Diet for Fighters: Improve Body Composition and Maximize Injury Recovery In Between Fights
By Dan Garner
MMA is one of the hardest sports in the entire world. It contains a huge pool of very well rounded athletes and some of the toughest competitors alive today. Every detail about MMA is covered at a very high level all the way from strength training, conditioning, recovery from exercise, recovery from injury, scouting, strategy, communication, video footage, ideal weight/height/limb length for each weight class and/or discipline, martial art and technique specialties, etc.
You name it, MMA probably has a science behind it.
Because it is one of the most highly competitive sports on the planet today from both a physical and business standpoint. It has been growing at a fast rate in the past decade, everybody wants in on it and if you’re a fighter in your area with some credentials, somebody out there is training to take you out every day. Every single day.
You know what that means?
The scary reality that you may be replaceable and the idea that you’re only as good as your last fight.
And yet, knowing even all of this, fighters and coaches on a regular basis dismiss the importance of nutrition. Or, they understand its importance but don’t put forth the effort or finances to ensure that they are applying the correct information towards their athletes and/or themselves that is going to have the biggest impact in the gym and in competition.
Today I’m going to talk about how combat sports athletes should be approaching their nutrition in regards to their “in between fights” or “in between competition” body composition management and recovery from injury.
Why these two topics?
Well, when we run through our list of priorities for what’s most important in between fights, staying in shape and staying healthy are right at the top. Body composition (the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass) is something a lot of combat sports athletes actually regress with quite a bit in between fights. For some reason, some guys completely drop all discipline in between competitions and gain much more body fat then they should be. This always comes back to bite them in the ass later on with a brutal training camp of hard dieting and hard dehydration. But, if they had just utilized a few nutritional strategies in between fights they wouldn’t have to diet as hard during camp, when you eliminate how hard the diet is during camp you naturally are able to focus more on your training because you never had a drastic change or decrease in dietary habits that’s zapping your energy.
This lack of discipline in between competitions can be due in part by the decrease in training frequency to make room for other activities. But, when it comes down to it, when combat sports athletes dial their nutrition in their amount of muscle mass loss is drastically diminished and their amount of body fat gain can be next to none.
Too many guys, whether intentionally or not, change up their eating habits in between fights due to a busy schedule plus a lot more traveling (since you can’t do much, or any of this during camp). Many reading this are probably juggling either a job or school and going to a martial arts school at least 3-5x per week. In some cases, there will be people working, going to school and trying to compete. On top of this, you are also expected to continue with your strength training, conditioning, and recovery/rehabilitation work.
That’s a lot on your plate, but unfortunately with my observation of most athlete’s, nutrition is the first thing they drop. They keep doing everything else and then just eat whenever they can and normally this means opting for quick and convenient options. Often opting for justifications such as:
“Well this isn’t that bad”
“At least if I’m eating out, I’m not eating McDonalds”
“I was just on the go so I had to pick up something on the way”
“When I got there, there was nothing healthy to eat so I had to eat this”
Blah blah blah….
Opting for quick and convenient options isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it can be if you’re completely ignoring what your daily intake should be looking like in regards to your protein, carbohydrate and fat daily totals. Additionally, quick and convenient shouldn’t always mean that you’re eating out. There are tons of options of stuff you can bring with you along your way.
All these little comprises in food choices and overall “low man on the totem pole” status that athletes give to nutrition is really the heart of where guys lose muscle mass and strength in between fights while also putting on a bunch of unnecessary body fat that will only make their next camp harder. Not enough respect to nutrition and how critical it is towards your recovery (be it from a tournament, fight, workout or injury), performance and body composition never leads to an athlete reaching their true potential.
After body composition we will cover injury recovery, if any athlete in sports is going to be susceptible to injury it’s going to be MMA fighters or other high level combat sports athletes. MMA is an incredibly high impact sport and anybody who has been in the game long enough has incurred some sort of injury. In this sport, it’s not really a question of “if you’ve been injured”, the question really is will you get injured.
