I have always believed that sport and life are intimately connected; that the physical and psychological skills acquired through sport can be applied to everyday life. So learning about nutrition for sport is something that should benefit you not only now but also for the rest of your life.
You have probably heard the line “you are what you eat”. For athletes, we could change this to “you perform the way you eat” and we could amend it even further for fighters to “you fight the way you eat”.
It is impossible to cover all the aspects of such a big issue as nutrition so I will keep things simple by providing a basic approach to sensible eating, which will improve your performance and shape. But even sticking to the essentials requires a lot of information so I have split the article into two sections, the second of which will be published next month.
- A general overview of what fighters need to know about food and performance.
- A more in-depth discussion about macronutrients and the sources that are available.
Nutrition is still the most underestimated and confusing topic in combat sports. Many fight teams do not include it in their conditioning training yet it is fundamental to success. For me, conditioning involves these five equally important factors.
- Psychological conditioning
- Physical conditioning
- Eating conditioning
Good fuel is essential to achieving maximum performance in sport. It is even more important in combat sports due to the existence of weight classes. It is extremely risky to enter a ring or cage with low energy levels caused by eating the wrong foods, or in a semi-starved state caused by struggling to make the weight. I have first-hand experience of this.
Given the intense nature of fighting, and the fact that contests continue for a number of rounds, participants require short bursts of explosive energy as well as great endurance that allows them to recover between rounds and bouts.
There is a jungle of experts out there ready to recommend various remedies and miraculous diets but you have to be very careful about whom you listen to and you need to acquire the tools to be able to distinguish between good and bad advice.
I am not going to join that jungle—well, maybe just a little—but only for long enough to show you the right trail and to give the tools that enable you to make the right decisions for yourself.
My article will not answer all your questions. Ultimately you must take control of your own life and diet rather than follow other people’s advice but hopefully this will help you to do that and provide some “food for thought”.
A SAD REALITY
I’ve seen people in combat sports try various diets but rarely do they take a systematic approach to eating and performance. They think only about making weight, which limits them hugely. You only have to think about the physical demands of fighting to know how vital it is to restore, refuel and regenerate your body.
Fighters who think only about making weight are displaying ignorance and bad attitudes, which are often reflected in the overweight physiques many of them develop as soon as they retire. They never learned about proper nutrition for sport so they can’t fall back on it in life.
To be successful you must train hard, recover quickly to avoid injuries, build lean mass and maintain very low percentages of bodyfat. Good nutrition is essential for all of these. There is no shortcut or magic trick. Either you achieve these or you fail.
It is important to check your body composition regularly to understand the effects of any changes to your training and diet. There are professionals who can check this and tell you things like your ratio between lean and fat mass and whether your nutrition is effective.
Good eating separates serious athletes from wannabes and will-never-bes. It also helps you to look good and feel healthy. The bottom line: you must know how to eat to fight, whether you are fighting for your health, shape or to win a match. So how can diet enhance the performance of fighters?
I have made mistakes by adopting the wrong eating strategies before contests or in training camp. At times I have been too strict and not enjoyed my food. Getting on the scales was a daunting prospect. At times I felt like a super-model—just ask my family.
My coach would emphasise the importance of making weight. “No weight, no fight” he used to say and in some ways this was good because it made me realise I needed discipline and consistency to succeed but it was also bad because the stress of the weigh-in drained my mental and physical energy.
It took me lots of time, study, research and curiosity to shed light on such a blurry topic and by the time it all made more sense I was already coaching. You do not have to wait so long. For the benefit of those who do not have the time to invest in this interesting component of training, I will share my own conclusions on nutrition.
If you want to become a fighter, remember you are undertaking something harder than just following a healthy lifestyle: combat sports are amongst the most demanding sports in terms of training and competition. But this does not mean you have to feed like a monster.
Many conditioning coaches around the world claim that fighters have to eat large quantities of food due to the demanding nature of the sport. I do not agree with this concept.
Being a sportsman simply means doing on a daily basis what average people are unable to do for as little as two weeks: understand the macronutrients and staple ingredients of a good diet (which I will explore next month) and how to mix and match them to obtain the best results.
Certainly a fighter’s body needs more fuel than an average person’s but I believe —and my fighters and I bear this out—that a clean diet, with the right amount of the right nutrients, in the right ratio and from the right sources, will provide everything a fighter needs. They can shed weight effortlessly if the process is well planned.
Low body fat levels increase the efficiency of power transfer so reducing fat will not only decrease weight but also speed up movement executions.
Most fighters compete at the upper limit of their weight classes. So for those that lack knowledge and discipline about eating, yo-yo diets are inevitable as they try to make weight. Instead of setting eating protocols for the whole year they only think about getting their weight down just before a fight and underestimate how much their body adapts during periods of weight fluctuation.
I know some fighters who have dropped and gained 10 kg in a week, several times in their fighting careers. Not wise!
Losing weight is different from losing fat: most people will be familiar with this phrase but it’s worth repeating. Losing fat is about achieving a delicate balance between having enough energy to perform while maintaining the necessary calorie deficit. Power-to-weight ratio is the key point here. In simple words, being knowledgeable about what you put on your plate is essential.
It may sound like a cliché but you should think of food as fuel. Everyone—fighters or not—can benefit from doing this. It doesn’t mean you will never enjoy food any more; on the contrary, it means you will discover new tastes—real ones, with fewer health implications and way more functional benefits.
Just as everyone now advocates functional training I advocate functional eating. This means knowing precisely what your body requires to function at its best throughout the day.
Planning is the key; sensible eating always comes with forethought. Once this begins, you won’t be attracted so easily to the chanting of the bad food mermaids.
If you want to have a professional approach you must eat clean and well. If you aim to stay at about 80% of your best shape and just a couple of kilograms over weight-, it will be easy to get ready even for last-minute contests. Fighters often get asked to stand in at short notice when a scheduled opponent pulls out with an injury. Sometimes these present good opportunities to get noticed at big events.
By all means relax a bit at holiday times and at the end of your competitive season, but do not forget that your job is to be an athlete and this has respon-sibilities. The more you let go during the so-called off-season the harder it will be to get back into the kind of shape you worked so hard for.
Most of the ups and downs people experience in their eating happen because they do not undergo what I call eating conditioning (to be explained in part 2). Eating clean for four to six weeks will detoxify not only your body but also your tongue and purify your sense of taste.
We become so accustomed to extra flavours and, in particular, extra sugar that we become enslaved not to food itself but to additives.
Often, we cannot even taste food for what it really is any more. When you reach the stage when you can once again taste it you will no longer regard clean food as a boring pre-fight must-do. You will enjoy new menus as much as old ones. This will be a real breakthrough in your progression as an athlete.
In the next article we will look at macronutrients, smart ways of cooking and what to look for when shopping. At the end of this quick journey you should be more aware of what you ought to put in your shopping basket. What you will see in the mirror, and feel inside, will be all the reward you need for the effort this will involve. M&F
Marco Mastrorocco is a strength & conditioning coach. He is a former pro fighter (WAKO) in the S.A.M Fragale (Pisa, Italy) who won 4 Italian titles and the Bronze medal at the European Championships (2004). He currently runs international seminars for ring sports and conditioning.