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The Effects of Dehydration on Wrestling Performance and Health

Author: Earl E. Walker, Jr., Ed.D.

In the wake of three collegiate wrestlers passing away this season due to the practice of weight cutting, this paper attempts to shed light on the long term effects of dehydration on performance and health. These deaths have spawned an investigation into the practices of weight cutting by various governing bodies and raised concern for wrestling enthusiasts. For this report, a survey was distributed to (3) NCAA Division I wrestling coaches to assess there thoughts regarding the practice of weight loss. Physiological research is also presented to gain an understanding of the known performance and health effects.

The weight loss practices of wrestlers has recently received public attention through the media due to the death of three collegiate wrestlers within a span of thirty-two days. Weight cutting, the term used to describe the rapid weight loss measures employed by wrestlers to fit into a lighter weight class, has been scrutinized for causing these deaths. Since these cases, the NCAA has implemented rule changes to discourage the practice of weight cutting. Efforts are continuing to establish further rule changes to ensure the safety of wrestlers with regard to weight cutting.  

Weight cutting consist of restricting ones caloric intake, reducing the amount of ingested fluids, wearing vapor impermeable suits, and exercising in hot environments (Remick, 1998). These methods are used in varying degrees and combinations. Essentially, wrestlers restrict their caloric intake from 1 - 3 days prior to weigh in. This practice is combined with fluid restriction, usually not for more than 24 hrs., and any combination of sweating techniques described above. It is not uncommon to see a wrestler wearing a vapor impermeable suit under several layers of clothing and pedaling a bicycle in a sauna prior to a weigh in. More extreme but less common measures include consuming diuretics, emetics, laxatives, and self-induced vomiting(Remick, 1998)."

Many wrestlers and coaches believe that cutting down to the lowest possible weight class will give a wrestler a performance advantage over a smaller and often weaker opponent. One study reports that 89% of the wrestlers that were observed relied on some form of weight loss to reach their desired weight (Rankin, 1996). Many wrestlers heavily rely on dehydration practices to lose those final pounds because it is the mostly readily available source of weight to lose. An already lean body has no more weight to lose other than its water. It is possible for some individuals to lose from 6 - 8 lbs of water weight during an hour of strenuous exercise (American Dietetic Association, 1988). One wrestler reports, ìWhile trying to reach the 150 lbs weight class, my body fat percentage was measured at 3.3 percent. I still had five pounds to lose.

At the collegiate level, weigh-ins are administered twenty-four hours before competition. The belief is held that within this twenty-four hours, fluid consumption and caloric ingestion will allow the body to recuperate, regaining its original size and strength.

Three coaches were surveyed regarding their beliefs and attitudes toward weight cutting. Two of the three coaches stated that they provide nutritional information to their wrestlers prior to the competitive season. These same two coaches also reported providing professional advice from nutritionists to their athletes. All three coaches surveyed believed that weight cutting could possibly affect performance in a negative manner, although one stated that, ìI usually leave weight making decisions up to individuals. 

Prior to the death of the aforementioned wrestlers, no known deaths have been related to the weight cutting practices of wrestlers (Remick, 1998). Although there have been incidents of hospitalization for dehydration. Dehydration and other associated factors of dehydration have been cited in the deaths of all three wrestlers. A case by case summary of the hours leading up to and including the deaths of the three wrestlers who passed away is presented below.

During the period between November 7th and December 9th, three collegiate wrestlers died while preparing for competition. Each of the three wrestlers, Billy Saylor, Joe LaRosa, and Jeff Reese were engaged in similar weigh loss techniques to meet the required weight class for competition. The weight cutting techniques they used are similar to those used by most collegiate wrestlers. A combination of caloric and fluid restriction in addition to vigorous exercise in hot environments. In addition to these measures, they were wearing vapor impermeable suits while exercising. (A method also common amongst collegiate wrestlers.)

Billy Saylor was attempting to compete at the 195 lbs weight class in a tournament to be held on November 8th. Prior to the season his weight had been as high as 233 lbs. Beginning on November 6th he began his attempt to lose 15 lbs. to make the weight class. On November 7th while continuing the weight loss procedure, he became disoriented and discontinued exercising at approximately 2:45 am. Within an hour he developed cardiorespiratory arrest and died. Billy's cause of death was unable to be determined from the autopsy (Remick, 1998).