Whether it be a structural upper / lower body injury or it be a concussion, most MMA fighters at some point in their career suffer something along these lines and staying on top of your nutrition can be the difference between a 7 week healing process and a 4-5 week healing process. It’s important to care about this because not only can we aid in the speed of recovery, but we can also increase the quality of the recovery process.
Anybody who has seen a highlight UFC reel YouTube video can attest to my sense of importance here. People are getting absolutely smashed on a weekly basis and some fighting styles even have an expected “drop out” rate after so many years in the game.
Let’s tackle both body composition and injury recovery guidelines in between competition one at a time and put everything together in the end with some solid take home advice to follow so you can make the best of your next season.
BODY COMPOSITION MANAGEMENT
Before moving forward with the discussion, let’s first briefly define the three states of energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) one can be in before continuing for those who are unfamiliar with the world of sports science nutrition.
- Hypocaloric state: This is a term that is used to represent a situation where the calories in are less than the calories out so therefore you will lose weight. This state is typically characterized by somebody who needs to drop a little bit of body fat in order to improve performance or body composition. This must be done carefully as to not sacrifice training quality, performance or muscle loss.
- Maintenance: This is a term that is used to represent a situation where the calories in are equal to the calories out so therefore you will neither gain nor lose weight. This is normally the situation I see people in whom are currently at a plateau in either direction of body composition goals. Some people feel they are doing everything right and can’t seem to drop body fat, conversely, other people feel that they “eat all the time” and can’t seem to gain any body weight. I hate to be the bearer of bad news my friends but if your body weight has been stuck at a certain number for a month or two now the odds are quite high you’re hanging out at maintenance.
- Hypercaloric state: This is a term that is used to represent a situation where the calories in are greater than the calories out so therefore you will gain weight. This state is typically characterized by the athlete who is looking to gain some body weight to improve his performance or muscle mass size. This must be done carefully though as to not sacrifice nutrient partitioning and gain unnecessary body fat which leads to a host of issues concerning insulin sensitivity, lowered testosterone, blood sugar dysregulation, and overall lowered athletic ability.
It should be noted here that that is a very brief and basic outline of the energy balance states of metabolism, the nerdier biochemistry stuff can be left with me for now, or can be the subject of a future blog post. Within this post I’ll focus a little more on the “how” as opposed to the “why”.
Some fighters and coaches still have the old school mentality out there where the off season (in between fights and/or competition season) is truly the “off” season. They really don’t do anything at all in regards to strength, conditioning, body composition changes, nutrition, skill work, etc. You name it, they’re not doing it. They’ll spend most of their time hanging out with their buddies, partying, going on vacation and playing some recreational summer sports. Throw in a little Call of Duty and you got yourself a pretty sweet off season training system.
Then when the in-season or fight camp rolls around they figure:
“Ok now’s the time to get into shape. I need to kick everything into gear”
In reality, this is exactly backwards to what you should be doing, especially if any sort of muscle building is a priority for you. Any and all major body composition changes should occur during the off season when you have the time to eat well and train with a more comfortable schedule and consistently take your new body on “test drives” with all of your familiar techniques before you go into camp and not during. This is especially true during the beginning stages of the off season where the principal of training specificity is at its lowest and you can really grind for body composition change and work on your weak points. It makes much more sense to find out how you move with new muscle, or, what your leverages are like with less fat, BEFORE you go in against somebody who’s trying to rip your head off.
In addition to this, during the in-season or fight camp performance has to be the #1 priority. No other component ranks higher than this. If you want to be the guy who people see make notable improvements each and every time you step out to the ring, you had better be putting performance as the top priority. You can’t expect to make maximal changes in body composition while at the same time exert maximal performance within your skill set during camp, your recovery capacity just simply won’t allow it.
