My previous column analysed why fighters should eat well; now let’s consider how they should do it.
A fighter does not require food to look good but to be strong and efficient for as long as possible into a fight. It also helps to preserve mental energy and focus.
So I will give practical tips on functional food for performance. We will consider:
- Eating regime for performance
- Shedding unwanted weight (fat)
- What to eat before and after training
Eating is highly individual. Here I will simply give general advice for a healthy person without allergies or deficiency issues.
REQUIREMENTS FOR FIGHTERS
The effort required in combat disciplines is reflected in the very high levels of lactate and heart rate frequencies. Lactate affects your muscles’ ability to work by inhibiting the actin-myosin cross–bridge mechanisms. The body has two ways of limiting this inhibition: bicarbonate (in the cell) and phosphate (between cells), and good training can improve both. But to train properly you need to feed yourself properly.
To delay fatigue during a fight, you must eat food that will provide energy, be easily digested and maintain blood sugar levels. Dietitians recommend fighters eat increasingly small meals as contests get closer, sticking to lighter starchy foods such as fruit and cereals.
WEIGHT LOSS STRATEGY
What should you do if your diet did not go to plan and you are overweight a week before your fight? Firstly, remember everyone has a physiological weight and going beneath it means losing lean mass or vital bodyfat.
Fighters on a good training regime should not be overweight close to a fight but if it happens there are some emergency measures you can take. However, do not use them as an alternative to a structured nutrition programme.
If you are no more than 2 kg overweight you can simply restrict your food intake in the final few days but if you have more than 2 kg to lose the following techniques can help. Remember—if you are more than 4.5 kg overweight drastic weight loss could be harmful.
It is common in combat sports to run, shadow box or do pad work wearing a sweatsuit (bin bags and heavy clothes perform similar functions for people on budgets).
Danger: Your body could overheat.
Like a sweatsuit this leads to fluid loss but does not involve any movement.
Danger: Blood pressure can become dangerously low.
- 5 days before the weigh-in, start lowering water consumption while increasing salt intake slightly.
- 2 days before the weigh-in, reduce intake further and cut out salt.
- 24 hours before the weigh-in, have no fluid at all.
Dangers: see below
Note on fluid restriction:
This is a controversial method because many people reduce their fluids too soon and by too much, believing it will make them lighter. But not drinking for more than 24 hours will simply put your system into “emergency mode”, forcing it to retain as much liquid as possible.
WHAT ABOUT DIURETICS AND BOWEL EMPTYING?
Neither has ever been on my agenda. If you consider something this drastic you should have been more careful. Only drug-free laxatives should be considered the night before the weigh-in to clear your bowels but they can tax your body and lead to poor performance.
Once you make the weight, you need to compensate your body for the stress you have inflicted on it. Medical studies suggest that quick weight loss is usually accompanied by rising blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in lethargy.
Most fighters compensate for this by eating and drinking as much as they can soon after the weigh-in—big mistake. Dieting has lowered their metabolic rates so their bodies can’t tolerate large quantities of anything. The smart thing to do is to eat and drink small portions at regular intervals so that the body reabsorbs and regulates fluid balance and energy stores.
Your aim is to restore glycogen levels, which will aid recovery and prevent your body from consuming its own muscle mass. So the best thing to do immediately after a fight is to eat food high in protein and carbohydrates and low in fibre every two hours. Protein and carbohydrate will repair muscle tissue, speeding up the recovery period before a return to intensive training. Six hours after a fight the athlete should return to his or her ordinary diet.
As we all know, the base of our eating consists of:
- Dietary fibres
At least 15% of your daily diet should consist of essential and monounsaturated fats. These good fats absorb vitamins that are essential for good health so consuming less than 15% is likely to have a harmful effect. Fat gets a bad name but actually fat does not make you fat. Use fats smartly and they can improve your performance and shape.
THE RATIO BETWEEN OMEGA 3 AND 6
Disproportionate consumption of the omega fatty acids can have health implications. Nowadays we tend to overeat nuts (almonds, brazil, cashew, etc) because we are told they are good for us. A balanced diet should have a ratio 4:1 between omega 6 and omega 3. But our tables are overloaded with omega 6 and our ratio is often more like 30:1. It is 4:1 in Japan, which is amongst the healthiest nations in the world. I advise not to increase omega 3 but reduce omega 6. Good sources of omega 3s include sardines, walnuts, linseed oil and flaxseed oil.
They are the building blocks for recovery. Note on soya products: use in moderation because there are so many contradictive studies, some of which indicate that soya may have health implications in women.
WATER AND DIETARY FIBRES
Fibre should be a constant presence in your eating plan. Drink water throughout the day. Remember, muscles are 70% water. It is the best fluid you can have.
SOURCES OF MACRONUTRIENTS
- Oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines)
- Nuts (walnuts, Brazil, almonds)
- Linseed, flaxseed
- Natural peanut butter
- Lean cuts of organic meat, chicken, turkey
- Non-farmed oily fish.
- Tuna (caught rod and line)
- Free-range eggs
- Tofu (strictly no GM)
- Pulses (lentils, beans, chickpeas)
- Tempeh: Tofu-based food and a good source of protein and fibre
- Brown or wild rice
- Quinoa (source of protein too)
- Unsalted rice cakes
- Pulses (see proteins)
KNOW YOUR ENEMIES
Modern society has two bad guys working viciously from within: sugar and alcohol. And one fundamental misconception: calories.
