Nutrition for Gymnastics

What is needed to perform?

Hydration

  • Water helps to keep your body cool in hot indoor conditions by allowing you to sweat properly. If you overheat your performance level will drop. Your blood volume and blood pressure also reduce without enough water, which can potentially lead to dizziness and fatigue.
  • Heat stroke can occur when body temperature climbs above 40.5C, probably unlikely for most gymnasts, but possible if you’re competing in very hot and humid environment.

Salt

  • Hyponatraemia is low blood salt often caused by drinking too much water. Early signs are nausea, vomiting, fatigue and weakness. Later signs are spasms, confusion, headache and ultimately coma. This is unlikely for most gymnasts unless you are competing in very hot and humid conditions. Those with small body mass, drinking too much water are most at risk.
  • Fluid balance is required to ensure salt and water are keep it in the right places. Water follows salt by osmotic pressure so it is important to have enough salt in your diet before big competitions. A normal diet has enough salt, it is only if you are restricting your calories and avoiding cheese, meat, crisps and other salty foods that you may be at risk of having too little salt in your body.

Energy

  • Energy in the form of carbohydrates are needed to replace muscle glycogen stores that you use up during long bouts of exercise. Carbohydrates are the most quickly absorbed energy source. Carbohydrates are used predominantly at higher effort levels whereas fats are used at longer, low intensity efforts.
  • Fatigue is inevitable when glycogen stores are very low. Poor concentration and lack of muscular strength are signs that your glycogen stores have got low.

Recovery

  • Recovery requires both proteins and fats. Proteins are needed for repair of muscles and immune cells. Fat is required for some immune cells and to help rebalance hormones. Muscular damage is part of gymnastics. Managing it is critical.
  • Stiffness is exacerbated without sufficient recovery nutrition, it’s not just about stretching.

Health

  • Fats and proteins provide the substances the body needs for prevention of illness and injury,  which cause lost training time and potentially limit recovery.
  • Iron is needed for oxygen transport and therefore any muscular and mental activity.
  • Weight determines power to weight ratio. Too little leads to weakness. The correct balance is needed. Eating disorders associated with compulsive exercise behaviours can be damaging especially if they lead to too much weight loss and loss of strength. Injury then becomes far more likely.
  • Bones and their connective tissue supports must remain strong and supple to avoid injury. Eating foods containing the correct vitamins and minerals helps with this.

Hydration

Dehydration harms performance.

  • A greater than 2% drop in bodyweight due to fluid loss (1kg for 50kg person) has been found to reduce performance level.
  • Water helps lubricate the joints so keep hydrated to avoid aches and pains and improve flexibility
  • Perhaps not as well known is that a dry mouth reduces performance because of the way your brain responds to the sensation.

HOWEVER

Over hydration harms performance.

  • A greater than 1% rise in bodyweight definitely will reduce performance due to increased resistance to movement.
  • Also more pee breaks and urinary discomfort will disrupt concentration.

Energy

Energy for gymnastics comes from sugars and fats. Sugar is the quick burning fuel we need. However, we want to keep blood sugar in the optimum range to provide energy when we need it. This implies that we don’t just rely on sugary foods to provide our energy, but rather foods that can drip feed our bloodstream with sugar over a period of time.

A big burst of blood sugar, as would be caused by big meals and foods with high sugar content, such as fizzy drinks, leads to insulin spikes. Insulin, a hormone from the pancreas, is used to lower dangerously high blood sugar levels.

Good sources of long lasting energy are:

  • Carbohydrates with fibre and combinations of carbohydrates with protein and fat. [porridge oats, lentils, peanuts, virtually all vegetables apart from potato]
  • Protein and fats generally moderate the hyperglycaemic effect of sugars and starches and so these foods can make useful accompaniments to the starchy, energy providing foods.
  • Concentrated sources of proteins and fats take longer to digest and are therefore better after exercise. [eggs, meat, fish and dairy]

Pre training

  • Porridge oats with fruit/nuts etc are a good combination.
  • Lentil soups later in the day.

