By: Kelsey Dubia
Have you ever noticed how elite athletes have the same kind of body type? How all runners grow to be lean and tall and gymnasts are short and muscular? I found that my curiosity about this peaked when we were brainstorming ideas for our own research topics. We got on the topic of child body builders and how scary that are. Then I started thinking to myself, “I wonder what that does to a child’s body? That can’t be good right? I mean look at gymnasts. They are so petite and strong but that can’t be good for child development can it?” Funny how I stumbled upon my research topic in casual conversation. I decided to look into the physiological responses of elite training and and the process of training, diet, and injuries that occur to elite gymnasts.
First, I wanted to refresh my mind on child development. Healthy childhood development means that a child can grow socially, emotionally, and educationally (“Childhood Development”). These developmental stages involve taking your first step, saying your first words, having your first growth spurt, and many more. But how are these various stages effected by those who are thrown into a world of elite gymnastics and who are prodigies of it? Is speeding up or slowing down your development as an athlete good or bad for your future?
There are three distinct categories of puberty. Growth, maturation, and development (Baxter-Jones, et al). Growth is the actual body size increase, maturation refers to more of the hormonal change and change in sex organs. Lastly, development refers to the behavioral aspect of a growth spurt and the mental maturation. All of these processes occur simultaneously but also occur at different speeds (Baxter-Jones, et al).
Stunted growth can be caused by the over use of a gymnastics life style, or just in general an overly active life style for a child. Obviously for any person to excel in their sport, they have to start early. There is no getting around that. But this all takes place during, before, and after a normal development of puberty. This stunted growth can all be based around the concept of time and effort. But for female gymnasts, there is more at stake for underdevelopment and stunted growth.
The Female Athlete Triad is a syndrome that can be caused when three conditions occur together. This is a frequent occurrence in gymnastics unfortunately that can weed out the elite from the novice. One of the symptoms in the Female Athlete Triad is a reduced percentage of body fat. With the excessive amounts of training and the hours that are put in on a daily basis, it is easy for females to go into a caloric deficit throughout their day. This means that their bodies are very efficient at burning off energy and calories, but it also means that they are constantly keeping healthy weight and healthy fat off. For young girls, this is very concerning as it can lead to Amenorrhea which is the lack of a menstrual cycle. Kallmann Syndrome is a branch off of the Female Athlete Triad. This is the deficiency of gonadotropins. These help with development of growth and reproductive organs (Yeager, et al.). This can also occur do to a lack of caloric intake and an unbalanced diet (“The Female Athlete Triad”).
The second aspect of the triad is osteoporosis. This is low bone mass and high fragility due to the lack of a menstrual cycle and other hormones such as a lack of estrogen. During your adolescents, this is when you are growing the most, especially your bones. So being exposed to osteoporosis at such a young age can be detrimental. Stress fractures can be caused easily and that also makes it very difficult to heal (“The Female Athlete Triad”). Being a female is a risk factor of developing osteoporosis on its own. Osteoporosis can be treated, but this would have to come from a decrease in a gymnast’s physical activity and proper nutrition to get their bodies back on track (Peel and Eastell 989).
The last category of the triad is eating disorders. A decrease in caloric intake can lead to an eating disorder as well as the pressures of the sport itself. Young girls are growing up being told to look a certain way and if you want to be an elite gymnast and want to be in the Olympics, you sometimes will do what you need to do to fit that mold. This eating disorder can come from either anorexia or bulimia. Athletes within this category will have certain attitudes towards their sport: perfectionism, compulsiveness, competitiveness, high self motivation, menstrual disturbance, and at least one unhealthy method of weight control (Birch 245). The key with this triad is being able to recognize that an athlete is suffering from this. Letting them know that proper nutrition as well as rest can enhance their performance can be the push that they need to make a change.
According to the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, growth depends on both environmental and genetic factors. These environmental factors can be stress on growth and sexual maturation due to extensive amounts of physical activity (N. Georgopoulos, et al). A common trait of most female gymnasts is that they are short. These athletes start training at a very young age of four or five. By the time they reach the age of eight, that is when their training intensifies if they are picked to become an elite athlete. Growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland which is the main factor in height increases in children and adolescents. Having a deficiency of human growth hormone production can cause the short stature of what you see in elite gymnasts as well as delayed sexual maturity. All of these deficiencies in hormones and chemical imbalances can be due to Endocrine Disease.
Bones grow in length along the epiphyseal plates and is made up of cartilage. Osteoblasts are the bone builders of the body and they help form new bone as it grows. Typically by our mid twenties, our bones should have fully lengthened and the epiphyseal plate will be gone and there will only be a small line signifying that bones can no longer grow in length. The growth of these bones is impacted by slow growth and sex hormones. The best option for bone growth is physical activity. The stresses on the body allows for the bone to adapt to the stress that it is given. This is why as you get older, it is good for you to routinely exercise so that way your bones don’t get weak and brittle. Seems somewhat contradictory right? Gymnasts get plenty of physical activity which is good for your bones. But being overactive is what puts them at risk for the delayed bone growth and various other issues such as the brittleness.
