“Help! My gymnast has a BIG upcoming meet and she’s been sick! Are there certain nutrition “tricks” to boost her immunity? What do I do to help her compete this weekend?!”
Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions during competition season about your gymnast? As we near the end of season, MANY parents are dealing with sick gymnasts and are trying to do everything in their power to help them get back to normal performance levels.
Gymnasts are notorious for not wanting to miss practice, especially during season and this close to States and Regionals. As a result, parents are desperate for answers on how to heal them up ASAP. They want to know what foods or supplements to use to boost their gymnasts’ immune systems to finish out the season strong.
Before we venture into the world of nutrition and immunity, let’s break down why these high-level gymnasts often getting sick throughout season.
Why are high-level athletes getting sick, sometimes multiple times in a single season?
There is an abundance of reasons why high-level gymnasts get run down during season. Some of the biggest culprits are back-to-back meets, traveling, struggling to stay on top of school, underfueling, and the overall stress to perform take a toll.
When you take an overworked, poorly recovered, EXHAUSTED gymnast and add the pace of performing all season long, this is a recipe for a more vulnerable immune system. Plus, it’s cold and flu season during competition season so gymnasts are more exposed to illnesses than say in the off-season or summer.
When gymnasts ignore their rundown bodies
Too often, these high performing gymnasts ignore the early signs or warnings of getting sick. And unfortunately, so many push through when a day or two of rest is really what their bodies need; not more stress and strain on an already overworked and overwhelmed system.
Instead of missing one or two practices, the gymnast who ignores the scratchy throat or sniffy nose is then out for multiple practices trying to recover. And it’s not just the missed practices when sick…too many athletes don’t listen to what their bodies need and go down for the count, HARD. But when they do finally make it back to practice, it takes a few days to regroup and get back to where they were before getting sick.
So, what could have been a couple of missed practices then turns into weeks of being unable to practice at 100%. At this point of the season, many gymnasts just don’t have weeks to spare with sub-par performance.
I also see rundown, sick gymnasts missing multiple meets during crucial competition seasons. Having back-to-back competitions, which a lot of gyms do, can result in missing more than just one meet due to an illness. And if your gymnast is already struggling with qualifying for meets, mobility, or recruiting, this can be a HUGE blow to their confidence and performance.
The connection between nutrition and immunity for gymnasts
Parents want to know what food or supplement to give their gymnasts to boost their immune system, but it’s a little more complex than that. If it was really as simple as taking high doses of Vitamin-C, we’d all immediately bounce back after, right? Not so fast.
The immune system is a large, complex and collective entity operating within our bodies. There’s no simple, quick trick to manipulating it when it seems to work against us.
And I’m here to tell you that the number one way for your gymnast to boost or protect their immunity is to optimize their nutrition day in, day out.
It’s not the flashy answer that the supplement industry wants you to believe, but that’s the most basic step in immune health.
Dietculture and the supplement industry want you to think what you’re eating is having a negative effect on your immune health. “Don’t eat that, it’s inflammatory”. Or “eating that will lower your immune response”.
Fake news. Do you want to know what is really causing inflammation and impairment in your gymnast’s immune health? Underfueling, that’s what is the bigger, most foundation issue that has to be corrected before we start crushing the green juice each day.
And before anyone comes at me, let’s agree what context we’re discussing. We’re not talking about a middle-aged, sedentary adult.
We’re talking about children and adolescents who are in the throes of major growth and development, training 20-30 hours a week, pounding their bodies and joints. And unfortunately, probably not getting enough sleep or nutrition on top of everything else they’re putting their young bodies through.
Inflammation and immunity
What most parents don’t understand and aren’t told by “wellness culture” is that the bigger culprit for inflammation and by extension, lowered immunity, isn’t that bagel your gymnast is eating. In fact, it’s not a single, specific food or food group that is causing the inflammation in your athlete’s body.
Underfueling has a direct and impactful effect on immune health, impairment, and inflammation. We see inflammation in bodies that are stressed and for the high-level gymnast, not adequately fueling for the 20+ hours of training is a HUGE stressor on the body.
Reducing nutrition to a single food to avoid for fear of inflammation is highly inaccurate and downright irresponsible of anyone promoting it.
And won’t help strengthen your gymnast’s immune health.
For a robust immune system, we need to ensure our gymnasts are fueling for the work required. We need to take into account the number of training hours PLUS what the body needs for repair + recovery, and growth + development.
Cutting out major food groups isn’t sustainable and isn’t beneficial for your gymnast’s immunity.
