10 November 2022

Ask an Expert: Weight Cutting Tips with Erica Stephens

Before Australia’s Taekwondo stars kick for gold at the upcoming World 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 world is the easy part. 

Before fight day, Taekwondo athletes face a long, and sometimes challenging 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 Erica Stephens. 

Erica Stephens was a member of Australian Taekwondo’s Shadow Team for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Since then, Erica has gone on to obtain a range of qualifications in nutrition and dietetics. Her Sports Dietitian business Sportrition, assists recreational and professional athletes from up to 40 sports (including Taekwondo) with performance nutrition advice, including body composition manipulation. She is also currently working with the ACT Meteors Cricket team and the ACT Academy of Sport.

Here's what she 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? 

It largely depends on the athlete that you've got in front of you and where they're sitting in relation to their weight division. First, you'd actually be looking at whether the athlete is capable of making the weight division that they are attempting to make. And how long do we have? So, is it a couple of months, and we're taking a long term approach? Or is it two weeks, and we're taking a very acute approach? 

With all the different strategies, if you're looking at an athlete that's sitting at the top end in terms of how much they can lose in a short period of time, you'd be looking at [GIT content manipulation, glycogen depletion, body water manipulation] and trying to maximise all of those strategies because the athlete isn't close to that division. But if they were closer to their division, and there really isn't much in it, a couple of kilos or a couple of per cent of their body weight, then you might just look at one or two of those methods. You’d go with the least impactful one on performance, which is gut manipulation or walking around with less fibre in your gastrointestinal system. We do it very acutely, it's really 24 to 48 hours maximum. Obviously, from a health perspective, it's not recommended that people eat a low fibre diet long term. But 24 to 48 hours is, you know, a very short period of time. 

Typically, we've got about 5-7% of someone's body weight to work with, so if they're sitting 5-7%, above their division, we can reach that very safely with a sports dietitian involved using an acute approach. But if we have much more than 7% to change, and we're capable of changing that from a body composition perspective, we would need months to do that.

What are some of the riskiest practices that you’d caution against? 

To what degree some of these strategies are used is important from a safety perspective. I would say your highest risk approaches will be your mass sort of sweating activities, so saunas or sweat suits, or sitting in a hot bath, as well as any sort of medication use like diuretics or laxatives, which have an effect on a electrolytes in our body, and that can be very dangerous. So yeah, they would be some of our most dangerous approaches, and we have had deaths in athletes that have attempted to make weight using some of those strategies. 

So it’s really important, to be aware that any extreme use of these strategies is deadly, essentially. That doesn't mean that we can’t use fluid restriction or a level of dehydration. But we know that there's an effect on performance if we manipulate body fluid or dehydrate to a greater extent than about 2%. So if we use that as one of our strategies, we will use it only to that degree, so 2% of someone's body weight, which is not a great amount. In a 70 kilo person, I think that's about 1.4 kilos, so there's not a lot of room to move with manipulating fluid in a safe way that still protects performance. But we certainly can use that. I think it's the extent of how these strategies are used as to whether they're okay, and safe versus not safe. Anyone that wants to change their fluid in their body or use that as a strategy, should seek out a sports dietitian for safe advice in doing that. They should not do that by themselves.

Not to mention the safety aspect, unique to the combat sports, of poor concentration as a result of dehydration, or from poor fuel availability to the brain. If you leave something a couple of seconds too late or one second too late, in a fight, you know, you could be knocked out. And in any other circumstance you might not have been. This is where what you do after making weight becomes important. It’s not about just making the weight, but how well you refuel, rehydrate and recover after that as well.

What are some of the key things athletes can do to replenish their bodies after weighing in? 

So this really depends again, on the athlete and what they've done to make weight. So if they haven't really employed weight-making strategies to any great degree, then the post-weigh-in scenario is not as important. But if they've used a lot of weight making strategies, then we'd be looking at obviously, rehydrating appropriately and then refuelling the muscle if they have depleted the muscle of glycogen. If they've used a low fibre diet, we also don't want to throw fibre back in the system all of a sudden in great quantities, because the gut will not respond in a kind way. It will be very uncomfortable. 

The types of foods that I have on people's refuelling plans are always high carbohydrate, low fibre foods, so typically some of our yummiest foods essentially, which everyone gets excited about. Then with fluid that will be very dependent on how much fluid they may have lost to make weight and we'll try and match that and then some – so that they are rehydrated before they go to bed that night. I'll usually use electrolytes within those drinks to help with fluid retention or keeping that fluid onboard rather than just peeing it out straightaway. But we want to take this re refuelling approach over a few hours, we don't want to have really high consumption of food and mass amounts of fluid in the first 30 minutes. We want to spread it out over sort of four to six hours before they go to bed that night so that the body has a chance to do all the right things with the nutrition in that food and those fluids.  

[I’ll use] some of your simple sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade and then sugary, salty carbohydrates. Pretzels are a big win with most people, honey sandwiches, jam sandwiches, usually white bread, a couple of lollies thrown in and then usually sort of a plain pasta-based meal with a light sauce or tomatoe-based sauce. Nothing too fatty either, because of all the macronutrients, fat takes the longest to digest.

How important is long-term planning and goal setting throughout this process? 

I think, like any aspect of human life, goals are important. And it's important that everyone in the team is on the same page. I don't mean all the athletes in the team, but I mean, the support staff around that athlete all have the same understanding and expectations of that athlete. So setting out the year looking at where the competitions are, whether they're domestic or international. And sort of how much time we've got between making weight is really important, because the strategies and approaches will have to shift in line with some of those things. So yeah, really important to have goals. And then also really important that athletes’ expectations are realistic and reasonable as well. And we need to get that right at the beginning, otherwise it often doesn't end well. 

You can find out more about Erica Stephens’ work and services at Sportrition.  Erica’s eBook, Nutrition for Taekwondo, can also be purchased from the same website. Further information can also be found here.

For further weight cutting resources, check out

Australian Institute of Sport
Making Weight in Weight Category Sports

Sports Dietitians Australia
How to make weight for competition the right way
Find an accredited sports dietitian

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 material is intended for informational purposes only. It is always recommended you seek professional health advice when starting or changing an exercise, fitness, diet, or nutrition program. This information should not be used as medical advice or a diagnosis.] 

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