Be sure to go check out part 1 of this blog series to get caught up on the basics of hydration, fluids, and electrolytes, and why these matter for the gymnast.
In this post, we’re going to continue the discussion and get to the practical application (which you’ve all been waiting for!).
When you think your gymnast is just “not trying hard enough” but is actually dehydrated/under fueled
As little as 2% dehydration (2% body weight lost through sweat) will cause significant impairments in aerobic performance, motor control, cognitive functioning, fatigue, and perceived exertion. When an athlete is dehydrated, the workout will feel more “difficult” than it is. This is very difficult for young, high-level gymnasts to discern due to their perfectionistic driven nature. They perceive these feelings of being “tired” or practice being “difficult” as just a normal part of the sport versus the possibility that they are at a point of dehydration and glycogen depletion. I’m not saying that gymnastics isn’t difficult. It most certainly is, but often there’s an added layer of dehydration and under fueling that is exacerbating the fatigue.
When these athletes feel sore, fatigued, lethargic, etc… these high-level gymnasts think they just need to “try harder”. This is a part of our toxic gymnastics culture where listening to the athlete and teaching them to listen to their body is not valued. This leads to overtraining, overuse injuries, chronic under fueling/dehydration, and burnout. Along with eating disorders, lifelong injuries, and unattained dreams.
A lot of the fatigue, lethargy and lack of focus/concentration during a 3-6 hour workout may not be because the sport is “difficult”. Most gymnasts are lacking the appropriate hydration, electrolytes, and carbohydrate in terms of performance nutrition.
How do you know if your gymnast is under-hydrated or dehydrated?
Aside from yellow/ dark colored urine or excessive thirst/sweating (hard to tease out in younger athletes), fatigue/lethargy and nausea/headache are the other big physical symptoms that coaches and parents need to pay attention to.
When I was a high-level gymnast, there was many a night where I’d get a horrible headache towards the end of practice (especially in the summer). I’d just come home, skip my shower and dinner, and head straight to bed with the lights off. It didn’t even occur to me or my parents that this was likely caused by dehydration and under fueling. I figured it was some sort of migraine that was light sensitive. But I was wrong as a 16-year-old (haha). Not until I became a dietitian did I understand that this was a potential symptom of dehydration. It likely could have been alleviated through proper fueling and hydration which was not taking place in my life.
Nausea is another symptom of dehydration
Sometimes workouts are so intense that athletes vomit. I would not consider this a “normal” part of sport. We know from the research that oftentimes adequate hydration for a gymnast will alleviate some of the causes. You also have to be extremely careful as this is also a sign of heatstroke. There is an unfortunate point in summer training hours where you hear about young athletes dying on the field of heatstroke. They were improperly hydrated and fueled for long workouts in the sun with football pads, etc. I have not heard of a gymnast dying from heatstroke, but some severe complications happen before death and need to be avoided through adequate training, hydration, etc.
Most gyms have AC but not all. Plus it’s probably not as cool as you keep the house. Don’t just assume because your athlete gets nauseous or they vomit that it’s because training is “hard”. That is not a “badge of honor”. You need to ensure your gymnast is hydrated, fueled, and that something else isn’t going on.
Causes of dehydration
Causes of dehydration or under hydration could be high volume sweat or intense/long workouts (certainly the 4+ hour workouts of the high-level gymnast). I’ve heard it thrown around in the gymnastics world that “gymnasts don’t sweat and only need water, never a sports drink”. This statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. To say that gymnastics is a sport where athletes don’t sweat is complete non-sense and misinformation. Again, there is a big difference for a high-level gymnast strategically using a sports drink mid-way through practice versus a recreational gymnast drinking one during her 2 hour practice because it’s “cool” or “tastes good”.
Another risk of dehydration would be for the gymnast who is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder. Whether it is restrictive in nature like anorexia or binge/purge like in bulimia or binge eating disorder. Either of these conditions can predispose the athlete to inadequate fluid/electrolyte consumption and thus dehydration and electrolyte imbalance which puts them at risk of complications (stroke, death). Especially for the high-level gymnast during a 4+ hour intense workout. If your high-level gymnast refuses to eat/drink before practice, they should not be allowed to practice. It is unsafe at such an intense level of training. The sad reality is many gyms and coaches have PROMOTED inadequate fueling and hydration. Either by weighing gymnasts before/during/after practice, making comments about their bodies, or telling them that food is not allowed. That they just need to drink water and “deal with it”.
Other signs of dehydration
Other than headache and nausea, muscle cramps are another common sign of dehydration. Though they can also be related to neuromuscular issues and/or electrolyte depletion and can’t always be blamed on hydration status. Adequate hydration is certainly a way to try and prevent muscle cramps. Or at least rule out hydration/electrolyte status as a cause if appropriately provided.
Dark, low volume urine equals dehydration. The first void or “pee” after practice should not be darker than lemonade in color. If it is, that means you just practiced most of practice dehydrated. Urine doesn’t need to be clear. There is such a thing as over-hydration (hyponatremia) and young athletes shouldn’t be drinking gallons upon gallons per day (a big reason why they need a hydration strategy). On the contrary, if the gymnast is going through a 4-5 hour practice without having to urinate or only urinate once or twice, that is also a problem and likely sign of dehydration.