During training and competition

  • A dilute “sports” drink will not raise blood sugar levels too much. Typically a fruit juice diluted 50:50 with water will be about the right strength. For Goodness Shakes is 5% sugar and a reasonable choice. I tell my clients that keeping below 8% sugar is the limit they should stick to.
  • Easily digestible foods such as flapjacks and melting moments.
  • Fat and protein containing foods such as eggs, meat, fish and dairy are slower to digest so keep portions of these smaller or cut them out altogether.

Post training

  • Take in glycogen replenishment as soon as the stomach can handle it. So some carb sources. Aim for less than 60 mins!
  • All types of foods are fine if you can stomach them!

Snacks you can use at most times

  • Plain yoghurt (Greek or Natural set) are 6% sugar, Flavoured yoghurts are 20% sugar and are best avoided. If you need a sweet taste or crunchy texture add your own such as nuts, seeds, fruit, dried fruit, cocoa or honey.
  • Flapjacks contain oats, honey, butter and added nuts or dried fruit. Made with dates flapjacks are very tasty.
  • Healthy commercial snack bars include Nakd, Trek, Food Doctor and Eat Natural Bars. Most of the rest are less healthy.
  • Fresh fruit are a good source of energy especially bananas. Tropical fruits are sweeter with a higher glycaemic index and therefore best used immediately before and after your harder and longer training and competitive sessions.
  • Nuts and seeds contain fats, carbs and protein. May be harder to digest for some. Good for recovery. High in omega 6 fats so don’t go over the top!

Recovery

Micronutrients are important for a good recovery from hard exercise, but they are best ingested from foods as different nutrients work together. Sportspeople take too many supplements, often with no effect or negative effects.

Sleep needs to be of sufficient duration and of good quality. Here are some guidelines:

  • Blue light from computers, mobile devices keep you up. There is a red light app called f.lux (just Google it) if you really must use devices after dinner!
  • Stimulants including sugar and caffeine after mid afternoon reduce sleep quantity and quality for many people.
  • Relaxation from reading, walking, enjoying the outdoors and a warm bath help most people sleep better.
  • Temperature has been found to be a key component of sleep. A cool bedroom (16-19C) helps optimise sleep.

Fatigue and iron

Iron is used by the body to transport oxygen to all the different tissues in your body. Have you got enough iron stores in your body? Ask yourself if you have any of the following symptoms:            

  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Pale skin.
  • Other less common symptoms include headache, itchiness and hair loss.

Testing for iron levels

The serum iron test is not indicative. However the ferritin test does indicate long term iron stores. The NHS Range is14-400ug/L

It is best to be above 40ug/L in my opinion and many other nutritionists. Some doctors are satisfied with >10, but this is inadequate for many people to function normally.

A test can be done at Doctors or privately for around £30. Note levels can be to high and much above 200 may be dangerous for some.

Obtaining iron

Animal sources contain a form of iron called haem iron which is absorbed about 5 times better than non-haem or plant iron.

The best foods are  in order:

1-       Liver best,

2-       Seafood (mussels, clams etc)

3-       Beef, Sardines, Turkey,

4-       Chicken dark, ham, fish etc.

Plant sources contain non-haem iron are best taken with vitamin C, vitamin A and copper.

When eating plant sources it is best to avoid:

  • Phytates found in (nuts, seeds, beans and grains).
  • Tannins found in (tea, coffee, cinnamon and cocoa).
  • Oxalate found in (spinach, rhubarb, leek, bran).
  • Fibre.

You may find this makes it surprisingly difficult, but the sensible route for vegetarians is to find out which plant foods contain the least of these chemicals. Parsley is one good option. Another is to use phytase which will reduce levels of phytate. Use vitamin C or vinegar to help with the absorption and cook in an iron skillet which can provide extra absorbable iron for your body.