You know how in video games, at the top left corner you usually have a green bar of health? (Well they did in Sega Genesis, and that’s what I played, so shut up)
You can think of this green bar like your body’s total recovery capacity, there is a limit to it and that’s why we can’t just train all day and consistently get better. You have to recover if you want to adapt. When trying to focus on body composition change plus the skill development/conditioning required for fight camp at the exact same time your green bar goes to empty sooner than later and you will end up in a state of overtraining which leads to nervous system fatigue, depressed immune function, lowered testosterone, blood sugar dysregulation and no further adaptation to the stimulus of exercise (progress!).
“Yeah, I get that. Performance of course should be #1 for in-season.
But can’t I change my body composition at the same time?”
In most cases for most people, no, you can’t. Not with performance being #1. At least not to any drastic degree. What can we accomplish during a camp is a drop in body fat, but even still you shouldn’t be seeking a massive drop.
Performance throws a real wrench into body composition changes during the season and we’re going to talk about why. As a side note, this is why working with an intelligent coach and conducting your yearly training and nutritional periodization is so important. There are certain points in the year where focusing on certain goals makes the most sense. On the flip side, there are also points in the year where focusing on certain goals can be backwards or even downright detrimental towards your performance and the overall big picture of your development as an athlete.
Let’s say you’re a smaller guy and you want to gain some muscle mass during this in-season. That’s all fine and well but we run into some issues right away with both your training and nutrition.
To gain an appreciable amount of muscle mass you need to be training with an optimal training frequency and volume. That’s just the problem right there, this isn’t possible during the season, not without the degradation of performance, and we can’t forget that performance is #1 during the season on our hierarchy of what we should be doing. Our priorities always have to be straight in our head when we make any decisions.
A standard training frequency for muscle mass and strength gains hovers around the 4-6 weight training sessions per week mark with the aim of overreaching your maximum recoverable volume so that you can super compensate, recover, and build new lean muscle tissue within a training cycle. This type of training is simply too difficult to sustain during the season without letting performance suffer. It’s either one, or the other. You can’t resistance train with the intensity required to create muscle and strength gains 4-6x per week and still do 4-6 sessions of combined conditioning, Jiu-Jitsu, Thai boxing, wrestling, and anything else you can think of.
The average fighter should be resistance training 2-4x per week MAX during the season with the aim of maintaining/improving strength, conditioning and power output levels. The augmentation of body composition for muscle mass gain is simply too difficult to sustain for the period of time that it would require to actually have any benefit to it. Building muscle is a long, energy costly process that can mean the difference of you going into your fight ready and bouncing, or, over-trained and dragging your feet.
In addition to this, a muscle mass gaining phase is typically characterized by not just a high training frequency and volume, but also a hypercaloric diet.
That’s a problem all by itself right there isn’t it?
Because if we are training the way we should be training during the season (2-4 resistance training sessions per week typically consisting of less volume than the offseason) introducing a hypercaloric diet is a recipe to get a lot fatter. You can’t train less, eat like it’s a mass phase and expect that weight to be lean muscle mass. It doesn’t work like that. To gain muscle mass you do want to be in a hypercaloric state, but this is a state you want to avoid when you aren’t training hard enough in order to maximize the potential of the phase, or, have weight to lose to comfortably enter your weight class. This is a great way to not make weight.
Now let’s have a look at it from the other perspective, let’s say you’re looking to get really lean this season and get that crazy six pack you have always wanted.
Anytime you introduce a hypocaloric state during the season performance is going to suffer, it’s a recipe for disaster from both a performance and injury perspective. Even disregarding the research conducted on performance in a hypocaloric state, anybody who has dieted can tell you that their performance suffered. This only becomes magnified when you are juggling all the things you need to be juggling during the season.
Tournaments + skill work + conditioning + resistance training + school/work + travel is simply too much to take on in a hypocaloric state. Don’t get me wrong people can do it, but they will be doing it at the expense of performance whether they know it or not. We don’t compromise performance during the season, that’s not what proper nutrition or proper periodization is about.
