Sunday, August 28, 2016

How I lose weight and keep energy up during fight camp

Professional poker player Dan Smith, gave me the following feedback on Twitter as to what he'd like to read about:

It's a great question -- how can a person who is already fairly lean lose 10-20% of his bodyweight in 4-8 weeks and still manage to fuel something as demanding as an MMA training camp?

Well, I've been messing with this stuff for a while and put a lot of thought into it. But first a disclaimer: in the past I've been accused of broscience and being sloppy with "shit i read on internet". What follows is just what has worked very well for me when we're talking specifically about diet and nutrition the context of a mixed martial arts camp.  Now I've studied and read and re-read obsessively. But I'm lazy and this is just a personal blog, so I'm not going to be providing citations. This is all simply the result of n=1 experimentation and yes, it involves shit I read on the internet. People are free to disagree and tell me I'm an idiot for doing what I'm doing, and I'm very much open to the possibility I'm wrong about things (which I have been on many occasions in the past).

Okay first up, BMR (basal metabolic rate). The calculator suggests 1557 calories for a person of my size and age. Estimates of my daily caloric burn in a day (even with the "heavy" exercise multiplier) usually fall way below my usual intake, and yet I don't gain weight. Caloric burn is a function of so many things going on inside bodies that until they actually start putting microchips inside our bodies, I don't worry about it too much. But I would say on a typical training day I'm eating/burning between 3000-3500 calories.

Cutting weight over a training camp

Anyone will tell you that it's better to shed weight throughout camp than it is to simply cut a ton of weight. Losing 15 pounds in the sauna is a terrible experience: it's dangerous, it hinders performance, it creates the potential for getting sick on fight day. All kinds of bad stuff. And yet there is basically no one at the elite level competing without some form of water manipulation in the last 24-72 hours. And that's because if you've dieted down to a point where you are losing zero water, you're going to come in as the much smaller guy, simple as that.

But yeah, back to cutting weight. My philosophy is that prevention is better than solution. As a 125-pound fighter, I'm never letting myself get over 145. Ever, ever. This is rare. I know many 135ers who are hovering around 170 when they're not near a fight, and 170 lb fighters peaking well over 200. I pretty much never eat garbage and let myself go completely because I don't want to be the guy running a huge caloric deficit during a tough camp.

Most of my vegetable intake is organic and all of my meat intake is grass-fed/pasture-raised. When I'm eating out a lot and being social, I have some cheats but I'm still being reasonably selective off the menu. My girlfriend jokes that I am orthorexic. I don't actually think that I am, but I admit I'm more strict than basically anyone I know. Something like pizza or cake is around a once-a-year proposition for me, which even I have to admit is a bit strict.

Eating like this keeps me between 141-145 most of the time. When it's fight camp, becoming even more strict gets me usually about 1-2 lb of weight loss per couple of weeks. So ideally i'm around 135-137 when i'm 7 days out while doing not much caloric restriction. I don't count calories at all until the final two weeks, although I'll make some small adjustments (I'll talk about that shortly).

Beyond Calories: Winning at the Micros

Everyone is obsessed about calories, but here I want to focus more on micronutrients than macronutrients. For the uninitiated, micronutrients are basically the vitamins and minerals that make the body work. When you see a label like the one below, the micronutrients are in the bottom section:

There are a shit-ton of important micronutrients, many of which are presented here in a word cloud for some reason:

Compared to micronutrients, macronutrients are simpler for most people to understand because they know them all: protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol.

Macronutrients get all the play because they are generally easier to talk about in sound bites and blog posts, but micronutrients are massively important and I focus way more on getting micronutrients in a bioavailable form. (This is the tricky thing about micronutrients; basically every micronutrient is available in a bottle, but it may or may not be well-absorbed by the body.)

I don't pay too much attention to calories and macros. I don't really care if I'm 40/40/20 or 50/35/15 or whatever. But I do pay attention to micronutrients and if I'm going to do a food log, it's mostly to ensure I'm getting enough minerals and vitamins. Usually I do a pretty great job; here's a randomly selected day out of my food log:

(Hope it was sunny outside today.)

