Dehydration in Contact Sports: The Risks

Despite the health warnings and detrimental effect on performance associated with rapid weight reduction, boxers and other weight category athletes, continue to use unsound weight loss techniques to make weight, including: forced sweating, self-induced dehydration, starvation, and pathogenic methods such as diuretics and laxatives.

Sweat suits, forced sweating and saunas have been part of boxing culture since weight categories were introduced. Traditionally boxers have worn rubber or plastic garments and multiple layers of clothing to encourage excessive sweating. And despite the health warnings associated with the use of diuretics, laxatives and vomiting, such practises are still being used by weight-class athletes and boxers to shed unwanted pounds.

Rapid weight reduction methods that induce dehydration have significant physiological consequences. Studies have shown that plasma, blood volumes and oxygen consumption are lowered; cardiac function is reduced; the thermoregulatory process that controls body temperature is impaired; and the volume of blood flow to, and fluid filtered by, the kidneys is decreased. Researchers have also identified psychological problems associated with rapid weight loss, including mood alterations, and increased anger, anxiety and fatigue.

In addition to the detrimental effect on performance, considerable health risks are associated with induced dehydration. Studies on weight-class athletes who resort to such methods showed increased excretion of the enzyme leucine aminopeptidase – an indicator of kidney damage, and raised levels of calcium and oxalate excretion which can lead to kidney stones. Extensive use of diuretics can cause hypokalaemia and metabolic acidosis which increases the risk of sever cardiac disorders; and the frequent use of laxatives is associated with a wide variety of problems of the gastrointestinal tract, such as colonic peristalsis and bleeding.

Tests have shown that dehydration can cause changes in the volume of intra-cranial compartments – increasing the risk of brain damage from bruising after head injuries, with researchers stating that ‘some sportsmen and women e.g., boxers, rugby players, and footballers are especially vulnerable to serious head injuries whilst dehydrated’. And a study into the impact of hydration and energy intake on performance suggested that if ‘body water loss exceeds 6% or more of body weight, severe cramp, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, coma or even death should be expected’.

It’s clear that rapid weight reduction, and the methods used to achieve it, is a practice that’s not only detrimental to performance, but also presents a considerable risk to the athlete’s health and well-being.

Words: IM

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