Calorie Poker Chips

I met Daniel at the Region 6 Congress this past summer. I’ve thought a lot about athlete nutrition before – mostly about what athletes should eat. Daniel’s lecture opened my perspective. Nutrition is not just about what you eat; it’s about how you workout.

Daniel was so kind to share his ideas on nutrition with all of us. This is an important read on how to manage nutrition for your coaches, athletes and their parents.

Calorie Poker Chips: You’ve Got to Pay to Play

Guest Post by Daniel E. Young, Sc.D.

Nutrition needs of athletes change based on their workouts

Off-season strength and conditioning programs for gymnasts include training goals such as hypertrophy, increasing strength, power and muscle endurance.  Each of these training goals requires enough caloric intake to match the energy demands of the activity.  

Perhaps another training strategy should be implemented. A system designed to reduce energy cost and allow for proper brain functioning. This would lead to improved performance and make it easier for coaches to negotiate their athletes’ nutritional habits.  

Working Out Burns Calories

Male and female gymnasts at the junior level typically work out for at least four days per week, between 3 and 4 hours per practice.  During this time the athlete is engaged in many different activities from strength training and routine production to sitting and walking. 

According to Health-calc, a 12-year-old, male gymnast, who weighs 75 pounds, gets 7 hours of sleep, 1 hour of activity each at light and moderate intensity, 5 hours of standing and walking, and 10 hours of sitting at school, will spend about 2,200 kcal per day.  A 17-year-old male athlete who weighs 155 pounds with the same activity profile will spend upwards of 3,500 kcal per day. 

Athletes that are trying to increase muscle mass will need to consume an additional 250 – 500 calories per day.  A 17-year-old male would need about 4,000 calories per day. A 17-year-old, 100-pound, female gymnast with the same activity would require about 2,800 kcal per day to increase muscle mass.   

Gymnastics Food Requirements

Gymnastics requires imagination, dexterity, agility and precise neuromuscular timing. Therefore, it is vital that the brain functions efficiently and without fatigue.  To be sure to meet nutritional demands, gymnast’s daily food intake should consist of 50% carbohydrate, 30% fat and 20% protein. This will adequately provide necessary nutrients and calories for fuel, protein synthesis and mental functioning. 

The problem is, monitoring and controlling caloric intake among adolescent children is difficult.  During school hours, athletes cannot always be supervised.  They may have very little time to eat and be presented with tempting food choices that have relatively low nutritional value.  Furthermore, at home, parents should have the opportunity to control the food strategies presented to their children without unwanted input from coaches.  

Pay Attention to Your Athlete’s Nutrition

Rather than controlling the athletes’ nutrition, it is important for a coach to notice the athletes’ nutritional habits and adjust the workout accordingly.  

Coaches should notice signs that indicate whether a gymnast is failing to meet caloric intake demands such as:  

  • Failing to respond to hypertrophy training 
  • Continuous fatigue and soreness
  • Presence of cold-sores, chapped lips, or other immune system issues 
  • Complaints of motivation and fear issues
  • Fatigue or lack of focus during the last half of workout  

These children are potentially calorically deficient.  

Adjust the Workout Accordingly

There are logically two groups of gymnasts: 1.) athletes who are able to reach caloric goals and 2.) those who cannot.  For those who cannot, training strategies should aim at reducing the caloric deficit of workout and improving sport performance through maintenance of healthy mental functioning.  

Calories are like poker chips; if you have no chips, you can’t play the game.    

Methods to Adjust Your Workout

1.) Shorten the Cycle

Rather than a 12-week hypertrophy program, coaches could consider reducing to an 8-10-week hypertrophy program.  One hour of hypertrophy training, depending upon the intensity, costs the gymnast roughly 300 calories.  Each week, the athletes is spending 1,200 – 1,800 calories during these workouts.  

Reducing hypertrophy training by two to four weeks could save the athlete 2,400 – 7,200 calories, which can be used to promote more efficient brain functioning and reduce overall fatigue.  Reducing training time from a 1-hour training session to 45 minutes would save and additional 25% of the total caloric need.  Over time, these caloric poker chips will add up. 

2.) Do Low-Intensity Activities

Rather than focusing on hypertrophy training as the first off-season goal, do low intensity activities. Examples are injury prevention, joint stabilization, skill basics, meditation, stretching, foam rolling, deep tissue work, speed and agility training, and arch and wrist strengthening. These activities should be considered for 2 – 4 weeks directly after the post-season’s active-rest.  

These activities would prepare the gymnast from a biomechanics and neurological perspective.  Skill production and progress will occur for these athletes because of improved neurological functioning, technical ability and skill efficiency rather than strength gains.  

3.) Cross-Train with Other Training Modes

  1. Bungee and kettle-bell exercises, such as Turkish-get-ups and arm bars, intended to increase stabilization of the lower back, core, shoulder and hip are low-intensity activities that will reduce injury.  
  2. Body-shaping activities such as animal-flow, ballet and yoga will increase aesthetics and improve technique while keeping intensity and impact levels relatively low.  
  3. Meditation and mental imagery will activate the brain in similar manners to the actual performance of the activity and, through focused breathing, will reduce anxiety, improve glycolytic functioning, speed-up lactate clearance, improve tissue recovery and aid in overall neuromuscular functioning. 
  4. Agility and speed training such as ladders, hurdles and slide boards increase power production through increased speed, rather than increases in force production and are fun activities for the gymnasts to complete.

Change the Workout, Not the Diet

Rather than adjusting the gymnasts’ nutrition habits, attention should be given to the physiological cues associated with a caloric deficit and in response, alter the training goals, groups, and workout variables.  

For athletes that cannot meet caloric demands, alternative training strategies should be considered.  Coaches should conserve caloric cost of workout by reducing the intensity and duration of hypertrophy training, focusing on joint stability and aesthetics and improve sport performance by providing enough fuel to promote healthy brain functioning.

You’ve got to pay to play.

Daniel E. Young, Sc.D.
Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences

Daniel received his doctorate from Boston University where he studied visual perception and locomotion.  Specifically, he investigated how disrupted visual processing can lead to altered gait strategies among individuals with Parkinson’s disease. 

As an adjunct professor of exercise and health sciences, Daniel’s interests lie in ecological psychology and dynamic systems theory and its application to classroom teaching, utilizing flipped-classroom techniques to foster group dynamics and team-based learning.  

He currently serves as the Region 6 (New England) Men’s Gymnastics Chairman and is the head men’s gymnastics coach at Noha’s Gymnastics Academy in Manchester, NH.  In the gym, he implements evidence based coaching, sound periodization and ACSM based strength and conditioning strategies to keep his athletes healthy and foster a successful learning and gymnastics environment.

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