Updated: Feb 2, 2020
4 Dietary Rules For Optimal Performance in Combat Sports
Eating is fundamental for a martial artist influencing everything from strength, speed, to recovery. While this is true for any sport, it is especially true for martial arts and other combat sports for which high amounts of energy are called upon for quick bursts during combat. There are a whole host of foods to choose from and picking the right foods at the right times make all the difference.
There are many different diets and to cover them all here would be an overwhelming amount of content. But regardless if you eat paleo, ketogenic, vegan, vegetarian, or carnivore; there are a few simple guidelines that a martial artist must keep in mind:
Pre-Workout Meals - to be primed for sparring and training a mix of fast and slow digesting carbohydrates and protein, is ideal without being too heavy. The goal here is to provide the body with a quick source of energy to draw on without sending an excessive amount of blood from the peripheral muscles to the gastrointestinal system. Ideal foods include a meal of oatmeal or toast, fruit such as bananas or berries, and some easily digested protein like eggs yolks and whites. Again the goal here is to provide the body with a special mix of protein and carbs without being too heavy. It is best to high-calorie meals like beef, potatoes, milk, meat, and high-fat dairy. Chris Algieri, MS, and Head Performance Nutrition Coach at Stony Brook University is also the nutritionist for a number of MMA Elites. Algieri states;
“Carbohydrates are the mainstay. It gives fighters sustained energy for the session.” Combat and sparring sessions can last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes where the fighters do not have time to stop and eat. They instead take hits to the gut and it is important that they have been primed with the right fuel beforehand.
Recovery - arguably the most important meal as it affects everything downstream of training. Recovery can be split into two phase, immediately following a sparring or training session and the hours between training session. Immediately finishing a bout, it is important to get a fast digesting source of protein in like whey isolates in the form of a shake or smoothie. While whey protein has been proven to be superior to other forms of protein in terms of muscle building, for those who are vegan or vegetarian, there are several excellent forms of protein that are based in peas, hemp, or soy. Ideally, men would stick to pea and hemp and avoid soy protein has it the potential to increase estrogen levels. The second half of recovery are the meals to follow a training session. This should ideally consist of all the high-calorie things that are avoided in the pre-workout meal. Eating grass-fed beef, wild caught salmon, shrimp, sushi, chicken, or high protein grains like quinoa are most important. The body will need a high level of protein to absorb and synthesis into muscle after the wear and tear from the day’s activities. And always the protein in these meals should be paired with healthy sides such as rice and vegetables, particularly dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and broccoli.
Nitrate-rich Liquids - in addition to the pre-workout meal, studies of shown athletes to benefit from a juice naturally rich in nitrates such as beet juice, pomegranate juice, or tart cherry juice. Drinking this approximately 90 minutes before training has a variety of benefits. First, these juices are naturally rich in fructose which converts to glucose and provides not only energy to the muscles but to the brain. Decisions on the mat are made in a literal blink of an eye and glucose is the brain’s primary source of energy. Having this prior to exercise will enable the fighter to think clearer and make better decisions. Second these juices are high in nitrates which are a natural vasodilator. So they act as a natural pre-workout supplement without the side effects. They naturally dilate blood vessels allowing for better oxygenation to the peripheral muscles which in turn results in hit harder and moving faster.
Healthy Fats - that are rich in omega-3s come from foods like salmon, avocados, almonds, fish oil supplements, brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds. The reason why there are so important is that these foods help with recovery, hormone balance, and joint health. Getting enough polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats to help the fighter feel more satiated and help improve sleep. But there is a balance and getting too much fat is counterproductive. It is also important to incorporate these fats in the recovery meal as they require significantly more blood to digest when co4. Healthy Fats - that are rich in omega-3s come from foods like salmon, avocados, almonds, fish oil supplements, brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds. The reason why there are so important is that these foods help with recovery, hormone balance, and joint health. Getting enough polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats to help the fighter feel more satiated and help improve sleep. But there is a balance and getting too much fat is counterproductive. It is also important to incorporate these fats in the recovery meal as they require significantly more blood to digest when compared to carbohydrates compared to carbohydrates.
Lastly, if you forget everything else written in this article, remember this rule:
“Eat as close to the natural state as possible.”
That means if you eat vegetables, try to eat them in their raw state or cooked. But eating cooked vegetables covered in batter, deep fried, dried out, and then solid in a vacuum sealed back; well that isn’t very close to the natural state. Avoid processed and refined foods when possible. There is a reason why greens that are considered the most vibrant and healthful vegetables, they are high in chlorophyll and related phytochemicals. The vegetables are in their natural state and those compounds help to optimize health and keep the martial artist strong physically and mentally.
When possible, buy food from a local farmer’s market, locally-sourced produce, or local farm. The fresher your food the more vital life force it still contains. The living body deserves living food. Start to consume probiotics which have living bacteria. Foods such as kombucha or kombucha are natural sources of healthy bacteria. Not only are these probiotics good for your gut, they aid in the digestion of other foods you consume to unleash more nutrients for absorption.
Don’t be overwhelmed with the many different options and ways to eat. If you follow the four basic rules above as well as trying to pick fresh, local foods when possible; your performance will be a cut above the rest. And when you become tempted to try diets like