The only caveat here that is acceptable is if the person is blatantly overweight and could use some trimming down. In this case, dropping the weight will actually improve performance as opposed to decreasing performance mainly due to the increased speed and agility they will see. Additionally, the more overweight you are to begin with, the less susceptibility you have to lose muscle mass or incur any metabolic adaptation during the beginning phases of a diet.
Hypocalorism can be ok during an 8-10 week fight camp when done properly (I want to place a big emphasis on properly), but during a competitive season that could last months such as wrestling, you’ll wear yourself down quick and performance will no longer be your #1 output.
But if you’re somebody who is already relatively lean and you’re looking to get even leaner, this can definitely come at the expense of your performance where it actually counts, in the ring.
If that wasn’t enough, that type of schedule in combination with a hypocaloric state can create altered endocrine and immune function where testosterone levels typically drop, stress hormones typically increase and your ability to fight off colds/sickness decreases. Not exactly what you’re looking for during the season, especially if this is how you want to make a living or earn a scholarship.
So where do we go from here?
What I like to recommend wrestlers or Jiu-Jitsu grapplers or anybody in martial arts that has a “season” do is begin with 4-6 weeks of maintenance eating. This will be enough to support performance and training load while still allowing for progress to be made in strength development, power, conditioning and speed.
As you climb the ladder in MMA, this type of strategy will generally not suffice as you will need to diet down to your weight class each and every fight. In this case, hypocalorism is required and I always recommend either being very serious about your diet, or, hiring a nutrition specialist to cover all your bases for you so that you can purely focus on improving.
You want to keep every last piece of progress you made during the offseason throughout as much of the in-season as you can. Now is where you need to perform, we need all those physical qualities year round. This cannot be done without an intelligent approach to your yearly training and nutritional periodization.
Begin the season with 4-6 weeks of maintenance eating and adjust accordingly from there based on your needs. In addition to supporting the above mentioned qualities, maintenance eating also allows you to still make some body composition changes. This is known as “recomposition”. Where your body weight doesn’t actually change, but your body composition can.
For example, if you’re 200lbs and 12% body fat and you successfully executed a recomposition phase you would exit that phase still around 200lbs but around 9-10% body fat. You both gained some lean muscle mass and lost some body fat at the same time while kickin’ around the same total body weight. Not a bad trade off if you ask me, especially while keeping performance #1.
You probably have some questions such as:
“Is there a problem with body composition change during the season?”
No, of course not.
“So is the problem then for those who actively seek body composition change during the season?”
Yes, because it comes at the expense of performance. Those who slack off during the offseason and expect to hit two birds with one stone during the season and/or a fight camp are in for a rude awakening, or will simply just not perform well. Blunt speaking, sure, but true nonetheless.
You can’t make major body composition goals during the onset of a season or fight camp.
This is why I like my athletes starting at maintenance. No worries here at all. We are supporting everything we possibly can while simultaneously potentially reaping some recomposition benefits along the way. If it’s a fight camp, things are adjusted on an individual basis.
That’s how I recommend you guys attack this season. There is no wrong here.
Start at maintenance for 4-6 weeks and adjust accordingly if needed after that in respect to your current body composition, training schedule, martial arts schedule, and overall goals.
You know above I said a lot of guys drop the ball on their nutrition, but here is where most everybody drops the ball on everything. They get all upset that their injured, think they can’t do anything about it and just throw everything that is beneficial out the window until they are healthy again. There are lots of strategies to accelerate healing, but to keep this from being a novel, let’s keep the discussion towards injury management specific to caloric intake. Although other areas include deeper discussions in macronutrient balance/ratio, micronutrient status, inflammation status, and modelling the nutrition around the body’s natural repair cycle to accelerate healing.
The typical MMA injury recovery strategy normally consists of you having a permanently imprinted butt mold formed on your couch in combination with way too much Netflix and PlayStation.
Am I right?
Maybe your injured foot is elevated and your girlfriend or mom is making you some soup?
Couple temper tantrums and some emo music playing in the background?
Come on. Open the windows and get the hell up!
