By Kenneth N. Haas, DC, CCSP was former 3 time All-American gymnast at Southern Connecticut University in the 1970’s
Although most athletes and their parents understand the basic principles of physical training most people have very little understanding of the underlying physiology of high-level training. There is great demand placed on growing bodies that spend sometimes twenty or thirty hours in the gym. Exceptional nutrition for athletes can help maximize the benefits an athlete will get from heavy training, and likewise, poor nutrition can undermine even the most dedicated athlete’s training regimen. To maximize athletic performance and to help avoid or recover from injury and illness the athlete needs to have a good working knowledge of some basic physiology and nutrition principles. The key word here is working. Just as understanding how to execute a giant on bars is worthless if the gymnast doesn’t practice the skill, knowledge of good nutrition for a gymnast is worthless if the athlete doesn’t put these guidelines into practice in their daily diets.
What should I eat? Protein, fats and carbohydrate are all required for normal growth and function. Because these athletes work so hard it is important to make every bite count as kids can only eat so much each day. This isn’t to say there is no place for “junk food” in the athlete’s diet, but low nutrient food should kept to a minimum and eaten after—rather than instead of—the good stuff. Some junk food is better than others, too; ice cream, for example, has some nutritional value where Skittles have none. In most cases, the quality of the food ingested is more important than the quantity. When we exercise, we actually break down muscle. The demand placed on the muscle induces the body to make it bigger and stronger. Protein is required to make muscle. If you are exercising and not taking in protein, the muscles can’t grow. Sources of good quality protein are lean meats fish, eggs, lower fat dairy, and soy. Avoid proteins like processed meats that are associated with “bad” fats. (More on the fats issue later.) Remember, protein foods tend to come with fats attached so choosing lean or low fat protein foods works best. Carbohydrates are required for energy production in our cells. Many people believe that athletes require carbohydrates and sugars prior to gymnastics practice or competition. While this is true of marathon running or other aerobic sports, gymnastics is predominately an anaerobic activity; the athlete has very short bursts of intense activity followed by a period of rest or recovery. A floor or beam routine, for example, lasts only a minute and a half or less. The energy that is used for anaerobic exercise comes from glycogen that is stored in the muscles themselves. There is very little need to consume concentrated carbs or sugars prior to or during training or competition for gymnasts. Instead, the goal is to encourage the muscle cells to develop the capacity to make and store energy. Consuming sugars will discourage the body from developing this energy pathway. In most people eating sweets will actually cause muscular weakness. As for the fat issue, we need good quality fats in our diet so that our bodies will make nerves, muscles, and hormones. Again, we must emphasize good quality. Good quality fats are the ones that are liquid at room temperature. Bad fats are solid at room temperature. Anything that contains hydrogenated oils or is fried has bad fats. What’s the big deal about these fats? One issue is that bad fats cause inflammation. Good fats reduce inflammation. Another reason is that bad fats reduce the ability of nutrients to get in and waste products to get out of the cells. For anyone—especially a high level athlete—this flow is vital to maximize performance.
What else can I do? Because of modern farming practices most of the foods that we eat today lack the precious nutrients that they contained 75 to 100 years ago. Studies done by the USDA show that vegetables today have only a fraction of the vitamin and mineral content that was present in the 1920’s. Additionally, because our fruits and veggies are grown in far away places and the time required to get them to our tables is so long, the enzymatic activity in these foods is practically zero. Enzymes are probably more important to us than vitamins. They help the other nutrients in our food do their jobs in our bodies. Eating foods without enzymes is like trying to vault without a springboard. The bottom line is that everyone—especially athletes—needs more than food these days to get all of the nutrition our bodies need. Supplements can help fill in this gap.
Here are my suggestions for supplementing a young athlete’s diet:
- Take a good quality vitamin/mineral supplement daily. My favorite product is Core Level Health Reserve available from my office.
- Take a teaspoon of fish oil or two fish oil capsules every day. Spectrum makes a lemon-lime flavored fish oil, available in health food stores in the refrigerated section of the supplements.
- Take a proteolytic enzyme capsule daily especially after workouts to reduce inflammation. Proteozyme is the best product and is available from my office.
Train hard, eat right, minimize the treats and you are well on your way to a great competitive season—and you’ll have a jump on a working knowledge of nutrition that will serve you well the rest of your life.