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.
Last month, I hosted a webinar where I covered the top 5 fueling mistakes I saw parents of gymnasts making in 2022. If you’re like me, you’ve probably taken some time over the break to look back at 2022. In hindsight, we can all see what was working and what needs some adjusting in the new year.
In the past year, I encountered similar issues with my 1:1 clients, course, and VIP cohort members. Some reoccurring themes began to pop out. Certain things that I saw parents dealing with over and over in 2022.
The good news is these issues are easy to overcome with some forethought. Not a single one is a career killer, but parents need to know these top 5 gymnast fueling mistakes so they can avoid them in 2023!
We addressed these in our 2022 Annual Performance Nutrition Review last month. It was such a hit, we’ll definitely host one yearly. Before we begin with the top 5 gymnast fueling mistakes, I implore you to read with an open mind. Some things are hard for parents to accept as they may go against what #dietculture has taught them. But everything I teach and use for my clients is based on science and researched-backed data.
The bottom line, proper fueling is the #1 way gymnasts can achieve optimal performance and longevity in the sport. It’s vital to your gymnast’s health and career.
Okay, let’s get started with the top 5 fueling mistakes parents and gymnasts made in 2022!
We all know gymnasts are superstars physically and mentally. No doubt a direct result of their inner drive and discipline. In other words, most gymnasts come across as very mature and responsible for their age.
We as adults tend to relinquish control in the area of nutrition to them because they are so responsible and independent. Sure, we check in with them, do the grocery shopping, and most of the actual meal prepping and preparing, but when a gymnast tells us her nutrition is good, we don’t really stop and investigate.
You might have read that an intraworkout snack is crucial, but your gymnast tells you she’s not hungry during training. So you default to her expertise. Or maybe she tells you she’s just not hungry first thing in the morning, so you don’t push the breakfast thing.
Nutrition is the most undervalued aspect of high-level gymnastics training because a lot of the time its effects aren’t seen until a problem or issue blows up in our faces. Most of my clients reach out to me because of an injury that won’t heal. Or they’re battling injuries that reoccur after they return to sport. Or their gymnast has developed eating disorders or poor relationships with food. Too often nutrition is reactive instead of proactive.
But it’s not parents’ fault. You don’t know what you don’t know. And gymnastics culture + #dietculture makes it extremely difficult to know what’s best when it comes to fueling your gymnast.
Never assume your gymnast knows what’s best for their fueling. 9 out of 10 times, they’re most likely getting their nutrition information from other gymnasts, social media, or poorly worded google searches. Or best-case scenario, from coaches who mean well, but just don’t know what the research and science say about fueling a gymnast.
Pose nutrition as an experiment to your athlete. Instead of telling them they must eat a well-balanced breakfast every day for the rest of their life, suggest trying something for a couple of weeks and seeing if it helps with their energy levels throughout the day. Maybe it’s something as small as a glass of chocolate milk that you can build upon once they see and feel the difference.
The bottom line, an underfueled gymnast is a dangerous liability in the gym. If they barely have enough nutrition to get through practice, we as parents must own our role as their voice of reason/protector. While injuries are unavoidable in this sport, if your gymnast doesn’t have the energy to safely execute the skill, they should not be at practice until they learn to properly fuel their body for the work required. Period.
The second fueling mistake I saw parents, coaches, and gymnasts making in 2022, is viewing puberty as this career-ending thing to avoid. With so much misinformation out there, I completely sympathize with why it terrifies gymnasts.
Gymnastics has a long-standing unwritten rule of “lighter is better”. So naturally, it proceeds that any weight or height gain is seen as a threat to an athlete’s progress and therefore must be avoided at all costs.
I have blogs and podcasts dedicated to this subject you can check out here and here. But to summarize, we tend to forget that ALL gymnasts have to go from “point A to point B”. Your 18-year-old athlete should not look like she did when she was 10 or 11 years old. She’s missing out on heaps of power and endurance on the other side of puberty that will only help her excel at her sport.
Parents, coaches, and gymnasts, please hear me. Fueling THROUGH puberty and embracing the body changes that are normal and healthy is what’s going to give your gymnast longevity and her peak performance in this sport. Not a restrictive, “clean” diet that interferes with recovery, repair, and adaptation.
Instead, use nutrition to leverage energy and optimize recovery every step of the way. Ensure adequate fueling habits are established BEFORE puberty (there’s that preventative approach again). Add in a Performance Nutrition Plan and watch your gymnast progress towards her goals.
Question EVERY injury re: adequacy of nutrition. Don’t assume it’s just an accident or that nothing precipitated it. Especially stress injuries or overuse injuries. Be your gymnast’s advocate and ask why.
Oftentimes, mistake #2 of blaming puberty can spill over into this next fueling mistake parents and gymnasts make. In a sport where stoic and almost robotic, reserved athletes are highly praised, an emotional gymnast can quickly get a bad rap.
While I believe the sport is making great strides in holistically coaching the whole athlete, I don’t think it would be incorrect to say that tears, “talking back”, uncooperative behaviors, or overall emotional gymnasts are still seen as “un-coachable”.
