No food, no water: How wrestlers 'cut weight' before the big events

India's Anshu Malik (L) competes during the Asian Wrestling Olympic Qualifier on April 10, 2021 in Kazakhstan. UWW/MB Media/Getty Images

On April 15, Anshu Malik threw an impromptu party for her friend Sonam Malik, who was turning 19. They were in Almaty, Kazakhstan, competing in the Asian Wrestling Championships, so the arrangements were modest -- just a small birthday cake. Almost the entire Indian squad turned up -- 20 wrestlers, men and women.

The group of athletes, however, baulked at taking even a bite of the half-kilo cake. "Sonam took a piece but no one else did. A few coaches had some but in the end most of it was left," Anshu recalls. She knew why, though: "Sonam's birthday was in the middle of the tournament. At that time no one was going to eat anything because everyone was cutting weight," says Anshu.

Cutting weight is a widespread practice in Olympic wrestling and indeed most sports with weight categories. Here's how it works: To try and fit into a lower weight category, athletes "cut" weight -- up to 10 per cent of their body mass -- in the couple of weeks before an event. The last 24 hours before the weigh-in is especially traumatic, as they try to squeeze out each gram of excess weight. After 'making weight' on the morning of their competition, they'll then try to recover that mass, usually by replacing fluids lost in the process.

The weight cut is only the first step to any possible success. "Just because you make weight doesn't mean you are going to win a medal," says Seema Bisla, who will be competing in the 50kg category in Tokyo. "Uska alag tension hai (that's another headache). Making weight is the price you pay merely to compete."

Once the competition is over, the cycle resumes - build up strength and muscle mass, then cut weight in the run-up to the next event.

Losing that much weight in just that much time is especially challenging for athletes who are already packed with lean muscle and a body fat percentage in the low single digits. "Forget eating sweets or chocolates, if I just eat normally for even 10 or 15 days, I'll weigh about 70kg," says Ravi Dahiya, who restricts himself to 61kg in order to compete in the men's 57kg division.

"There is a weight that's generally appropriate to your height," says Dr Munesh Kumar, a physiotherapist who has worked for the past few years with Olympic-bound wrestlers at Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium. "Weight ka khel hai (It's a game of weight) particularly in the lower weight class, when you know you are at a major disadvantage if you are lighter. Some of the Russian wrestlers weigh in for the 57kg category and then bulk up to around 64-65kg by the time of the bout."

Indeed, the weight cut is partially driven by the spread of the Olympic weight categories. For men, the categories start at 57kg and then increase by 8-12kg per category (the final jump is from 97kg to 125kg). So a wrestler would be competing against far heavier opponents unless he brings his weight down. The spread is less for women (3-4-5-6-8 kg between each of the categories) but the implications don't change much.

How it works

Athletes begin their weight cut a couple of weeks before their event. "For most wrestlers it's safer to bring down the weight gradually through a combination of diet and training," says Dr Kumar. "Instead of eating carbohydrates like roti, you switch to salads. At the same time, you do your regular workouts. Normally in a hard training session, wrestlers tend to lose about 1.5 and 2kg. But then, if you carefully monitor your nutrition and fluid intake, you will regain about 1800gm. So, you can safely lose about 200-300gm each day. About a day before your competition, you should weigh about 1 to 1.5kg above your target," he says.

Most wrestlers are used to this. "As the training increases, the diet goes down to almost nothing. Equal to nothing," says Bisla. "We have to train without anything in our stomachs."

"I find it easier to compete on the mat than do a weight cut. I'd rather compete in two more bouts if it means me not having to do a weight cut," says Anshu Malik.

The ability to endure a certain level of discomfort is something the sport self-selects at the elite level. "It's a mentality that you develop early on. Some people can't do it. But the athletes who are able to take that problem are the ones who get the discipline to make it to the top level," says Bisla.

"You can't even sleep and you can't even talk to anyone. There's food and water in front of you and you can't touch it. It's a different feeling. Only a wrestler can tell you how they get through that day." Ravi Dahiya

All of this, though, is nothing compared to the day before competition, when the final few litres of water have to be squeezed out from an already arid body. "The real challenge doesn't begin on the day of the competition but a day before," says Dahiya, who will compete in the 57kg division in Tokyo.

By this stage, the wrestlers' bodies have been rid of almost all possible excess weight; the only thing left is to remove excess water. Sweating is one option; wrestlers weigh themselves down with heavy hooded jackets and train in an effort to sweat out a few drops. Water intake almost comes to a halt as wrestlers push themselves to the edge of dehydration. "You think 'Hey bhagwan (god), just get me to the next day. Just make the next day come quickly. Then I'll get to drink so much water'" says Bisla.

