Last week I had the pleasure of talking to a group of young gymnasts (and their parents) about the importance of nutrition. These athletes, like many other athletes, are working hard in their sport – with 4-hour practice sessions and numerous hours per week. On top of this, these gymnasts are growing, looking for positive results and peak performances … food is a huge piece of this puzzle.
I had a basic talk prepared to review the essential information about how muscles work and use energy, carbohydrates/protein/fat, vitamins & minerals, calories, nutrient density, and the timing of eating for gymnastics. But we also talked about other nutritional issues like eating on road trips, hydration, and food-related habits. Food and nutrition can be a complicated topic; both parents and athletes alike can sometimes struggle to understand and balance all of the information, and to apply that to eating properly for the energy required by their sport.
Our bodies must take the food we ingest and convert it into something that it can use at the cellular level. If we are eating processed junk filled with chemicals, or foods that are highly inflammatory, then our digestive system must work hard to deal with these low-quality choices. In the end, any low-quality food will not elicit much energy for the skeletal muscle cells, or give us many vitamins or nutrients for cell function.
One of the big issues that we also tried to address is about eating for fuel vs. eating for fun. I am sure everyone has heard the analogy about having a Lamborghini for a car and then putting low-grade fuel in it … this will NOT elicit the best performance results for that vehicle. Honestly, eating and fueling properly is challenging, but for athletes to work at a high level they need good energy, and this comes from quality food.
I don’t want to tell athletes to avoid junk food altogether (that simply isn’t realistic), but that there is a time and a place for fun food – like after a competition, at a birthday party, or during holiday meals. Make a plan and enjoy those fun meals. But when athletes need fuel for training/practices, or before a competition, this requires more care and attention to discipline and food selection. Having ample complex carbohydrates, clean protein sources, enough calories, and a variety of fruits and vegetables is important for athletes training for a peak performance.
Small choices can add up to some big gains. Good luck to all the athletes working hard to reach their full potential!