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.
Tis the season! Many gyms are back to fall practice schedules which include two a day workouts for the high level gymnast. Some schedules I’ve worked with are 9-1PM and then 4-7PM or 9-2 PM and then 3:30-6PM which makes fueling the gymnast quite tricky.
It’s undeniable that gymnasts need at least 3 meals a day, and I’d argue anywhere from 1-3 snacks in addition to the Performance Nutrition. Check out this blog to learn more about Performance Nutrition (pre, intra, post workout nutrition).
The main priority of two-a-day workouts is adequate carbohydrate, adequate hydration, and aggressive refueling, rehydrating, and recovery between the workouts.
Two-a-days can make it easy to fall behind on nutrition and leave the gymnast chronically undernourished which can lead to an energy deficit (RED-S) that contributes to overuse or non-healing injuries, loss of menstrual function, and poor performance.
It is paramount to get in a decent breakfast before two-a-day workouts. What happens with a lot of gymnasts regardless of one or two workouts a day is they get behind on their nutrition from the start with an inadequate breakfast. By the end of the day, they are in such a deficit that they are absolutely starving and just want to eat “all the food” after practice. There’s nothing wrong with eating later at night, but you don’t want to be catching up on 50% of a gymnast’s nutrition needs after a workout at 8 or 9PM with only 1-2 hours before bed.
Ideally your gymnast would use the high intensity plate (1/2 carbs, ¼ color, ¼ protein + dairy and fat) at minimum 1.5 hours before the workout. Your athlete may not be able to handle that much food with a shorter time before the workout, but consider the first part of workouts include the warm up and stretching and you can lower the fiber and fat content of the breakfast as to not delay digestion too much. At minimum, liquid carbohydrate beverage or a smoothie could be used for faster gastric emptying.
Preferably you’d be able to include carbs, protein, and fat at this meal since it’s going to be 4-6 hours in the workout where really carbohydrates are what you want your gymnast to consume.
Read here for more specifics, but carbohydrates are the gymnast’s fuel source due to the high intensity, anaerobic nature of the sport. Carbohydrates include all fruits, whole grains, starches (potatoes), sugars (honey, maple syrup, table sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, etc), and some vegetables though they are low in useable glucose and the carbohydrate is mostly fiber. They need at minimum 5 g/kg/day carbohydrate and up to 7g/kg/day if engaging in two-a-day workouts. After about 60-90 minutes of a workout, most of the stored carbohydrate (glycogen) has been used by the muscles and the gymnast needs more fuel. You want to choose low fiber carbohydrates with minimal fat, protein, or fiber as to not delay gastric emptying and absorption from small intestines and into the blood stream.
For Performance Nutrition, you can choose from foods like fruit, dried fruit, pretzels, lower fat/fiber granola bars, or even sports drinks or homemade sports drink mixtures. Ultimately it’s up to choosing a fuel source that sits well in the stomach, energizes your gymnast, and meets their nutritional needs. I tell my gymnasts to “maximize nutrition when able”, so if you’re short on the fruits and veggie throughout the day it’d likely be beneficial to include fruit as some of the intraworkout fuel.
How much carbohydrate is needed intra-workout is specific to the gymnasts bodyweight and the intensity, frequency, and duration of the workout. But, I estimate on average a gymnast will need 10-30g of carbohydrate per hour based on intensity, though some high level gymnasts may need closer to 45g + per hour. All the more reason to work with a sports dietitian who can evaluate their training and needs so you aren’t under/overfueling.
The gymnast is going to need carbohydrates and fluid during both training sessions, though more may be needed in the longer session. This is likely, but again is dependent on all the other meals around training and adequacy of overall nutrition and hydration.
Normally post-workout recovery nutrition and hydration can be implemented within and hour or so of the workout, but not with multiple training sessions in a day. The clock is on after the first workout and within 30 minutes the gymnast needs to get in adequate carbohydrate, fluid, and protein to start the refueling (carb), recovery (protein), and rehydration process. Most gymnasts will be able to eat some sort of lunch between training sessions, but again you may want to limit how much fiber is in this and fat so that digestion isn’t slowed to the point that they feel too full/heavy in the second workout. This may not be the time for gigantic salads or veggie bowls. It’s totally fine (an encouraged) to try and include as much color as possible to fit in vitamins/minerals/antioxidants, but the gymnast’s gastrointestinal tolerance needs to be respected.
Carbohydrates should be provided in at least 1.1-1.5 g/kg to replenish glycogen stores. Protein can be based on bodyweight or aimed for 20-40g to start muscle protein synthesis. Hydration needs to be tailored to the gymnast’s sweat rate, etc. Read more in this post.
The final post-workout meal of the day (dinner) can be higher in fat and fiber than the previous meals since there is not another training session in the immediate and no concerned for delayed digestion. You don’t have to go crazy with restricting fat and fiber in the other meals around workouts, but they may not be the time to be eating entire avocados or excessive amounts of fiber rich or fiber-enriched foods.
Most gymnast parents are never taught how to help their gymnast with proper nutrition and navigate the crazy busy schedules they have to maintain.
If your gymnast doesn’t need 1:1 support yet or you aren’t sure, our online nutrition course for parents of competitive gymnasts will be the perfect fit for you to learn how to help them and prevent food/body and injury struggles down the road. Click here to learn more about The Balanced Gymnast Method™ Course.