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Pre-competition habits and injuries in Taekwondo athletes Part 5

Pre-competition habits and injuries in Taekwondo athletes

Part 5

By: Mohsen Kazemi author, Heather Shearer and Young Su Choung

Over the past decade, there has been heightened interest in injury rates sustained by martial arts athletes, and more specifically, Taekwondo athletes. Despite this interest, there is a paucity of research on pre-competition habits and training of these athletes. The purpose of this pilot study was to assess training characteristics, competition preparation habits, and injury profiles of Taekwondo athletes.


Weight cycling

Not surprisingly, more than half of the competitors in the current study dieted prior to competition in order to make their weight class. Although the questionnaire did not specifically define fasting, the subsequent question provided several categories of fasting, such as "did not eat and drink", "did not drink but eat", and so on. Even with the lack of a clear definition for fasting, fifty percent of the participants reported having completely restricted food intake, while 33% fully restricted food and liquids. Because of the nature of this tournament setting, it was not feasible to weigh athletes prior to their competition. As such, the authors were not able to report actual weight loss occurrence among the athletes. Future studies should focus on intended and actual weight loss among Taekwondo athletes in order to better capture the occurrence of weight cycling in the sport.


Rapid weight loss is a common practice among athletes in weight class sports. Hall and Lane [10] reported that their boxing subjects lost an average of 5.16% of their body weight within one week. Along with weight loss, subjects reported higher anger, fatigue, and tension, as well as reduced vigor. Participants were able to maintain their baseline performance of circuit training when at the reduced weight, although the scores were significantly lower than the athletes expected. It can be postulated that athletes have a misplaced sense of improved strength and performance capabilities when weight cycling for competition. Unfortunately, these views may be reinforced if a weight cycling athlete wins a competition, thus increasing the likelihood of using the strategies in the future. In a study by Alderman et al. [11] examining the prevalence of and weight loss techniques used by high school wrestlers, more successful wrestlers engaged in rapid weight loss (RWL) versus less successful wrestlers. This further reinforces the use of RWL among young competitors.


What is particularly striking are the methods used to induce rapid weight loss. Among high school wrestlers, excessive running was used by almost 92% of individuals practicing RWL. Exercising in rubber/plastic suits and using saunas are prohibited in American high school wrestling, but they continued to be used by 40–60% of wrestlers to achieve RWL [11]. Thirty-six percent of respondents in the current study did aerobic exercise in addition to dieting to make their weight, but specific activities were not asked for in the survey.


Many short terms and long term side effects have been reported with rapid weight loss. Alderman et al. [11] reported multiple symptoms experienced by collegiate weight cycling wrestlers. Over 46% of participants experienced headaches, while over 44% and 42% experienced dizziness and nausea, respectively. Other symptoms included hot flashes, nosebleeds, feverish sensations, disorientation, and increased heart rate. Wenos and Amato [15] reported that college-level wrestlers also experienced an increased perception of effort as muscle strength and endurance decreased with rapid weight loss.


Fogelholm et al. [9] studied the effects of gradual versus rapid weight loss in national wrestlers and judo athletes on nutrient intake, micronutrient status, and physical performance (sprint, jump height, and anaerobic performance). A 5% to 6% reduction in body weight was reported in the gradual and rapid loss groups. Nutrient intake was significantly decreased in both groups in B1, B2, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, and Zn values, compared to baseline measures. Speed, vertical jump, and anaerobic performance were not impaired by either rapid or gradual weight loss. Other studies have also reported that despite nutrient depletion, the performance of Olympic level amateur boxers during rapid weight loss was not significantly different versus times of normal dietary behavior. These authors concluded that despite reduced carbohydrate intake, there were other sufficient energy sources to meet performance demands [16]. In contrast, Filare et al. [12] reported that all mean micronutrient intakes were below recommended values, while triglyceride levels and free fatty acids were increased in weight cycling judo athletes. Left-hand grip values and 30-second jump test output were decreased after seven days of food restriction.


