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.
As training ramps up to prepare for states, regionals, and nationals, I am sure many of your gymnasts are coming home with more aches and pains than usual. Whether it is a freak accident injury or aching pain all over, this time of year is a breeding ground for injury. This being said, nutrition plays an essential role in healing injuries as well as prevention. Keeping the “longterm-game” in mind is very important in this sport because to achieve success throughout their career, your gymnast must be healthy enough to actually compete. Without proper nutrition, their injuries may never heal or lead to worse injuries in the future; hence, it is extremely important to be mindful about how they fuel their bodies.
You would not imagine how many gymnasts who are dealing with food and body issues fall into this viscous cycle.
This being said, it is very important for parents and coaches to allow their gymnasts to speak up about pain and actually hear them. Overtraining goes hand-in-hand with under fueling, which both can cause a proliferation of different injuries.
There are different types of pain. One is the normal soreness and aches that come along with doing a high impact sport. Now, there is also bad pain. This is the pain that often gets dismissed and allows the gymnast to fall into the vicious cycle above. Bad pain can look like many different things between stabbing pain in a joint/bone or chronic pain that will not go away. As much as nutrition can help to heal those injuries, there also has to be rest to actually let the proper nutrition do its job.
Hence, it is extremely important for coaches and parents to not dismiss their athletes when they say they are in pain. Listen to them and make them feel heard. Then, you both come up with a reasonable training plan that actually honors the gymnast’s pain.
If your gymnast is not eating enough, which would look like them possibly having RED-S, it does not matter how many supplements she is taking, her injuries are not going to heal. At the end of the day, without proper fueling the body does not have the building blocks it needs to repair the damage present.
This continuous under fueling does not just restrict healing from Monday to Friday. It is a cumulative build up that continues on from weeks to months to years.
When gymnasts get injured, there is an unspoken or spoken pressure to remain “in shape”. Diet culture has infiltrated the sport to the point that gymnasts are expected to look the same 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. It is not real life for a body to stay the exact same size/shape when training 20+ hours of the week compared to when your gymnast is injured. THIS IS OK.
Bodies are dynamic.
No body is ever the same all of the time. They are constantly changing in weight, in body composition, etc. This being said, it is VERY NORMAL for your gymnast’s body to change when they are either not training at all or are modifying training because of an injury. What this really comes down to is proper nutrition from the start. Having the appropriate fuel will make a world of a difference when your gymnast is coming back from her injury.
This concept can be split up into two sections.
Separating nutrition in this manner creates a great backbone for when injuries do arise. When training is decreased, often gymnasts, parents, and coaches first reaction is to cut food intake significantly. However, using the two categories listed above gives the dietician range to decrease their performance nutrition as they see fit (based on how much raining is removed). Staying in line with the 3 meals and 3 snacks is very important to aid in injury healing, but when exercise levels change that performance nutrition component becomes more flexible.
The amount of coaches who tell their athletes to get back in shape while they are injured is astronomical. They do not understand that the only way for their gymnast to get back into “competition shape” without doing those skills is to starve. This idea of “in shape” is all relative in the fact that their body may look the same as when they were training 20-30 hours a week, however it is nowhere near conditioned enough to actually be able to do the skills they used to be able to do.
By telling your gymnasts to get back into shape, it is having quite the opposite effect than intended. The only way your gymnast knows how to keep her body “in shape” is to starve herself or compulsively exercise. Since she is injured, she cannot act on the exercise piece so she will restrict her food instead. Not to mention that she is probably already under fueled to begin with, so this new-found restriction just makes everything worse.
Their attempt to maintain the same body they had while training 20+ hours a week only prolongs the healing process of their injury. It also is a big setup to lead your gymnast into getting reinjured later down the line. This being said, it is important to remind your gymnast that it is completely normal, and honestly expected, to gain 5-10 lbs during the injury healing process. However, this weight gain is not forever. As they begin coming back to training their body weight and composition will readjust to its correct set point. This does not mean it will whip back into the body it was before. There is a possibility that the development of their bodies while injured were completely necessary for proper growth and development.
Remember, BODIES ARE DYNAMIC. They are meant to change all of the time and this is why it is important to not compare your gymnast’s body to the one she may have had before.
One of the main things gymnasts are told when they get injured is to only eat “clean foods”. This term clean foods contains orthorexic foods that are free of any added sugars, food dye, etc. It excludes anything and everything that can be considered a junk “food” and often promotes intaking anti-inflammatory, high protein, superfood type foods.
