College Wrestling, Losing Weight the Hard Way
“Doubt the conventional wisdom unless you can verify it with reason and experiment.” -Steve Albini
Yeah, I was able to lose weight, 45lbs actually. The problem was that once I did, I was not effective. I was working harder, not smarter. My diet throughout college was a major detriment to my health. I was 22 years old, had 5% body fat at 6’4″ 210 lbs, ran a sub-6 minute mile, I worked out 8-12 times a week, ate a diet low in fat and high in whole grains, I didn’t smoke, chew or use drugs. By conventional health standards I should been the healthiest guy on the block. The only problem was, I wasn’t. I was sick, hurt and tired. Cutting weight or not, I suffered from hellacious sinus infections, inflammation, poor digestion, acute acne, slower physical recovery and sporadic energy levels. I did it the hard way, the only way I knew how. I accepted that weight loss was simply a matter of discipline and willpower. Society and college wrestling told me- if you aren’t losing weight, eat less, if that doesn’t work, you are lazy and undisciplined. It would take me about a year to realize there was something more, much more, to weight loss than the old equation “calories consumed – calories burned = weight loss or weight gain”.
I have been a wrestler since the day I was born. It is an amazing sport that I use as a reference for the way I see the world around me. Wrestling has been the one constant in my life for many years. It is meditative, physical, primitive, spiritual, giving and demanding. There is a strong underlying theme in the amateur wrestling community that has great value. This theme is what the sport is most often recognized for; it leads to a massive source of growth and development for those who are willing to commit to it. The strength and pride of wrestling is in the fact that it is extremely difficult, it requires those who participate to develop higher and higher levels of self-discipline and grit, far beyond what most sports demand. This development of grit and discipline gives wrestlers a tool that stays with them long after their wrestling careers. Unfortunately, as with most great strengths, the work harder, be tougher motto has potential to become weakness, especially when we assume that it is the only factor in the equation. Without a yin to the yang the effectiveness of any method deteriorates. There must be an equilibrium found between working smarter and working harder.
College wrestlers are the “kings of cut”-weight cut and manipulation that is. I wrestled heavyweight in college my first couple of years. I was constantly trying to add mass to my frame. After a couple years of coming up short battling for the starting spot at heavy weight I decided to “cut” down to the 197 lb weight class my junior year. It would mean dropping from 245 lbs to about 210 lbs where I would be within a couple workouts of making scratch weight at 197 lbs. Most college wrestlers hover 8-15 pounds over their competition weight and drop those last pounds the 3 days prior to competition.
I made the decision to drop down in the spring which meant I would have all summer and fall to get the weight off. At first it came off fairly easy. I workout out a ton, as all college wrestlers do and ate smaller meals. I changed my habits from being full after every meal to walking away barely satisfied. I still ate many of the same foods, simply tried to minimize the calories taken in. At the time all I knew was the simple mathematical equation for losing weight; if the calories you consume are less than the calories you burn, you will lose weight. I expended a massive amount of calories which made losing weight, at least in the short term, fairly easy. I kept myself increasingly more disciplined in the amount of food I consumed. I made a regular routine of doing some extra workouts to burn calories; I even ripped off some push-ups, sit-ups and bodyweight squats before bed to boost my metabolism throughout the night. The season came around and I was really focused on my weight, it was a struggle, the lower my weight got, the harder it was, the more it hurt. I was tough, I was disciplined and I made weight, every time I needed to. I don’t think I improved as a wrestler much in those bouts of weight cutting but that is what I chose to do for a shot at making the line up.
In those extreme calorie restricted years of my college wrestling, I felt terrible. I was uncomfortably cold all the time. My body literally didn’t have the energy to warm itself. I would sleep with two or three blankets every night. Looking back now I realize my thyroid was probably under such stress that it was severely underperforming. My strength dropped considerably in the weight room and my wrestling practices felt like uphill marathons. After practices I would go home, eat a chicken breast with some pasta and call it a night. During the day, after our morning run and lift I would limit myself to a banana and a protein shake. I was an athlete so I always focused on eating high carbs; things like bread, pasta, pancakes, French toast, orange juice and tried to keep my calories low by cutting out fats like butter, cheese and oils. Gatorade, Powerade, Protein, pre-workout and creatine were my vitamins and minerals. I drank tons of skim milk, egg whites, low fat cottage cheese, no fat tortillas and everything else I thought would be a healthy choice.
Calorie restriction worked for me, in a sense. I lost weight but the other areas of my life suffered. During my last couple of seasons I had some injuries that I wrote off as normal parts of the sport. I had bursa sack issues, my knee looked like a bowl of Jello was bouncing around it it. I had to have arthroscopic surgery in my right knee to clean up some torn cartilage. I suffered from painful leg cramps in the evenings after almost every wrestling practice, sometimes at night my body would wake me up in a blaze of pain with my calf or quad cramping. I now realize these cramps were from a lack of minerals like salt, which I avoided because it causes high blood pressure and is unhealthy, so I thought. I had tears in my shoulder labrum and I tore my bicep tendon completely through. To this day I still have only one muscle left in my bicep which looks kind of funky. My lower back was in constant pain from running 15 miles a week with thick running shoes that caused me to heal strike-terrible form; on top of that I was bent over in a wrestling stance an hour and a half a day.
Joint and muscle issues were only half the problem. I had upper respiratory infections at least twice a year. The infections made my sinuses nearly explode and my lungs to become tight and irritated during workouts. I couldn’t breath through my nose at all. It may be surprising that of all of the diet caused health issues I was having, the sinus infections and upper respiratory infections associated with them were by far the worst to deal with. They affected my sleep, my practices, my school work, energy and mood. I coughed so hard my back was tired by the time practice came. Once in the middle of the night I left my girlfriend’s place to go back to my own because I was coughing so hard I was I was surely waking her and her roommates up. I usually took care of these infections with a couple packs of antibiotics. I had poor digestion, I was constantly bloated and gassy. My stomach would cramp horribly after hard workouts and during re-hydration. Looking back I accepted it all, I was too accepting. I was a mess and I didn’t know I could change it.
I was able to do it though. I leaned on my willpower to get it done. I accepted that it was going to be hard, really hard. As a college wrestler I was used to dealing with difficulty. What I didn’t realize was there was a better way. There was more to the story than calorie restriction and willpower. There was a way to cut fat without cutting calories. I could avoid the sinus infections, inflammation, poor digestion, muscle cramps and the myriad of other issues I ran into from my conventional food pyramid diet. It took me a couple years to realize I could quit wasting my willpower on calorie restriction and start putting my time and energy into more important parts of my life like relationships, careers, hobbies and other pursuits of excellence. But to do this I had to learn, I had to accept how little I knew about diet and the human body. `