This is your comprehensive, go-to list to see if you or your gymnast is on top of their nutrition game. The perfect diet doesn’t exist, but this is a list to help you see if your performance nutrition and overall fueling is optimal for elite performance!
1. Under fueling
Gymnastics practice schedules, especially for upper level gymnasts training 25+ hours a week, can preclude a normal meal and snack schedule. This often results in under fueling as “three square meals” often will not work for the gymnast’s schedule. They must wake up early to train, often don’t want to eat before practice, may still be at the gym through lunch, and then are still training during dinner time. The gymnast’s meal/snack pattern needs to be customized to their training schedule to ensure they’re meeting their nutrition and performance needs. Often this requires strategic planning with several small meals and snacks throughout the day.
If gymnasts are not meeting their energy needs (under fueling), several downstream effects can occur. For instance, chronic and overuse injuries can be related to under fueling along with missing menstrual periods. If your gymnast has frequent injuries, it is time for a nutrition check-in. Even if you think she is “eating enough”, chronic under fueling can have long-term health ramifications like stress fractures and infertility and needs to be addressed.
Under fueling also makes time out of the sport, often due to injury, exceedingly difficult in the body image realm. Often girls will have “delayed puberty” due to inadequate energy availability. They won’t grow and develop like their peers, but then in times of injury or time off (like COVID 19) they’ll suddenly have enough energy available and their body will rapidly try to catch up which can come as quite the shock. This catch-up growth is very normal but can be unsettling especially if a lot of linear growth and weight gain is involved as this can alter the mechanics of their gymnastics.
When you’re “fueling for the work required” (see below), it’s not a big deal to take time off due to choice or injury as the performance nutrition can be “peeled back” and the gymnast is still left with adequate fuel for normal growth and development.
A lot of parents come to me concerned that their gymnast isn’t “eating healthfully” or “only eats junk food”. This can be multi-factorial, sometimes based on perception, and other times the realities of over-restriction. I’ll cite that other factors like picky eating can be at play, but we’ll discuss that in another article.
Often, we restrict or severely limit foods we perceive are “bad” or “unhealthy” in order to influence our children’s diets in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, this often leads to them wanting these forbidden foods even more and being unable to moderate their consumption when allowed. Or, what happens more often, is children and teens start to sneak these forbidden foods and when caught feel intense guilt/shame that can perpetuate a tumultuous relationship with food.
Just because your athlete’s nutrition is important doesn’t mean their diet cannot include the “fun foods”. These foods are more commonly known as “junk foods” or “bad foods” in the gymnastics world, like chips, sweets, candy, and the like.
I’m a proponent of the “90/10 rule” where 90% of the diet is made of the “healthy” foods like lean proteins, whole grains/starches, veggies, fruits, and healthy fats while 10% is allotted to any and all “fun foods” of choice.
3. Relying on too many nutrition supplements and bars/powders
The “nutrient density” or vitamin/mineral/antioxidant content of the athlete’s diet can easily be diluted by highly advertised “sports nutrition” products like protein bars, powders, nut butter spreads, etc. Instead of reaching for some fruit and a protein/fat source like Greek yogurt and nuts, they grab a protein bar made of hydrogenated oils, protein powder, and artificial sweeteners and fibers.
My best advice? Focus on whole foods. These can be fresh, frozen, or canned. But, aim for foods that resemble a natural food source. These can surely include processed foods like whole wheat crackers or granola bars (try to limit added sugars) but still resemble a food source versus a protein bar or shake with minimal ingredients that are rich in other vitamins/minerals.
One example would be protein powder. Though I love a high quality protein powder (animal-based like whey, casein, or egg white), they are devoid of other beneficial nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous, choline, and other vital nutrients found in the whole food source.
Nutrition is about context. Is it wrong to have the protein bar or shake after practice? No, not necessarily. What I ask athletes and parents to do is “maximize nutrition when able”. If you are going to use a protein powder for a recovery shake and you’re short in the fruit and veggie department that day, I’d prefer you blended the powder into a smoothie versus just shaking with water and chugging.
The other issue with these sports nutrition supplements/products is trying to substitute them for “real foods”, i.e. protein ice cream instead of ice cream, protein energy balls instead of a cookie, etc. There is nothing wrong with these “foods”, but often times gymnasts will end up over-eating them because the “fake” version doesn’t satisfy the craving for the real-deal. Calories do matter, and if eating a 200 calorie cookie satisfies the craving versus 400 calories of protein energy balls, then the cookie may have been the better choice in certain contexts.
Did you know that 75% of athletes show up to practice? Gymnasts often complain of being “bloated” and are worried they’ll “look fat” if they adequately hydrate, and are even made fun of by coaches, etc if their stomach is the least bit distended.
Abdominal distension from food and fluids is totally normal. Things like excessive fiber, sugar alcohols, and very large meals can exacerbate this distension for a short time, but this is in no way related to weight gain or “being fat”. This is a huge education piece that are gymnasts are lacking in and often leads them to withhold fluids. It only takes 1-2% dehydration for loss of concentration and motor control, which is very detrimental to a highly technical sport like gymnastics.
5. Fueling to Perform
SO many athletes show up to practice dehydrated and under fueled. They try to get by with three meals per day without any regard for the nutrition needed to fuel sport performance. Or, they have been misinformed by parents, coaches, the media, etc about nutrition that they try to practice on the wrong fuel source.
I have known “nutritionists” and coaches tell their athletes they need only fat and protein before practice since “carbs make you fat” when success in an anaerobic sport like gymnastics hinges on carbohydrate utilization.
Gymnastics is a quick-twitch, stop-and-start anaerobic sports that using the glycolytic energy system at the cellular level. Glycolysis is the metabolism of glucose into a usable fuel called ATP which all cells require. Therefore, your gymnast should be fueling with carbohydrates before, during, and after their practice.
Carbohydrates before the workout and during provide the vital fuel source needed to maintain adequate work output while including carbohydrate as part of the recovery meal helps to refill muscle and liver glycogen stores which the body will draw from in subsequent workouts (or periods of inadequate energy like sleep, etc).
Every gymnast trains and conditions, but not every gymnast pays the amount of attention to their nutrition that is needed to really excel in the sport. Not only is learning to fuel the body essential for a sport like gymnastics, but will carry you through life beyond sport.
Solid nutrition can prevent injuries, improve concentration and stamina, and help an athlete achieve their body composition goals.
If you or your athlete is looking for more help, grab my free 5-day meal guide which will get you started with learning to “nourish with ease”.
Additionally, you’ll want to make sure performance nutrition is optimized which is something we can do together through my program The Balanced Gymnast!