What an exciting day yesterday at the Olympics: A great performance by the swimmers capped with a gold medal win for the women's gymnastics team - the first since 1996! For a gymnast to progress to this level, it requires extensive training of up to 30 hrs per week, often consisting of two training sessions of 2-3 hrs per day. So how do these elite gymnasts keep their body's going day after day? A huge component is proper fueling and recovery with well-planned sports nutrition. Here are some tips for aspiring female gymnasts (and their parents)....
1. Eat regularly to get adequate energy and nutrients.
As female gymnasts progress in the sport, weight and body fat is often measured in order to make sure they are growing lean and strong. Unfortunately this practice often results in gymnasts consistently consuming diets low in energy, placing them at risk for inadequate intake of nutrients such as carbohydrate, calcium, and iron. Gymnasts should eat nutrient-rich meals and snacks at least every 2-3 hrs to meet their needs. High-saturated fat and high-sugar options should be considered occasional foods, as they lack essential vitamins and minerals needed for recovery.
2. Make snacks count.
With up to 6 hours of training daily, there isn't much time for snacking. That means snacks must be quick, easy, and travel well. In addition, choosing snacks rich in both carbohydrate and protein will assure proper recovery between training sessions, as well help meet the body's daily needs. A few great options include trail mix (dried fruit & nuts), fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt, low-fat Greek yogurt, Kashi bars, Nature Valley bars, lean deli meat sandwiches, and string cheese with pretzels.
3. Mind your calcium.
Weight-bearing activity, daily calcium intake, menstrual status, and overall caloric intake all play a role in determining bone mineral development in female athletes. Dietary calcium intake plays a crucial role in the promotion of optimal bone mineral development. Female gymnasts should include calcium-rich foods at both meals and snacks. This includes all dairy-food sources as well as chickpeas, salmon, almonds, tofu, hummus, green leafy veggies, and fortified soy milk - to name a few.
4. Fluid matters.
While gymnasts typically do not have large fluid losses through sweat, fluid intake throughout training is still important. Even slight dehydration can affect focus, concentration, and technique. Sip consistently throughout the day and during practice to achieve lemonade-colored or lighter urine.
5. The pressures of appearance.
Due to the pressure to remain lean and the nature of the aesthetic judging of the sport, female gymnasts are one of the top groups of athletes considered at risk for developing an eating disorder. As gymnasts grow, it is important to have a multi-discplinary team committed to assuring gymnasts mature normally through adolescence. This should include a doctor and sports dietitian, as well as a therapist if needed - plus the gymnast's coach. All individuals need to be on the same page with respect to comments made or not made about gymnasts' appearance, weight, and eating habits.