The big problem with forcing your gymnast to only eat colorful fruits and veggies, protein, and superfoods, is that it leads to binging. When certain types of foods are restricted for a long time period, the body develops craving for those foods. It is also in food scarcity mode and therefore it will binge due to the lack of security of when the next time this food is going to be available.
This is why it is essential to allow your gymnast to enjoy the fun foods. Everything is ok in moderation. Just like only eating chocolate is harmful to your body, so is only eating broccoli. Either way your body isn’t getting all the nutrients it needs, which can be dangerous. Giving her security and the space to enjoy her food, while also incorporating anti-inflammatory foods, like salmon and walnuts, is the key to faster recovery time and a healthier relationship with food.
Putting your gymnast on a diet and watching everything she eats is actually the complete opposite of what will help them have a healthy relationship with food. Having a parent “helicopter” everything they eat only leads to a pattern of starving and binging. The starving piece of this cycle is usually due to parents being over aware of everything that their gymnast puts in their mouth. Micromanaging her food is the highway that leads to injuries, poor body composition, and most likely a life long battle with disordered eating.
This being said, no one is saying to feed your gymnast fried foods and lots of sugar all the time. However, there must be room in the diet to incorporate the “fun foods”. Your gymnast deserves to enjoy foods outside of the small orthorexic box. Allowing them to eat the “fun foods” will actually set them up to have a better relationship with food and reduce their chance of developing disordered eating.
Most parents want their gymnasts to consume every anti-inflammatory food and/or supplement in order to help their bodies recover.
If your gymnast is under fueled, it does not matter how many anti-inflammatory foods you feed her because her body does not have the nutrients it needs to process them.
None of the growth, repair, or performance that you are hoping to improve will come to fruition. RED-S, relative energy deficiency disorder, produces a severe inflammatory response on its own. Therefore, even with supplements there is no way to reverse the inflammation besides giving them adequate nutrition. This is why the mindset of just eating “clean” and changing your gymnast’s diet while they are injured is flawed. It only leads to them being under fueled and developing more inflammation, which cannot be eradicated by 1 single food.
There are some clear benefits to using some of these upper level nutrition strategies, in terms of trying to reduce inflammation. However, these strategies are only used when a gymnast is nourished, not doing disordered eating behaviors, and to boost them that last 2%. It definitely can be helpful it just has to be handled in a very specific manner.
Most times when a gymnast gets injured, one of the many things to get taken away is food from their diet. It is modeled by diet culture and the gymnastics culture, that less training somehow equals less food.
This mentality is only going to lead your gymnast into a darker hole of injuries, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, etc.
It is very important to focus on the things that your gymnast can add into her diet, instead of what she can take away. Adding more colorful fruits and veggies, nutrient dense foods, and anti-inflammatory foods is a great way to boost their diet. It is also ESSENTIAL to keep incorporating the fun foods into their diet to soothe their satiety and allow them to enjoy their food. By focusing on adding foods rather than taking them away, greatly reduces your gymnast’s chances of entering in the vicious binge-restrict cycle.
A perfect example of this truth has been going on for over the past year. Covid-19 made almost all gyms close their doors for months on end leaving thousands of gymnasts with no access to training. This truth can be seen in the numbers where there has been an insurmountable increase in eating disorders, disordered eating, and body dysmorphia among gymnasts.
The problem this time off is that gymnasts do not know how to properly fuel their bodies. They think that if I eat “A” amount when training then I am going to decrease the amount I eat on off days. When any of their training schedules are modified, there is a change in the amount of time they exercise and they freak out. Your gymnast may internally be having a panic attack and now because she knows she cannot train she will just restrict instead. This is where we have seen the rise in eating disorders.
This restriction leads to:
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
It is very important for coaches and parents to keep a watchful eye on their gymnasts that are injured. Making sure they are not losing weight, not binging, and are in good headspace are all essential signs to monitor in order to catch if an eating disorder is developing. In addition, it is also very helpful to have your gymnast see a therapist during this time of injury. It is extremely hard to go from training 20-30 hours a week to being side lined and often not coached. This drastic shift often causes gymnasts to put their feelings on their food in order to cope. By allowing them to talk to a therapist they can work through these emotions instead of binging, purging, or restricting to soothe themselves.
I hope all your gymnasts who are competing are having a great season! If you have any further questions feel free to contact me or checkout The Balanced Gymnast Program to learn more about how to fuel your gymnast for optimal performance and health this season.
on the blog