Sleep plays a huge role in your gymnast’s ability to perform at their highest potential, optimally recover from training, and stay in touch with their hunger and fullness. 

If your gymnast isn’t getting enough sleep, they will not be able to reach their full potential in the gym. 

How much sleep does the gymnast need?

Per the National Sleep Foundation, 6-13-year-olds need 9-11 hours a night and 14-17-year-olds need 8-10 hours. Young adults is a new category (18-25 years) and need 7-9 hours of sleep. Though I’d argue the young adult athlete needs closer to 8-9 hours for the sake of recovery.

Aiming for a minimum of 9 hours a night is supported by research in terms of improving athletic performance. 

Inadequate sleep will lead to impaired performance and training deficits, inadequate recovery, and can also do wonky things to your appetite (which make it harder to reach their optimal body composition).  

I know, I know…your gymnast is super busy and there are only so many hours in the day. It feels like there is just no way to get more than 7-8 hours. But it’s time to look at the schedule and be strategic. Keep reading and I’ll give you some tips and tricks that can help get your gymnast in bed longer. 

What about sleep quality?

It’s not just about enough sleep, but the sleep needs to be quality sleep. By quality, we mean adequate non-REM and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is that “deep sleep”. There are three phases to non-REM Sleep, the third phase being where most of the repair and recovery happens with regrowth of tissues, hormone production, etc. REM sleep allows for learning and increased production of brain proteins, so also essential to optimal performance both in school and the gym. 

What impairs sleep quantity and quality?

The biggest factor for your high-level gymnast is her cell phone. These days, people of all ages lie awake in bed for an additional 30-60+ minutes scrolling through social media, checking email, etc instead of going to bed. We all do it, but for the gymnast who’s already short on time due to school and training demands, they need to get in bed and go to sleep. “Sleep hygiene” is a term for good sleep habits that help you to get a good night’s sleep. We’ll cover more of that towards the end of this blog. 

If your gymnast isn’t getting enough sleep and is hungry all the time (even though it seems like they’re eating enough), the lack of sleep is likely the issue with their appetite. 

It’s important to note that if she’s not eating enough, then that’s the bigger issue that needs to be addressed.  See herehere, and here about fueling the gymnast and adequate energy availability. 

Aside from performance and recovery, sleep plays an ESSENTIAL role in appetite regulation.  

When you don’t get enough sleep, you will feel hungrier and less satisfied after eating. This is your brain’s way of recognizing it’s tired and needs more energy, but you need this energy to come from REST and FOOD.   

A Quick Lesson on Appetite Regulation

The body produces hormones, or chemical messengers, that work throughout the body. One type of hormone, or the “Hunger Hormones” is intricately linked to food, body fat, and sleep.

Leptin is the hormone that tells the body it’s “fed” and is produced by the fat mass. 

Ghrelin is produced by the stomach and tells your brain the body needs food. 

There are several other hormones related to appetite and digestion, but we’ll cover those at a later time.

Inadequate sleep causes low leptin and high ghrelin as the body “thinks” it needs more energy, thus making you hungrier. Leading to craving quick sugars and foods that provide quick energy. This is just protective.

Adequate sleep allows you to have adequate leptin produced when full and a normal ghrelin response to needing more foods at normal times between meals and snacks.

One of the issues with just assuming a gymnast is hungry because they didn’t sleep enough is that high-level athletes can already have issues recognizing hunger/fullness because high-intensity exercise and dehydration can affect appetite. So, this whole “sleeping more to not be overly hungry” doesn’t work unless you athlete is eating enough to begin with (so they are not legitimately hungry) and have a handle on their innate hunger/fullness cues (this can be learned). 

If your gymnast is struggling with food and her body, looking at how much sleep she’s getting (along with stress management) can help allow her to normalize her eating patterns and listen to her body. There may be other issues at play, especially if she’s struggling with her body composition (like being over restricted, underfueling, over-exercising, etc). 

Sleep Hygiene for the Gymnast

✅Get off the phone. Put the phone charger across the room so that it still can be used as an alarm, but you have to physically get out of bed to grab the phone and scroll.  
✅Make it dark. Get blackout curtains, get rid of night-lights, make it a cave. 
✅Turn it down. Get the temperature cool and you’ll sleep better.
✅Avoid caffeine, none after about 2 PM as the half-life can linger on in some individuals and disrupt evening sleep. 
✅Be consistent. Make yourself a bedtime routine so that it becomes a habit and your nightly ritual. 
✅Keep a diary to-do list. It’s really helpful to do a “brain dump” of all the things on your mind instead of laying there trying to fall asleep while your mind just wanders. 

Part of being a high-level athlete is doing what it takes to ensure optimal performance and recovery. Eating and sleeping enough are two “controllables”, so take advantage. This is what can separate a gymnast from “good” to “great”.  

If you know your gymnast isn’t getting enough sleep and is struggling with food, start small. Move bedtime up by 30 minutes each week until they are getting a solid 9+ hours of sleep. Start implementing regular meals and snacks to allow your gymnast to get in touch with her hunger/fullness cues.

If your gymnast needs additional help, hop on the wait-list for The Balanced Gymnast Method® Course, a 6-week high-level gymnast nutrition course that covers all aspects of fueling the gymnast for optimal health, performance, and recovery.  Or if you think she needs more one-on-one nutrition coaching, check out The Balanced Gymnast Program®