"That's when things can get dangerous," says Dr Kumar.

As the body dehydrates, motor and mind functions become erratic, unusual. Even the most relaxed wrestler turns irritable. "When someone tells you you need to run a little bit, you feel like punching them," says Anshu Malik. "When you see others eating normally you feel like telling them to get out of the room." Some wrestlers even watch YouTube videos of people eating and drinking. "I'll look for pizza places. That's what I'm really looking forward to the day after my competition," Malik says.

Despite the exhaustion, even sleep becomes impossible. "You can't even sleep and you can't even talk to anyone. There's food and water in front of you and you can't touch it. It's a different feeling. Only a wrestler can tell you how they get through that day," says Dahiya.

It's when a friend or partner is most necessary. "It's very hard to do a weight cut on your own," says Dahiya. "There are times when a wrestler can get dizzy and collapse. At times you are so exhausted that you barely know what's going on around you. You don't even remember to pick up your jacket. You lose so many expensive items this way because you can't focus. You need someone around you to look out for you at this stage."

That support can form the basis of long-standing friendships. "When your body is down, you think chhod na (leave it), why should I do this? Then you need a support who motivates you and says 'no, you can do it'," says Anshu Malik. "One of the reasons Sonam and I are such good friends is that she has always been by my side during most of my competitions. She competes in a heavier weight division so she doesn't have to lose as much weight but she will support me. Sometimes I'll tell her 'Sonam, you don't have to stop your food or water. But she will do it anyway."

Nearly every wrestler has gone through a bad weight cut. In the Rome Ranking series in 2020, Deepak Punia had to lose 5kg on the day before his bout. "All the water in the body went out. I had severe muscle cramps because of the cut. In the end, my performance was zero. It was a terrible way to lose weight. I ran so much that my legs had no life in them for the bout. At that time we didn't have a physio with us, so I made a lot of bad decisions," he says.

Managing the recovery

Making weight safely involves a very delicate balance -- you take in just enough fluid to allow you to work out but not so much as to make you gain weight. Withhold nutrition and fluid intake beyond a certain limit and the body can very easily go into siege mode -- a state where it refuses to give up any more water.

Vinesh Phogat had it happen to her at the Asian qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics. Competing in the 48kg division, she simply couldn't drop the final kilo of water. "It just wouldn't happen. I tried everything. Finally, I stopped sweating. That's when I knew it wouldn't come down," Vinesh had said then. Eventually she failed to make weight for that tournament.

Wrestlers can go to desperate measures to shave off the final few grams. "There are all sorts of home remedies that I heard when I was young," says Bisla. "There were suggestions to drink tea (a diuretic), suck a lemon or have a bath with hot water. But that doesn't work very well. Once, in a junior tournament, there was this girl who had a really long braid and she cut it off. But all that hair only weighed about 30-40 grams so it was a waste."

Once you make weight, a few hours before your bout, there's the problem of recovery -- bringing the body's water levels back up to normal. Think of the body like a water soaked sponge. It's easy to squeeze out a wet sponge, but when water goes back in, it goes at the sponge's rate. You can't force water into it. "If you are dehydrated, you can't suddenly take in a lot of water," says Dr Kumar. "This wasn't such a problem in the past when your weigh-in happened one day before your bouts. You could recover overnight. Now the weigh-in happens on the day of the competition. If you drink too much too fast, the body won't accept it. You will vomit it out."

Even with the best practices though, not all recovery happens smoothly. Even though Vinesh Phogat moved up from the 48kg division to the 50kg category and now the 53kg division, she still admits she finds it hard to recover. "Over the course of the day, I'll slowly get enough water inside me. But for at least the first couple of bouts it will be difficult. It will be difficult to focus. Sometimes the opponent looks blurred because your eyes can't focus," she says.

No margin for error

In a process of fine margins, even the slightest variable can wreck plans. That's what happened to Seema Bisla at the Asian Olympic qualifiers in April this year. Flight disruptions caused by the pandemic meant the Indian team would reach Almaty on the day of the competition. "It was going to be impossible to lose weight one day before, so the only solution was to cut weight to 50kg before the team's flight," says her coach Paramdeep Singh. This meant that rather than recover quickly, Seema, who normally weighs about 56kg, had to bring her weight down to 50kg and then maintain it for two days. It was a terrible situation to be in, and it showed. "In Kazakhstan I didn't even know what was going on. I didn't even know where I was. I was trying my 100 percent in each bout but my body just wasn't responding. My heart was saying 'yes, I can do it', but neither my mind nor my body was supporting me," she says.

