5 Tips to Staying Healthy in Gymnasticsby Athletico | 1 Comment
Editor’s Note: Today’s post is written by Amy Kuczera, PT, DPT. Amy is Athletico’s Gymnastics and Cheerleading Program Manager.
We all watched in awe as the US Women’s Gymnastics Team, also known as The Fierce 5, won the gold medal in the team competition at the London Olympics this summer. Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Kyla Ross have become idols to young gymnasts everywhere who now have a new goal of going to the Olympics one day. While the road ahead will not be easy, staying healthy while participating in gymnastics will be the key to helping gymnasts’ dreams come true.
Inspired by the Fierce 5, here are 5 tips to prevent injuries in gymnastics to help keep gymnasts flipping on the beam, tumbling on the floor, vaulting through the air, and swinging on the bars.
- Good flexibility is important –Gymnasts are super flexible right? Not always! The average gymnast usually has one side that is more flexible than the other. For example, you may have your right split down all the way, but not your left. Many gymnasts are very flexible in some parts of their bodies, but not in others and this can be a cause of back or joint pain. For instance, you may stand with an increased arch in your back. Many times gymnasts think this is because their backs are so flexible. That is partially true, but it is also possible that your hips are too tight in the front and by stretching your hip flexors and being more aware of your posture, you will reduce your back pain. Tight shoulders can also place increased strain on your lower back when performing bridges and back walkovers, so it is important to stretch your shoulders before you start tumbling. Remember, not all gymnasts are born flexible. Flexibility can improve, but it takes time and dedication. You will reduce the potential for injury, improve skill technique, and learn more advanced skills by being more flexible and working both sides equally.
- Stay balanced – Gymnasts may be some of the strongest athletes out there; however, their strength did not just appear overnight. Many hours are spent training and conditioning to make the muscles strong enough to support all of the joints in the body. That being said, just because you are a gymnast does not mean that every muscle group in the body is strong and properly developed. Gymnasts often have weak muscles in their hips, typically their gluteus medius and gluteus maximus, that are not as strong as they need to be, which can lead to injuries in the hips, knees, and lower back down the road. Gymnasts often prefer one side, so it is important to work both sides when training and conditioning to stay in balance. This also helps the body to develop good proprioception, or a sense of where the body is in space, so be sure to practice leaps, jumps, and turns on both sides to improve symmetry in the body.
- Be serious about conditioning— Gymnastics takes a lot of strength, and coaches take time to come up with exercises for conditioning that will help their athletes get stronger. This helps gymnasts to reduce injuries and allows them to perform harder skills so they can progress to the next level. The sport of gymnastics places a lot of impact and load through the body due to the high number of repetitions it takes to perfect a skill. Doing your conditioning exercises will help to protect joints like your ankles, knees, and wrists. Listen to your coaches, do the right number of reps, and pay attention to your form. Competition season is the fun part, but don’t forget about conditioning because good strength and endurance will help you to get through your routines and long practices. It is a long competitive season, and you want to stay healthy to make it all the way to the State meet and beyond.
- Be good communicators— Pain is our body’s way of telling us something is not quite right, and it helps protect us from further harm. If your muscles are really tired or you feel a stretch in your hamstrings during splits, this kind of discomfort is not serious and is very much expected in the sport of gymnastics. However, if you feel cramping, sharp stabs, sharp pulls, deep achiness and so on, you need to report it to your parents and coaches. Waiting to tell someone about the pain can result in a problem that will last longer, is more serious, and is harder to treat. If pain is limiting your participation in practice or an injury is not improving, a health professional should be contacted for further evaluation. If managed appropriately, the gymnast should be able to stay in the gym and modify his or her practices to allow the injured body part to rest while working on conditioning and events that do not stress the particular body part. When returning to practice after an injury, you should report any pain or fear to your coach to aid in a gradual transition back as you increase your reps, use less mats, and regain your confidence.
- Fuel your body the right way—Gymnasts need to pay attention to their nutrition to keep their bodies strong and properly fueled for long practices and competitions. Plan meals and snacks every 3-4 hours during the day to properly fuel your body, and start drinking water or other fluids when you wake up to pre-hydrate for the day’s workouts. Eat high-carbohydrate foods 1-3 hours before practice (no fried foods!) and eat or drink at least 3 high-calcium sources a day (a glass of milk, a cup of yogurt, a slice of cheese, a glass of calcium-fortified juice) to help build strong bones. Balance your plate at meals with 1/3 protein (meat, fish, beans, cottage cheese, peanut butter) and 2/3 carbohydrates (grains and cereals, bread, pasta, rice, fruit, veggies). Include “good fats” in your diet that may help with recovery including nuts, seeds, soy nuts, peanut butter, olive oil, and oil-based dressings. Consider your diet as an integral part of your training regimen to help you achieve your goals.
All injuries cannot be prevented; however, it is how they are dealt with and how well the gymnast takes care of his or her body that will keep them safe in the sport and doing what they love. Gymnastics is a fun sport and it teaches you tricks that most people will never be able to perform. Work hard and listen to your body. You never know who could be the next gymnast on the cover of the Cornflakes box!