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.
Have a young gymnast and wondering about fueling them or what their nutrition should look like at this stage of their journey? Parents ask all the time “what do I feed my gymnast”…before practice, during practice, to prevent injuries, give them energy, etc!
And, rightfully so.
Parents recognize that this sport is much more intense at a younger age with more training hours than almost any other sport.
Plus, parents of young gymnasts also struggle with things like picky eating or their gymnast “only wanting junk food”. Or even just overall not eating enough to support their growing bodies with all the hours spent in the gym.
Learning to fuel your gymnast, which is much different than just “feeding them healthy”, is the first step to keeping your gymnast happy and successful in this sport. Most gymnast parents never learn to fuel their gymnasts. And if they do, it’s often after major injury, setback, and dollars wasted. All of which can be preventable when armed with the knowledge ahead of time.
The number 1 career killer of high level gymnasts is unintentional underfueling. And, this, unfortunately, starts at a young age. Often when gymnasts are about level 5/6 and training 15-20+ hours a week. And especially if they struggle with picky eating, have medical conditions like food allergies that make meal planning difficult, or just overall aren’t that interested in food.
There are a lot of reasons why gymnasts don’t eat enough to support their overall growth, training, and development. But, if the body doesn’t get enough nutrition (or the right nutrition at the right times) to support all of that, it won’t be able to adequately repair/recover and adapt to the training. Thus leading to injury, setback, and often burnout (and usually quitting the sport).
Often parents of competitive gymnasts are told their gymnast has to “eat clean” to “stay lean”. “Eat clean” to “be successful” or “lower inflammation”. But this isn’t the whole picture. Yes, I want your gymnast to eat a wide variety of foods and mostly whole foods. However, if they are not eating enough it won’t matter how “clean” their diet is in terms of keeping them healthy (see point number 1).
Unfortunately, when parents are given this advice, all too frequently they end up over-restricting (with the best of intentions!) their often already underfueled gymnast. This only sets them up to “FOMO” eat when they get their hands on the “fun foods” aka junk foods/ultra-processed foods. This is a huge struggle for a lot of upper level post-puberty gymnasts. And this struggle can usually be traced back to how their parents approached nutrition when they were younger.
Even if you have a picky eater, this doesn’t mean you stop serving the foods they don’t yet like. Continuing to serve and prepare a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, proteins, healthy fats, fruits/veggies, etc will help to expand their palate—especially with a no pressure approach.
Gymnasts only training 5-10 hours a week may not need much more nutrition than a normal kid. But it’s a whole different situation once they’re training ~15-20, 30+ hours a week.
Gymnasts who skip breakfast will immediately start the day behind in terms of fueling. This will set them up to go into their workout underfueled, compromising their performance and focus. Those who skip lunch will also go into their workout (often in the afternoon/evening) underfueled. Thus limiting their physical and cognitive abilities in a dangerous, highly-technical sport.
And, gymnasts who don’t fuel their workouts appropriately with Performance nutrition will also short-change their performance and recovery. This can make or break the trajectory of their career.
Sometimes parents worry about feeding their gymnasts at 8-9 PM after a late evening workout. Most likely because of over-generalized public health advice of “not eating too late”. This advice does not apply to young competitive gymnasts who need to be fueled after their workouts to support ongoing recovery and growth.
It’s easy to get off-track with fueling. But your gymnast showing up to a workout in a less than ideal state is going to negatively affect them. This is why having some structure to their day and eating is helpful for optimal performance.
Parents are often taught to feed their children when hungry and stop when they’re full. This is not wrong, and children often do a great job of intuitively regulating their nutrition intake. But, young competitive gymnasts training about 15-20+ hours a week often do not eat enough on their own due to several factors. High levels of exercise and the increase in core body temperature can blunt the appetite. Plus some gymnasts get anxious/nervous before workouts which can impair nutrition especially pre-workout.
Most parents of competitive high level gymnasts will say their gymnasts “eat enough” and their “nutrition is fine”. Yet upon assessment, this is usually not the case. So many gymnasts are plagued with low energy availability or even RED-S and this is the number one way to keep them injured, stuck, struggling, and short of their goals.
Often parents are told to not allow their gymnast to eat sugar, candy, desserts, chips, etc if they want their gymnast to be healthy and successful.
Hear me say (or read) that while nutrition and healthy eating is very important, what’s more important is your gymnast having a healthy relationship with food and their body.
So many parents unintentionally cause their gymnast to struggle with food (often for life) by instituting “clean eating”. Or by only allowing one “cheat day” per week, never keeping the “fun foods” in the house, etc. This can set your gymnast up to overdo it when she does finally get her hands on said foods. Especially when you aren’t around. She can become so obsessed with the foods you aren’t allowing that she won’t be able to self-regulate. Or be satisfied with all the nutritious foods you do want her to eat.
Now, I’m not saying it’s a free-for-all with sodas, cookies, chips, etc all day long. That would displace other important nutrients she needs in her diet. But strategically including the “fun foods” in a way that satisfies and makes sense for your gymnast and family is key to sustainable healthful nutrition.
It’s also really important to sit down and be able to eat together, cook together and learn about food preparation, and avoid extremes with nutrition or calling foods “good vs bad” which can only lead to guilt/shame and over-eating.
If you’re reading this as the parent of a young, recreational gymnast—I am so glad you’re here! There’s so much to learn from this sport and you’ll find incredibly valuable content here on our blog, on Instagram, and in our monthly newsletter.
If you have a compulsory gymnast, levels 3-5, now is the time to really start thinking about their nutrition and learning for yourself how to fuel them for this sport.
If you have a level 6-7 gymnast, now is the time to invest in learning how to fuel your gymnast for optimal performance and longevity in the sport. This is often where the train “goes off the tracks” in terms of matching nutrition to energy expenditure and the demands of the sport. And that can set your gymnast up for injury, setback, and struggle when it matters the most.
And, if you have a level 8-10, elite track gymnast, you are possibly behind when it comes to really knowing and understanding fueling your gymnast and the physiology of sports nutrition and REDS. But now is the next best time to get a handle on this. At this point, you’ve already invested thousands of dollars in the sport, and yet overlooking nutrition can cost your gymnast her big goals and dreams. Nutrition is the foundation of everything your gymnast does in and out of the gym, and you want to protect your investment in this sport (and her health during and beyond the sport).
If you want to learn more about how to fuel your gymnast in and around their workouts, check out The Balanced Gymnast® Program, our signature nutrition coaching program for female level 5-10/elite artistic gymnasts and their parents. Inside this 3 month live program, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about fueling your competitive gymnast.
And if you have a younger gymnast, checkout our self-paced course for parents, The Balanced Gymnast® Method Course–perfect for female or male gymnasts of all ages and levels!