There can be more serious issues too. If you cut weight too drastically, you will end up having kidney issues in the long term, says Dr Kumar. An article published in Medicia - the peer reviewed scientific journal published by the Lithuanian University of health sciences, in May this year, declared that creatinine, blood urea nitrogen and urine-specific gravity values were significantly increased after Rapid Water Loss (RWL). This observation indicates that RWL caused dehydration and subsequent acute kidney damage despite various degrees of weight lost during the RWL phase, which can lead to adverse events in other body systems. The article concluded that RWL 'is associated with significant acute kidney damage in combat sport athletes. It seems that elevated biomarkers of kidney function can be primarily attributed to intentional dehydration, which is the culprit of rapid weight loss.'

"Anytime I see a boxer or wrestler constantly running in a zipped up jacket, I'll think of how much damage he's doing to his body." Vikas Krishan Yadav

At least one Indian Asian medallist has had to be admitted to the hospital in recent years for kidney issues caused by weight cuts. For women athletes, hormonal changes can occur. Sometimes even death can occur. In 1997, three USA collegiate wrestlers made national headlines, dying from the same cause - weight cutting within 33 days of each other. In all three cases, the students experienced dehydration resulting in hypothermia after they layered on clothes and did endless workouts in heated rooms. Unfortunately, they out-worked their bodies. The perspiration they produced cooled them to the point of hypothermia resulting in heart attacks and kidney failure, all common effects of extreme weight cutting.

There is also a serious risk of injury during competition - something that's happened to several athletes, including at the Olympics. "Our joints, knee, ankle have a joint position sense called properception," Dr Kumar explains. "If I say close your eyes and raise your ankle towards your head by 20 degrees, you will be able to do it. You aren't seeing it but you know it. But that properception depends on blood flow. So when you are dehydrated, that properception will not be accurate. That causes delayed reaction. So, when your joint is being pulled in one direction, you have a delayed reaction in pulling back if you are dehydrated. By the time you react to the stimulus, your joint has already moved beyond what it is capable of and you pick up an injury."

Just saying no

For some athletes the advantage of forcing their bodies to a lighter weight division eventually isn't worth it. Boxing's Vikas Krishan Yadav used to compete in the 60kg division, but after a particularly brutal weight cut sent him to the hospital, he has refused to even attempt curtailing his weight since - he moved up to the 69kg and subsequently 75kg division. He's now competing in the 69kg division once again - a process that he manages simply through heavier training. "Anytime I see a boxer or wrestler constantly running in a zipped up jacket, I'll think of how much damage he's doing to his body," he says.

Vinesh too made the decision to move up to the 53kg division, after realising the cut to 50kg was having too much of an impact on performance. "Biggest relief to me was that I could finally eat a little normally," she says.

Others don't have that option. Ravi Dahiya's Instagram handle is RaviDahiya60 - a hint of what he considers his ideal competition weight. "I made it when I was a junior. But there isn't any 60kg division at the Olympics. So I had to bring my weight down. I still consider myself lucky that there's at least a 57kg division. In the past there used to be a 55kg division and there was no way I would have been able to make that weight," says Dahiya who is unlikely to stay in the category for much longer after the Olympics.

Bisla too wasn't always in the 50kg division. Indeed, her ideal weight class would have been the women's 53kg category. Once Vinesh decided she was moving up, there was no option for Bisla but to make her way down.

That was how it had been for Anshu Malik too. "In the cadets I used to compete in 59kg and 61kg category so when I first brought it down to 57kg, it was very hard. I always knew that eventually I had to compete in this but the first time I brought it down I recall thinking, I'm never doing this again, whatever happens, just carry me to the mat and get it over with," she says.

But Anshu has made several weight cuts since that first time and even though it never gets any easier, she's more than willing to put herself through it. While a bad weight cut is a painful experience, when done correctly it puts the athlete at an advantage. "When everything goes right, you feel like you can take on anyone," she says.

"Who doesn't want to be comfortable? Weight loss is another mindset, and when we go to the competition, it's a different mindset. We just think somehow I have to get the weight down but finally the goal is to get a medal. When you are really struggling, you remember how good food and water taste. But then I remember the feeling of winning a medal. That is probably the great feeling for me. When I think of what it would feel to wear a medal on the podium, it all seems worth it," she says.

Ultimately, the 556gms you could win - the weight of an Olympic medal - compensates for all the weight you've lost, all the agony you've been through.