Food Fight: Nutrition for Professional Fighters

Jacqueline Kaminski
Jacqueline Kaminski
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First things first: food gives you energy. Without energy, you can't perform. As in any sport, food powers your workouts and helps you recover afterward. Without proper nourishment, you will fail to improve any aspect of your training regimen.For combat athletes, nutrition is probably the most crucial aspect of their daily routine. Why? Because combat athletes are not only required to compete at the highest levels, but they must do so while making weight—and the biggest factor in a successful weight cut (regardless of the fighting discipline) is nutrition.

However, as any sports nutrition coach will tell you, nutrition needs to be incorporated into a combat athlete's daily routine year-round.

Here's why. 

Nutrition for Fighters During Off-season/In-between camps

This part of a fighter's training season is probably the most overlooked and the most important. Too many times combat athletes take this time to enjoy the foods they've avoided for weeks or months. While there is nothing wrong with a little self-indulgence, and uncontrolled diet can add substantial weight in no time at all.

This practice of constant weight-cycling increases the time fighters spend trying to drop pounds before competition instead of focusing on performance. In worst-case scenarios, it also can lead to eating disorders and increase the risk of injury.

Periods between fight camps are the best time to allow your body to recover and put yourself back in an energy balance—meaning you are adequately replacing calories lost during exercise. This includes a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats.

Promoting recovery and maintaining energy balance can be easily achieved with these simple guidelines:

3 Steps for Recovery and maintaining energy balance for fighters

#1 Consume adequate carbohydrates before training

Eating a mix of simple and complex carbs before training is going to give your muscles the fuel they need to perform for long durations and high intensities.

It is recommended that athletes engaged in serious training - multiple workouts per day - should consume 5-8g carbohydrates/kg body weight/day. Examples include oatmeal, fruit, whole-grain bagel + jelly, granola bars.

#2 Consume a rich source of protein and carbohydrates after every training session to promote muscle recovery

Ideally, 20-30g of protein should be consumed. Examples include a protein shake + piece of fruit, beef jerky + tangerines, Greek yogurt.

#3 Consume adequate fluids

The rule of thumb is to replace 150% of fluids lost after training or 16-24oz for every pound lost. The best method for this is to weigh yourself before and after training, and also check the color of your urine!

Tip: You want your urine to be a light, lemonade color. The use of electrolyte powder and sugar solutions/drinks can be useful to help replace fluids lost during exercise.

Build meals to match your training

High-Intensity Training Days:

Make half your plate carbohydrates such as rice, beans, or sweet potato. Carbohydrates provide the most efficient fuel for high-intensity exercise bouts and will also aid in muscle recovery.

This is especially important for multiple training sessions in a day. Make ¼ of the plate fruits and vegetables to promote intake of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to decrease inflammation. Make ¼ of the plate protein (20-30g) for optimal muscle recovery.

Low-Intensity Training/Rest days

Since less energy is expended on these days, less energy in the form of carbohydrates is needed to fuel daily activities. Fill half the plate with fruits and non-starchy vegetables to promote intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Additionally, increasing fiber intake will promote satiety and help with weight maintenance. Make a ¼ of the plate whole grains or healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, peanut butter, hummus). Make ¼ of the plate a lean protein to promote muscle recovery and increase satiety.

To reiterate, in-between camps is the best time to restore your energy levels, allow your body to recover, and focus on building up strength and power. The nutrition focus during this time should be a balance—always making sure you're providing your body with plenty of energy to train and recover.

Nutrition Prepping for Fight Camp

As mentioned previously, combat sports are very demanding in terms of energy requirements. However, without proper nourishment, the body will fail to perform at a high level.

Even during fight camp, the 6–8-week period where an individual is training for an upcoming event, a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is still needed. However, nutrient timing will be key since carbohydrates and fats will be limited in some capacity to initiate weight loss.

To perform at a high intensity and still achieve a healthy rate of weight loss, follow these guidelines:

Nutrition Guidelines for Fight Camp

    • Consume at a minimum of 30-60g of carbohydrates 1 hour before exercise to increase energy availability toward the end of an exhaustive workout and prevent early fatigue.

    • Consume carbohydrates within the first couple hours after training to restore muscle glycogen, promote recovery, reduce muscle soreness, and have energy storage for training sessions later in the day. Depending on the intensity and duration of your workout you should aim to achieve a 1:1, 2:1, or 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (using 30g of protein as the reference point).

    • Protein will be the single most important macronutrient to aid in weight loss, promote recovery, maintain strength, and prevent significant loss of lean tissue. Combat athletes should aim to consume their body weight in protein per day or 2.2g/kg of body weight. Ideally, 20-40 g of protein should be consumed as soon as possible after exercise, and again about every three to four hours to preserve muscle tissues and promote recovery.

Combat athletes should aim to consume at least 1g/kg of healthy fats per day to combat inflammation and promote recovery.

Nutrition for Fight Day

Fight day nutrition will be very similarly structured to a hard training day. What is required during a hard training day to achieve peak performance? Carbohydrates!

A large emphasis on carbohydrates is needed to top off glycogen levels in your muscles to have enough energy available for a good fight.

Nutritional Guidelines for Fight Day

• Within an hour of waking up, make your first meal a rich source of protein, carbohydrates in the form of starches or fruit, and even a little fat to create a balanced plate. Protein is important to rebuild and restore muscle tissues, carbohydrates are needed to fully saturate glycogen stores, and fats will help slow the digestion of the other foods and keep you full for a longer period.

• 3-4 hours before your event consume a mixed meal of 20-30g protein, 60-90g of carbohydrates, and minimal fat. Minimal fat is desired at this time because the fat will delay the absorption of carbohydrates into the muscles. Ideally, the goal is to maximize carbohydrate absorption.

• 1 hour before participating in a high-intensity event, it is recommended to consume 1g/kg of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates in the form of drinks, powders, or simple starches like cereal will be preferred since these carbohydrates digest and absorb very quickly. Ideally, a small snack of 60g of carbohydrates should suffice.

Overall, energy requirements for combat athletes will vary largely depending on their height, weight, and training schedule. While combat sports are weight-based, significantly decreasing food intake/skipping meals to elicit weight loss is not advisable. Extreme dieting and weight cutting practices can lead to serious health consequences and severely damage performance potential.

A large majority of energy deficits will come from training, and therefore combat athletes need to consume food regularly to ensure they are getting adequate nutrients to maintain health, promote training, and prevent injury.

The Author

Jacqueline Kaminski

Jacqueline Kaminski

Jackie Kaminski is a registered dietitian/ nutritionist with a Master's degree in Exercise Physiology & Sports Nutrition from Florida State University. Her first introduction to working with professional athletes was back in 2017 when she worked at the UFC performance institute in Las Vegas, Nevada. Since then, Jackie has worked with various professional fighters and other clientele and now operates under her company she started back in March, The Fight Nutritionist LLC. The Fight Nutritionist is dedicated to providing the most effective nutrition plans to ensure her athletes are performance at their absolute best. All of her plans are individualized to the athlete and are backed by the latest research to ensure complete safety and efficacy. Jackie is also a member of the international society of sports nutrition, where she often participates in different research projects and data collection with other ISSN members from Nova University. When Jackie isn’t working, you can find her at Combat Club where she trains kickboxing and Muy Thai. As a sports dietitian, Jackie’s aim is to provide her athletes with the necessary fuel to excel in training and provide the proper education to ensure her athletes are engaging in the safest health practices (as they relate to combat sports). You can find her on LinkedIn here.


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