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Do competition nerves get the best of your gymnast? When we asked parents what their gymnast’s biggest challenge is on competition day, overwhelmingly they responded that “nerves” seem to make their gymnast compete differently than in practice. A lot of gymnasts struggle to eat the day of due to nerves. Or maybe they aren’t eating the right thing the night before (because of nerves or lack of planning/confusion). Parents also report that their gymnasts are too tired to utilize any mental training they’ve done because they haven’t fueled properly. 

As you can see, there is a big connection between nutrition and brain function. A lot of gymnasts think it doesn’t matter if they don’t eat much the day of a competition because they’re only going to be working out for a total of less than 1 hour. Which is true when it comes down to warming up and competing 4 routines less than two minutes each.  

But while it is true that gymnasts don’t need as much nutrition the day of a competition compared to practicing 4-5 hours at a time, this does not change the need for proper brain fuel. The first step to battling a gymnast’s competition nerves can start with her nutrition.

Nutrition and Brain Function 

The brain is an organ in the body that uses massive amounts of energy (or calories). The brain uses about 17% of one’s daily energy needs to function, which is about 400-500 calories for a high-level gymnast.

Outside of just calories, the brain uses at minimum 130g per day of carbohydrate in the form of glucose, which is the most basic building block of carbohydrate. All carbohydrates (except some fibers) break down into glucose, fructose, or galactose. This is why we often say that “all carbs break down into sugar”. Even though there are of course nutritional difference (vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidant) between foods.  

Underfueling/RED-S and Brain Function

When the brain does not have adequate carbohydrate available to it, we’ll see something called neuroglycopenia occur. Neuroglycopenia is a term that refers to a shortage of glucose in the brain resulting in alteration of neuronal function. One of the most common causes of neuroglycopenia is low blood glucose (less than 70 mg/dL). This can occur in athletes who are underfueled, or more commonly in individuals with diabetes.

Symptoms of neuroglycopenia include sudden mood/behavior changes, fatigue, nausea, headache, shakiness, etc. This is why young gymnasts will often develop an “attitude” or get disproportionally moody or irritable towards the end of a long 4+ hour workout. It’s not that they’ve suddenly become “un-coachable”. Their brain isn’t getting the glucose it needs to regulate mood/emotions amidst all the physical exertion. And this is just one reason why adequate performance nutrition during long workouts is crucial to optimal performance. Lack of emotional regulation can absolutely contribute to nerves in a competition for a gymnast.

Not only will we see these acute mood/behavior issues from inadequate fueling (read more about RED-S here), but also prolonged fatigue, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression. When individuals are starving (which happens in underfueling, whether it’s intentional or not), they can become more rigid, fearful, stressed, and anxious. All of these are issues that gymnasts seek sports performance support for…and yet it’s also a big nutrition issue which is often overlooked.

The Gut-Brain Connection

A lot of gymnasts will struggle with what’s called “nervous stomach” during workouts or competitions. They will refuse to eat or drink before practice or competition out of fear of developing nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting. These are real fears as the stomach is home to the enteric nervous system, so there is a direct link to our thoughts/feelings and somatic experiences.  

The good news is that the gut is “trainable” to accept normal amounts of food and fluid during training and competition. It just takes practice. Strategies like box breathing and therapeutic skills taught by licensed mental health providers like sports psychologists and therapists can work in tandem with nutritional strategies to overcome barriers to proper fueling. A properly fueled gymnast can utilize both her mental training and nutrition strategies to fight back when competition nerves start.

Exercise and Brain Fatigue

One of the main purposes of sports nutrition is to reduce fatigue which often becomes a barrier to optimal performance. Fatigue can be defined as an acute impairment of exercise performance that leads to an inability to produce maximal force. Fatigue can be something that is perceived, i.e. a skill or routine that all of a sudden is more difficult than normal (often towards the end of a long workout or week of practices). Or it can also result in inadequate force or power to perform the desired movement (i.e. gymnast can’t get her legs to run fast enough down the vault runway).

