Good nutrition plays an essential role for any athletic endeavour. Unfortunately, as I am sure that many amateur martial artists will agree, we are provided with little information about what, how much or how to eat. Not the best situation to be in; especially in a sport where poor preparation can have dire physical consequences. Imagine broken bones, bleeding noses and many types of head injury.
First, a little bit about me. Hopefully, this will help you to understand the particular challenges that I face and how your personal situation may relate to this. I train primarily in striking arts: american style kick-boxing and Muay Thai at present, which I have been doing for just under a decade. I like to compete, but only at an amateur level. Unfortunately, I also like to eat... a lot. In fact, the entire reason I started martial arts training was to lose weight. Martial arts is my hobby, I also have a busy nine to five job.
For me, an ideal martial arts diet would be one that:
1. Allows me to achieve my optimum body type
2. Provides sufficient energy to maximise my martial training and competition
3. Is intuitive to follow
4. Promotes long-term health.
That's quite a list! So let's start with body type. Imagine Bruce Lee, George St Pierre or any other competitive fighter you can think of. What do their body types have in common? Lean muscle: strong and fat-free. One could propose that a male fighter should aim for a body fat of less than 8-10% and a female, less than 12-18%. One can estimate body fat using a variety of tools such as bio-electrical impendance devices and ultrasound devices.
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So what type of diet will help me to achieve the lean, effective body that I need for martial arts? A diet can be defined as the sum of food consumed by a person or organism. We are all on a diet of some sort, unfortunately, few of us have put much thought into what that diet contains!
There are many fad diets which come into and out of fashion. I have divided them simply into the low carbohydrate diets: think Dukan, Paleo and Atkins diets; traditional diets like the Mediterranean and Nordic Nutritional recommendations.
In order to compare these different diets effectively, we need to know a little bit about nutrition. There are three basic macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. The energy provided by these macro-nutrients can be expressed as calories. This is simply the amount of energy the substance would provide if we let it burn! All macro-nutrients are not created equal!
1g of Carbohydrates: 4 calories
1g of Protein: 4 calories
1g of Fat: 9 calories
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Let's add a few more basic rules to these numbers. The calorific requirement for a typical male is 15 calories per pound of body weight. So a 170 pound male would require 2550 calories to maintain the same weight. Moreover, 4000 calories corresponds to one pound of fat. Using these rules, we can estimate how many calories we need to consume per day to maintain or lose weight. I personally recommend the use of a tracking application to handle these details for you. I use the myFitnessPal mobile application.
So now that we know the basics, which diet should we choose? Many studies have been conducted on this issue. Some of the latest meta-analysis (studies that combine other research done), have suggested that for the low carbohydrate diets (e.g. Paleo diet), fat loss may be less than with other methods. However, this fat loss eventually slows down to match other diet types. In fact, the most important thing that the studies found, was that it is the adherence to the diet, not the diet itself that matters most!
What does this mean for you? You should choose a diet which you are able to follow consistently. I personally follow a Paleo type diet model. This is also the diet type recommended by Crossfit athletes (a discipline with similarities to martial arts). It works, for me, but may not necessarily be the best for you, if you are unable or unwilling to follow it. Anything is better than nothing.
So, how can you stick to a particular diet type. Tracking, tracking, tracking! You can't measure what you can't manage. What you measure does not manage too much, as long as it has some relation to what you're trying to achieve.
If you're trying to lose weight before a competition, I would suggest monitoring your weight, body fat percentage and anthropometrics (waist circumference, hip circumference and neck circumference).
If you're trying to increase strength in the non-competitive phase of your training, track your one rep maximum for your key maximal strength exercises.
If you're trying to improve your cardio, keep a journal after sparring sessions or track your resting heart rate. Imagination is the only limit to what can be monitored.
So in conclusion, a few simple rules for the aspiring martial artist:
1. The best diet is one you can follow consistently.
2. Keep track of what you eat
3. Keep track of what you're trying to achieve
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