Come every May or June, gymnasts all across the world switch to summer training schedules. This often means training in the mornings, and training harder and longer as it’s “off season”.
And, by not properly fueling their workouts, gymnasts are missing out on valuable performance and recovery.
There are a lot of reasons why gymnasts don’t want to eat before morning workouts, but main themes include time, anxiety or fear of gastrointestinal issues, fear and concern about weight/shape, and false beliefs about exercise and body composition.
Some of these need a little tough love (like get off Tik Tok and get in bed earlier!).
Some of these require some fact-checking and proper guidance on what’s true about body composition and optimal performance (fasted exercise, it’s OK to eat when not hungry, feeling “heavy”)
And some of these point to a distorted relationship with food/body and the need for nutrition (and psychological support)—(scale obsession, anxiety/nervousness before workouts or during that lead to major stomach issues).
1. Can’t (Won’t) Get out of Bed in Time to Eat
One of the main barriers in today’s culture to getting in bed on time is social media. You know what it’s like. You get into bed, say at 10PM. You decide to check Facebook or Instagram “one more time”, and then all of the sudden it’s almost midnight and you know it’s going to be super difficult to get up in the morning.
This same thing is happening to our teens and it’s very problematic for athlete recovery, cognitive function, and appetite regulation.
Because our teens can’t seem to get in bed on time, they’re often exhausted and trying to sleep until the last possible minute before rolling out of bed.
This simply won’t work for high level athletes who need to fuel their morning workouts, especially if they don’t do well with eating too close to practice.
2. Simply “isn’t hungry”, so doesn’t eat
A lot of gymnasts will say they don’t eat before morning workouts because they are “not hungry”. As a culture, we’re taught to eat only when we’re hungry and to stop when we’re full. There’s nothing fundamentally “wrong” with this, but eating and fueling is so much more than just hunger/fullness.
For most high-level athletes, exercise will blunt the appetite so there will be many times where they will still have to eat to fuel their bodies even though they may not be hungry.
Some individuals just aren’t hungry immediately upon waking, but if your gymnast has an early morning workout then they just may not have the luxury of waiting an hour to eat.
3. Fear of getting sick at practice/already nervous or anxious and can’t eat
Sometimes eating before morning workouts is as simple as making sure there is enough time between eating/training, planning simple breakfasts that can be made in less than 5 minutes, and making sure “what” is chosen for breakfast will settle well and not cause stomach issues. I can help gymnasts and parents with this.
Other times gymnasts don’t want to (or refuse) to eat before morning workouts out of fear of feeling nauseous at practice or even experiencing vomiting or diarrhea.
As a sports dietitian for gymnasts, I can help your gymnast pick the right foods at the right time that will settle and digest well before training and leave her feeling her best. Sometimes though that is not enough and we need some psychological support with anxiety, nerves etc and that’s OK. I recommend to most of my high-level gymnasts that they work with a therapist to help with food, body image, anxiety, performance, etc.
4. Addiction to Scale/Seeing a certain number on the scale (weighs before/after practice, multiple times a day, etc)
Other times there is much stronger resistance to fueling workouts due to disordered thoughts/beliefs about food and body …not a lack of “nutrition knowledge”. This is a more serious issue that needs to be addressed by a team, a sports dietitian trained in eating disorders and therapist at minimum (with ideally a medical doctor supervising and in the know). A LOT of gymnasts struggle with food and their bodies. They think “lighter is better”, try to eat as little as possible to be as small as possible. That is the reason they may be refusing to eat before practice, though it might get blamed on something else.
So many of the high-level gymnasts I work with weigh themselves multiple times a day, and this is a very negative disordered eating behavior that will cause underfueling and major psychological distress.
Disordered eating and eating disorders are often rooted in deception, so while your gymnast may tell you she doesn’t like to eat before workouts because she has “nervous stomach” or “isn’t hungry”, it actually could be because she’s worried about her body and is trying to lose weight or “slim down”.
5. Belief that fasted training “burns more fat” or is going to lead to “being leaner”
There are so many myths about nutrition and body composition in sport culture. A lot of fitness trainers, pro athletes, etc think that training fasted (especially fasted cardio) “burns more fat” which will equal out to getting leaner.
This is not physiologically true. Yes, if you do fasted exercise you will oxidize more fat as fuel, but this is not equivalent to “losing” fat mass.
For females, fasting is stressful for the body, and we want to do everything we can to minimize stress and inflammation in the body. An athlete already has high levels of stress and inflammation from just the workload related to high levels of sport, and nutrition needs to be something that helps to lessen this inflammation.
Stress hormone, like cortisol, leads to water retention and muscle breakdown which are the exact opposite someone wants who is trying to “lean out” by doing fasted exercise or engaging in intermittent fasting.
Adequate fueling is the primary tool to lowering stress on the body when it comes to female athletes.
6. Fear of feeling “heavy” at training
Lastly, many gymnast are worried about eating or drinking before practice out of fear of feeling “heavy”. They may have thought this for themselves, or this is something they’ve heard teammates or coaches say.
When I work with my most advanced clients (Jr/Sr Elite), the main reason some of them feel heavy or “sluggish” at training is because they are not fueling their workout. The “heavy” has nothing to do with “what” they ate, it’s a total lack of fueling.
Eating the wrong things from a digestion perspective before practice or during can also lead to feeling “heavy”, nausea, stomach cramps, etc. Gymnastics is a sport fueled by carbohydrate, but that’s very taboo in the culture so many gymnasts are reaching for nuts, protein bars, etc and those things just don’t break down quickly enough to provide the right kind of fuel during a workout.
Does your gymnast have a plan for summer training? Do you know how to fuel for morning workouts without feeling sick or “heavy”, etc?
Do they refuse to eat before practice and you’re suspicious that something else is going on, especially if they used to eat breakfast without issue?
If so, please reach out to chat about my premier 1:1 nutrition coaching program—The Balanced Gymnast Method™.