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Fighting Nutrition: Winning By Smarts
Fighting Nutrition"Thwap", yup that is how this all started. You see, one day I was invited to go to a mixed martial arts studio to watch a friend train and lo and behold, since I was a collegiate wrestler I jumped into the fray and mixed it up with a few of the other trainees. This head-banging experience got me thinking a little more about what goes into the training, nutrition and lifestyle of anyone seriously involved with fighting sports. I consider the fighting sports to include boxing, all of the different forms of martial arts, Pride, K1, wrestling (collegiate and Olympic), samba and some other types of the arts.

On the ProSource Forum many fighters from various grueling sports are available to interact with you about how they train, eat and plan for their matches. In approximately 2003 I started working with some of the top Pride and K1 fighters from South America while also being introduced to the Gracie's (Gracie Ju-Jitsu; "GJJ").

Shortly thereafter, my nutritional methods were being used by boxers. Working with all of these folk is fun. However, the methods and energy that these folk put into their training is no joke. I also imagine that with the popularity of the UFC, which many people are "getting it on" at local fight /training studios, but might not be understanding in full or appreciating the full benefit of just how diet and nutrition can impact fighting performance and training recovery.

So with this in mind, let's go round for round about how to maximize nutrition when engaging in one of the fighting sports. These games are truly the sports of real gladiators.

Supplements Usage

It should be no surprise that dietary supplements are used by almost everyone from the 15 year old kid who joins the gym to professional athletes. The one key theme in the reasoning to use sports supplements is that they can help the athlete when used correctly. Interestingly enough, until now, no-one knew just how much dietary supplements were used by Olympic athletes. Since the Torino Olympics just ended (it was great to be there for and with a client), this data is of great interest, and after all it provides us with a peak with which sports enjoy using these supplements the most. In compiling data from summer Olympics, we specifically know that 91% of all boxers use some dietary supplements even throughout the games. From a popularity standpoint the following agents rank the highest multivitamins, iron pills, creatine, amino acids and interestingly enough, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are also very popular. It should come as no surprise that boxers and other rugged athletes use vitamins, minerals and creatine along with protein as their mainstay supplements, however I also believe that with about 60% of the athletes using drugs like Advil, an opportunity exists for natural agents for enhancing the quality of life (i.e., decreasing muscle soreness), but that is another article.

You call that training?

Most of us work an eight to 10 hour day or go to school for many hours of the day. Fighters, especially those on the level of a Rich Franklin or Sugar Shane Mosley end up training in an intermittent fashion but for about six to eight hours per day. Yes, it is true that fighters do not do physical training seven days per week, but the majority of them will put in two plus hours daily of some sort of training, whether that training is grappling, kicking, punching, blocking, running, lifting or whatever. A light day for Rich Franklin is a tiring workout for most of us. Keep in mind that if you box, you will at some point in your training, do the following (and sometimes all in one day) run five or more miles, train abs, do bounding movements, work on coordination, hit the speed and heavy bag, jump rope (a weighted rope), air and physical sparring, work balance with the "crazy" bag, lift weights, stretch and much more.

MMA fighters
do this entire basic workout plus much more (by incorporating days of each different type of discipline training into their routine), so it is expected that a MMA's energy expenditure will be higher than a pure boxer's.

In general, boxing training wearing about the typical 16 ounce gloves while sparring will cause the body to increase energy output. Punching anywhere from 60 to 120 punches per round (using a two-minute round) will result in a range of 9.8 to 11.2 calories being burned per minute. If you keep up this pace for a typical 10 round fight, just by punching alone, you will end up burning 300 calories. Of course between rounds and even after you are done fighting or sparing, your metabolism is still stimulated and you will easily burn more than the 300 calories noted. You most definitely burn more than one Krispy Kreme. The noted ~11 calories per minute, this type of aerobic energy output is very similar to running and most definitely stimulates the cardiovascular system.

Train like a fighter and you not only gain muscle tone, strength and self confidence, but improve your overall fitness level.

Deficient boxers

Believe it or not, those who engage in the fisted arts may not have their complete body or mind intact. This statement is not made to be fastidious, but it does allude to the fact that research has found that boxers tend to have growth hormone deficiency (GH deficiency). It is not known if the GH deficiency is a result of "traumatic brain injury" from being punched in the head or if this phenomenon is just a cluster within this sport, nonetheless, low GH levels can negatively affect mood, body composition, healing time, recovery and overall muscle mass levels. In a recent study, medical researchers took boxers and non boxers and tested their GH response to a known stimulus (the stimulus was not Jessica Alba). Believe it or not, the GH levels in boxers were 75% lower than that of men the same general age that did not box! In fact, 45 percent of the tested boxers were severely deficient in GH. This looks like a ripe opportunity for smart supportive supplementation and the use of medical therapy for achieving optimal GH levels. Supplements that support and help maintain appropriate insulin like growth factor-1 levels (IGF-1/GH) include arginine, protein and macuna pruriens. Now extremely popular with fighters is a supplement called AndroTest, which raises your bodies own production of testosterone. This high potency test booster increases test levels, which speeds recovery (which is critical for fighters who train multiple times a day, everyday), builds strength, and increases lean muscle mass. This is one of the most essential elements often overlooked by many fighters but one that is critical in order to train and fight at optimal levels.

