with Dr. Mayur Ranchordas a few years ago now, quite a few years ago about placebos and nocebos. I know that there’s more up-to-date stuff on that now, but it is an amazing — that’s why I know firsthand, I’ve had football players where they’ve taken supplements away and they didn’t like it. They do not like it and they put some in a very negative mindset and that’s not necessarily worth doing if there’s no harm in taking it.
But there’s a lot for us that we could continue with and of course, that’s the reason for people to read your work, your papers, your reviews, your original research and so on. So I’ll be attaching all of that to the podcast notes and there will be a transcript as well to this podcast. People can read about that. But I think people would attack us in the streets if we didn’t at least come up with some sort of practical overview to polish this off with. So guys, maybe between you. I’ll throw you in the ring so to speak any maybe we could just come up with some sort of practical overview of making weight and just some of the main areas of consideration that needs to be factored in. Bearing in mind of course, there are various kinds of combat sports and so on. But starting with you Carl, is there are number of areas you wanted to overview for us, please?
[01:19:27] CLE: Yeah. I think to summarize for me, going back to what we talked about earlier, about the objectivity and assessment is absolutely key. I’ll just give an example. There was a guy who I got approached by who’s based over in Spain, a fighter who wants to get down from higher weight to a lower weight and was asking could I support him. I just said, for the volume of body mass that they needed to lose without having some sort of assessment of their body composition, it’s a complete guess. As it turns out, we were very fortunate to be able to get him a DEXA scan and it turned out that he didn’t have the capacity to make that weight. So now, we’ve got some form of objectivity to make a decision on going one way or the other way.
So anyone who you’ve worked with in this space who is worth their salt will always do that. One that worries me I think is, and I don’t want to get into this too much, but I’m sure Joe will support this. Some of these weight cook specialists that you get out there now who do three-day courses and then are then out in the world operating, as the title entails, as a specialist to this area. So always, always work from objective data because it can be quite a dangerous process. Chronically, I think as Joe mentioned, have a plan that needs to be time considered, it needs to be periodized. It needs to be focused in and around within and between the global strategy of how that’s planned and modulated around training and in line with any supplements that you use.
In the acute phase, Joe has already mentioned them but a huge shoutout to Dr. Reid Reale who’s now head of performance nutrition at the UFCPI. He’s done some absolutely tremendous work looking at strategies for the acute phase. But as Joe mentioned, we’ve probably got a lot of tools in the box there, but that needs to be considered in the context of the time of the event, the amounts of time you’ve got for recovery and things like that. Then also the preference of the athlete, how they like to make the weight. And probably, a big factor for me. The one that I think a lot of practitioners even lose focus of is the most key part of this entire process is the recovery between the weigh in and the event. You can get some of this at the scales in absolutely incredible shape and they can make weight in the best way possible. But if you mess up a bit between coming off the scale and standing in the competitive environment, for a lot of people, that’s where the fight can be win and lost. So make sure that you’ve considered all other factors around there.
Then yeah, just for those who are working with these athletes, nobody’s an expert. Like you say, me and Joe have been involved in this for a decade. I’ve even done a PhD in it. It’s like everything in life, Laurent, the more you learn, the less you know. Make sure that you speak to the light-minded colleagues and make sure that you expand your practice to try and look for other facets that you can bring in to improve things. I know between me and Joe and a lot of other guys out there, we have kind of a small network where we all talk and communicate and bounce ideas off each other. So don’t be too insular in your practice, please certainly communicate.
[01:22:26] LB: Joe, what would you add to that?
[01:22:28] JM: I think that’s some great information. There’s not too much to add. I think we’ve probably covered a lot about some of the chronic and acute strategies. Maybe just a practical tip based on learning from my own mistakes. Is I would get fighters to monitor their body mass daily every morning, but I’d only really be concerned with the average weekly change. I think turning the clock back nine or ten years, I used to get a little bit spooked when the weight would change from a Monday to a Tuesday, and then you start making changes to the plan that you start necessary. Where I think the average weekly weight, the average of the seven days can give you an awful lot more insights to what’s actually happening.
It will help you calm you down a little bit. It will help you be composed. Because if you’re not composed and you’re panicking, that’s not going to instill the athlete with too much confidence either. But I think Carl has come up with many things, some great points in there.
[01:23:17] CLE: That’s a great point. Joe is right. I’ve don’t exactly the same thing. As a young practitioner, you see the number on the scale it fluctuates and you become really nervous and probably a bit more reactive rather than being proactive the way you should be. The only final thing to add on top of that, I think, Laurent, as well is, with that objectivity of data, and I personally find this helped your process, share it with the athletes, explain it, get them to buy into it and understand it.
