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.
How well is your gymnast positioned for recovery from the long competition season? Are they getting what their body needs to support optimal healing, recovery, and adaptation? Or is further, more intense training just driving their body into the ground and risking next season along with their longevity in the sport?
There are several factors to assess when determining how well a gymnast is recovering from their training. The foundation of everything starts with proper and adequate nutrition.
How is your gymnast doing in terms of energy? Did she make it through her routines all season and make it look effortless? Did you know, Judges want to see your gymnast do her skills and routines with ease and flow. If not, this is actually a deduction! Or was she too exhausted by mid-season to have the energy to hit all 4 events?
Now that some of the adrenaline of season has worn off, does your gymnast seem tired ALL the time, no matter how much sleep she seems to be getting each night? There could be many factors, all of which should be investigated before they become stumbling blocks for your gymnast’s longevity in the sport.
Is your gymnast sore all the time? While some degree of soreness is a normal part of the sport, ongoing soreness that lingers beyond a day or two OR just being way more sore than teammates who all did the same work is a red flag that something is going on, namely, they’re not recovering well. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is not necessarily a marker of an effective workout, contrary to popular belief.
Gauging how effective a workout was based on soreness, whether or not you puked or how sweaty you are isn’t how it works. While it may appear to onlookers, aka your coach and teammates, that you put in a good workout, are you actually stronger for it? What’s the long-term benefit?
This leads me to the next recovery factor. How are your gymnast’s strength gains? Off-season usually involves some intense conditioning and strength training that just isn’t feasible during the competition season. If you want to learn more about the important role strength and conditioning have in gymnastics, Dave Tilley is a fantastic resource for all things S+C.
With the gymnastics world embracing more weight and strength-based training, don’t lose sight of the purpose behind these workouts. It’s not to see who can push themselves the hardest or lift the heaviest, it’s about the adaptation that comes from the workout. Is your gymnast getting more powerful, stronger, and explosive as a result of all this strength and conditioning?
Your gymnast is well-attuned with her body. She knows every little ache/pain that’s there, even if she doesn’t verbalize what’s going on. Are the aches getting worse? Is she so used to practicing in pain that it doesn’t even occur to her there might be another, better way?
Off-season is a great time to really take stock of all those aches and pains that have been with her all season…or maybe even longer. Gymnasts are a competitive bunch. It’s not unheard of for a high-level gymnast to tape areas of pain throughout the season. She’s willing to do about anything to not miss out on the big competitions that come at the end of the season. Usually when gymnasts are at their most broken point.
But while this approach is pretty commonplace, there is a better way. Using the off-season to rest the areas that are bothering the gymnast and utilize adequate nutrition to actually help heal, will prove more effective to performance and longevity in the sport in the long run.
Is your gymnast growing? If not, this is a big red flag. It’s common for parents, coaches, and physicians to assume that if a gymnast isn’t growing this is “fine” since “they’re a gymnast”. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not growing = not enough energy for repair and recovery. The best thing you can do is check your gymnast’s growth charts and make sure they’re following “the curve”.
Is your gymnast developing? She should be progressing through puberty in an age-appropriate manner, even as a gymnast. A 15, 16 year old athlete is not meant to look like the pre-puberty, tiny gymnast. As a sport we seem to forget that all gymnasts have to go through puberty, especially to be healthy and whole.
If your gymnast is 15 or older, do they have a regular period? It’s normal to start menstruation anywhere from 11-13+ years old. It’s a big red flag, yes even for gymnasts, if they’ve not started their period by 15-16. More than likely, they’re suffering from RED-S or relative energy deficiency in sport. Which is a technical way of saying “they’re not eating enough” to support growth and development.
Again, this is another big misnomer in the gymnastics world, the thought that it’s OK to not get a period as a high level gymnast. It’s just one of the many myths that have saturated gymnastics culture but it’s one that seems to have taken root. So much so, that even outside the gymnastics community it’s a widely believed “fact” by many.
Now that you know what factors to be looking at this off-season, what can your gymnast do to recover well before the rigors of the next competition season begin? Below are a few things that should be at the forefront of every day. Concentrating on these elements during the off-season will create habits in your gymnast that will serve her well when the intensity and brutal pace of season starts.
It’s not just about water for the high-level gymnast. Especially in the off-season training months which usually occur during some of the hottest times of the year.
When we think about hydration, we think of water. It’s so much more than this. Hydration involves the balance of fluid and electrolytes in the body. We know that dehydration causes significant ramifications on performance and work output, and when an athlete is dehydrated, water will only do so much.
When a gymnast doesn’t get the amount of rest or sleep that her body needs, recovery becomes even more difficult, if not impossible. Sleep is crucial for optimal recovery. This is when the “magic” happens.
Aiming for a minimum of 9 hours a night is supported by research in terms of improving athletic performance.
Inadequate sleep will lead to impaired performance and training deficits, inadequate recovery, and can also do wonky things to your appetite (which make it harder to reach their optimal body composition).
Often overlooked is the connection between adequate fueling and sleep. When a gymnast doesn’t eat enough to fuel their long 4-5+ hour workouts, the brain will switch into “fight or flight”. What some call “cave brain” mode. This is an oversimplification that describes the disrupted sleep-wake cycle seen in undernourished individuals. Click here to read more about how to get more and better sleep as an athlete.
Adequate fueling year-round can be a huge challenge and struggle for gymnasts. So it’s no surprise it’s a battle during the off-season as well. Proper nutrition for the growing athlete encompasses both normal nutrition and Performance Nutrition. Gymnasts need a lot more calories than their peers. A 4-hour workout easily uses 400-900+ calories which predominately come from carbohydrate. These calories need to be replaced to support ongoing growth, development, and recovery. All the supplements and protein powders in the world won’t work if normal, daily nutrition isn’t the foundation.
When a gymnast is adequately fueled, then Performance Nutrition can be used to ensure the high-level gymnast can reap all the benefits of the 4-5 hour practice. They have energy and power and aren’t gassing out during the last half of practice. Performance Nutrition encompasses the pre (before), during (intra), and post-workout nutrition. Plus hydration of course!
Make sure you know where your gymnast stands in the crucial areas of recovery. This off-season, assess her:
Once you have a baseline, help her level up next competition season by focusing on:
Remember that recovery is not a one and done approach. Constantly checking and reassessing how your gymnast is doing and feeling will not only help with her longevity in the sport, but her overall enjoyment of gymnastics. So many of my clients don’t know how good they can feel until they properly address the underlying root cause of underfueling.
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