Strategies for athletes to make weight safely

Many athletes participate in weight-category sports, often requiring them to lose weight and modify their body composition to compete.

However, engaging in dangerous, last-minute weight-loss strategies such as severe energy and fluid restriction, laxative use, and cycles of saunas and hot baths can cause severe dehydration.

They will literally risk their lives to make weight and it’s our job as sports nutrition practitioners to educate athletes on and support them through the ‘weight making’ process.

The first goal is to avoid the need for any last-minute weight loss strategies by starting before the competition season. Having a long-term plan where an athlete moderately restricts their energy intake (e.g. 500 kcal/day) is a safer approach to reach their weight loss goal. This approach also gives the athlete enough time to adapt to their new way of eating without sacrificing their mental well-being and physical performance in training. It also decreases the risk of disordered eating that often develops in cases of severe energy restriction.

During this long-term period of moderate energy restriction, research has shown that focusing on high protein intake is helpful in preserving muscle mass and attenuating hunger levels. The amount of protein will depend on the type and volume of training and the level of energy restriction but athletes are advised to aim towards the higher end of recommended guidelines (e.g. >1.8g/kg body weight). Besides overall higher protein intake, athletes should also distribute their protein intake evenly throughout the day. This will ensure that amino acids are constantly available for tissue repair and help stabilise hunger levels.

Attention should also be paid to the overall quality of their restricted diet. As energy intake is reduced, the risk of micronutrient deficiencies increases. A homemade snack of natural bio yoghurt with fruit is much more nutritious than a commercial chocolate bar, for example. The restricted diet should also place more focus on less-energy dense, high-fibre and high-volume foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, beans and lean meats. These foods will naturally help reduce energy intake without affecting hunger, satiety or enjoyment of food.

Following the strategies above will leave the athlete in a safe place when the time comes to compete. If all goes well, the athlete should need no last-minute strategies. However, sometimes things don’t go to plan and emergency strategies are needed to make final weight. Some athletes will immediately try to fast, skip meals or severely restrict their food and fluid intake in the days leading up to the competition alongside severe dehydration methods, excessive aerobic exercise, and laxative and diuretic use. While these strategies may be effective for losing weight, they are strongly discouraged as they put the athlete’s health at risk.

Instead, here are safer last-minute strategies that should be followed in the three-day period before competition:

  • - Switicing to a low fibre intake can help the athlete lose weight by stimulating gastric emptying.
  • - Adjust carbohydrate intake if possible. For every one gram of carbohydrate stored, two to three grams of water are retained. Swap some of the athlete's calories from carbohydrates for fats with the aim of maintaining their already-restricted caloric intake relatively constant. 
  • - Restricting salt intake can help minimise fluid retention.
  • - Limiting fluid intake during the final day before competition may also help the athlete lose some extra weight. Limiting fluid intake rather than dehydrating through sweating can also help retain more electrolytes. Consider the time the athlete has to re-hydrate between the weigh-in and the start of competition as there may not be enough time for adequate rehydration. For the rehydration phase, I would advise some DIY sports drinks as the carbohydrate in them will also ensure that glycogen stores are topped up and the athlete is energised for competition.

A final piece of advice: the athlete should practice these strategies in the ‘off season’ phase to ensure they work for them and allow for any necessary adjustments.