Is Nutrition To Blame For Your Gymnast Always Getting Sick?
It seems like this time of year, there is always some sort of "sickness" floating around (especially this year, after the heightened precautions of the last two...). Statistically, colds, flus and other respiratory illnesses are more common in colder months. This is likely due to spending more time indoors, allowing viruses to pass more easily from one person to another. And the cold, dry air doesn't help.
But, want to know what else happens during the winter months? Gymnastics competitions.
For so many gymnasts, it seems like they are always sick. Like as soon as they recover from one bug, they catch the next one (and the next one...). Being sick can definitely hinder a gymnast's performance. From not feeling your best at practices to missed gym time, sickness can quickly derail a gymnast's training plan.
And yes, there are many reasons why a person may get sick more frequently than others. But, when it comes to gymnasts, as a Registered Dietitian there is a common theme I see over and over again...under fueling.
How does under fueling impact health?
In the world of sports, under fueling is often referred to as RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. This is a very serious syndrome with a growing body of research about the condition itself and its symptoms that leads to harmful effects across every system in the body. (If you've heard of the female athlete triad before, RED-S is similar but has been expanded to incorporate all of the negative effects that are also associated with low energy availability that can apply to all athletes).
Energy availability is the difference between the energy (calories) taken in (through eating) and the energy used through every day activities and exercise each day. The energy that's left (available) is what your body the can use for all of its essential functions: like breathing, digestion, growth and development, hormone function, transportation of oxygen and nutrients in the blood, and the immune system.
When energy availability is low, the body does not have enough to support exercise and everyday activities and basic body functions, and has to make compromises. RED-S affects every single system in the body, which is why it's so serious.
When the body does not have enough available energy, it will start to adapt. The body will actually slow or even shut down many functions to save energy to make sure it has enough for absolutely essential functions (like breathing). in times of low energy availability, the immune system is often compromised, increasing the likelihood of illness and slowing down recovery time.
This is just one example of how the low energy availability of RED-S leads to a cascade of numerous detrimental health effects.
As a gymnast, RED-S can also impact your
Energy in the gym
Strength and Endurance
Day to day recovery
Recovery from Injury
Focus and Coordination
Mood and Mental Wellbeing
So, what can I do to help support my immune system?
While proper nutrition won't prevent every single sickness, adequate fueling is essential for a strong immune system and may make you less susceptible to illness, can decrease the severity of illness, and can shorten recovery times (all of which will keep you in the gym this competition season).
Here are 4 ways a gymnast can use nutrition to help support their immune system this winter:
1. Eat Enough Overall Energy
Adequate energy availability is characterized by eating at least 45 calories per kilogram of lean body mass (or about 20.5 calories per pound of lean body mass) daily. For most gymnasts, this can be achieved by eating 3 meals and 2-4 snacks daily utilizing a performance plate and incorporating a performance nutrition strategy.
2. Ensure Adequate Protein
Not meeting the body's protein needs can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to illness. Most gymnasts require about 1.6-2.0g of protein per kg of body weight (or about .7-.9g of protein per pound) to support the body's functions as well as muscle growth and recovery.
While eating enough protein each day is crucial for gymnasts, more is not necessarily better. Research has shown that there is a limit of how much protein can be utilized at one time, meaning it's ability to support the body is capped. Therefore, it’s not ideal to eat 100% of your day's protein in one sitting. Instead, try spreading protein evenly throughout the day, including protein foods (like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and soy) at most meals and snacks throughout the day. For most gymnasts, meals should incorporate about .4-.5g of protein per kg of body weight and most snacks (other than those during a workout) will incorporate about .2g of protein per kg.
3. Focus on Micronutrient Dense Foods
The immune system is supported by an array of micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and bioflavonoids. Look to incorporate a variety of foods with these micronutrients into meals and snacks each week:
Vitamin B6: chickpeas, liver, tuna, beef, salmon, chicken, fortified cereal, turkey, potato, banana
Vitamin C: bell peppers, orange, grapefruit, kiwi, tomato, cabbage, strawberries, Brussels spouts, broccoli, sweet potato
Vitamin D: 15 minutes of unblocked sunlight, trout, salmon, UV mushrooms, fortified milk, fortified cereals, fortified orange juice
Vitamin E: wheat germ, sunflower seeds, almonds, safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter, spinach, broccoli, kiwi
Magnesium: almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, shredded wheat cereal, black beans, edamame, potato, brown rice
Zinc: beef, shellfish, pork, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, fortified cereal
Anthocyanins: tart cherries, elderberry, blueberry, blackberry, beets, purple cabbage
4. Stay Hydrated
The immune system relies on fluids made up largely of water (including the blood stream and lymph) to transport fluids, nutrients, important communication signals, and white blood cells throughout the body and helps to remove toxins, waste, debris, abnormal cells and pathogens from the system.
To be well hydrated it is important to drink enough throughout the day. At a minimum, your goal should be to drink somewhere between 40-60% of your weight (in lbs) in ounces of fluid each day. Commonly, you'll hear people say to drink about half your weight in ounces of water each day. To stay hydrated for training, most gymnasts will need to drink 8-16oz of water in the 2 hours leading up to training, 8-16oz every hour during training, and 16-24 ounces in the hour after training.
Gymnasts can meet their hydration goals with water, milk, 100% fruit and vegetable juice, electrolyte drinks, sports drinks, and unsweetened herbal teas, as well as incorporating foods like soups and stews, smoothies, popsicles, bone broth, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
If you or your gymnast struggles to stay healthy and perform their best during competition season, it's time to meet with a Registered Dietitian. You can learn more about Food for Fuel, High Performance Nutrition for Gymnasts and fill out the short application to book your session.