Most people are addicted, in varying degrees, to sugar or alcohol.
It’s important to remember that calories are not all the same: they are processed, used and released differently: 2,000 calories from sugars will have a different outcome to 2,000 calories from chicken, for example.
Most people enjoy a drink or two but if you are an athlete or want to look like one, alcohol will not help.
According to Ron Maughan, a professor of sport and exercise nutrition at Loughborough University “Ingestion of alcohol will increase the risk of hypo-glycaemia [abnormally low levels of blood sugar] due to the suppression of glucose production by the liver. This may be of particular concern during prolonged moderate-intensity exercise when glucose output from the liver is an important source of energy.”
Alcohol also dehydrates you. Of course, like everything, the odd glass of wine or beer will not kill you. But consistency is what separates winners from losers. A serious fighter simply cannot afford to drink regularly or even on a weekend basis. Nobody said this was going to be easy!
Personal experience has convinced me that sugar is the most evil component in a diet. Everybody still advocates fat-free diets but medical studies (e.g. Dr Lustig from University of California) have highlighted how bad fats only become dangerous in conjunction with sugars (mostly refined).
For sure, we need sugars for energy but many people believe they are good before, during and after exercise for this reason. Breaking news! The sugar our muscles need—called glucose—is not the same as the sugar most of us consume, which is generally from carbohydrates such as pasta, bread and potatoes.
The foods your body uses to create glucose are vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, which provide starches the liver uses to manufacture glucose.
Produce too much glucose and your glycaemic index will spike before shooting down steeply. Worse, any unused glucose gets stored as fat. These fluctuations affect concentration, energy and performance.
So ditch the added sugars: check the labels of your food and mostly stop eating processed food and beverages.
If you want to change food habits and end your addiction to sugar choose foods from the ‘yes’ column for a 4 to 6-week detox.
- Commercial fruit juice
- Fizzy drinks (sugar-free or not)
- Most protein shakes (check how many sugars they have per 100 g and make the calculations for your daily servings)
- Bread and pasta
- Fruity or fat-free yogurt
- Cereals (kids’ ones are the worst)
- Sugars and syrups (agave and fructose included) in coffee or teas
- Home-made fruit juice
- Home-made shake (check meal plan below)
- Quinoa and other carbs listed above
- Full fat plain yogurt
- Glucose powder—high GI but your body knows what to do with it
- Cinnamon powder—blood sugar regulator and metabolic benefits
I stopped drinking cow’s milk months ago. I now have natural oatmilk. I have no regrets and it has not made any difference to my calcium intake. Broccoli and sesame contain more calcium than milk. Marketing campaigns have led us to believe that we (and our children) need animal milk.
COOKING METHODS AND DRESSING
Do not overload your liver. It must be able to provide glucose (energy) for your muscles on demand. Limit frying to the bare minimum and choose the right oil.
- Cold pressed olive oil (extra virgin is best when used fresh but not when heated).
- Avoid palm oil. There is strong evidence of health implications
- Coconut oil is the way forward. It has great properties because it is a medium-chain fatty acid, which helps to reduce unwanted fat and cholesterol. It is very stable even under high heat.
- Steam food rather than boil or microwave it.
- Use low heat if you cook with a flame.
Food Awareness is a strong ally: once you improve your knowledge it is easier to modify your choices and habits.
A good source of yummy recipes and healthy tips is the new blog “Healthy, Tasty Food” (http://lisasphotographart.com) written by the eating-conscious food photographer who shot the photographs for this article.
Here are some ideas on how to structure your daily eating.
Proteins and good carbs need to be mixed to ensure a steady supply of energy; adding vegetables and healthy fats will make you invincible for the day and less prone to binge eating at lunch. Remember to drink water as soon as you get up.
- 2 boiled eggs, spinach, tomatoes, 100 g of quinoa, 1 fruit
- Breakfast shake: 1 banana (or pear or blueberries), 50 g tofu or 1 whole egg, 1 spoonful of linseed oil, Handful of walnuts (or Brazil nuts), ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 60 g of oats
- Your chosen milk (oat, rice and almond milks are good alternatives to cow’s milk because they’re easy to digest). The quantity of milk depends how thick you like your shake. Blend, refrigerate and enjoy!
- Rice cakes with smoked salmon
- Unsalted rice cakes with peanut butter
- Banana and a handful of nuts
Post-workout (within one hour)
- Home-made protein shake (half of the breakfast portion)
- 100 g bresaola + 1 fruit
- Boiled egg
- Tin of tuna
- Turkey breast, green salad, tomatoes, peppers and cucumber
- Tofu steaks (or plain tofu marinated) with spinach salad or crunchy vegetable stir-fry
- Carpaccio di bresaola (rocket, bresaola, shaved parmesan cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper)
- Hummus (home-made) on rice cakes with spinach salad and tomatoes
- Steamed salmon with broccoli and tomatoes
- Vegetable burgers with home-made hummus, tomatoes and olives
- Stir-fry with rice glass noodles, vegetables and tofu
COFFEE AND INFUSIONS
Some sports nutritionists advocate caffeine before training; others say to erase it from your diet. If you like it, drink it in moderation and without sugar. Studies show caffeine does not enhance performance for short-term or high intensity sports, such as sprinting, but does help with endurance sports, such as triathlon. Combat sports are in the middle so the choice is up to you. After meals, but perhaps more importantly in between meals, you can use infusions (green tea, mint tea, rooibos, chai). They are appetite suppressants and aid digestion and metabolism. 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.