To put it simply, if your body barely has enough daily nutrition to repair for basic maintenance, what makes you think it’s going to have the immune response or energy to fight off a basic cold?
It doesn’t and it won’t.
I’m not saying that including nutrient dense foods in the diet with additional vitamins, antioxidants, etc isn’t important. Of course it is, I’m a sports dietitian. But, we have to start with the “big rocks” of nutrition which include adequate overall fueling first.
The effects of long-term underfueling on a body’s immune health
As mentioned before, the immune system is large and complex. But it is part of an overall hierarchy in our bodies co-existing with other systems to get us through the day. We cannot focus exclusively on immune health without taking into consideration what else is going on in our bodies.
This is where underfueling does your gymnast such a disservice. Not only does it tank their performance and tap out their endurance, long term fueling wrecks havoc on their immune system. When the human body doesn’t have enough fuel to repair, recover, and adapt to the physical activity taking place every day, the body is in state of constant stress just trying to keep the lights on.
It’s usually at this point of the season that I get questions from parents about how to maximize performance. They want to help their gymnasts hit those high scores and they’ve heard about performance nutrition. But unfortunately, their gymnast has ignored adequate fueling all year long (and for most, they’ve ignored it for YEARS). Even the best performance strategy won’t move the needle if the body is chronically stressed trying to make do with a lack of basic nutrition.
There have been countless studies that show chronic stress is toxic to our bodies. We also know that small amounts and short durations of the good kind of stress can actually be helpful. But when a body is in a state of chronic stress
Acute Strategies to Boost Immunity How to set your gymnast up for success moving forward
While ensuring adequate nutrition for your gymnast is the first step in building a robust immune system, there’s no way to 100% prevent infection and illness. We all get sick at some point. Even when we take a proactive approach to fueling to support our immune system.
So, is there anything we can do to “boost” our immunity if we have a base of proper nutrition? Are there strategies to lessen severity and duration and get our gymnasts back out there quicker?
When the big rocks of nutrition are in place, there are things we can do to mitigate some illness to recover quicker.
Supplements – Can nutrition really “boost” your gymnast’s immunity?
First and foremost, let’s ensure that the basic building blocks of nutrition are in place. That means fueling for the work required. Fueling throughout the day and starting with breakfast. Making a conscious effort to build performance plates that support the level of activity. Whether that applies to training days or recovery days. Getting in carbs, protein, and fat throughout our meals and snacks each day. Eating a diet rich in nutrient dense foods, variety, and the food foods.
But yes, there is some research suggesting the use of supplements like vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea can help prevent or lessen the severity/symptoms of colds. The results are mixed and too much of some things (like more than 50 mg zinc per day for extended periods) can be harmful and throw off the balance of other nutrients in the body (like copper). It’s important that you use the right doses for the proper amount of time and don’t randomly supplement ongoing as too much of something can become harmful.
Best practices for gymnasts to create robust immunity to repair and recover faster.
Secondly, your gymnast MUST get enough sleep. Period. I sympathize this is hard to do between practice and school hours, homework and responsibilities. But trust me, leaving practice early a couple of times to finish homework and prioritizing sleep WILL pay off in the long run. Gymnastics is not a sprint. When our athletes do too much they eventually end up burning out or sidelined by injury or illness anyway. A rested gymnast is so much stronger than an overworked, stressed out one every day of the week.
And speaking of stress, that’s the third component in building a strong immune system. A stressed body is an unhealthy body. And one who is more susceptible to anything that’s going around. Stress management plays a huge role in immune health and should be taken seriously as part of your gymnasts recovery plan. Learning time management and coping skills will go a long way in helping your gymnast handle the pressures of schools and their intense training schedule.
Looking ahead and keeping your gymnast healthy
While this season is almost over, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue to use nutrition to boost your gymnast’s immunity moving forward. If they struggled with battling colds, the flu, COVID, or anything else that was floating around their gym this season, there are steps you can take. Start today to help strengthen their immune system between now and then.
Prioritize sleep, stress management, and the big blocks of nutrition over the offseason. Help set them up for success over the next few months so that next season, they’re ready to go. And again, we can’t prevent all sickness especially during peak cold and flu season. But by establishing a foundation of adequacy and fueling for the work required, we give our gymnasts the best shot at fighting off whatever’s going around the gym. And if they do catch something, having a base of proper nutrition will help them to repair and recover faster!
If the idea of creating a fueling program for your high-level gymnast overwhelms you, please know you are not alone. That’s why we created The Balanced Gymnast® Program. It’s for parents like you who want to learn how to best support their gymnast’s health, performance, and longevity in the sport. Click here for more information and help with fueling your gymnast.