On November 21st, Joe LaRosa was attempting to lose 4 lbs. to compete at the 153 lbs weight class in a tournament scheduled for the following day. His preseason weight had been recorded at 178 lbs. on September 6th. Four hours after beginning the same weight loss procedure described above, Joe stopped exercising and verbally expressed that he felt sick. He soon developed cardiorespiratory arrest and died. The cause of death was determined to be hyperthermia (Remick, 1998).  

On December 9th, Jeff Reese began the same weigh loss procedure described above. He was attempting to lose 6 lbs. to compete at the 153 lbs. weight class for a meet scheduled for the next day. His weight had been recorded at 180 lbs. prior to the season. Approximately 4 hrs. after he began the weight cutting procedure he felt faint and had difficulty breathing. He soon developed cardiorespiratory arrest and died. His cause of death was reported as rhabdomylosis (Remick, 1998).

Although extreme measures of both fluid and caloric restriction have been reported in these deaths, the causes of death have all been associated with dehydration. Dehydration has been one of the most extensively studied topics in athletics and performance. Studies regarding the effects of dehydration on aerobic activity have shown that dehydration resulting in as little as a 1% decrease in body weight can adversely impact cardiovascular and physiological performance (Murray, 1995). Dehydration has been proven to have deleterious effects on muscle strength, endurance, and coordination (ADA, 1993).

Unfortunately dehydration research has primarily focused on aerobic activity. Few studies have investigated the effects of dehydration on anaerobic activities and sports such as wrestling. Furthermore, those that have specifically studied wrestlers are inconclusive. One of the problems has been the inability to simulate the demands of wrestling. A collegiate wrestling match consist of seven minutes of intermittent anaerobic action. Those studies which used exercise protocol lasting less than one minute have generally found no deterioration in performance due to dehydration. Others studies which used exercise protocols lasting between one and six minutes in duration did find detriments in performance (Rankin, 1996).

Another problem has been the variability in post weigh-in / pre-competition diets. Most studies have examined performance just after a weigh-in period or simulated weigh-in period. As mentioned above, collegiate wrestlers generally have a period of 16 - 24 hrs between weigh-in and competition times. It has been shown that a 3 hr recuperation time is not sufficient to replace muscle glycogen stores. Houston et al. report that after a 3hr ad libitum feeding period, muscle glycogen concentrations remained 38% lower than pre weight loss measures. (Rankin, 1996) Also variations in diet have yet to be accounted for during this period between weigh-in and competition. Some studies suggest that wrestlers who consume a higher carbohydrate post weigh in and pre-competition show less performance detriments. Steen and McKinney have shown, however, that wrestlers tend to consume meals high in protein and low in carbohydrate after weight loss. (Rankin, 1996) More studies need to be conducted to draw conclusions from this.

Despite the limited available data that exists regarding the performance effects of dehydration on anaerobic activity, it is likely that the chronic dehydration that has been observed in ìweight class sportsî reduces the ability to train optimally (Murray, 1995). This may result in decreased competition performance. One of the surveyed coaches expressed concern for this occurrence. He states, ìWeight cutting definitely effects performance. negatively effects the preparation time one spends prior to the actual performance.î Optimal training may be furthered reduced by the high ambient temperatures that are maintained in many wrestling rooms. Studies show that mental performance deteriorates in hot environments regardless of hydration status (Murray, 1995).

Water comprises 55 - 60% of the bodyís composition. It acts as a solvent to break down nutrients, provides lubrication for the joints, provides shock absorption for the eyes, and acts as a thermoregulator, to mention some of its roles (Christian, 1994). Since the majority of fluids are comprised of mostly water, most fluid consumption replenishes our water stores.  

Thirst is not a reliable mechanism for dehydration (Allen, 1994). The American Dietetic Association recommends replacing every pound lost during exercise with 16oz of fluid (ADA, 1993). The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking about 17oz of fluid approximately 2 hrs. prior to exercise or competition (ACSM, 1996). (This allows for adequate hydration and time enough to excrete excess water.)

The physiological responses to dehydration are numerous. Table 1 list some of these responses below (Murray, 1995 ). The combination and cumulative effects of these responses may result in severe ramifications. One of the greatest dangers of dehydration while exercising is the risk of heat related disorders. Dehydration impairs the bodyís ability to dissipate heat, sometimes resulting in hyperthermia.  

