You Need More Energy Than You Think

With Covid-19 at the forefront of our world right now, many gymnasts continue to be pulled in and out of the gym due to safety regulations. As competition season is starting, the important Covid-19 precautions are causing a lot of disruption in many athlete’s training for these meets.

Two months from now, State and Regional meets will hopefully be being held across the country, which leads many to wonder how their athletes will be prepared to compete as they are not training consistently. Going from practicing from 3-5 hours a day, 20-30 hours a week to having multiple days off causes a difference in energy expenditure in your athlete. However, drastically reducing food intake on off days to adapt to the difference in training schedule can actually hurt much more than the gymnast’s chance of being ready for those important meets.

When I begin to think about days off gym, three major categories come to mind.

1. Days Off

Every gymnast should have either 1 -2 days of rest and recovery.

PSA: If your gymnast is practicing 7 days a week, it is a recipe for disaster of poor performance, poor training adaption, unfavorable body composition, burnout, and overuse injuries. When your athlete is working out 7 days a week and/or wanting to train on off days, it is a pretty guaranteed sign that there is something going on with her relationship to food and her body . Trust me, I completely understand the dedication gymnasts have for their sport. However, when they are already training 20-30 hours a week you would have to make a pretty good argument as to why they need additional outside training, especially if it is not followed up with proper nutrition and recovery.

The way I like to think about off days are that they are a period of continued recovery for the athlete. We know that the bodies continues to recover from high levels of exercise for 24-48 hours post-workout, which means if your athlete practices Monday through Friday their bodies are recuperating all of Saturday and Sunday and sometimes even a bit of Monday. If your gymnast significantly decreases her food intake on those off days, she is depriving herself of the building blocks that her body needs to repair all of the worn-out muscles and tissues that have been strained all week.

This decrease in nutrition is the exact reason why we see many gymnasts exhausted by the end of the week. Their training Thursday and Friday is sub-par (with increased risk of injury) compared to Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and this isn’t just because “gymnastics is difficult”. This pattern of suboptimal training towards the end of the week is caused by your athlete not meeting her energy needs throughout the week, which puts her body in a state of poor recovery. The body simply cannot repair and recover if not provided the building blocks necessary and the time needed.

On the other hand, many gymnasts that struggle with Monday practices. One would think that after 1-2 days off over the weekend the athlete would be “fresh” on Monday, but this is not always the case. During my time in the sport, my coach would call it the “Case of the Mondays” because my teammates and I would be sluggish and tired on Mondays. These Monday blues were often blamed on what we ate over the weekend, whether that was “too much” fast food or sugar, not the fact that our bodies were very undernourished. After a week of hard, long practices, many gymnasts sleep in on Saturday mornings causing them to skip breakfast, some snacks, and maybe only eat two meals a day because they are going out to dinner and it may be a bigger meal. Due to this erratic and inadequate eating on the weekends, Monday practices are likely to feel “sluggish” as the body is under fueled.

This idea transfers perfectly to fueling on a meet day.

Although there is less energy expenditure on these days compared to a 4-hour practice, the gymnasts still need to be eating the right things before, during, and after competition. Now by right things, I’m talking about carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in adequate amounts. This is especially important for the level 9,10, elite, and college gymnasts, a meet is still a lot of energy expenditure. From stretching to timed warmups to competing high flying skills, there is a great amount of “work” that occurs and with that it needs to be followed up by adequate post-meet fueling.

Overall, 1-2 days off does not require a drastic change in nutrition. If anything, more attention needs to be paid on these days to ensure adequate nutrition to promote recovery.

I like to think of nutrition in two parts for the gymnast: “normal nutrition” aka 3 meals, 2-3 snacks to support normal growth and development and then “performance nutrition” which encompasses the pre, intra, and post workout nutrition needed for sport. Regardless of time in the gym, the gymnast should be consuming 3 meals and 2-3 snacks throughout the day as minimum. Obviously, there are alterations made for training days by incorporating pre-, intra-, and post-working fueling in order to meet their energy expenditures on those days. By properly fueling on both on and off days, your gymnasts will be far more likely to reap the benefits of all of their hard work in the gym.

2. Injuries

This category is one that comes as a package deal when competing in gymnastics. Whether the gymnast’s injury requires surgery or not, most gymnast think that radically decreasing their food intake is the right thing to do when they “can’t workout as much”.

Now, this thought process is logical in some sense.

“If I eat this much when I work out 20 hours a week and now I am not training that much, I need to decrease the amount of food I intake”.

However, what many athletes, parents, coaches, and medical providers do not understand is that for many injuries, especially surgical ones, nutrition needs can be increased by 10-50% depending on the severity of the injury. There has been a massive amount of research done on metabolic rates and how much nutrition is needed to optimally heal and often the energetic cost can be high. I have said to many of my clients that their job when they are healing from an injury, especially one that pulls you out of training, is to properly fuel their bodies with 3 meals and multiple snacks throughout the day because that can be the difference of a doctor telling you the injury is healing on its own or that you may need surgery. However, sometimes injuries need surgery regardless of nutrition and that is not the gymnast’s fault. If surgery is the only option, I want them to see that going in well-nourished will provide the highest rate of success when it comes to healing post-surgery.

