Physical Training Mar 2005
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Nutritional Supplements use in Elite Gymnasts

S. Zaggelidis1, K. Martinidis2, G.Zaggelidis1, T. Mitropoulou1
1. TEFAA, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,  2. TEFAA, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece  


The aim of this study was to examine the use of ergogenic nutritional supplements in elite gymnasts. Thirty one elite athletes (10 males and 21 females, mean aged (19.3+-1.4 years) volunteered to participate in the study and were asked to complete a questionnaire. Information was collected on the type of supplements that athletes preferred to use, the frequency, the period of consumption, the reasons for supplement use and the possible positive or negative effects and side-effects of these ergogenic aids on their performance and health. The results have shown that 58% of the sample had taken nutritional supplements, basically during all periods. The most frequently used supplements were vitamins and calcium, while fats were the least used, particularly among females. The reason that gymnasts used these supplements, mainly following their doctor’s recommendation, was to meet their training expectations. More than half of the subjects (54.8%) were not aware of the prohibited substances list, while the 25% of the sample reported that they would have taken supplements for team needs and 12% for glory. In conclusion, a significant percentage of elite gymnasts are familiar with the use of ergogenic nutritional aids.  
Key worlds: gymnasts, nutritional supplements, ergogenic aids.


Nutrition, alongside a systematic training process is vital to performance. Gymnastics is a sport requiring strength, flexibility, coordination and grace, in the case of women. The emphasis on thinness and appearance encourages the gymnasts to closely focus on their weight and caloric intake. This practice is of concern because it may lead to an insufficient energy intake. For most dietary supplements, there is little or no evidence that they can enhance sports performance. However, a few supplements may really help (Rosenbloom, 2002).

The energy demands of gymnastics are relatively low when compared to dynamic exercises such as running or swimming, as gymnastics is predominantly an anaerobic sport, being classified as 80%–90% anaerobic (Sharkey, 1986; Fox and Matthews, 1974).  Hence, the major energy supplies are the phosphagen stores and anaerobic glycolysis (Montpetit, 1976). Still, gymnastic training sessions are of a long duration. A survey of elite American female gymnasts showed that they were undertaking heavy training loads, whilst consuming too few calories and inadequate levels of vital nutrients (Howells.and Thompson 2002). In another survey with elite Swiss gymnasts, a calorie deficiency of 725 kcals per day was reported (Howells and Thompson 2002). The ability to gain adequate nutrients from a moderate calorie intake is often lacking in elite gymnasts, leading to vitamin, mineral and potential carbohydrate deficiencies (Howell S., 2000). On the other hand, athletes indulge in the use of supplementary, mainly ergogenic, substances in order to improve performance. These include carbohydrates, proteins, amino acids, vitamins minerals and ergogenics. Recent studies have shown that a great number of athletes using these substances are not well informed about the safety of these products, their ways of acting and their side effects (Kim and Keen, 1999,  Cardoso et al., 1998, Silber,1999,).

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the use of dietary supplements taken by elite gymnasts, the source of information and the knowledge concerning the side effects.


Thirty one elite gymnasts, aged 19.3+-1.4 years old (10 male and 21 female) volunteered to participate in the study. A confidential questionnaire was administered to all subjects.

The questionnaire contained 18 questions, categorized in 4 subgroups:
a) The first subgroup incorporated questions of general content: sex, age and years of pastime with sport activities.
b) The second subgroup incorporated questions regarding sports nutrition and the use of ergogenic aids.
c) The third subgroup incorporated questions regarding the reasons of taking ergogenic aids and the knowledge of their side effects.
d) The last subgroup incorporated 3 questions regarding the use of prohibited substances by the athletes.


Descriptive statistics included chi square (x²) test. The Statistical Package for Social Sciences 12.0 for Windows was used (SPSS Inc. Chicago, IL.). The level of significance was fixed at p<0.05.


The athletes had an average 10.71±2.73 years of training experience with gymnastics. Their somatometric characteristics are presented in Table 1:


HEIGHT (cm) 168.5±5.08 152.67±5.76
WEIGHT (kg) 61.90±5.72 41.81±6

61.3% of the athletes followed a proper diet all through the year. 58.1% of the gymnasts admitted taking ergogenic supplements. More than half of the latter, especially in males (up to 80%), used ergogenic resorts during all periods. With regard to the sex parameter, subjects took supplements from a different perspective in relation to periods of the year (p<.05).

Regarding the reasoning for using ergogenic resorts, there was a statistically significant difference (p<.05) in the way they were described, between the two sexes, as it is depicted in the Table 2.


