Before Australia’s Taekwondo stars trade blows at the Oceania Taekwondo Championships, they must each face a formidable opponent – the weighing scales.
While every athlete’s approach to weight cutting is different, and some must shed more kilos than others, many will tell you that squaring up to the best fighters in the country is the easy part.
Before fight day, Taekwondo athletes face a long, and sometimes frustrating journey, to ensure that they make their respective weight divisions. It’s a journey that requires meticulous dietary planning, patience and discipline.
For athletes whose natural weight is very close to their competition weight, it’s about careful maintenance. They find a balance between fuelling their body for optimal performance and preserving their ideal weight – before tapering off with some acute weight making strategies.
Athletes who must cut a larger chunk of their body mass have to employ a more refined, long-term strategy to gradually shed weight.
But whether your weight cuts are big or small, doing them safely is a complex process, and athletes should seek and follow expert advice around best practices.
In this special series, we speak to some of Australia’s leading experts in this space for tips to help athletes and coaches prepare for competition.
In this installment, we spoke to Dr Oliver Barley, a lecturer and member of the Centre for Human Performance at Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences. His research on exercise physiology and combat sports has been published by a range of international academic journals. This has included in-depth investigations of weight cutting practices across combat sports (including Taekwondo). He is also a Kickboxer and assists other fighters in making weight for competitions.
Here's what Dr Barley had to say about the key “do’s and don’ts” of weight cutting.
What are some of the best practices you’d recommend for safe weight cutting?
There are generally two categories of weight manipulation - one is chronic, and one is acute. Chronic is losing weight over longer periods of time, and acute is using it in short periods of time. Chronic is done in a lot of different ways… People can do relatively aggressive weight management through chronic weight loss, or they could do relatively slow chronic weight loss. It is almost definitely better to lose weight slower over longer periods of time… I've got one fighter that I managed for his entire camp and his weight cut. In his case, we’d lose weight, we’d never get too heavy, and when we were losing weight, we were losing somewhere between 200 to 400 grams a week, and we’d start losing weight for a fight at least two months out. He never gets too far away from competition weight and he just slowly chips away at it until it gets to fight week.
Making sure someone never gets too heavy after a fight is really important for having manageable weight loss periods. Once you’ve lost that weight, you end up at an acute phase… [where] generally you're looking at three things: body water manipulation, gut content manipulation and glycogen manipulation. These are things that you can manipulate the easiest in short periods of time.
Generally, with all my athletes, we do a salt and fibre cut, which is when people go on low salts – under 2000 milligrams per day – and low fibre – 8 grams per day – or as low as possible. They do that for three days leading into the weight cut, and people can lose up to 2 to 3% of their body weight from that and there's zero health risk, and really zero performance risk, because as long as you have time between the weigh in and competition, you just have a couple of normal meals and that's all sorted. Just have a high fibre meal to replenish. It can be quite an easy way to lose weight without massive risk.
So, when I work with athletes, my focus is usually chronic weight loss across the camp, then gut content manipulation through salts and fibre cuts, and then whatever's left over, we’ll sweat out.
What are some of the riskiest practices that you’d caution against?
A general rule of thumb for the chronic phase is that you never want to lose more than a kilo in a week – that is not ideal for your body. Somewhere around 500 grams is really the upper limit of what someone should be losing in a single week. Slow and steady weight loss is better for the body, better for your performance and better for your training.
The most dangerous one of those acute phase methods is obviously body water manipulation. Because obviously body water has a lot of health impacts and severe dehydration can kill people and cause long term health problems over periods of time. The process of losing that weight, which is almost always thermal exposure… your body responds to heat the same way it always does, which is sweat. So the heat one is obviously the most dangerous, but you can easily lose body fluid through sweat without any danger. If it's small enough, you could lose up to 2% of your body weight and there's almost definitely no risk to your health and probably very little risk to your performance as well… It's when you start getting to 3%, 4%, 5% and beyond. That’s when you're starting to first of all get health risks, and second of all, probably see significant performance risks too.
Glycogen depletion, I'm not a huge fan of, because glycogen is arguably the most important part of exercise, especially in high intensity sports. So if you significantly deplete your glycogen, it then becomes a race to put it all back in on time. You will lose some weight from glycogen depletion, I'm not saying it's a bad strategy to use, it's just generally not my first to go to.
What are some of the key things athletes can do to replenish their bodies after weighing in?
It mainly comes down to the individual athletes, but essentially what you're having to replenish is electrolytes, fluid, carbohydrates, and probably fibre as well.
When my athlete hops off the scales, I'm going Okay, drink this bottle of Gatorade, smash that pretty quick. Here's some water, here's a banana. Fruit is always a pretty good one and bananas are basically nature's energy bar… Here's a protein shake, to get a bit of protein back in. And also some protein shakes usually are mixed with milk. Milk is really good for electrolytes and rehydration. In fact, milk might actually be better for rehydration than any glucose electrolyte solution, it's just difficult to drink milk when you're dehydrated. Then, probably an oat bar with a decent amount of fibre in it.
It's usually all of that within about 45 minutes. It's getting all of that in quick. Now some athletes won't be able to do that because it depends on stomach comfort. You don't want someone to take in a bunch of stuff and throw it up. Basically, as quick as they are comfortable to ingest it is the way to go. A lot of it is based around liquids because they get into the body quicker. Then after a couple of hours, they're having a large meal.
Usually something like lasagne, carbs and protein so it was good to go. I'm not super picky, with the meal, but you just need to get carbs and protein. Also, because we've gone so aggressive with the fluid early, it's just about continuously taking in fluid, you shouldn’t need gatorade. After six hours [post weigh-in], you've gone through that initial rough phase and once you've had a meal, you’re fine to just have regular water at that point.
How important is long-term planning and goal setting throughout this process?
Yes, it is about planning and my experience is the vast majority of weight cuts are very poorly planned.
It needs to be about reaching certain weights by certain times. It’s easy, but difficult. It is difficult in the sense that it requires consistent discipline, and it’s interesting that many fighters will apply that consistent discipline to the training, but not to the rest of their lifestyle. But it's easy in that you never have to lose more than 500 grams in a week. You don’t have to cut a massive amount of weight – do salt and fibre cuts. So it requires consistent, minor difficulty to avoid major difficulty at the end.
If someone reads this article and it's a week and a half out from the competition, and they're only just starting to think about their weight, that's a big problem. That's a huge problem. They should be thinking about their weight months out, they should be thinking about their entire competitive cycle, if they want to be an elite athlete and they want to succeed. This kind of planning is what separates people who consistently succeed and make it to the highest level from people that are either flash in the pan successes or never make it there.
For further weight cutting resources, please visit:
Australian Institute of Sport
Making Weight in Weight Category Sports
National Library of Medicine
The Current State of Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports-Weight-Cutting in Combat Sports
Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI)
Acute weight management in combat sports: pre-weigh-in weight loss, post weigh-in recovery and competition nutrition strategies
[ This content is intended for information purposes only. Australian Taekwondo always recommends seeking professional health advice when starting or changing any exercise, fitness, diet, or nutrition program. This information should not be used as medical advice or a diagnosis.]