According to USA Gymnastics,
“The goals of all will be achieved only by those committed and dedicated to this task. Many personal sacrifices will be made by you, your families, and your athletes. The choice to coach at this level will also be a financial burden to your business.”
Sounds like fun right? What dreams are made of! But let us take a look at a normal schedule for these athletes. The basic workout for the athletes is two workouts each day, six days a week. The morning workout is usually two to three hours long and is focused around endurance, conditioning, vaulting, and the beam. The afternoon workout is between three and four hours long and is a warm up, acrobatics, bars, beam, floor, and more conditioning (“USA Gymnastics”).
I bet you aren’t too shocked to hear that overtraining is the leading cause of injury. But what overtraining also does is disturb your sleeping patterns, makes keeping up with school responsibilities difficult, can make you feel insecure about missing out on “normal” childhood experiences, and many more. Overtraining any athlete can cause these problems but the major issue is the amount of injuries that it can cause.
It is important to look at common injuries that occur with elite gymnasts throughout their career. As we know, physical activity is great for our mental and physical health. But the overactive child can suffer greatly from injury because of this, which in turn causes difficulties in the long run for physical health. For girls who partake in gymnastics, this sport has the highest injury rate. About 100,000 gymnasts are injured each year (“Common Gymnastics Injuries: Treatment and Prevention”). Below is a table from the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine showing various injury types of gymnasts and the incidence rates of how often particular areas of the body are hurt.
The most common back injuries are muscle sprains and spondylolysis which is usually a fracture in the vertebrae due to overuse and stress (Quinn, et al). It is not shocking to see that ankle injuries are the leading incident that occurs most often in these athletes. Ankle sprains usually occur by the stretching or the tearing of the ligaments around the ankle joint. Along with the ankle, Achilles Tendinitis is just as frequent of an injury. Tendons aren’t super flexible so over time the pounding of gymnastics can irritate the tendon and cause pain and inflammation (Quinn, et al).
Gymnasts experience a wide range of variety when it comes to injuries and what is listed above is only a few. Why is there such an increase in injuries for these young athletes? The obvious answer would be their lack of nutrition from being overworked and the stress of the sport. But the real cause is that gymnastics has drastically changed over the years. Gymnastics as a sport has had plenty of time to evolve and because of that the stunts, tricks, and routines have become more complex every season. The sport is more technical than ever and if you aren’t putting out new tricks and stunts to get yourself ahead, then you don’t have what it takes. This pressure that is put on the athletes to perform the hardest stunts they can is what leads to injury and a potential early retirement.
For healthier individuals who don’t fall into the female athlete triad, we can not forget about the kind of diet that is implemented for these athletes. An obvious food group that is needed for every athlete is protein. Lean protein is going to help with muscle recovery and is also going to help repair the muscle fibers faster so you can keep working hard. Carbohydrates are also a huge energy supplier for gymnasts as well as most endurance athletes. This is going to give them fuel to last them throughout the day for their intensive training sessions and also competitions. Finally fruits and vegetables contribute to vitamins and minerals that are needed.
As you can see, their diet doesn’t vary too much from what is recommended for a less active individual. But the difference is what their goal is. Gymnasts typically like to eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day since they are training for extended amounts of time. Having too much food in your system can inhibit performance and practice so small frequent meals keep them full and satisfied. As we discussed up above, low body fat can be harmful to gymnasts because of the Female Athlete Triad. But they also need a low body fat percentage for power and technique. There are three recovery systems for a gymnast: refueling muscle glycogen stores, repairing muscles, and rehydrating. As long as they follow that system, their performance should continue to be strong. Take a look at this quick video below from Youtube that shows the daily training of these young Olympic hopefuls.
So what is this research leading up to? Not only can elite gymnastics slow down a young ladies physical and mental development, but it can also cause life changing injuries that stick with you for the rest of your life. This in turn leads me to believe that overtraining athletes of any kind is a harm to both their physical development but their mental development as well. Lets also not forget about the social wellbeing of young athletes and gymnasts. Training six days a week for seven plus hours takes away from the social aspect of being a child. Interactions with different kids who have different personalities and meeting new people as you grow up in school is crucial to our own development. Effected child development and detrimental career ending injuries can effect the lives of athletes continuously after their shot of athletic success. A gymnast that maintains a normal social life, has a well rounded nutrition, and who knows when to let their body rest will fair better than those who push themselves past the limit.
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