Table 1 (Murray, 1995)

Physiological Factor Response
Gastric emptying rate Decreased
Incidence of gastrointestinal distress
Increased Splanchnic and renal blood flow Decreased Plasma volume Decreased Plasma osmolality Increased Blood viscosity Increased Central blood volume Decreased Central venous pressure Decreased Cardiac filling pressure Decreased Heart rate Increased Stroke volume Decreased Cardiac output Decreased Sweat rate at a given core temperature Decreased Core temperature at which sweating begins
Increased Maximal sweat rate Decreased Skin blood flow at a given core temperature
Decreased Core temperature at which skin blood flow increases
Increased Maximal skin blood flow
Decreased Core temperature at a given exercise intensity Increased
Performance Decreased

Hyperthermia is characterized by an increased core body temperature and heat storage. However, the mechanisms involving hyperthermia are complex. Working or exercising muscles produce heat. The greater the muscle activity the greater the heat production. Blood flow carries excess heat to the surface of the skin. The heat is lost via sweat evaporation. In hot - dry environments, up to 80% of heat is lost through sweat evaporation (Wilmore, 1994). During exercise or physical activity, sweat rate initially increases to remove the excess heat. Sweat is mostly comprised of water and sodium. If an increased sweat rate is sustained over a long period of time without fluid ingestion dehydration occurs. The concomitant loss of sodium results in hypertonicity. Dehydration and hypertonicity result in a drop in blood plasma volume and a hypovolemia (low sodium concentration in the blood). When blood plasma volume drops, blood flow to the skin decreases. This means that less heat will be carried to the skin surface by the blood and lost via sweat evaporation. Hypovolemia can result in a loss of neuromuscular coordination (Noakes, 1993).

As mentioned of above, Joe LaRosaís cited cause of death is hyperthermia. The combination of prolonged and vigorous exercise, wearing a vapor impermeable suit, and fluid restriction provided the needed variables for hyperthermia. At the time of Joe LaRosaís death, his rectal temperature was measured at 108 degrees Fahrenheit (Remick, 1998). The prolonged exercise created the excessive heat. The vapor impermeable suit disallowed sweat evaporation. Finally, the fluid restriction allowed his blood plasma levels to fall. The characteristic hypertonicity was also seen in his vitreous humor (Remick, 1998).  

Dehydration reduces the water composition in all compartments of the body (ACSM, 1996). No favoritism is involved. In cases of severe dehydration, the loss of water in the intracellular muscle tissue causes the heat within the muscle to reach extremely high levels. Recall from above that water helps to regulate body temperature. Conditions of dehydration and high levels of heat within the muscle causes the skeletal tissue to die. Essential the heat begins to cook away the skeletal muscle. This is called rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is often accompanied by myoglobinuria, which is myoglobin in the urine resulting from muscular trauma. Rhabdomyolysis is reported for the cause of Jeff Reeseís death (Remick, 1998). Myoglobinuria was also confirmed in his autopsy. Although no specific cause of death is cited in the case of Billy Reese, it has been determined to be associated with hyperthermia resulting from dehydration.

As mentioned above, these are the first reported deaths in wrestling. Because of this phenomenon, there is suspicion that other factors may have played a role in the deaths of these three individuals. One of the coaches that was polled thought that there were definitely some other factors involved in the deaths of these three wrestlers. For three wrestlers to die in less than 2 months, it seems as though some other factors would almost certainly be involvedî, he responded. Another coach thought, the three wrestlers likely did the usual [method of weight cutting] only to a greater degree. 

The average difference between preseason and competitive body weight amongst collegiate wrestlers is estimated at 16 lbs or 10% of total body weight (Remick, 1998). As for the three wrestlers who passed away, the difference between their preseason and goal weights ranged between 25 - 37 lbs. This calculates into an average difference of 15% of total body weight. This data suggests that the extent to which these three wrestlers practiced weight cutting was extreme.  

Weight classes are an integral part of wrestling. They create fairness in competition by allowing people of all sizes to participate. Unfortunately, this has also led to abuses by many of its participants. Recently, the NCAA has restructured the weight classes in collegiate wrestling and proposed new guidelines to discourage dehydration practices.

Researchers are beginning to look more closely into the unhealthy practices of weight cutting used by wrestlers and the effects that dehydration has on anaerobic performance. Practices which were previously thought to have no severe effects are being questioned. Unfortunately, it has taken the deaths of three young men to draw attention to this issue.  


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