Unfortunately, most don’t understand the unrecognized connection between fueling and brain power. Aka emotional regulation. An underfueled gymnast does not have the bandwidth to control the roller coaster ride of emotions that come along with training in such an intense sport and dealing with everything else going on outside of the gym.
Their body is reserving any energy it has to perform the basic functions to stay alive. Being able to regulate emotional distress from messing up on a skill or worrying about an upcoming meet isn’t the priority for the brain. It’s survival mode only at this point.
Too often, the tears and fears are chalked up to being young or the hormones that come along with puberty.
Start EARLY with your gymnast’s nutrition. Make sure they are adequately fueled for their training AND repair and recovery outside of the gym. Don’t wait until you get calls or texts from the coach about your athlete’s breakdowns and un-coachable behavior.
Implement a performance nutrition strategy once 3.5+ hour workouts begin and help your gymnast have the energy resources to process her emotions. Not only will this help at practice, but school stresses will also be better handled when your gymnast isn’t always in “flight or fight” mode.
As a coach or parent, sometimes we are aware there’s a problem, but we mistakenly give too much credence or attention to a symptom, rather than the root cause of the issue. For example, I had a lot of parents in 2022 making the fueling mistake of assuming their gymnast “wasn’t getting enough protein”, when there were far bigger issues at play.
Protein in particular gets a LOT of attention. It has been deemed “safe” by #dietculture and the building block of muscle, so naturally parents are concerned about it. Unfortunately, it can distract from the real issue.
First and foremost, before any high-level nutrition strategies are attempted, we need to ensure adequate fueling. An athlete may lack something in their diet (like protein) not necessarily because of access or lifestyle choice, but because they are not consuming enough nutrition overall.
Once we can establish that they are adequately fueled, we can then be realistic about lifestyle, preferences etc. I have clients who are vegetarians that consume enough protein through other sources, but they are aware and sensible about the hurdles they face in their daily nutrition. You must have a plan, so you don’t end up at Starbucks before a big meet with just a cup of coffee as your pre-workout fuel.
The best way to navigate preferences and lifestyle choices is to work with a professional to ensure proper fueling and nutrition patterns.
Rounding out our list of the top 5 fueling mistakes parents and gymnasts made in 2022 is the simple, “you don’t know what you don’t know”. But what exactly does that mean?
Gymnastics is a complex and complicated sport. Scores, start values, routine composition, proper form and shape, when to push and when to back off, it’s a lot.
Gradually over the years, most parents start to pick up things. Like knowing when a vault will score high or what vertical the handstand on bars needs to be to avoid deductions.
But one thing parents rarely get any real, science-based information on is nutrition. They’re pretty much left to figure it out on their own. And unfortunately, it doesn’t become a priority until there’s a problem. Too often, properly fueling a gymnast is a reactive result instead of a proactive approach.
It’s an interesting construct. Intuitively we know that a gymnast can’t do a skill for which they’re not yet physically strong enough. So we do drills and conditioning and break down the skill into smaller pieces.
But in regard to nutrition, we do the opposite. We assume it’s working…until it’s not.
Starting with nutrition BEFORE you think you need it is the key to the preventative side of fueling. While the coach is programming a skills progression plan, parents should be on the other side fine-tuning their gymnast’s meals and snacks. Once adequate nutrition is in place, then athletes can establish their Performance Nutrition Plan to take their gymnastics to an optimal level.
Proactive and preventative fueling can make the upper levels easier to navigate. You already have a plan in place and can make small tweaks and adjustments as training intensifies and the body adapts. It’s vastly more painless than trying to learn and implement when it’s already an issue.
An easy visualization for parents to begin to understand the complexities of fueling the high-level gymnast is an iceberg. On the surface, we pay attention to general and well-known topics. Big over-arching concepts that can seem overwhelming to a parent or coach who hasn’t received the proper nutritional education for this level of sport.
But below the surface, is how to execute these concepts in your gymnast’s daily life. The “stuff” that gets lost in translation when learning about fueling a high-level gymnast. For the parents who know they need to fuel their kid, but they are so picky, they throw up their hands at adequately fueling. Or the parent who is so busy with life in general, they just don’t have the time or mental capacity to plan meals out. Even though they know their gymnast’s nutrition is important.
If you feel confused or worried about any of the approaches to preventing these top 5 gymnast fueling mistakes, that’s where a dietitian comes in to help. A trained expert who knows not just what your gymnast needs to succeed, but HOW to help her get there.
For parents of younger gymnasts, taking preventative measures in 2023 will completely change the trajectory of your gymnast’s career in performance, health, and longevity. Numerous pitfalls and headaches are avoided by starting now, today, before nutrition becomes an issue.
And for parents of older gymnasts, or those already battling injuries, food and body image struggles, or just not reaching their full potential, it’s not too late. There is work to be done, but it is possible to get back on track and help get your gymnast where she wants to be. I can confidently say that because I’ve helped many gymnasts get back to the sport they love (despite fueling challenges that seemed like the end).
Watch our FREE training, How to Fuel the Gymnast for Optimal Performance to learn more.
The Balanced Gymnast® Program is a great place to start with helping your gymnast with either a proactive approach or reset on their current nutrition. Click here to learn more.
If you think your gymnast needs additional 1:1 help, I am accepting a few new clients each month. Click here to inquire.