Regardless of what my protein/fat/carb looks like, if I'm hitting well over 100% RDA on most vitamins and minerals and my digestion feels good, I think everything is dandy. And I feel great and energetic.

I make it a goal to choose really nutrient-dense foods, which is usually in the food department. The biggest single thing I do is choosing vegetables over grains, since gram-per-gram and calorie-per-calorie, vegetables destroy grains. Note the comparison of the three leftmost columns to the three on the right.

Even in the case of more similar comparisons, sweet potato and squash destroy rice and pasta.

Another thing that sets me apart from most athletes is that I tend to avoid over-reliance on sports drinks. Not drinking calories is one of the best things you can do for nutrient density, since liquid carbs in general are very low in nutrients.

That said, I sometimes use a few high-end sports drinks, like Superstarch and Vitargo, as well as coconut water. I think it's useful to think of simple processed carbs like sports drinks and white rice as performance-enhancing drugs (except of course, not illegal). They're great for optimizing performance and endurance, but they are not providing much nutritional benefit, and a significant side effect (weight gain/insulin spiking). The regular public doesn't fast carbs at all (in much the same way the public generally doesn't need steroids), but athletes in high-intensity sports benefit from a quick, easily digestible way to shuttle glucose into muscles. So I don't avoid them completely, but as much as possible, I simply drink water. When I need to lose weight quickly, the sugar drinks are the first thing to go.

Talk more about carbs!!11

Carbs are not necessarily the enemy of weight loss when it comes to the high-intensity athlete. As I mentioned, I don't really track this stuff, but I probably used to be too low on the carb side, clocking in around 20-25% carbs. I've increased this to 40-50%, especially deeper into fight camp where I'm doing a higher number of high-intensity rounds and my muscles need this fast fuel.

When do i eat those carbs (and fat)?

On days and weeks where I am not training, or it consists of either low-volume or low-intensity training, my carb consumption is back down near 20-25%. This improves three things for me personally:

a) body comp (I stay leaner)
b) brain function
c) better digestion (slightly)

On days I do train, I will load up on carbs+protein in the 2-3 hours after training, and eat mostly protein+fat the rest of the day. I try not to have very many meals that have fat+carbs together, because those can really cause weight gain (think of most things people overeat -- pizza, ice cream, potato chips -- and it's notable how many of them are this simple fat+carbs combo).

During fight camp, where usually I am mostly doing light workouts in the morning and lengthy high-intensity activity in the evening, I do a cyclical carb or a "carb backload", meaning I eat very few carbs before dinner, but eat a ton of them (and less fat) after training.

This day was 40% carbs, but 80% of those were during/after training.

Final hacks:

I do a daily 12-hour fast, so I do not eat from 10pm to at least 10am, usually past that. Obviously I'm sleeping a lot of this time, but doing a little light aerobic work in the morning in a fasted state helps me burn off a little belly fat.

I also do a 24-hour fast once a week, usually Saturday dinner to Sunday dinner, so I do not eat before 8pm or so once a week. This is just a good practice to give the digestive system a break, and losing weight is just an extra benefit.

So how do I feel?

Losing the first 8-10 pounds in 6-8 weeks, even on a lean frame like mine, requires discipline. But it isn't horribly hard. I feel pretty good most of the time. My energy levels are high most of the time, and when they're not, it's not because of lack of calories but rather because the intensity of the training has worn me down. Fasting, a lack of junk food the rest of the year, going high-carb only after workouts, and keeping nutrient numbers high gives me tons of energy to train at a high level throughout the camp.

The hard part is the last 8-10 pounds on the final week. Once I'm 7 days out from the weigh-in, the carbs and eventually the entire meals start getting reduced, to deplete glycogen from my muscles (which I don't need too much anyway since I am not training intensely in those days). Then we get into sodium loads, saunas, and all the water manipulation. This is the part that really feels awful, and so ideally you do as little of it as possible. In a perfect world, I might be something like 130 with seven days to go, but it's hard to lose that kind of weight and train as hard as I'd really want to.

Questions or comments? Comment below (may require you to click on the title of this post).