It typically doesn't take long for me to figure out why gymnasts' nutrition plans are going wrong. A few questions usually lead me to the dreaded response, "YES, I eat energy bars and drink sports drinks frequently."
While these supplements target the traditional endurance athlete, triathlete or runner, as I stated before, gymnastics is a moderate caloric-burning sport. A gymnast is never in constant movement, as there are quite a few break times. Gymnastics is primarily muscular endurance at work, and not sustained cardio in heated environments. Unless you are sweating profusely and doing 2-6 hours of hard cardio in the hot sun, I do NOT recommend consuming energy bars OR sports drinks.
So why are so many gymnasts falling into the trap of ingesting these items? They are quick, convenient and marketed toward athletic performance, but they are not made for gymnasts and will not help performance. Here's why:
1. Too many supplemental minerals.If you are eating a balanced meal plan rich in complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, drinking water plus taking a multivitamin, and not losing tons of fluid from excessive sweating, you should NOT be supplementing with extra iron, magnesium, potassium, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin C and b12. Taking these supplements excessively can throw off your body's natural balance of water, vitamins and minerals. In addition, too much iron can constipate and lead to gastrointestinal issues, bloating and sometimes diarrhea. This is one of the things many of my athletes complain about—being bloated! Power and protein bars and drinks will NOT help you in this area.
2. Too much sugarA bottle of gatorade contains 56 grams of sugar and 426 milligrams of sodium—that's an ENORMOUS amount of sugar and sodium! Sodium helps the body retain water, but gymnasts don't lose much water from sweat in workouts. Remember the bloating we discussed earlier? Sodium magnifies this problem. Gatorade's 56 grams of sugar more than doubles the recommended daily intake of sugar, which is 25 grams. Excessive sugar leads to weight gain and other debilitating diseases like diabetes, and it will not help your energy as a gymnast. Sugar gives an immediate lift, but 30-45 minutes into your workout, you will crash and become tired. For maximum performance, gymnasts only need WATER.
Sugar is not only a problem in sports drinks, but also energy bars. A traditional chocolate Power Bar contains 25 grams of sugar. This is comparable to a traditional candy bar of the same size, which ranges between 25-30 grams of sugar—your recommended daily amount of sugar for the whole day! Natural sugars found in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and whole grains should be a gymnast's go-to energy source. For maximum performance, ingest these foods 2-4 hours before practice in the form of sweet potatoes, brown rice, oats, and fiber-rich fruits and veggies. The sugar in energy bars and Gatorade are excessive and unnecessary for athletes in anaerobic sports like gymnastics.
3. Too many hidden ingredientsLook at the ingredient packages of many energy bars and sports drinks—you will find a lot of names you can't pronounce. Look at a bottle of your favorite sports drink—why is it blue? The only edible food that should be blue is a berry or vegetable; anything else is artificial. Of course, some energy bars are better than others and claim to be natural. Choose carefully, and read the ingredients. A gymnast needs real whole foods and water. Too many man-made additives and preservatives are unhealthy.
4. Too many caloriesThere are simply too many calories in these drinks. Unused calories turn to stored energy, which becomes fat. You can get the same amount of energy from density-rich foods like apples, grapefruits, grapes, broccoli, spinach, kale and many others at a lesser caloric intake. Be wise, and choose real, whole foods, complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, and lots of water to power you to your maximum performance.
5. And finally... too expensive!If you consume sports drinks or protein bars every day, your wallet will take a hit. Gymnastics is already an expensive sport! Remember, many energy bars have just as much sugar as a candy bar, and a sports drink can have just as much as a coke. It's more cost-effective to buy fruits and vegetables and snacks like nuts and rice cakes in bulk rather than a la carte from a snack machine. Take time to prepare by going grocery shopping with your week's plan of food in mind. Prepare snacks in baggies for your gym bag so you don't hit up the snack machine when you are desperate. Preparation is key. Take time to do this, and your body—and your gymnastics—will thank you!
Want more information on proper nutrition and snacks for gymnasts? Contact Betsy McNally-Laouar.
Betsy McNally-Laouar is a personal fitness and gymnastics trainer certified in Sports Nutrition. She currently works with the elite and upper level gymnasts at Cincinnati Gymnastics creating training and meal plans. She also works with gymnasts all around the country online and through camps. If you need more help with gymnastics recipes, meal plans and fitness, check out her website, www.betsymcnally.com and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org