WOMEN (n=21)
Improvement of performance 10 42 32.3
Demands of training 50 33 38,7
Reduction of bodily fat 10 5 6.5
Increase of muscular mass 10 0 3.2
Tonic-Psychological 30 33 32.3
Other 20 0 6.5

The use of ergogenic resorts was under a doctor's suggestion (47.2%), especially in females (47.6%). From a given 58.1% of users, 72.2% reported positive effects, while 88.9% reported no side effects.

The most frequently used supplements were vitamins and calcium in general. Carbohydrates and proteins were more common for women, and iron for men. Fats were the least used, particularly among females. As to water consumption, 67.7% drank 1 – 2 liters daily.

More than half of the subjects (54.8%) were not aware of the prohibited substances list. Our gymnasts thought that users were mainly familiar with vitamins (93.5%) and creatin (41.9%). Finally, 25% of the sample reported that they would have taken supplements for team needs and 12% for glory.  


In general, the findings of this study come to an agreement with the outcomes of previous studies. As Howells (2002) notes, elite gymnasts will undertake 11-12 training sessions each week, lasting from 40 minutes to 3 hours each. This is the principal reason for which our subjects permanently follow a careful diet. Supplementation can benefit certain groups of individuals. Those individuals include people who restrict their calories such as runners, dancers, gymnasts and wrestlers to maintain a low body weight; (Drewke, 2002). Therefore, a gymnast’s diet should, ideally, provide sufficient calories and nutrients to support the combined requirements of activity, tissue maintenance and, possibly, growth but no more than that (Howells, 2002). More than half of the subjects in our sample that used ergogenic resorts, especially with males, did so during all periods.

In many cases our elite gymnasts did not know what they consumed, but they had confidence in the doctor mainly, and in a relatively small percentage, in their trainer. There is ample research with regard to the use of ergogenic aids in various categories. In  research done in Norway and in Switzerland, on athletes from other individual or team sports, it was found  that the trainer was, as much for the men (58%) as for the women athletes (52%), the person that mainly proposed the use of alimentary supplements (Jundgod-Borgen, et al, 2002  ).

With regard to the sex parameter, the subjects in this study took supplements with a different perspective in relation to periods of the year. Characteristic is the differences that are presented in the preferences of athletes with regard to the type of ergogenic aids. The most common supplements were vitamins and calcium in general. Calcium is critical for bone growth and strength and it can help to prevent stress fractures in gymnasts. (Rosenbloom, 2004). Carbohydrates and proteins were also commonly used by women, while iron was used by the men. Fats were the least used, particularly among females. The consumption of carbohydrates helps in the prevention of the premature appearance of hypoglycaemia, while it extends the period that the muscle can use carbohydrates as a source of energy and consequently improves output (Conlee, 1987).

Research studies on supplements rarely include young athletes, so that little is known about the effect of supplements intake. In other individual as well as team sports it appears that the majority of athletes know enough about ergogenic aids. ( Schroder , et al., 2002  and Sundgod-Borgen, at al, 2002). In this study, it appears that  a satisfactory percentage of the athletes were informed of the negative results upon their health from the use of ergogenic aids. From a given 58.1% of users, 72.2% had positive effects, while 88.9% declared no side effects. It has been suggested that the excessive intake of certain ergogenic substances can lead to the advent of disturbances to the organism, such as diarrhoea, hindrance to the absorption and the metabolism of amino-acids, and hindrance of release of free fatty acids, which is of particular consideration for the production of energy ( Slavin , at al, 1988).

Athletes consume a large percentage of vitamins, because of the existing impression that they need more vitamins than other persons in order to achieve their ideal output. Α number of studies have shown that gymnasts, especially females, often consume levels of vitamins and minerals which are below the recommended levels (Constantini et al, 2000; Bernadot et al, 1989). However, only the simple sufficiency of vitamins, and not an excess, increases output (Baehner  and al., 1977, Bogden and al., 1990, Chandra , 1984, Prasad, 1980, Belko, 1987 ). Athletes who have normal stores of vitamins will not benefit from consuming vitamin supplements.  (Benardot , at al , 2004).

Finally, from the results of the present study, it is realised that there exists an individualised preference in the type of ergogenic substances used by the gymnasts. Our gymnasts contemplate that users are mainly familiar with vitamins (93.5%) and creatin (41.9%). More than half of the subjects (54.8%) are not aware of the prohibited substances list. Finally, 25% would make use of supplements for team needs and 12% for glory. 

Deductively, an important percentage of athletes in gymnastics use ergogenic aids alongside with their usual diet. Athletes should look at suitable alternatives to taking supplements, the main one of course being a balanced and healthy diet.

Sports dieticians can play a key role in educating gymnasts, parents and coaches regarding the unique nutritional requirements of junior and senior gymnasts.  Nutrition lectures must focus on energy balance through food intake, adapted to the special needs of the sport (i.e. excessive calcium and iron requirements in the case of female gymnasts).


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Physical Training Mar 2005