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Be Your Best: Wrestlers, be aware of dangers associated with cutting weight too quickly

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Wrestlers know the struggle, sitting there staring at mountains of food on Thanksgiving but knowing that wrestling season started a few days prior and weight needs to be cut.
In many sports, athletes work out to try to gain size, strength and weight to be as physically imposing as possible on the field. Wrestling is such a unique sport, however, with the idea being to drop as much weight as possible while still remaining strong and athletic. If an athlete is normally 150 pounds throughout much of the year, he may look to cut weight so that he can wrestle at 138 pounds. Not all wrestlers want to be that dramatic with their weight loss, but by and large most wrestlers look to lose weight before the season so that they can qualify for the weight class where they can be most effective.
Years ago, high school wrestlers would starve themselves for a good portion of each day, skipping breakfast and lunch in an effort to drop a pound or two before practice or a match. In recent years, there have been improvements in regulations about how much weight a wrestler can lose, and the NJSIAA has teamed up with Rothman Institute to issue rules and regulations regarding weight loss and hydration. Basically, if a wrestler weighs in at a certain weight and wants to travel down several weight classes throughout the season, the weight loss must come in specific time increments.
We recently spoke with Dr. Brian Sokalsky of Jersey Shore Sports Medicine to get his take on some of the dangers of rapid weight loss and how wrestlers should best go about dropping weight to get to their optimal weight class.
“It depends on how much they weigh to begin with. It’s a percentage of their body weight they are losing. If you have a heavyweight who loses 20 pounds, that’s very different than somebody who weighs 150 and he drops to 130,” Sokalsky said. “So the percentage of body weight lost is one of the ways they monitor that. The risk factors are mainly medical. They can do some serious damage to their bodies if they try to lose weight in extreme ways. It’s not only how much they are losing, but over what period of time and how they are doing it.”
The new regulations, Sokalsky said, are trying to prevent rapid weight loss. For instance, a kid coming in at 150 pounds and trying to get down to 138 in the first week or two of the season.
“Basically, the regulations are modeled after the ones the NCAA uses, and allow wrestlers to lose about 1.5 percent of their body weight per week. At the beginning of the season they have their certified weight, and they can lose the amount of weight that equals 1.5 percent of their body weight per week,” Sokalsky explained. “The mistake prior to (these regulations) that kids were making was trying to lose a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. The reality is, the only way to lose that kind of weight is to severely dehydrate yourself. You’re not going to burn off actual pounds of fat or muscle in that amount of time. You just can’t burn off that kind of energy. When you are trying to get excess water out of your body, you can do some serious damage to your kidneys; when you are dehydrated you are less able to deal with heat and that can lead to heat stroke or heat exhaustion. So there are some very severe things that can happen if they try to lose a lot of weight quickly.”
Sokalsky said it’s very important for high school wrestlers to get the right kind of nutrition throughout the day and not starve themselves in the hope of losing a pound or two.
“There are a lot of tools out there so kids can understand their weight, and not only their weight, but the breakdown of their weight such as percentage of body fat and how much fluid they have, those types of things. So, getting an accurate assessment of their body composition is a good way to start,” Sokalsky said. “When you are talking about nutrition, it’s all the stuff we talk about for anybody trying to gain or lose weight. You want to do it in a healthy way. Maintaining a well-balanced diet, eliminating processed foods that have a lot of salt in them, eliminating simple sugars, and focusing on protein, complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber, focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables and getting plenty of water. Those are simple guidelines to follow. The most important thing is to make sure they are maintaining the necessary caloric intake so they are giving the body the nutrition it needs to recover from workouts and maintain a healthy balance.”

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