Maintaining Focus
Many fighters neglect to train their brain. Yes, your grey matter--matters in a fight. In fact, the ability to focus and stay in "cognitive control" during any type of battle may just be the most underrated aspect of preparation. The ability to avoid being hit, slip a shot, to make your opponent make a mistake on a throw is more than physical and it certainly is more than Focus Factor. Short-term studies have found that the ability to improve thinking occurs in boxers engaging in at least three-fights (this is null and void if the fighter's bout has been stopped for whatever reason, i.e., a loss due to knockout). Perhaps it is a case of "acculturation" to fighting, but becoming more familiar with what to expect certainly helps performance. Dietary supplements that certainly aid with memory and alertness include Cognizin (CDP-choline), gingko, vinpocetine, Huperzine A, caffeine, and L-tyrosine . A fighter that is more alert (but not shaky or speedy) can stay one move ahead of his or her competition, and thus training and "smarting" the brain is something not to be overlooked. Another benefit of caffeine (when dosed at 5 to 20 mg per kilogram body weight) is that it can help elevate aggression levels. So, if your ruling body for sport allows you to caffeine up, it may aid your fight-aggression. It should go without saying that you should never do a supplement, a diet or whatever for the first time on the day of your event, but you are best practicing with it a few times so that you know how your body will react.

Adaptogenic Promises

The word "adaptogen" infers that some agent will help you adapt to some stressor. In the case of fighters, the stress is training plus the actual fight. BJ Penn is the only one I know who goes into a fight relaxed. There are biochemical tests that can be preformed in order to determine just how stressed your physical body is. These tests include the adrenal stress index with liver function tests. Knowing just how your diurnal cortisol is functioning along with the liver and even markers of muscle damage provides a smart trainer with ample evidence of when to back off and when to push the pace. A recent study found that the herbs Schizandra chinesis and Bryonia alba root (a distant cousin of the Jessica Alba root) blunted the expected rise in markers of physical stress in athletes undergoing heavy training. Thus, these two herbals may be worthy of further testing and use in fighting athletes.

Live High Train Low
No, the title does not imply that Snoop Dogg is the best athlete, though his chronic is. Instead it means that athletes who live at altitude (above 5,000 feet) but do there day time training at sea level often have higher hematocrit levels (hemoglobin concentration as well) and that this translates into higher levels of circulating oxygen in the blood. Many boxers go "train in the mountains" in order to achieve this affect. There is wonder in the physiology community whether this "expansion" of the blood may lead to iron depletion or at least sub-par iron levels. Low iron levels are correlated with fatigue. A fatigued fighter is a worthless fighter. However the research does not support the thought that this form of training induces reduced iron levels in the blood, so keep your altitude training and do not worry.

Don't Drop Weight Quickly
Many fighters come to weigh in and find that they are anywhere from a quarter pound over to a few pounds over their weight class limit. So, in an effort to cut weight, they throw on the sweatshirt, jogging pants and perhaps run or sit in a sauna for a while. Wrestlers do this to. Besides it being unhealthy, evidence clearly indicates that you get weaker doing this even if you refuel for the fight. So your fighting performance suffers and you are in a worse mood as a result of dropping weight expediently. As Mellie Mel once said "so--don't do it". Be smart and taper your weight loss in order to make weight so that you are clear headed and strong, not weak and feeble minded.

  Food Rules
In general, all of the sports are more anaerobic in nature (running a marathon does not prepare you for five-three minute rounds in the ring) than other sports. Thus, the need for carbohydrates for sustained energy cannot be understated. Couple this with the need for protein to promote athletic recovery, glycogen reaccumulation and to support muscle tone and strength, and it is clear which two macronutrients need to rule your plate. At a minimum, protein intake should be on the range of 2.0 grams per kilogram (0.9 grams per pound body weight). We cannot forget the need to stay hydrated, thus aim for a fluid intake of one ounce for every pound of body weight during the hard training days and half that on the lighter days. Do this and dehydration will not be an issue. There are some other dietary supplements that can benefit the fighter. These mainly include creatine, ribose and carnosine. All three of these agents help the body to recover quicker, promotes energy production, supports muscle and strength gains while allowing the body to go all out longer. Thus, if you are a fighter, these must be included in your daily fare.

  • Get plenty of liquids (hydration) every day.
  • Do not " cut weight" to make weight, you will be weaker and in a bad mood as a result.
  • Do use a multivitamin/mineral daily (with food).
  • Do not forget to train the brain and to use smart nutrients to help brain-fighting preparation and performance.
  • Caffeine can be your friend.
  • Creatine, ribose and carnosine should be a part of your nutrition plan.
  • Aim for a moderately high-carbohydrate diet with adequate protein, especially on the days of heavy training.
  • And most important of all -- win!
Douglas S. Kalman MS, RD is a Director in the Nutrition and Endocrinology Department of Miami Research Associates ( and contributes to the ProSource Forum.
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