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Nutrition for the Fighting Arts


Nutrition and food intake is a vital aspect to achieve goals, and this should always be matched up to the individual’s requirements. Looking across the gym floor, you will find some members seeking weight loss, some building up with free weights and others working hard to improve fitness levels. However, the issue can become quite complex when you have an individual who needs it all. This is the case for martial artists.

From boxers, kick boxers and cage fighters to students of judo, karate and wing chun, while their techniques may vary, the issues they experience in training are very similar, and their added nutritional requirements added by their sport will be comparable. On top of the pure athleticism required for sustained high-intensity activity, there is the concern of efficiently training for technique. Perhaps most importantly from a nutritional perspective, there is the constant issue of staying within the designated weight category and staying as strong as possible.

So, how different are the requirements for this breed of fighting athlete? Naturally, this will depend somewhat on the individual (and how hard he or she is pushed by the trainer) but, in any case, the demands for energy are massive. On a day of training, most martial artists could expect to train for two hours, more just before a competition. This is excellent for fitness but uses up more than 1,500 calories across the course of the session, which would typically include a warm up of skipping for five rounds, stretching, some lighter technique work and then pad work/sparring for a further 10 to 15 rounds.

Take a look at relative energy use across different sports:

At this point, a number of factors must be considered. Where is this energy coming from? How are you going to replace the energy? What are the consequences of these choices?

It is easy to understand that athletes have several stores of energy. Understanding what is utilized and when and why is much more complicated. As well as a minute amount of glucose within the blood stream (about 8g/33kcal), energy can be sourced from carbohydrates, fat or protein. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the liver (about 100g/420kcal) and in the skeletal muscles (potential storage depends on size of muscles, total stored between 300 to 500g/1,260 to 2,100 kcal when entirely fueled). Of course, the body tends to have abundant stores of "spare" energy, fat, stored subcutaneously. It is of great use to have a reserve energy supply to dip into when running low on our primary source of carbs, but fat is limited as an energy source by the fact it can only be converted to energy in the presence of oxygen. Because of its "reserve" status, hardly any fat is used at the beginning of a fighter’s session, but this changes in line with the duration of the session (you can only burn fats efficiently when your stores of carbs are depleted).

However, fats can not be converted to energy quickly enough to provide fuel at medium and high intensities, even when you start to flag. Within these zones, carbohydrates are the dominant fuel source, but even these "superior" substrates have their own limitations. So, as the heart rate increases above 180bpm (energy expenditure is now 13kcal/m), the body needs to utilize other fuels, not out of choice but out of necessity. Fats are once again oxidized as required, up to their maximal rate, approximately 5kcal/m.

The following table shows typical amounts of energy used per minute in athletes who are 30 minutes into training:

Activity Heart Rate Total Energy Energy from Fat
Power Walking 120 bpm 7 kcal/m 5.5 kcal/m
Running 145 bpm 9 kcal/m 3 kcal/m
Sparring 180 bpm 13 kcal/m 5 kcal/m

Your body will also utilize muscle, breaking it down into amino acids and then, through the process of gluconeogenesis, into glucose. However, this is another reaction that will not happen out of choice but only necessity. Whereas fat is a reserve energy source, muscle is more of an emergency source, but the fact is that this muscle breakdown occurs much more regularly than athletes would think. Although not such a big deal for marathon runners, whose running becomes more efficient with a wiry upper body, this is a big concern to martial artists. They must understand that, while working in a state of carb depletion allows the individual to burn fat, it also runs the risk of squandering muscle. The key is the intensity of training. When carb depleted, your body is happy to use fat as its fuel for low intensity exercise, but when train harder, you are asking your body for carbs. It will provide these through gluconeogenesis (i.e., muscle breakdown).

Therefore, in a typically intense training session, you can guarantee there will be plenty of use of all three fuels. In almost all situations, the burning of fat is beneficial and helps to improve the strength-to-weight ratio, extremely important for fighters. Carbs must be replaced to aid recovery. Most importantly, protein must be included in the diet in sufficient quantity. This will promote muscle repair and muscle fiber growth, which can then counteract the muscle loss sustained through exercise. Over the course of a demanding workout program, an adequate protein supply can make the difference between a wiry, fit fighter who is lighter than necessary and a lean, muscular fighter with a maximal power-to-weight ratio.

Naturally, having an impressive power-to-weight ratio is only useful is that weight is within the limits of your weight category. Herein lies the issue of weight management. It may be surprising to discover that many fighters have problems keeping their weight up, rather than bringing it down. It is less surprisingly when you look at a fighter's daily energy requirements. I knew one who was a light heavyweight (79kgs/12 and a half stone), with good body composition and body fat of 12 percent. His Basal Metabolic Rate is more than 2,150 kcals per day, and when you factor in lifestyle and general movement, this fighter has a Daily Calorific Need of approximately 3,036 calories before adding any dynamic training to the equation. On a training day, over 4,500 calories are required to maintain weight. The FSA recommends 2,500 for the adult male.

This is one situation where calorie counting is normally required but in the opposite sense from dieters. Of course, this is not a license to chuck all sorts of junk down the throat, because the quality of the food consumed is vital for any athlete, and fighters are no different. Athletes will need to make use of all types of macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein), but one thing they have no need for is sugar. Sugar is released into the blood stream too quickly, and consumption of this vice causes the blood sugar level to soar. The ensuing insulin release causes the blood sugar level to drop, resulting in fat storage, hunger and poor concentration. Without enough energy in the blood stream, muscle repair is compromised, so performance and body composition will naturally suffer. It is important that fighters take in the right quantity and quality.

There is also a massive demand for micronutrients (i.e., vitamins and minerals). Sedentary people have a bigger need for increased vitamins and minerals than they think, and athletes who are training hard will see their requirements skyrocket. This is why so many fighters are deficient. Sweat loss and cellular reactions caused by intense training can use up 40mcg of iodine per liter of sweat, 12mg of zinc per day and 800mg of calcium per day, to name but just a few. And usage of important chromium can increase six-fold after just 10 minutes. This added requirement is on top of basic daily requirements. Combine with a normal diet, and you are making deficiency certain. Deficiency does not always come with obvious signs, but it will always harm muscular development, resistance to injury and general vitality.

A good diet will help to overcome these deficiencies, but vitamin supplementation is the only solution to get near to an optimal balance. As much as I would like to be able to get all the necessary nutrients from "the fat of the land," this is simply not possible due to the degradation of soil that has been over farmed and saturated with pesticides. However, this is outside the scope of this article. Suffice to say that every fighter has an individual need for vitamins, and some are more relevant to the sport than others. Glucosamine is an excellent example as it is required by the structures that make up connective tissue (i.e., cartilage, etc) to renew and repair themselves. A deficiency in this area will make any fighter very susceptible to joint problems. A deficiency in essential oils (i.e., Essential Fatty Acids) will also compromise soft tissue further as well as causing an imbalance of a substance called prostaglandins within the bloodstream which, among other problems, compromises the body’s anti-inflammatory action. Fighters would do well to ensure they do not add to the pain they receive in the ring through dietary neglect.

In biological terms, fighters have similar responses to training, use similar resources within the body and develop similar nutritional deficiencies. However, the nature of the sport dictates that their requirements for maximal technique, flexibility, power and endurance while remaining within a distinct weight category means that more attention must be given to matching up macro and micro nutritional requirements to demand. By definition, the intense demands placed upon the entire body of such an athlete must never be underestimated when a nutritional plan is put into play. When implemented correctly, your client will see measurable improvements in CV fitness, strength, body definition and energy levels to provide the best possible platform for taking part in this most challenging and rewarding form of competition.