Because at the end, that’s them on a page, it’s them on a screen. It just helps — there’s a lot of those where you’ll work with certain individuals and they’re like, “I don’t care about that. I don’t want to know about. Just tell me what I need to do.” I try and actively, I suppose encourage and enforce now to these guys and go, “Look, you’re making the weight. I want you to understand this. I want you to understand what’s happening and why.” And I think when you get the buy in to the data, I love it now. I have fighters and they call it the ‘Dreaded Dexter’ like they’re walking into a prison when they’re coming in for the start of Camp Dexter. And then they’re like, “Well, God. What’s this going to look like?” But it just helps to give you that level of buy-in and a lot of the fighter I work with now, I suppose understand the context of what they do in just as much as I do. It’s good for them to know that because they’re able to also then subjectively feedback to you and it just makes the process more informed.
[01:24:40] LB: There’s a perfect place for us to end the guess, which is understanding the limits of one’s knowledge. I think that is an issue that we have going back in time, you talked about weight cut specialist who are probably going to unsubscribe now from my podcast. But basically, that is the issue. I mean, listening to you guys talk about this, you’ve done your degrees, masters and PhDs or finishing up your PhD. And you very honestly said, you just about scratch the surface of this. There’s so much to know and I guess that’s the issue, it’s very easy to try and do things without truly understanding just how likely it is to damage your health, damage your performance or worst. There’s a lot to it and that’s obviously the point of this podcast, for example is to help get some of that knowledge out there. Carl, you wanted to add to that?
[01:25:30] CLE: Just final points on, when I say weight cut specialist because a lot of them just — because actually, I think you raised a good point. I might have done some people a disservice. I’m actually good friends with some guys in these courses. But I think the better guys actively seek out more information. I got a popular, like I say, really good friends, really good colleagues who’s done those courses, but they realized that that’s one element and they need to know more. So yeah, this isn’t which where it’s against weight cut specialist. I think anybody who calls themselves an expert, and as everything in life, is trying to sell you a service and a product that isn’t necessarily very well means-tested. That can be exactly the same from an established sports nutritionist. This is a process that can be very deleterious to health, so make sure you do your due diligence.
[01:26:16] LB: Well, look, you’re right and it comes up periodically on the podcast. Everyone, specially in the current climate and economic impact of this pandemic and so on, people want to make a living and I guess some people will offer advice and services very honestly not realizing the limits to their knowledge. And there are some severe risk associated with this. As you say, they’re not the ones that are putting their life on the line and getting in the ring one way or the other.
But listen, thank you so much guys. I’ve really enjoyed having this conversation with you today. So much have been discussed, so much could have been discussed. And of course, much of that will find in your papers and so on. But if you guys quickly wanted to mention ways in which people can follow you and your work, I will put links into the show notes and when I tweet, et cetera. But Carl, how do people follow you and stay up to date with your expertise and knowledge on this?
[01:27:15] CLE: Yeah. I suppose one of the best places to follow me is either on Twitter or Instagram. My handle on both is @clesposci. My details are on there, so people can reach out, get in touch, whatever. Similar to Joe, always happy to talk about this area. Then the other one is probably similar to all three of those PubMed. I’ve got quite a unique double-barreled name, so I’m easy to find. I’m sure Joe will mention it as well. We’ve got a couple of papers coming out. One in collaboration together with some other colleagues, ACSM position stands and I’ve also got a piece coming out in the ECSS special review in female athletes on this topic. Lots of exciting research from us both coming, for sure.
[01:27:57] LB: All right. Joe, how about you?
[01:27:58] JM: Sure. The best place to catch me is probably on Twitter, which is @joejohnmatthews, pretty much any place I’m active. But happy to answer any questions. I’ve always got time for discussion like this, so thanks for having us on.
[01:28:12] LB: No, thank you, guys. Well, a new-ish feature to this podcast is that we’re now doing transcripts. So I’ll put actual links in the transcript to your Twitter feeds and ResearchGates, PubMeds and websites and so on and so forth. That transcript and all the other resources and papers and everything that we’ve gotten into today if it’s relevant, including many of the relevant podcast that I have discussed that are in one way or another are going to complement this discussion today will be linked to in on the We Do Science Podcast website. You can learn about all of that stuff, as well as what we’re up to at The Institute of Performance Nutrition and our very own online advanced level deployment in performance nutrition, where we do cover these kinds of topics. You can learn all about that at our website, at www.theiopn.com.
Once again, Carl and Joe, thank you for your time. I of course, am Laurent Bannock, and I look forward to bringing another episode back to you all very soon. Take care, everyone and stay safe.