Every year when springtime came around, the only thing I had in mind was what within just a couple of months: summer. Growing up in New York, we had distinct seasons, but the winters (and transitions between fall to winter and winter to spring) seemed to last way too long. Winters fill me with dread as I think about gray skies, sloshing through dirty snow, getting my socks wet and feet cold. The thought of the unforgiving soft howl of the wind and the cold piercing through my skin and to my bones still makes me cringe as I write this from my apartment in Bangkok.
The best way to describe myself and my relationship with the cold is that I’m just not someone who’s built for cold weather. As someone whose mood and mental health drastically declined with the temperatures, it was only natural for me to want to take advantage of the heat and sun whenever possible. As a teenager, I walked to and from work, 25 minutes each way, even if it meant me turning up sweaty and red-faced. I played handball, a popular NYC sport, from morning ’til night during summer breaks. I went for runs in the middle of the day during heatwaves. I sat under the sun, when the weather permitted, enjoying the sun’s rays tickling my skin (sometimes I would go to the beach just for this). I slept with covers and no fan or air conditioning. When it got too cold to spend too much time outdoors, I sat in the gym sauna for hours after working out. Hot pools, hot showers, hot places – anywhere where the heat was, I was as well. I truly enjoyed the feeling of heat and the sweating that ensued (and I still do!), and gladly declared to anyone who asked that I’d rather burn to death than freeze to death.
Then, I started fighting Muay Thai.
With fighting comes making weight, and with making weight comes cutting weight. Cutting weight is very different than from general weight loss. Weight loss is through diet, getting one’s “walking weight” lower. A weight cut involves purely water loss via dehydration and/or water manipulation methods. For my first amateur fight, I had to cut 5 pounds of water. Being it was my first experience with weight cutting, I seemed to take all the advice and try to do it all. I started the cut off the night before weigh ins, filling my bathtub with boiling hot water, Epsom salt, and wintergreen rubbing alcohol. I lied in the tub with just my head above water. When I heard that people cut weight by sitting in a hot bath, I thought, Wow, easy! That sounds amazing! Actually doing it, not so much. Not even five minutes sitting in the water, panic started settling in. Why does this feel so unpleasant? Why do I want to get out of the water and never return? I thought this was going to be a piece of cake! I got out of the water, sat on the bathroom floor with the towel over me, wondering why that heat was creeping up my neck and making me feel stressed out. I took a few deep breaths and re-entered the tub. I sat it in it one more time for about five minutes, then drained the bathtub. I couldn’t understand why sitting in hot water, something I usually loved to do, felt so unnatural.
The next day, I applied Albolene on myself, put on a few layers of sweaters, donned my sauna suit and went for a jog. I felt the sweat pooling inside the suit where my forearms were and my socks were getting uncomfortably wet. My shoes started squeaking with every step I took. It had only been 15 minutes. I went home, feeling listless and drained. What is happening to me? I took many naps until it was time to go to weigh-ins. My sleep was interrupted by my thirst craving for something cold to drink and the dreaded feeling of, Why am I putting myself through this? I never want to do this again. I eventually weighed in (2 pounds under), and after I rehydrated, it was like my willpower came back. After getting my fill of electrolyte drinks, it was like what I just went through was in the distant past and all that mattered was the fight.
Living in Thailand, I haven’t done any hot bath techniques to cut weight because, well, I don’t have a bathtub. My first few fights here, I enjoyed what relaxed weight attitude with fights that had no weigh-ins. We were matched up by weight range and skill/experience, and the fight was on. But those shows are generally low level and exhaust one’s options pretty quick, so I eventually was asked to fight on bigger shows against better people. These shows, of course, require fighters to weigh in. And, if you haven’t noticed, Thailand is hot. In Bangkok, its temperature is, on average, 30-32°C (86-90°F). During its hottest months of February to May, it can get up to 37-40°C (98.6-104°F). And, keep in mind that Thailand is always humid, which means it always feels much hotter than it is.
Thai style of cutting weight is to cut over 3-4 days, running with the sauna suit on in the morning and afternoon. I typically cut this way with some of my own adjustments that have worked extremely well for me. My first six months living in Bangkok, I remember taking walks every other day to the supermarket or convenience store at noon, when the sun was high and nobody was out due to the heat. After cutting weight several times “Thai style”, that quickly changed.
Running at 7:30 am the first day of the cut isn’t too bad. The air is cool and the sun is out. Running is bearable and you work up a steady sweat. But, running at 2:00 pm is an entirely different animal. This is when the temperature is almost at its peak of the day. The sun feels larger than usual at this time and I always feel it beating down my back, instantly heating up any part of the sauna suit exposed to the light, to the point where my skin feels like it’s scalding. This is further amplified during Thailand’s summer months. Run, walk, run, walk. When my timer for 30-45 minutes goes off, I drag my tired body back to the gym. My legs barely work as I try to climb the stairs to where the scale is. I sit down, feeling the ringing in my ears and my heart trying to bump my viscous blood. Muscle cramps, in places where I didn’t know I could cramp, start to happen. I cry because it hurts, and because I’m tired and thirsty and everyone is asking me questions. How much weight do you have to lose? What does your weight have to be? When are you weighing in? When are you fighting? This is all like clockwork, almost every single weight cut. Every single day, twice a day, it was run, sweat, feel like dying, have to answer repetitive questions, and cry. Rinse and repeat. By the very last day of the cut, the afternoon before weigh-ins, everything about running, the heat, and even social interaction, becomes a chore. Every fiber of my being had to be forced and grit through the last run, and once I knew that was my last run, that WAS my last run. Even if I finish the run overweight, I don’t care. I go to sleep and hope I’m on weight in the morning.
