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Fuel the Fighter: MMA Injury Prevention - Part 1: Nutrition

"Fuel The Fighter" discusses each month how a practioner can apply physiology and nutrition to optimize his or her MMA training and performance.

This article originally appeared on FIGHT! Magazine and is republished with permission.

Fuel the Fighter: Physiology and Nutrition for MMA

MMA Injury Prevention - Part 1: Nutrition

Mixed martial artists are no strangers to injury. While strength training is a necessary component of any training regimen to help prevent injury, nutritional habits such as food and fluid intake also play an essential role in protecting the body. Getting accustomed to choosing the right fuels at the right time will help to minimize injury risk as well as maximize athletic performance.

Fighters need to be aware that their nutritional intake in the days preceding a competition can help to prevent fatigue. Neuromuscular weariness can potentially decrease motor control, balance, and joint mechanics. [1] For this reason, preventing exhaustion and weakness from the perspectives of both nutrition and physical training is necessary to give an MMA athlete a competitive edge.

Athletes that want to give themselves the best chance for a win should avoid rapid weight loss before a fight. Even a 5% rapid loss of total body weight before a fight from either calorie restriction or severe dehydration can significantly increase core temperature, heart rate, and the rate at which essential muscle sugars are used up to supply energy. A particularly unhealthy method used to achieve rapid weight loss involves excessive sauna use in rubber or plastic suits. The pre-fight weigh in may be successful, but cutting all that water weight leads to early exhaustion. In addition, it is a little known fact that rapid weight loss can even decrease testosterone levels. Instead, taking part in a gradual weight loss program in the weeks leading up to competition will help to avoid premature fatigue. [1]

Incorporating nutrition planning into training is a useful method to avert athletically induced fatigue. Muscles store sugars for energy use in the form of a compound called glycogen. The depletion of this muscle glycogen is a major cause of fatigue [2]. The key to fighting off early exhaustion is to increase the amount of sugar that the muscle is able to initially store. This allows muscles to function at peak performance for a longer period of time. It is theorized that stored sugar is the primary source for high intensity exercise. For those who consume a diet with a healthy (moderate) fat intake, it would take too long for stored fat to cross into cells to provide enough energy for that type of aerobic activity.

Manipulating glycogen stores for a competition is accomplished by proper "carbohydrate loading." The current modified regimen involves 5 days of exercise followed by 1 day of rest before a fight. The athlete consumes a diet consisting of 50% carbohydrates for the first 3 days, and then jumps up to 70% carbohydrates for the next three days. Large quantities of whole grain pasta or bread are preferred sources of carbs. Following an eating pattern like this can increase glycogen stores by 20-40%, which gives a fighter a larger reservoir of stored energy. This approach is like being able to increase the size of car's gas tank. [2]

There are some athletes who choose to follow a short term high fat diet before a competition instead of a high carbohydrate diet. The rationale behind this is that when the body consumes more fats, it becomes more efficient at burning fat and would therefore become less reliant on those precious stores of glycogen. In addition, there would be more fatty acids available for energy use in the bloodstream. Although this line of thinking makes sense in theory, experiments have shown that in fact short term high fat meals before a bout of intense exercise decrease performance as compared with a short term high carbohydrate diet. [3]

The timing of the pre-event meals is crucial. A meal consumed too close to the match will spike an athlete's blood sugar. This signals the hormone insulin to quickly lower the sugary blood levels by promoting rapid absorption of the sugars throughout the body. The quick decrease of blood sugar means that there is less available specifically for the muscles to use during the upcoming intense exercise. Without blood sugars to use for energy, the muscle has to dip into its limited supply of stored sugar.

It is therefore best if the final meal is consumed several hours before competition, which also allows for efficient water absorption during the brief breaks between fighting rounds. Meals that are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates like the insoluble fiber found in broccoli and wheat bran promote rapid emptying of the stomach, which helps with water absorption. Consuming a sport beverage with limited carbohydrates 15 to 20 minutes before the event will help to provide extra sugars without stimulating insulin release. [3]

Recovering the depleted muscle glycogen after a fight is achieved through normal dietary habits, without excessive carbohydrate intake. Simple carbohydrates like those found in fruits are swiftly absorbed and are needed between training sessions to quickly restore glycogen levels if multiple training sessions per day are desired.

Sport Nutrition Basics [4]

Pre-Event Carbohydrate loading- 1 week schedule

  • Emphasis on whole grain/multi grain products
  • Three days at 50% carbohydrate intake
    • 353 g carbs/3000 calories
    • Tapered exercise program
  • Three days at 70% carbohydrate intake
    • 542 g carbs/3000 calories
    • Tapered exercise until the day before competition
  • Competition on seventh day

Pre-Event Meal: 2-6 hours before competition

  • Small, easy to digest
  • High carbohydrate content (200-300 grams)
  • Moderate protein content
  • Low fat content
  • Avoid foods that may cause gastrointestinal distress (i.e. acidic fruit juices, highly fortified meal replacement beverages or energy bars)
  • Examples of carbohydrate contents
    • 1 cup brown rice, ½ cup mixed vegetables, 12 ounces apple juice =100 g carbs
    • 1 large apple, 1/3 cup raisins, 14 saltine crackers = 100 g carbs
    • 1 slice whole wheat bread, 4 tsp jam, 12 oz skim mil k= 50 g carbs
    • 1 cup whole wheat spaghetti noodles cooked, ¼ cup tomato sauce = 50 g carbs

Post-Work out Meal: Ideal within 2 hours after exercise (the sooner the better)

  • 100-150 g of carbohydrates
  • Simple carbs restore muscle glycogen faster than complex carbs ? useful if multiple training sessions are desired
  • Choose fruits instead of whole grain products since the sugar in fruits is quick to digest
  • Best fruits are banana, raisins, grapes, watermelon, berries and citrus fruits

Next Time?

MMA Injury Prevention

Part II: Physical Training



1. Grindstaff, T. L., & Potach, D. H. (2006). Prevention of common wrestling injuries. [Article]. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(4), 20-28.

2. Gropper, S.S., Smith, J.L., Groff, J.L., ( 2005). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (4th ed.)

Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth

3. Manore, M., Thomspon, J., (2000). Sport Nutrition for Health and Performance

United States: Human Kinetics

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