Athletes who can tap into the power of nutrition to lessen acute fatigue will be able to outperform and out practice their competition. This is how gymnasts can get that “edge” which can separate the “good” from the “best”.  

Breakfast and Brain Power 

Studies have shown that children who consume breakfast before engaging in cognitive performance tasks (mathematics problems, etc.) perform better than those who are still fasting from overnight (i.e. skipped breakfast).

And, not only do they perform better in school but this would translate to the gym given the highly technical skills high-level gymnasts do during long workouts. Often in the morning for gymnasts training twice a day or those early competition sessions. For gymnasts who workout (or compete) in the afternoon or evening, skipping breakfast can impair afternoon/evening performance. Even if lunch is consumed.

Another big issue with gymnasts skipping breakfast is just overall adequacy of fueling. It’s easy to get behind with fueling when a major meal is skipped, and this will impair recovery and performance.  

Fueling can cause some gymnasts to worry about weight or body composition. However, studies have shown that eating regular, evenly distributed meals and snacks throughout the day (within day energy balance) promotes a better body composition (more muscles, less fat mass) than eating a ton later in the day. Which tends to happen when breakfast and snacks are skipped. A study specifically in adolescent high-level gymnasts showed that those who spent the majority of the day in an energy deficiency had higher levels of body fat and lower lean mass which is not optimal for health or performance. 

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of consuming carbohydrate during exercise to prolong performance and decrease perceived exertion. Even the presence of carbohydrate in the mouth, where digestion begins, shows improvements in performance and perceived exertion.

Athletes who utilize carbohydrates to fuel their efforts during competitions can feed not just their body physically but also their minds. As shown above, the brain needs massive amounts of energy to function. By adding carbohydrate, a gymnast’s mind can take back the power from competition nerves.

Nutrients to Boost Brain Function 

It’s common for gymnasts to ask what specific foods will boost their performance. The unsexy answer is always going to be “adequate food”. But once a gymnast is fueling properly then we can look to what are called the “advanced strategies” to further boost performance and health.  

When it comes to brain function, a few nutrients are purported to boost function.  

  • Iron – Iron is crucial for brain function. Insufficient iron can cause fatigue or “brain fog” (which can lead to iron deficiency anemia). This is a crucial nutrient to check lab levels at least twice yearly for high-level gymnasts. Red meat is the best source of dietary iron. But plant foods like spinach and beans can also contribute to daily iron requirements.  
  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D is most often known for its role in skeletal health and bone metabolism. It also plays an important role in the regulation of important brain function genes. Low vitamin D levels can be related to increased levels of anxiety and depression, along with fatigue, lethargy, and malaise. Vitamin D rich foods include dairy products and fatty fish like salmon or sardines.  
  • Protein – Protein plays a crucial role in repair and recovery.  
  • Creatine– While often viewed as a “teenage male” supplement, it is a legal and effective ergogenic aid (energizing). Can also help with repair and recovery in addition to proper sports nutrition and programming. 
  • Omega 3s– Two specific omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, play an important role in managing inflammation. In addition, they play an important role in brain health and can be used to support concussion recovery.  
  • Choline– This nutrient is crucial for brain development and is only found in egg yolks and small amounts in nutritional yeast. This is why eating the egg yolk (and not just the whites) is super important! 
  • B vitamins– B vitamins are known as “energy vitamins” because they’re involved in a lot of metabolic processes in the body. You can find these in whole grains, meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, eggs, legumes, and fortified foods. 

Brain Injury Nutrition  

Nutrition plays an important role in brain injury (often concussion) recovery. Check out this article to learn more about nutrition strategies to employ when recovering from a brain injury. 

In Summary 

Fueling the gymnast’s body and brain is essential for optimal performance and longevity in the sport. When life gets hectic during competition season or summer season when gymnasts are at training camps, etc…you want to make sure your gymnast can perform her best. If you want to learn more, click here to checkout our signature online program for competitive gymnasts and parents--The Balanced Gymnast® Method Course.