‘It's not just a hobby’ for Pat Ryan: the effects of weight cutting in wrestling
The dangerous practice can cause short- and long-term effects
Editor's note: This article discusses weight cutting and may be triggering to people who suffer from eating disorders. People suffering can contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at (800)931-2237. This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.
It’s two hours before a dual meet. American University wrestlers are in the locker room with weigh-ins minutes away. The wrestlers’ nagging hunger and no-nonsense attitudes leave no room for chatter. There’s no loud hype music or team chants. It’s just a team of men silently waiting their turn to step on the scale. Weigh-ins commence as the wrestlers strip off their clothes and form a line. Weigh-ins are a simple process, yet what seems like a mundane formality of the sport is the culmination of hours of dedication and tough work.
“Nobody, no matter how you explain to someone, will ever understand how it feels to cut 20 pounds in a month for wrestling unless they’ve actually done it,” AU wrestler Pat Ryan said.
Ryan, a sophomore wrestling at 141 pounds, has one of the more difficult cuts on the team. He’s wrestling down a weight class since All-American senior Kizhan Clarke occupies the 149-pound spot. Ryan, whose natural weight is around 165 pounds, plans out his weight cut a week before weigh-ins.
“Say we have a Friday weigh-in. The goal is to come in on Monday at most 10 pounds over,” Ryan said. “Sometimes it’s a little more. Two days before you want to be eight over. For the day before, the goal is like five over. For those last five pounds, I’ll throw on some extra layers for practice. That should get me there.”
Sweating out five pounds is easy for wrestlers. The most Ryan has ever sweated out at practice is eight pounds, and he’s seen guys lose up to 10. But the athletes’ commitment to wrestling is more than practicing hard and shedding out water weight. Time management and scheduling are paramount for wrestlers. Wrestlers have to be smart about how wrestling coincides with their other responsibilities. Ryan, for instance, front loads courses in the fall since he knows he’ll have to make weight more often in the spring.
“It’s hard to get through practice wanting something to eat or drink and then come home and sit through a two-and-a-half-hour class," Ryan said. "You have to be smart about it. You have to strategize on how you’re gonna get things done. ... On any given day, I’ll wake up at 6 a.m., I'll get an hour-and-a-half lift in. Then I’ll have a two-hour mat workout. Then every weekend we’re on the road. That takes up a lot of time that’s not even devoted to weight cutting.”
Weight cutting has been a part of NCAA wrestling since its inception in 1928. In response to three weight-cutting-related deaths in 1997, the NCAA instituted the hydration test, a pre-season test administered to ensure wrestlers don’t dehydrate themselves throughout the season.
For the test, the wrestler steps on a scale and pees in a cup. The NCAA records the weight and tests the urine to see if the wrestler is hydrated enough. If he is, the wrestler is certified to compete for the season. The NCAA then determines the lowest weight the wrestler can safely compete. The idea is to identify the lightest weight a wrestler can be without dehydrating himself. Michael Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, said previously that he wasn’t aware of any weight-cutting related deaths since 1997. But wrestlers are still practicing harmful methods of weight cutting.
“In my opinion, I don’t think the test is enforced very strictly,” Ryan said. “And that’s why I still think you see really unhealthy weight cutting in college wrestling.”
But just how damaging is unhealthy weight cutting? Dr. Trina Ulrich, a professorial lecturer in AU’s Department of Health Studies who teaches Sports Nutrition and Changes in Health Behavior, said there are many detrimental effects.
“Usually when people fast, they lose their glycogen storage. The glycogen is a stored product that creates energy,” Ulrich said. “When people dehydrate themselves to make weight and then also fast on top of that, they’re losing water from the glycogen deficiency and dehydration. That can lead to kidney failure and heart problems. Those can happen short-term or as chronic diseases later in life.”
There are other long-term consequences besides organ failure. There’s a correlation between cutting weight and eating disorders, including bulimia and binge-eating, according to Ulrich. She said in the short-term, wrestlers who cut a lot essentially starve themselves through food deprivation and dehydration.
“If they’re dehydrated, it’s not good for their nutrient absorption,” Ulrich said. "If you imagine that a dehydrated person ate an apple, the vitamins and minerals in the apple won’t be suspended in liquid very much because they don’t have as much liquid in their body. Therefore, that apple won’t be optimally absorbed.”
Ulrich said the short-term effects of malnourishment don’t stop there.
“When we have decreased glucose or glycogen from not eating, it affects the central nervous system. The central nervous system is primarily fueled by glucose. And that glucose primarily comes from broken-down carbohydrates. ... So when we decrease the fuel that feeds our central nervous system, we experience brain fog, irritability and fatigue.”
Ulrich has taught wrestlers before in her class. She said she can tell when they’re cutting by their general look of fatigue.
But if Ryan had the choice to end weight cutting in the sport, he wouldn’t.
“You have to continue letting weight cutting be a thing,” he said. “Just focus on educating the athlete on the dangers of doing it incorrectly.”
Ryan believes it’s too ingrained in the sport to stop now. Wrestlers take pride in the extreme lengths they will go to to make weight.
If the mental and physical effects of weight cutting were easy to deal with, more wrestlers would cut weight. So if you have a class with a wrestler, let them know you understand why no one makes a sound at weigh-ins. Wrestlers take making weight seriously. Especially starved, irritable wrestlers.