Before we talk about the nutritional strategies and implications, I have to mention sleep. Sleep is the king recovery strategy for any and all things, including exercise and injury. When you’re sleeping your body is in full on recovery mode repairing and rebuilding any and all things within the body.
I have discussed sleep in depth throughout many seminars, podcasts, mentorships and webinars. If you aren’t sleeping well, this would be the #1 priority for injury recovery before we move on to the other strategies. This has got to be in check.
Although when it comes to energy balance, it’s an interesting conundrum because your activity levels are substantially decreased. You’re just flat out not weight training as much or working on your skills as much so you’re need for calories to support physical energy expenditure drops. Even if you are in the gym or working on your technique, odds are you’re not exerting the same level of effort as before the injury which would still allow for a decreased calorie intake.
But when we look a little deeper into the physiology of repair, injury recovery requires the synthesis of new structures. Whether this be joint, muscle or tendon related. At the end of the day, your body needs the raw materials to repair and rebuild this tissue damage.
Where does it get that?
Food provides the raw materials your internal repair systems require to patch up that flat tire you got there. If you start dropping calories low now (“because I’m not training”) and you combine that with low activity levels you’re also putting yourself at a greater risk for muscle loss.
So what’s the best approach?
Maintenance calories makes the most logical sense here because we don’t want to go hypocaloric and risk a longer recovery time (due to inadequate raw material availability and the possibility of reduced endocrine and immune function) plus greater muscle loss as well. But we also don’t want to go hypercaloric and risk a bunch of unnecessary fat gain due to the forced inactivity.
Maintenance will put us in that sweet spot of optimal recovery with the greatest chance of maintaining your current body composition even during a lay off. Of course, the longer you’re down the greater chance you have of diminishing your body composition, that’s unavoidable. But that’s as a result of training stimulus, not nutritional strategy.
If you compare two guys who are both injured and one is focusing on his nutrition and the other is not, the one who is focusing on his nutrition will both have a better composition (retain more muscle during the lay off and not gain as much fat) and a quicker recovery time, guaranteed.
That sounds like a no-brainer to me.
Here are some quick guidelines to follow when injured and wondering how you should be eating:
- Protein should be 0.8-1g per pound of body weight per day total.
- Meal frequency should be 4-6 meals per day spaced apart by 2-4hrs. This is to ensure round the clock amino acid availability to both your skeletal muscle (to reduce muscle loss) and the injury site (to enhance time under recovery).
- Carbohydrates and fat are individually set. Carbohydrates should typically match activity level which is why I can’t make any real recommendations here. An injured construction worker is going to have a greater carb intake than an injured desk worker. Although it should also be noted that even if you’re injured and not working, you don’t want to eliminate carbohydrates completely because carbohydrates secrete insulin and insulin is not only anabolic to muscle tissue, but also to injury sites.
- Eat at maintenance calorie levels.
- Keep multivitamins, fruits and vegetables in the meal plan at all times. The body needs these vitamins and minerals for proper repair processes to occur.
Yes you aren’t doing any skill work and maybe not even in the gym right now but you’re level of effort towards improvement should be no different. The only thing that has changed is that you have different priorities right now, your goals and aspirations are depending on you to take this seriously and do whatever you can in order to get better.
Don’t mope around and act like a baby. Nobody is going to want to be around you and you will lose sympathy very quickly. Fighters don’t “milk it”, that’s what babies do.
Study strategy, watch video footage of your own fights, watch video footage of your competition, Google MMA skill work stuff and stay on top of your nutrition.
If you mope around you’re going to have a few week transitioning phase until you actually get back into it and start performing like you used to.
Dan Garner is the owner and founder of Team Garner and is the head strength coach and nutrition specialist for hockeytraining.com. Specializing and delivering consistent world class results in physique transformation and athletic performance, Dan has worked with many athletes from the youth leagues right up to the NHL, NFL, MLB and UFC. He is an international lecturer on sports nutrition and has been featured in several major media outlets. In addition to his coaching services, he has created many online products available for purchase and is a bestselling author on Amazon.