There was one time when a promoter walked into the gym during training hours and was looking for fighters for a show that was taking place in just seven days. I was put in for my regular fighting weight, a week out. During that month, I had struggled a lot mentally, not being able to get fights and feeling a loss of purpose. This led to inconsistent running and training for about a month. Jumping into a short term, intense, fight camp, I struggled really hard that weight cut. Being a female, weight and bloating and water retention were already unpredictable as they were, and now, I had to force myself to lose 3.5kg on short notice. Every run in the Thai heat and humidity, I came back with my ears ringing to the point where I could barely think. My ab and hip flexor muscles cramped. My fingers cramped. My toes cramped. It was so painful. I cried so hard when fellow fighters tried to massage the cramps out, straightening my fingers that were stubbornly in a dinosaur-claw position and rubbing my legs. I tried to stand up and almost collapsed. Two foreigners were, thankfully, there to help carry me to the edge of the ring. This was the worst weight cut I had ever gone through, and I still ended up missing weight. (This was the first and ONLY time I’ve missed weight.)
Over time, I noticed how my preferences changed. I no longer wanted to walk under the sun. I would look for shade of trees and buildings to hide under on my way out. Eventually, I started working around the hottest times of the day, either waking up earlier to do things, or scheduling to run my errands in the evening. If I had to go out anywhere, other than the gym, between 10 am and 5 pm, I made sure to bring a hat. Even when it came to training, if I had a long run scheduled for the day, I made sure I woke up early enough, sometimes at 4:50am, so my run would finish just as the sun came up.The thought of sitting in a sauna? Hard pass, a thousand times over. Hell, even seeing my sauna suit from the corner of my eye or watching someone train in one (FOR “FUN”!) makes my skin crawl.
I’ve come to realize that these actions I started unconsciously doing was because I’ve associated the extreme heat with the feelings I go through during weight cuts. Bluntly, I feel it because I’m getting closer to death. Weight cutting isn’t always done in a safe manner, and there have, unfortunately, been instances of people being hospitalized or dying from cutting too much weight (some examples fighters we’ve lost are Jessica Lindsay and Jordan Coe). Whether it’s done in a safe manner or not, dehydration is dehydration. Your body is under red alert, telling every bit of you, Danger! Danger!
Let’s take a look at some of the physiology of what happens to our bodies as we get dehydrated. Your body starts sweating less to preserve the water you have in your body. Because sweating is the main avenue your body takes to lose heat, your body temperature might increase. If you haven’t heard, your body and its cells each work at a very specific optimal temperature, and as the temperatures change, so does the efficiency of your body’s cells. This is the reason why fevers are so dangerous – high temperatures can cause cells to stop functioning, and then, in part, parts of your body to shut down. Blood, which is 92% water, will also become thicker with dehydration. When your blood volume decreases, your heart output (the amount of blood it pumps out) also falls while your pulse rate (how fast your heart beats) rises. The previous sentence is essentially how your body compensates during heart failure. This can explain why I crave any and all cold liquids during weight cuts and find it difficult to sleep because my heart feels like it’s working harder than normal. And this also validates all of my feelings of dying because, well, that’s essentially what’s happening. It’s no wonder that some bigger promotions now require weight checks weeks before the official weigh-ins and hydration tests day of weigh-ins.
As fighters, we are aware of that dread and lethargy and wondering why you choose to fight, but many of us don’t stop to think that it’s not just difficult to do because we can’t drink water until we have officially weighed in. It’s difficult because it goes against your basic survival instincts as a human being. If you were without food and water in any situation, you would go into a completely different mode and come out of it traumatized to some degree, never wanting to be in such a situation again. This is no different than when we willingly do it to ourselves to make weight. You associate these feelings with the actions, and everything about the environment can trigger those feelings later on. And, let’s not forget that these feelings are rooted in things actually happening to your body on a cellular level, and it’s not just “in your head.” For those who have never had to cut weight, those feelings of dread and questioning your life decisions never go away. I’ve talked to people (non-Thais, who have had the luxury of choosing to fight rather than fighting out of necessity) who have been competing since they were teenagers and have upwards of 80 fights, and for them, it’s the same. Like for me, weight cutting is the only thing that makes them reconsider being a fighter. Not injuries, not financial struggles, not the long hours at the gym and potential negative impacts to social life and relationships, but weight cuts.
Since my first fight nearly seven years ago, I’ve went through dozens upon dozens of weight cuts. Through each weight cut, I learned so much about what my body responds to. I’ve taken a lot of “bad” advice, and put my body through hell and back (a lot of this advice was from people who don’t do “proper” science-backed weight cuts themselves, or men who simply don’t understand that a woman’s body is not like their’s). I’ve gone through weight cuts that felt almost painless because of careful planning with water and salt manipulation. Whether I only had to cut a few hundred grams or over 10 pounds, the feelings of dread and lethargy never really go away. Even though I still much prefer the Thai heat to any sort of cold weather, I don’t know if I will ever find pleasure in walking under the harshness of a peak-summer sun again, or if I will be able to think about saunas without my heart beating faster out of fear. I just know that weight cutting is a dangerous game, and it further motivates me to be at a proper walk-around weight and stick to a good diet.
Never cut weight alone, and always make sure you are at a reasonable weight for your target fight weight. Safety should be your priority as fighter no matter the situation, not just for your own good, but also so you can continue fighting.
This is the documentary I captured the stills from, ReelEarth: A Muay Thai Pilgrimage, filmed and directed by Mohammad Homouda. Mohammad captured my weight cut struggles and my ugly crying face.