Serious MMA Fighters will not outsource their nutrition

In Combat Sports, a lot of focus and energy during training camps are spent worrying about “making weight.”  

Naturally, if your walking around weight is reasonably close to your fighting weight, this leaves you a lot less work to do in the 6-8 weeks before the big night.  The optimal off-season weight will depend on the sport, the weight class, the timing of the weigh-in prior to the fight (the narrower the window, the more work needs to be done in the off-season) and the individual athlete.

However, I would recommend the athlete maintain a baseline of no more than 10kg above their fighting weight. This also means that should a fight come up at short notice, as we saw with Derrick Lewis in UFC 230, you will be ready.  

In this article, the first of a three-part series, I will give my recommendations to have you within touching distance of your target weight before you even go to camp. In parts two and three, I will be addressing supplementation and the final weight cut.

Focus on Food Quality:  Aim to have 80-90% of your calorie intake coming from whole, minimally processed foods in as close to their natural state as possible.  Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, lean protein and whole grains, such as rice and oats, should make up the majority of your food intake.

Put an emphasis on learning to cook for yourself.  Coaches, I encourage you to spend time working with your athlete on their food environment and mastering the basics of home cooking.  

You don’t need to be Gordon Ramsey but being confident enough to put basic meals together is invaluable. Increasingly, I am seeing athletes become overly reliant on meal delivery systems.  While these services can be handy, they are not going to be flexible enough to tailor the meals to your specific needs.

If you want to be operating at the top of your game, you can’t afford to outsource something as important as your nutrition.  Being able to put a meal plan together, based on your own specific requirements, will definitely give you an edge.

Sleep:  This is probably the single most important factor for your recovery and overall performance.  Rich Froning, 4 time Crossfit Games Champion, swears by getting a solid 10 hours of sleep per night.  7-9 hours of sleep per night is generally accepted as being optimal. Experiment with this.

Adjust your current bedtime by 15 minutes per night.  When you get to the stage that you wake up refreshed, you know you’re doing it right. Sleep in a fully dark, cool room. Allow a 1-1.5 hour wind down period before bed.  Eating and indeed training too close to bedtime will inhibit your ability to fall asleep. All too often athletes sacrifice sleep in order to put in additional hours at the gym.  This strategy can be detrimental to your overall performance and is to be avoided.

Stress:  Dieting and training themselves create stress in the body.  Therefore, minimising external stress is vital, especially during your training camp.  It is not possible to eliminate all stress, we will always have bills to pay and family pressures etc. but we can take steps to reduce the adverse effects.

Learn how to clear your head. Take walks and practice meditation. Again, you don’t need to be monk-like, 10 minutes a day will do the trick. There are hundreds of free apps available to help you.  Spend time with your family and pets if you have them. This has been proven to reduce stress.

Limit your use of social media.  Of course, you want to keep your fans updated on your progress, but you don’t need to spend more than a few minutes on-line to do that. Consider letting your training partner do a takeover on your Instagram, not only will this add interest, but it will allow you to take a step back.  Believe me, stalking your competition on social media is never going to give you peace of mind.

Once you have these three basics in place you can move on to a more tailored approach. I cannot overstate the importance of not arriving at your training camp with a tonne of weight to lose.

The calorie restriction which will be needed to lose the excess weight, can only have a negative impact on your performance.  In the 6-8 weeks leading up to your fight, weight loss (if needed) should be in the region of 0.5-1% of bodyweight per week. Athletes should consume as many calories as possible, while still achieving this.  More calories mean more nutrients.

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Step one in your cut will be to establish your maintenance calories.  There are lots of calculators online, and these can give you a rough estimate to use as a starting point. However, it is going to take some trial an error.

Track your intake and your weight over time and see how it is trending.  Weigh yourself each morning, nude and after you use the bathroom, and keep track of the results. If you see no change, you are at your maintenance calories and any adjustment up or down, should result in weight gain or loss.

For female athletes, tracking your weight and how your menstrual cycle impacts it is particularly important. Some women will experience as much as a 2kg swing during their cycle. If you are unlucky with the timing of your fight, this will need to be factored in to your cut.  Finding out on the morning of your weigh-in is not going to work.

Once you have worked out your calorie needs, the next thing to do it decide where these calories are going to come from.  I would always recommend that your address your protein requirement first.

A good guideline is 2.0 – 2.5g per kilo of bodyweight per day.  For example, an 80kg guy would be looking to consume 160-200g per day. At this level lean muscle mass will be protected, despite the calorie deficit.  Protein is vital for tissue repair so ensuring adequate intake will also speed up recovery from any bumps and scrapes picked up in training.

Fat is the next macro to look at.  The guideline here is 0.8-1.2g per kilo of bodyweight per day.  So here our 80kg man would be aiming for between 64g and 96g of fat per day.

Dietary fat is vital for testosterone production and also for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K.  Vitamins A, D and E are all associated with a healthy immune system.

This is so important, especially during an intense training camp when your body will be under increased pressure.  The last thing you need is to come down with a cold the week of your fight.

Our third consideration is Carbohydrate.  This is where I see a lot of athletes getting it wrong.  

Carbohydrate consumption needs to be adequate to support your training volume. This is especially true in combat sports which are high glycolytic. In short, if you are restricting carbs too much, you will not have the power and explosivity you need on fight night.  

You also won’t be able to optimise your training, and you will be more prone to fatigue. Don’t fall into the chicken and broccoli trap, you’re not a bodybuilder!

So how much carbohydrate do you need?  Basically, all the calories left over. Let’s use our 80kg man as an example again.  Let’s say, for instance, his maintenance calories are around 2,700. He and his coach have him in a modest calorie deficit, and he has been achieving the desired results on 2,400 Kcals per day.  The breakdown of which will be as follows:

Protein:                  160-200g at 4 kcals per gram equates to   640-800 Kcals

Fat:                           64-96g at 9 kcals per gram equates to 576-864 Kcals

This leaves between 736 and 1184 Kcals left over, which need to come from carbohydrate.  Carbs have 4 calories per gram, so this will mean our 80kg man needs between 184g and 296g per day.

There is plenty of room for manoeuvre within these ranges.  Once calories and protein are controlled for, athletes and coaches have the flexibility to manipulate the other macros, as long as they stay within the minimum requirements.

It makes sense for days spent working on drills and technique to be lower carb, higher fat days, and for sparring days to be fuelled more from carbohydrate.

Following these guidelines will help equip you to get the most from the run up to your fight and should mean your training camp won’t be a completely miserable experience.

Further Reading:  If this article has peaked your interest and you want to read more on the subject, check out Danny Lennon’s Sigmanutrition.com/weightcut.  Danny is an expert in Nutrition and has written extensively on weight cutting for combat sports.

 

by Arwen Sheridan – Nutrition Coach

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