It’s competition season, friends. Your gymnast has been working so hard in the gym, day in day out, to perfect her skills and routines for the big event. She has nailed her Performance Nutrition Strategy which has made a huge impact on her performance and recovery. In fact, you’ve never seen her make such improvements in such a short time, and she also isn’t complaining of being exhausted all.the.time anymore.

But then, competition day arrives, and her nutrition success goes out the window.

She’s too nervous to eat, you’re out of town and don’t have familiar foods, and her meet is scheduled at a random time during the day so you’re not sure how to time meals and snacks.

You can guess what happens next. She’s shaky during warm up, complains of feeling light-headed and slow, and her performance is not what you know she’s capable of. It’s almost like you’re watching your normally strong, powerful gymnast is slow motion.

Why your gymnast needs a Competition Nutrition Strategy

It’s a big misconception that gymnasts don’t need much nutrition on competition day since they’re barley performing for more than 8 minutes on all four events.

What parents and coaches need to consider is the intensity and duration of the warmup process, which is very different from compulsory through optional/elite/NCAA gymnasts.

High level gymnast warmups are very different than lower levels. The lower level gymnast (compulsory, lower optional) would be fine with a pre-meet meal/snack and a little something during the meet.

High level gymnasts have a lot more exercise expenditure involved with the process of warming up (open stretch, timed warm up, re-warm up, touch warm up). As you all know, meet sessions can often go quite a while and are at awkward times that make meal planning a challenge.

A Competition Nutrition Strategy is a proven step-by-step plan that you and your gymnast should have that guides your meal/snack choices and timing during a competition weekend. This takes the guess work out of “what, where, and when” to eat, and also ensure your gymnast is optimally fueled for elite performance.

Why does pre-competition nutrition matter?

  • A Competition Nutrition Strategy is part of your gymnast’s “flow”. There are so many different variables at a meet that can throw your gymnast off her A-game, so having a consistent nutrition plan that she knows works and gives her the energy she needs can help to calm the pre-meet anxiety.
  • Provides nutrition to help calm the brain (gets out of fight or flight state that comes w/ starvation). The starved brain cannot engage in high level processing or regulate emotions. Think back to a time where you know your gymnast didn’t eat enough before a meet and then when things didn’t go well she crumpled into a puddle of tears or rage mid-meet? Sound familiar? This is part due to inadequate nutrition, and isn’t limited to just competition day. If this is happening to your gymnast, it’s time to examine her nutrition strategies.
  • Essential for performance-Pre and Intraworkout Nutrition helps ensure adequately filled muscle and liver glycogen stores (which the body draws upon during high intensity exercise) and provides protein to help being the muscle repair process (muscle protein synthesis).

Barriers to Optimal Competition Nutrition

Nervous Stomach-The gut is called the “second brain” due to the enteric nervous system that is connected all throughout the stomach and intestines from the brain. “Nervous stomach” is a real thing and when really out of control can be consistent with a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. For some gymnasts they can still eat when this occurs, perhaps slight modifications need to be made, but for other gymnasts this is so serious that not only can they not “stomach” food or fluid they may also vomit or experience diarrhea. I know that is graphic, but these GI challenges lead your athlete to go into that meet underfueled and underhydrated, if not dehydrated. The issue is that we know under fueling and underhydration/dehydrated causes impaired performance, endurance, concentration, and increased “perceived exertion” and fatigue.

If your gymnast’s pre-meet nerves or anxiety can cause her to feel nauseous or even experience diarrhea or vomiting, it’s time to address nutrition and the sports psychology side of things. There are so many tools a great therapist or sports performance coach can help your athlete with to channel their nervous energy and allow them to eat what they need to for optimal performance.

If your gymnast loses her appetite due to nerves before a meet, it’s best to stick with foods that are easily digested, not high in fiber or super saturated in sugars as you don’t want to exacerbate the gastrointestinal sensitivity. You may need to use a liquid carbohydrate or meal replacement as this will empty from the stomach faster and give her a better chance of not losing her nutrition. Part of helping with the pre-competition nerves is using your proven Performance Nutrition Strategy which is then to be implemented the day of a meet as well.

You are Away from Home-For travel meets, it’s easy to get off a schedule, especially in the GI department. It’s important to stick with a consistent meal/snack/fluid schedule to help with bowel regularity which can for sure throw off an athlete’s performance if not in check.

Dehydration and underhydration are also often overlooked consequences of traveling. Flying in an airplane is inherently dehydrating due to differences in humidity and in-cabin pressure, and you need to pay particular attention to fluid intake even for car rides as well. 

Secondly, try to scout out the food situation before you travel. I am not saying you need to meal prep every single meal/snack and live out of a cooler, but don’t get caught with the only food establishment available not having a single vegetable or non-fried carbohydrate or protein option.

Your gymnast doesn’t need to “carb load” before a meet, but needs to ensure she’s adequately fueling (using the Performance Plates) throughout the days leading up to a meet. She for sure needs adequate carbohydrate the days prior to make sure that glycogen stores are optimally filled. It’s easy to skip some meals and snacks when traveling, so do pack some snacks for the car ride or plane ride in case you get in a bind. Also know that COVID has changed the hotel breakfast situation and you may need to bring a protein source, find one (egg sandwich), or make due with what is available (not much in the protein department).

You chose the wrong restaurants to eat at before and during the meet. I can assure you that most gymnasts will not compete well on a big plate of spicy cheddar cheese jalapeño nachos or a corndog from the concession stand. From a nutrition perspective, that’s too much fat and not enough carbohydrate for optimal fueling.

Try to avoid super greasy, salty foods like fried foods as this can delay digestion and leave your gymnast feeling “off”. Do you best to stick to normal foods that your gymnast feels good with and she’ll be just fine. Wait to try the latest food craze until after the meet is over; not because any one food is “bad” or will “ruin your performance”, but because it’s not smart to try something new with the chance it could leave your gymnast not feeling her best.

Making Nutrition Your Gymnast's Competition Day Super Power

Don’t let nerves or lack of familiar foods throw of your gymnast’s competition day performance.

If your gymnast has nervous stomach, starch practicing now. You can “train the gut” and get them more used to tolerating nutrition, which they should already be able to do with their Performance Nutrition Strategy.

Do a little pre-planning while traveling. I’m not saying you have to meal prep and live out of a cooler all weekend, I believe you can make choices that work for you with whatever, whenever, and wherever. Find some restaurants that have grilled protein options, some color available that is not fried (fruits/veggie), and some solid starches like rice, pasta, potatoes to help your athlete fuel and feel her best. Do take your gymnast’s snacks that she uses at the gym that she knows she feels good with, and perhaps bring some additions for meals/snack that you know will be more difficult to find all at one place.

Pay attention to meal/snack timing, don’t deviate. Pay attention to hydration and adequate fueling leading up to the meet (adequate carbohydrates, etc). If your gymnast is at a training camp or meet with multiple sessions, keep in mind that you very likely will need to pack some extra snacks, etc.