Looking back, I wish I had the awareness to know that adequate nutrition could have helped my elbow OCD properly heal. I thought I was doing everything right from a nutrition, physical therapy, and recovery standpoint, so to be told years later that it never healed because I was under fueling stung a lot. Having gone through this experience, I chose a career where I could speak about the negative effects of under fueling on your athletes because, to be honest, 90% of coaches, parents, and athletes do not realize how the gymnast is fueling is actually causing more harm than good.

That being said whether injuries are surgical or not, there must be close attention to whether these gymnasts are truly receiving adequate nutrition during this time of healing.

Now, I know there is a big elephant in the room.

WHAT ABOUT THEIR WEIGHT/BODY COMPOSITION?

Well, the fact of life is that bodies change. As humans, our body composition is extremely dynamic. Being in a sport like gymnastics that has no “off-season”, the gymnast’s bodies never get a chance to really change. Something I always tell my clients; it would be normal to gain some weight or see some body change while injured. Bodies change. The most important thing during injury is adequately nourishing through the injury so you have the best chance of a full recovery. This obsession with controlling their weight only leads to the athlete become malnourished, which means that their body won’t heal properly, and they are jeopardizing the results of surgery, subsequent injury, and the rest of their career.  

Starvation and restriction often lead to coaches praising these athletes for still looking “in shape”, when they are really in horrible shape physically and their subsequent risk of reinjury/new injury is extremely high. The reality is that bodies change and when a gymnast is not training 20-30 hours a week, they may gain weight, but with proper nutrition while recovering their bodies will realign to their homeostasis once they return to the gym.

3. Long-Term

Now this is the one category where nutrition adjustments can be made, but only if the athlete is already well fueled.

Due to Covid-19, many gymnasts grew, developed, and gained weight and a lot of parents, coaches, and gymnasts are currently freaking out. As a clinician, my take on this is that 80-90% of gymnasts are unintentionally under fueled to begin with. Once these girls hit 20 plus hours a week of training, they are simply not eating enough to match their body’s energy needs, which is thousands of calories higher a week. This amount of training is equivalent to a part time job and that means there is a lot of food that needs to be consumed to prevent the gymnast from going into an energy debt.

When we look at the average growth chart (pre-Covid) for high level gymnasts, once they start training 20-30 hours a week we often see that height and weight start to drop off their “normal” curve. This drop is often excused by doctors because they think being small and with stunted growth is “normal” for a gymnast.

Well, it does matter and this delayed growth is not normal. When an injury or a pandemic strikes and these athletes cannot train as many hours as they are used to, they often shoot up in height and weight because their bodies are finally being adequately fueled. This drastic change in height and weight is VERY NORMAL. The reaction to this radical change often leads the gymnast, parents, and coaches to feel shocked and unsettled because not only has she not trained for multiple months, but now she is walking into a gym with a body that she has never done gymnastics in before.

Although her body underwent a significant change, this does not mean the situation requires a reduction in nutrition. If anything, it is so important to continue fueling through this awkward time when the body is trying to adjust and skills catch up to the new mechanics of a mature body.  

Many parents come to me saying that their gymnast was eating out of boredom over the Covid break or eating too much “junk food”, and I tell them that the reality is that an adolescent body is going to doing everything it can to defend where it wants to be from a growth and development standpoint. When the female body is preparing for menarche (first period) the body begins to gain more abdominal fat which coaches and parents are quick to blame on the gymnast’s diet. When in reality it is a completely biological response so that later it can evenly disperse that fat to the breast and hips. Again, just another example of how the body is going to fight for what it needs and that this change in body composition is due to the physiology of their development, not what they are eating.

So really when this weight and/or height gain occurs, these gymnasts need your support rather than proposing to them that it is because of what they ate.

An occasion for altering nutritional intake would be if a gymnast were taking a month vacation or taking a break from gym. This is when I come in and help them adjust their nutrition only if their energy expenditure is not requiring them to need to intake 3 meals, 3 snacks, and pre-, intra-, and post- workout fuel. However, there are many factors involved in whether or not the gymnast is working out on their break, recovering from an injury, or recovering from an eating disorder, so therefore there is no universal nutrition guide for all athletes.

In Summary

Please make sure on your gymnast’s off days that she is still intaking 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. If one meal is larger than normal and she is not hungry for every snack that’s ok, just be sure to monitor her growth chart to make sure that she is growing consistently.

If your gymnast is injured, whether it requires surgery or not, it is a perfect time to meet with a dietitian to make sure that it is not an injury caused by under fueling and ensure their current nutrition is maximally supporting adequate healing.

In terms of long term, this is where I really work on with my clients to modify their plate based on the intensity of the work out. On top of that, I teach them how to weave in their performance nutrition throughout their training and we modify this piece depending on if their healthy, sick, injured, or on vacation.

If any of these topics struck a chord, you are more than welcome to contact me for help. Do not wait to help your gymnast with their nutrition! Please contact me if you or your gymnast have any questions.