Learn to fuel the gymnast for optimal performance and longevity in the sport.
Learn how to fuel your gymnast so that you can avoid the top 3 major nutrition mistakes that keep most gymnasts stuck, struggling, and injured.
Has your gymnast been told to lose weight? Or, were you as a gymnast told to lose weight?
As a gymnast advances in level and age, it is unfortunately all too common for coaches telling gymnasts to lose weight, not “get fat”, etc. This is all under the guise that they will perform better if they “just stayed small”, which isn’t true in today’s sport. Telling an adolescent gymnast to control her weight, not gain weight, start dieting, or worse is so harmful. Telling a gymnast to lose weight often results in lifelong struggles with food and body. This is also why the focus needs to be kept on performance—can the gymnast do her skills or not?
Here are 4 reasons why coaches shouldn’t tell a gymnast to lose weight. Ever.
Gymnastics has long held to the axiom that “lighter girls fly higher”, meaning that the smallest/lightest gymnasts will be the best.
This couldn’t be further from the truth nor is this sentiment supported by science. I asked one of my dear friends Dave Tilley, DPT with Shift Movement Science to explain this concept as I am not a physical therapist nor strength and conditioning coach like he is.
He said that “flying higher comes from more powder produced and transferred”. Power is force times velocity and more force comes from increased strength. By increasing strength (aka, gymnast doing appropriate weight training in addition to gymnastics-specific conditioning), we can increase lean body mass and muscular cross sectional area. This new found strength and specific training can increase velocity, which translates to increased speed and rate of force development…aka, “flying higher”.
Telling a gymnast to “lose weight” so she’s better at gymnastics will likely result in crash dieting and starving, which catabolizes or breaks down muscle. Even if fat mass is lost, this destroys the power to body ratio. Your gymnast may weigh less, but she’s also lost muscle aka strength.
The better option would be lifting to get more lean mass and fueling appropriately to help her power to weight ratio and increase her metabolic rate.
Fuel well, train hard:
The other issue with telling a gymnast to lose weight in hopes of improving performance is that she will have to underfuel to lose weight. You have to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight (and if done properly, try to lose body fat and minimize muscle loss though there will always be some).
And not only will underfueling lead to fatigue, poor performance, etc, but the brain will recognize this deficit as starvation and do everything it can to restore weight/fat mass to where the body physiologically feels “safe”. This will often fuel the binge/restrict cycle, where at some point the gymnast will get too hungry and start overeating. This leads to guilt, shame, secrecy, and often pathological compensatory behaviors to make up for the dietary indiscretion like purging, over-exercising, abusing laxatives/diuretics, etc.
The other issue with telling gymnasts to lose weight or even worse, weighing them yourself (as a coach/parent etc) is consent. Being weighed in any setting, not just a doctors office, can be a very traumatic experience. I know a lot of people in sport will say “get over it”, but it’s just not that simple. You cannot control someone’s lived experience, and for many high level athletes having their weight scrutinized or being told they are “fat” is very damaging and only creates more food/body struggles.
As a sports dietitian, I only weigh my clients when absolutely necessary (eating disorder treatment/RED-S/weight restoration) and it is always a “blind weight”, meaning the number is not disclosed to them.
Along the same lines of weighing a gymnast, it is not appropriate to ask them about their weight or make comments about their body (i.e. you look fat/chubby/need to stay fit/etc with the real motive being body shamming to get them to change).
A lot of coaches know this isn’t appropriate; however, the more advanced a gymnast becomes, the more this becomes an issue.
Coaches will often blame body weight or body composition when a gymnast is looking slow, sluggish, or “heavy”. From my experience, more often than not the “sluggishness” is a lack-of-fueling issue that once corrected will improve performance irrespective of weight loss.
Because gymnastics is a power to weight ratio based sport, a gymnast might notice some initial improvements in performance with weight loss. Nonetheless, these improvements will very quickly diminish or disappear due to the underfueling and caloric deficit needed to stay at a biologically suppressed weight or body fat.
Think about body builders for a second; they diet down over 12+ weeks to get supraphysiologically lean, but on the day of their “show” they’re not in peak shape. In fact, most are lethargic, weak, mentally foggy, etc due to the prolonged starvation. Gymnasts are athletes, not little body builders. Performance > Aesthetic.
What’s worse, is that there is always a consequence to restriction and deprivation. The brain doesn’t know the difference between dieting to “get lean” or starvation, and will do everything it can to get you to eat as this is a survival mechanism. This is a big reason why so many individuals who try to lose weight may be successful initially, but then gain it all back plus some.
It’s better to focus on strength and fueling for performance than try to make a gymnast’s body something it is not genetically meant to be. Gymnast bodies come in all shapes and sizes as we’ve recently witnessed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Body comments and “nutrition advice” aka, bad advice like “stop eating carbs”, “sugar is bad for you”, “you should eat less”, etc, are the #1 reason why so many elite gymnasts struggle with eating disorders.
Eating disorders and disordered eating are very serious mental and physical illnesses that can easily be hidden, especially when in the spotlight as an elite athlete.
Many of the nutrition and exercise practices used for “weight management” in elite sports are actually very dangerous and unethical disordered practices. For instance, many coaches have been known for making gymnasts run in sweat suits to “lose weight” before they’re allowed to practice. This is literally just a way to dehydrate an athlete and impair cognitive and physical performance. It does absolutely nothing for actual body composition. Other coaches have been known to “ban” certain foods or food groups with their athletes, often sugar or carbohydrates as a whole, even though that is the gymnast’s fuel from a physiological perspective.
The biggest issues are unrealistic standards and lack of education around growth and development. Gymnasts are not meant to remain in pre-pubescent bodies as they turn 14-16+ years old. A 16 year old gymnast’s body should look different than her 12 year old body. It’s like “we” as coaches, parents, medical providers, and gymnastics judges “forget” that all pre-teen gymnasts will one day be young women. Bodies need to be allowed to change and mature accordingly.
Making comments about a gymnast’s body under the guise of “improving performance” will often result in underfueling, increased body dissatisfaction, and poor performance. If not poor performance, then injuries often occur, which leaves the gymnast sidelined all together.
Starting nutrition education early for parents of young gymnasts is key to long-term success and longevity in the sport. Creating a gym culture that is pro-fueling will get more out of the athletes and lead to increased success due to less injury and fatigue. Gymnastics culture is slowly changing and more and more coaches are seeing the power of proper fueling, which previously has been a very “taboo” subject in the sport.
If you are a gymnastics coach or club owner and want to provide support for your team gymnasts and parents, check out our Signature 4 Part Team Talk Series.