By reviewing the literature, some might argue that the evidence of health risks from weight cycling is equivocal. Even so, there are several possibilities that may help explain the lack of supporting data. One possibility is that there may be no effect. Another proposed by Waslen, McCargar, and Taunton [17], is that the duration, frequency, and severity of food restriction among the judo athletes in their study may not have been sufficient to have an effect. Even with a lack of strong support to illustrate the ill effects of weight cycling, monitoring dietary habits of athletes in weight class sports is recommended. It is more prudent to assume that larger weight losses and more frequent dieting could potentially result in negative physiological and performance consequences. Widespread regulations need to be implemented to control weight cycling practices among weight class sports. Athletes need to be educated regarding the negative effects of the practice on both their health and performance.


Psychological state/support

Support is often key to athletes at higher levels of competition. The current authors examined athlete support by significant others. The majority of athletes reported receiving support from either their parents or spouse/partner. Unfortunately, the questionnaire used in this study did not delve into the various aspects of psychological state or support. In this pilot study, respondents were simply asked "Are your parents supportive of your involvement in Taekwondo?" and "Is your spouse or significant other supportive of your involvement in Taekwondo?" It is obvious that neither of these questions addresses the various components involved in support. Future studies need to be more specific in questioning the types and level of support provided to athletes, whether it be emotional, financial, or other various forms of support. As such, these results are of little contributive value. It should be noted that although a large percentage of the athletes felt prepared for the competition, they also reported being nervous. The significance of anxiety and other personality traits in competitive sport has long been studied. It has been reported that winning Taekwondo athletes had lower cognitive and somatic anxiety and higher self-confidence than their losing counterparts [18]. Others found no support for the relationship between competition trait anxiety and Taekwondo performance [19]. Even so, for ultimate personal success, athletes often require a strong support base. This encompasses a sense of understanding, trust, and support from the trainer, and significant others.


In weight class sports, the potential effects of weight cycling must also be kept in mind. As noted above, several studies have reported deleterious effects associated with rapid weight loss. These effects may involve one's mental status. Filaire et al. [12] reported that confusion, anger, fatigue, and tension were significantly higher after weight loss. Vigor was also significantly lower after food restriction. Thus, when considering the psychological preparedness of an athlete, multiple factors must be measured.


There are a few limitations in the present study which need to be addressed. The most obvious methodological issue in this study is that the questionnaire has not been validated. There is very little reported research regarding precompetition habits among Taekwondo athletes. As such, the authors felt it necessary to develop the questionnaire, knowing that there would be issues with its validity. Because this is a pilot study, the results from this study should be used with caution and as a means to enhance future studies in this area. In addition, the small sample size significantly affected the statistical analysis. No correlations were significant and thus specific conclusions regarding associations between training behaviors and injuries could not be made. The response rate was low, likely due to the fact the participants were asked to complete the surveys upon entering the tournament building. Athletes may have neglected to complete or return the surveys because of lack of time or feeling that it was not a priority prior to their match. Also, a self-report retrospective survey may be affected by poor recall and perception bias. For example, the recall of more severe and painful injuries would likely be better than that of minor injuries/trauma. The survey was also completed at a competition, thus those who were injured and not participating were already selected out. With respect to the information gained regarding weight cycling, actual weights were not taken. It would have been more informative to weigh the athletes at the mat just prior to their match and compare the result with that of their tournament weigh-in. As mentioned previously, the questionnaire used in this pilot study was vague regarding several concepts. Key definitions were not provided on the questionnaire. Future studies should ensure that all concepts are clearly defined in order to reduce subject confusion and hopefully avoid missing responses or poor response rates.



The results of this pilot study are primarily descriptive. Even so, they highlight specific training habits and injuries among Taekwondo athletes. Although this pilot study examined a variety of pre-competition habits, it is evident that there are several specific areas which require more in-depth investigation. In order for safety recommendations to be implemented, it is likely that clear relationships will need to be demonstrated. Specifically, the physical effects of weight cycling on performance and improved training to avoid injury need to be examined. Athlete's perceptions and belief systems surrounding weight cycling, social support, and injury reporting are all topics in need of further investigation. As such, follow-up research on the relationship of pre-competition habits and injuries in Taekwondo athletes is necessary.