Right now in Las Vegas, the rogue’s gallery of featured characters who will star in Saturday night’s UFC 239 card are in various states of dehydration.
Friday’s early weigh-ins will have been the two-hour window targeted by fighters and their nutritionists to hit their contracted weight as briefly as possible, register exactly how heavy the are and, if all has gone to plan, immediately put the majority of that weight back on in the hours after the weigh-in.
To outsiders this can seem like a bizarre process and, frankly, it is. ONE Championship abolished their traditional weigh-ins two years ago in favour of more gradual, longer-term ones in order to help abolish the concept of fighters dramatically dropping weight 24 hours before getting into a fist-fight with a trained professional but that move hasn’t quite made it to western MMA just yet.
In fact the system for the UFC, for example, is actually more restrictive than it was in the past. Since the UFC collaborated with USADA to govern their drug-testing policies, the practice of IV rehydration has been banned because it could potentially be used to mask the ingestion of performance enhancers, leading to a situation where the most practical method of rehydration has been replaced by the old-fashioned method of imbibing fluid until fully restored.
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So, how will the 24 fighters on Saturday night’s card be spending the majority of their Friday gaining their weight back and without an IV? Famed nutritionist George Lockhart explains:
“First you have to know what’s inside an IV,” he explained to Bloody Elbow. “There’s all of your electrolytes; sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride etc. All of these things your body needs for your cells to work. For instance, chloride basically controls the fluid inside and outside of your cell to make sure there’s a balance there. You need an equal balance of everything. In a 1,000ml IV bag there will be 9 grams of sodium chloride.
“Sodium chloride is basically sea salt or table salt. A teaspoon of table salt has about 2,300 – 2,500mg of sodium. The funny thing is when I was in the Marine Corps we didn’t have all of this expensive stuff, so they would be like, ‘take this salt, put it in water, add a sugar packet and we’ll drink that,’ it tasted like buttcrack in a bottle, but it’s the same basic principle; you’re loading your body up with the sugar and sodium you needed.
“So to get the same results as you would get from a 1,000ml saline bag, you’re looking at about 4 teaspoons of table salt. I usually give guys shakes every 30 minutes after they weigh in, because you don’t want them to eat solid food while dehydrated due to the lack of digestive enzymes. These shakes help get the body reloaded so you can start to take in actual foods.”
While it can be incredibly tempting, Lockhart advises against eating food immediately until your system has recovered from the shock of what it has been put through and can lead to indigestion.
“When you rehydrate you have to hit every electrolyte,” he says. “Some of them you have to start loading up as soon as you get off the stage, like sodium and chloride. Down the road you want to get more calcium and magnesium, which you can get a lot of through foods.
“The big mistake a lot of guys make is eating within an hour of stepping off the scale. The thing is, your body creates digestive enzymes in your saliva glands, and if you’re dehydrated you will struggle to break that food down, which interferes with the absorption of the micro-nutrients in the food.”
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Lockhart says that there is still a great deal of misinformation with regard to weight-cuts, which isn’t exactly surprising when you have athletes from vastly different backgrounds and practices meeting in the UFC. While some fighters employ the most reputable teams possible to aid them in making weight, others can have a tendency to just ‘power through’ which can lead to various problems with your internal organs.
“The biggest mistake I see is guys not understanding that it’s called cutting weight for a reason. It’s not called losing weight,” Lockhart says. “A lot of guys are so worried about that scale. Say we have a guy who is taking in plenty of sodium in his diet and a bunch of carbs in his diet. He’s able to train pretty decently because the electrolytes in his body are able to make his muscles contract, and in turn he’s able to have a really good workout.
“Now what happens is that guy sees his weight is high, so he starts taking the salt out, and then he starts taking the carbs out. Does his weight go down? Yes, because 1 gram of glycogen holds onto 3 grams of water, so when they lose that glycogen they lose weight. Then the week of the weight cut comes, and you have nothing left to cut except the water.
“What they don’t realize is that they would train harder through the camp if they have the extra carbohydrates at the right time. I don’t mean an abundance of carbs, just giving carbs to the body when it needs them, and keeping sodium and electrolyte levels high to keep the muscles contracting. That right there is working off real weight. That’s burning calories. When you take water out, there’s no calories in that.”
Whether or not weight cutting as it currently exists has a long-term future in mixed martial arts remains to be seen but so long as the weight classes exists as they do currently there will always be fighters willing to drop weight for perceived advantages in size and strength against their opponents. But as outlined above, unless it is being done correctly fighters are in danger of sabotaging their own training with archaic methodology.