With regional and state wrestling meets on the horizon, now is the time for wrestlers to review their nutritional practices. Proper hydration and fueling is essential to optimizing athletic performance, particularly when a competition spans multiple hours and days.
Sports dietitian Brett Singer with the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute advises wrestlers to avoid dramatic weight loss the week before, or even a few days before, competitions.
“You can’t try to cut weight by limiting fluids or eating less and expect to perform your best,” says Singer. “If you enter a competition underfueled or underhydrated, you can’t refuel and rehydrate quickly enough.”
Muscle Energy for a Match
Wrestling tops the list of intense, highly competitive sports. It requires a unique blend of strength, endurance, coordination, speed and strategy.
To wrestling’s credit, it is perhaps the best sport for overall physical development as it involves an equal emphasis on all muscle groups, rather than the isolated muscle development that occurs in selectively playing some of the more common sports.
As a result, wrestling relies on glycogen, which is stored glucose the body makes when digesting carbohydrates. Throughout intense competitions such as wrestling tournaments, the body pulls from the store of muscle glycogen for energy. Yet, the body is capable of storing only a limited amount of glycogen. That’s why careful nutritional planning is more important than ever for these endurance events.
Proactive Nutritional Planning
Singer recommends a solid breakfast the morning of competition. This could include an egg, two slices of toast with jelly, fruit and a sports drink.
“If there’s travel involved, scout out what the hotel provides in terms of meals, microwaves and refrigerators,” says Singer. “Maybe an athlete needs to make his own breakfast. If eating out is planned, research the options in advance.”
During the competition, Singer recommends wrestlers focus on carbohydrates with plenty of fluids and a small amount of protein. If there is only one hour or so until the next match, light carbohydrates are a better choice. These include fruits, grains, applesauce, a sports drink or granola bar.
If a wrestler has a three- to four-hour time span between matches, something more solid is appropriate. Singer suggests a sandwich or light meal that includes protein, grains and fruit. Avoid heavy eating because the increased time for digestion can lead to loss of energy or even stomach discomfort.
Conditioning for Injury Prevention
With back-to-back matches and multiple tournament days, wrestlers’ bodies can easily fatigue, which increases the risk of injury. A strong conditioning program helps lessen this risk.
Charlie Gremillion is a strength and conditioning specialist at the IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute who holds a certification from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. He says wrestlers should focus on strengthening the rotator cuff and other muscles surrounding the shoulder. Also important are exercises for the rhomboid and middle and lower trapezius muscles.
“Wrestlers are constantly pulling and pushing at full shoulder extension, wrenched in weird positions and banging the shoulder joint,” says Gremillion. “This puts the shoulder capsule and labrum that hold the shoulder joint in place at risk. That’s why it’s important for them to have strong rotator cuffs and back muscles.”
Gremillion also advises female wrestlers to focus on unilateral leg strength since they’re more susceptible to knee problems.
“Female athletes tend to have strong anterior leg strength but neglect the other side of their leg,” says Gremillion. “They need to work on ACL injury prevention including strengthening external rotators and hip abductors. It helps to have strong hamstrings, too, because women tend to be so quad dominant the tug-of-war at the knee can be lost at the hamstrings.”
Wrestlers can benefit from working with a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist®, such as Gremillion, who understands muscle anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and sport-specific training. For example, the athletic stance for wrestling is slightly different from the universal athletic stance.
Additionally, sport-specific strength work, including strongman circuit training, is something Gremillion recommends because it prepares athletes well for the demands of wrestling. The latter includes things like tire flipping, sandbag training, and the use of battle ropes and heavy bags. Sometimes jumping, rolling, bear crawling and other core work are included for core strength.