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Grappling with weight loss

Question: What are the weight reduction guidelines for wrestlers? I am assisting with the local high school wrestling team.

Answer: The following broad guidelines were developed by exercise physiologists and physicians who have studied weight loss in wrestlers, and they have been adopted by many coaches:

+ Lose weight gradually. No more than 2 pounds per week. Your athletes should start losing early in the season so that large weight losses are not attempted in the days or weeks before a competition.

+ Eat a balanced diet. This should consist of 15 percent proteins, 60 percent carbohydrates and 25 percent fats. Most wrestlers eat too much fat and protein and not enough carbohydrates. Also, they must eat enough. As a general rule, a 98-pound wrestler should not eat fewer than 1,500 calories. For the weights above this, add at least 60 calories for every 10 pounds.

+ Drink plenty of fluid. Weigh-ins before and after training sessions should be used to monitor fluid retention. Each wrestler should drink 2 cups of fluid for every pound of body weight lost during a workout. Also, about 2 cups of fluid should be taken two hours before workouts or competition, in addition to 1{ cups 15 minutes before competition and 1 cup every 15 to 20 minutes during training.

+ No diuretics. No exercising in plastic sweat suits. No alcohol. No smoking. No steroids or other drugs. Restrict caffeine (it promotes dehydration).

As you probably know, world-class crash dieters lose large amounts of weight more rapidly and more frequently than any other athletes _ using techniques often based on folklore and tradition, not human physiology. For instance, there are stories of wrestlers carrying around paper cups to spit in in an effort to "make weight." Many of these athletes simply don't believe that excessive weight loss hurts performance.

In addition to following these guidelines, try to get your athletes to understand the following points:

First, if their weight reduction is not managed carefully, the lost pounds will come not from fat but from body water (accompanied by a decrease in the body's electrolytes such as potassium and salt); muscle mass; and glycogen, a principal body fuel. In many wrestlers, there is simply not much fat to lose. High school wrestlers generally have low body fat, about 6 percent to 7 percent during the season, compared with 15 percent for their peers.

Second, dehydrating, fasting and exercising frantically to "make weight" before a competition, with the idea of drinking fluids, eating and resting to get the body back to normal after the weigh-in, is a false hope. Re-establishing fluid balance takes 24 to 48 hours, replenishing muscle glycogen takes as long as 72 hours, and replacing lost muscle tissue takes even longer.

Third, each athlete has a genetically optimum weight at which to wrestle. Choosing a weight class that requires unreasonable and painful dieting will seldom improve chances of success. In addition, inappropriate weight loss practices can harm hormones, protein utilization, growth, psychological well-being and academic performance.

Patrick J. Bird, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, draws on a data base of more than 3,800 medical, health and fitness journals in preparing answers to questions in his column. Write with questions to Dr. Bird, College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.