This may be related to an entire other issue surrounding gymnasts not wanting to eat or drink before/during practice. Perhaps they don’t want to use the restroom, don’t want to look full or “bloated”, or are worried about feeling heavy or nauseous, etc. Can we please normalize needing to use the restroom and the abdomen being slightly distended after eating and drinking?
Another cause of athletes struggling with hydration (and fueling) is due to comments made by coaches, teammates, parents about the athlete looking “fat” or “bloated” after they eat or drink. This “bloat” is just a product of food and fluid volume in the stomach and has nothing to do with actual bodyfat or body shape, etc. Unfortunately, these kinds of comments can scar a gymnast and prevent them from adequately fueling/hydrating their bodies.
Child/Adolescent Gymnasts are not just “Small Adults”
An issue children/adolescents face versus adults is that child/adolescents’ thermoregulatory mechanism for body cooling is different than adults until they fully go through puberty. Children/adolescents do less “evaporative cooling” or sweating than adults. So even though you may not visibly see them sweat and assume they’re not losing fluid, they still are through other means. They also have a greater body surface area than adults which allows for more fluid loss and thus need to have their hydration status more closely monitored.
Obviously hot and humid conditions are where hydration gets tricky for a gymnast. Water will unlikely do the trick for a workout longer than 1.5-2 hours. Make sure to check out my new masterclass, How to Keep the High-Level Gymnast Healthy This Season to help guide you and your athlete through the decision process of “do I need something more than water at practice?” Be sure to join our FB group to not miss out on the discussions as well.
Most gyms just allow their gymnasts to “drink when thirsty”. They have a water fountain or allow them access to their water bottles as needed. However, this cannot be trusted for adequately hydrating the young gymnast. Children/adolescents often ignore thirst cues as they are having too much fun, are too focused, or don’t want to miss their turn or spot during an event.
How should my gymnast hydrate during practice?
Deciding what your athlete needs to drink and eat during practice can get complicated. Go to the sports or natural foods stores and you’ll find hundreds of different electrolyte products on the shelves. And all of them will have different claims and electrolyte compositions. Some have just electrolytes, some have electrolytes and carbohydrates. Some have other ingredients added to them that may or may not actually show performance benefits, etc. There are many options in terms of the “what” of hydration and performance nutrition. It all comes down to the gymnast’s goals, intensity/frequency/duration of the workout, weight, sweat rate, etc.
But you also need to remember their “maintenance” fluid needs for the rest of the day, and provide adequate fluids for rehydration post-workout which is based on sweat losses, etc.
What kind and how much electrolyte is tricky since it largely depends on how much the gymnast is sweating. Sweat is composed of primarily sodium, chloride, and potassium. Although small losses of calcium and magnesium occur which are important in nerve conduction and muscular contraction.
Water is never a bad choice, but there comes a point in the workout where your gymnast is going to need additional carbohydrates and electrolytes for optimal fueling and hydration. We want to be able to continue the same work output throughout practice that they started with. Not tank by the 3rd event and struggle through the end of the practice.
A Gymnast’s Hydration Strategy
My recommendation is to have a hydration strategy for these athletes. Together, we can work out how much fluid and electrolytes the athlete needs for maintenance during the day. We also address pre, intra, and post workout fueling and hydration in my 1:1 coaching program. This takes away the guesswork from “what to drink and eat”. The athlete is optimally fueled and hydrated so they can perform their best in the gym each day. What and how much they need is highly dependent on their age, weight, practice schedule, intensity/frequency/duration of practices, etc.
If your athlete is getting in a pre-workout meal or snack with sodium and carbs, they should be pretty good with just water for the first 1-2 hours of the workout. Again, this depends on how well they were hydrated before practice and the intensity/duration of the workout plus the climate.
About 1.5-2 hours into the workout the high-level gymnast should have some sort of carbohydrate and sodium along with the fluid. Be it a sports drink, whole foods with added salt, a different low carb electrolyte beverage with additional carbs from juice/fruit/whole foods, etc. The gymnast is estimated to use about 10-30g of carbohydrate per hour. However, very intense events during practice for the high-level gymnast could use upwards of 60g+ in the hour. This carbohydrate utilization is highly dependent on the intensity of the workout. And how much of each hour is spent “working” versus resting, standing, waiting for a turn, etc.
Looking for more hydration help for your gymnast?
If you want to learn more, check out our Facebook group community- The Gymnast Nutritionist’s® Parent Community. You’ll get access to weekly live videos on all things nutrition for the gymnast as well as here on the blog for longer, more in depth articles.
If your gymnast needs 1:1 help, check out my gymnast coaching program The Balanced Gymnast®. In that program, we develop custom fueling and hydration strategies for every season of practice and competition. We work together to ensure your athlete is reaching her highest potential through optimized nutrition.
We also have our 6-week course called The Balanced Gymnast️ Method ® Course. This course is an in-depth educational online course for high-level gymnasts, parents, coaches, and medical providers on fueling the gymnast. We cover all aspects of nutrition, including gymnast hydration (module 2!) as well as promote a positive relationship with food + body. Gymnasts of all levels (compulsory through former elite) have completed the course with their parents and loved it! Enrollment will open again in February 2022, so don’t miss out!