Does the thought of time out of the gym due to injury make your (or your gymnast’s) skin crawl?

I get it, I HATED missing a single day in the gym as a gymnast, especially due to injuries. I didn’t want to lose precious time to develop skills or condition. Plus, I didn’t want to have to hike up the steep hill of “getting back into shape”. And I worried (sometimes more often than not) about my body changing and being accused of looking “lazy” and “out of shape”. 

Injuries happen. To all of us. At some time or another in your career, you will miss some time in the gym. 

For those who have had a major injury and have missed months of training at 100%, the COVID-19 break was not as hard for them as some. 

The knee-jerk reaction of most gymnasts when out of the gym is to: (a) starve themselves out of fear of weight gain/body change and/or (b) over-exercise out of fear of becoming “out of shape” and “losing skills”. Neither one of these are productive and will actually only make it more difficult to get back into the gym. 

 So just how long does it take to lose muscle when not working out?

If you were to be seriously injured or ill and immobile in bed, it would take about two weeks to see loss of muscle and what’s considered “detraining”. In these two weeks, if you did not eat enough to support your daily energy needs, you’d lose precious muscle mass due to inadequate caloric intake to preserve your lean mass. 

If you are just unable to workout but are not ill and bedridden, you’d likely see muscle loss in about three to four weeks. 

For the young athlete, their bodies do a better job at preserving muscle and it takes about four weeks to see significant changes. 

Most gymnast’s injuries need more than four weeks to heal. But, this doesn’t mean they are immobilized. Most every gymnast I know does the best they can to stretch, condition, and get in some cardio as they can at home or in the gym. This is good. 

How does a gymnast prevent muscle loss and getting “out of shape” during injury?

1. Adequate food

The worst thing you can do for your body during an injury or time off is to drastically cut food intake out of fear of “getting fat”. 

I totally understand. You don’t want to be “squishy” or have extra weight you have to carry. But, having a solid nutrition foundation with adequate nutrition to cover for the “work required” during sport makes it easy to handle time out of the gym. All you need to do is peel back the extra nutrition. I.e. pre-workout and intra-workout snacks that are normally required for a 4+ hour workout but not necessarily 1-2 hours of conditioning at home. 

You may still need some additional snacks to keep you nourished. For many young athletes three meals a day is just not adequate to keep them fueled. 

Your appetite may start to decline with less time in the gym, so you can use that as your guide while being mindful of your overall nutrition. 

Adequate food looks like balanced meals with all the food groups to meet your basic energy needs and activities of daily living + exercise expenditures. This is well above 1200 calories for the young athlete; likely closer to 1800-2000 calories per day. 

2. Adequate protein

Protein is the building block of the gymnast’s muscles and tissues. Gymnasts must consume enough protein to keep your muscles from being used for energy. You will have a lot harder time returning from a long break or injury if you don’t fuel your body with enough calories and protein to spare your lean mass (muscle) from being used as energy. 

If you are not eating enough FOOD (calories), it doesn’t matter if you’re eating all the protein in the world. Your body will still use some of your muscle stores for energy. I think I state the obvious when I say, that’s not good for an athlete. 

Your muscles need 20-30 g of protein every 3-5 hours to keep “muscle protein synthesis” going. This conveniently works out to be three meals and 1-2 snacks spaced about every 3-4 hours plus or minus. 

High quality protein like chicken, beef, fish, eggs, and dairy will most effectively help your muscles repair and preserve themselves. 

3. Continue providing a stimulus to the muscles

I’m no strength and conditioning expert, but I do know that even some light conditioning and cardio is essential to keeping yourself from “detraining”. 

You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can bounce back from time off if you do these three things. Muscle memory is very powerful. You’ve been conditioning and doing the same basic skills for YEARS. Your body won’t forget how to do them after just a few months out of the gym.  

But what about weight gain? I’m worried about “getting fat”!

First off, I want to validate your concern. I get it. In your mind, your 20+ hours in the gym are what keep your body looking like it does. 

This is only partially true. Trust your body. Your appetite will down-regulate with less training, but you still need a lot more food than you think just to survive. 

As a gymnast, I HATED time out of the gym. But even when I was out for 2+ months due to a fractured back, my body hardly changed. Was I a little “softer”? Maybe. But at the same time, I didn’t obsess about things at that time. I did what I could in the gym, which was extremely limited and I visualized skills and focused on resting. I knew that would get me back in the gym faster than doing things the doctors had told me not to. So, I continued to eat regular meals and snacks but listened to my appetite. 

It wasn’t until years later when I really started to struggle with food and my body that my injury experiences didn’t go so well. 

Just like your doctor would tell you not to do certain things while injured, as your dietitian I’m going to also tell you certain things about what not to do when injured or out of the gym. 

The biggest thing you need to avoid is freaking out about your body (hard, I know) and starving. This will only set you up for later binging/overeating due to hunger/restriction. Time out of the gym is a great time to get in touch with your hunger/fullness cues. But, if you’re used to restricting then these are not something you can trust right now. You need to eat because you know you should. 

But my body feels “different” now!

So you feel like you’ve “gained weight”? 

Well, a few things could be at play. 

Maybe you just feel “less toned” from being out of the gym and not working out as much. This all has to do with fluid shifts. Perhaps you’ve been walking around semi-dehydrated all the time from not drinking enough to support your training, etc. 

You may experience some muscle atrophy, especially during extended time off. This could make you feel “different”. 

It’s also possible that you gained weight, the true fat and muscle mass that accompanies normal growth and development. Many gymnasts’ growth has been suppressed due to intense training and inadequate fueling. During times out of the gym, their little bodies finally have the chance to “catch up”. This is a NORMAL part of growth and development. It’s going to happen sometime or later. You can fight it (with bad side effects) or embrace the change and use the increased muscle mass and power to your advantage. For many gymnasts, this is a very healthy thing and will lead to improvements in their performance after some time adjusting to the new body. 

When weight overshoot happens

Or, you may have “overshot” a bit and have gained some extra body fat from eating too much. Eating “too much” equates to thousands of extra calories over the course of weeks. Which could happen in a situation where we’ve got some emotional eating or restricting/binging going on. When this happens, the body can get beyond it’s “set point” and normalizing eating patterns is one way to get things back to normal. I’ve worked with many high level gymnasts that have been told they need to “lose weight”. This only results in them starving themselves, then binging, and eventually putting on excessive bodyfat due to erratic meal patterns leading to overeating. 

Either way, taking drastic measures to “lose weight” will often result in disturbed eating behaviors and poor performance in the gym. You mustn’t just “starve” in response to body changes. Body changes which could be normal and necessary. 

When a client feels like they “got fat”, we look at many aspects of their nutrition, growth/development, and training to determine an optimal weight range and body composition for them. Many times they just need reassurance and some solid nutrition strategies to enjoy all foods while achieving their goals. 

How to Help the Injured Gymnast

If you want to make sure your gymnast’s nutrition is HELPING her…link in bio to apply for my 1:1 coaching program- The Balanced Gymnast® Program for optional/elite level gymnasts.   

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.