Supplementation can be taken either using ferrous sulphate, which is not well tolerated by many (favourite of NHS). Floradix (ferrous gluconate) or organic conjugates such as Hemagenics. These last two are normally OK.

The gymnast and calcium

Calcium not only builds bones but allows our bodies electrical system to work properly. Calcium can be deposited in bones, but also in soft tissues such as arteries and other organs. In general we want the calcium to go to our bones, and it has been found that some vitamins affect whether it gets deposited in our or in the arteries. In particular vitamin K2 helps shunt calcium to the bones and not the arteries.

  • Absorption is dependent on vitamin D, which is best got from the sun and oily fish in winter.
  • Where calcium is deposited is dependent on vitamin K2, which is found in cheese and butter, but not margarine.
  • Vitamin D and K2 are both fat soluble, and so having more fat in the diet is better. Certainly a low fat diet is not sufficient at providing these important vitamins.

Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and some restrictive diets can limit calcium and other important minerals leading to:

  • Malnutrition, which can lead on to chronic illnesses of various kinds.
  • Electrolyte disturbances which can cause heart rhythm irregularities.
  • Injury due to drops in bone density.
  • Too much calcium in the soft tissues is very unhealthy.

The gymnast and weight

Weight control is dependent on a number of factors, but it is best not to think just in terms of calories. After all we all know some people who eat exactly the same as us, but are a lot slimmer. Here is a list of the main culprits in order of importance:

1.       Junk food has affects on both appetite and metabolism. The causes are:

a.       A myriad of additives.

b.      Excess salt and sugar.

c.       Altered fats.

d.      Low nutrient quality.

2.       Carbohydrate excess affects insulin (the storage hormone) by stimulating us to release too much of it. This allows fat build up whenever we eat food in excess. Hence success of low carb diets. However carbohydrates are a useful energy source.

3.       Gut flora can be altered via prebiotics (foods that feed “good” bacteria).            These are mainly soluble fibre containing foods [beetroot, carrot, courgette, parsnip, swede, turnip, yam. A lot of recent studies show that fat people have a completely different set of microbes in their gut than slim people. The “bad” bacteria build up as a result of eating junk food and not enough foods that feed good bacteria.

Nutritional issues

The following are a few of the important nutritional issues that affect a large number of people:

  • Sweeteners are not a good low calorie option. They affect metabolism and hunger (appetite centres). Xylitol and stevia are the only two sweeteners that I recommend. They are more natural, but the best approach is just to dilute or reduce amounts of sugar when required.
  • Junk foods often contain either trans fats or other altered fats that mimic natural foods, but are not exactly the same. These fats are difficult for the body to process.
  • Altered fats are all bad. They are generally found in processed and packaged foods. Any margarine, sunflower oil, vegetable oil, safflower oil and rapeseed oil present on ingredient labels are suspect.
  • Saturated fats are FINE! We are made from it. Low saturated fat diets are not beneficial to gymnasts.
  • Unsaturated fats vary. They are found in junk foods and most processed foods where they have normally been heat treated to increase their shelf life. This makes them unhealthy. They are also found in nuts, seed and their oils where they are in the form of omega 6 and in oily fish where they are omega 3. We need a balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fats as this controls inflammatory tone within the body.
  • Sugar is fine if not in excess, This depends on your activity level and metabolic health. A lot of people however do over consume it.
  • Glucosamine can be beneficial for the joints in some people. Worth trying if you have a chronic joint condition.
  • Recovery shakes can be OK (For Goodness Shakes is an example). Watch out for protein shakes though as the vast majority have artificial sweeteners in them.

DrDobbin nutrition

If you wish to make an appointment for an individual consultation I can help with:

  • Weight management
  • Iron status
  • Energy levels
  • Chronic fatigue

The cost £50 / session at my Newport Pagnell location or if you prepay it is possible to have a consultation on Skype.

Contact me on robin.dowswell@gmail.com for more information.