Mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes are potentially putting their health at risk by shedding almost 10kg in bodyweight in the lead up to fights, new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has found.
And instead of giving fighters an advantage, it may actually hamper their performance in the ring.
Weight cutting, or losing weight rapidly before a bout, is common in sports that are divided into weight classes as athletes aim to compete in a lower weight division.
But now research has found the practice is more prevalent in MMA than other combat sports.
ECU School of Medical and Health Sciences PhD candidate Oliver Barley interviewed 637 MMA, boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, Muay Thai/Kickboxing and Taekwondo athletes about their weight cutting techniques.
He found that while weight cutting was prevalent across the different combat sports, MMA athletes were, on average, losing far more weight before fights.
“We found that MMA athletes reported losing an average of 9.8kg before each fight. This compares to 5.3kg for boxing, 4.2kg for Brazilian jiu jitsu and 3.8kg for judo,” he said.
“This equates to MMA athletes losing an average of 11.5 percent of their body weight in the lead up to a fight, compared to an average of about six percent for the other sports.”
Mr Barley said the results also showed that MMA athletes were more likely to use more extreme and potentially dangerous techniques to cut weight.
“We found that 76 percent of MMA athletes used the saunas and restricted fluid intake, while 63 percent reported using rubber or plastic suits as weight cutting methods,” Mr Barley said.
“By wearing a rubber or plastic suit in a sauna you can lose up five percent of your body weight in two hours through sweat. Losing that much fluid in such a short time is going to leave you severely dehydrated which could have long-term health implications and in extreme cases even death.
“Current research indicates that it is possible that the high magnitudes of weight loss could result in a number of health complications including cardiovascular problems and increased insulin sensitivity as well as an increased risk of brain damage during competition.”
Mr Barley, who has competed in MMA himself, said the motivation to cut weight was simple.
“No one wants to go into a fight with someone who is bigger than they are. So the incentive is there for fighters to attempt to cut down to a lower weight class,” he said.
How to cut down on the problem?
Mr Barley said introducing regulations to limit weight cutting would be difficult.
“As it stands we don’t have a reliable test to measure how dehydrated someone is, so we lack an accurate objective way to measure how much weight someone has cut before a bout,” he said.
“I think the solution has to be about educating competitors about not only the dangers of extreme weight cutting but also that they may not be getting any benefit from it.” In fact, previous research conducted by Mr Barley has shown that weight cutting significantly reduced athlete’s endurance.
“We found that even 24 hours after modest weight cutting, losing just five per cent of body weight resulted in reduced endurance.
“Additionally we found that athletes did not regain all of the weight lost after 24 hours. This combined with some of the hydration markers still showing dehydration indicates that athletes might be entering competition still dehydrated from their weight cut,” he said.
“So not only does it look like extreme weight cutting could be harming the health of athletes, it may even be impeding their performance in the cage.”