There’s a big difference between what we call Normal Nutrition versus Performance Nutrition for the gymnast. Both are of equal importance for optimal performance, recovery, and longevity in the sport.
Most high-level gymnasts never learn how to incorporate both. This is a huge reason they face numerous serious injuries, struggles, and often don’t reach their big goals and dreams.
What’s normal nutrition?
Just eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. Right? Well, this isn’t wrong, but it’s certainly a large over-generalization. And it misses a lot of nuance of fueling the competitive gymnast. Gymnasts need a lot more calories than their peers. A 4-hour workout easily uses 400-900+ calories which predominately come from carbohydrate. These calories need to be replaced to support ongoing growth, development, and recovery.
The tragic reality is that most high-level gymnasts (upper level compulsory, optional, elite track, NCAA) are not eating enough. They are chronically under fueled which will lead to massive injury and struggle down the road OR just sub-optimal performance.
This is a touchy subject in a sport that has historically promoted “thinner and lighter”.
There are several reasons WHY gymnasts don’t eat enough. Here are some of the most common we hear.
Barriers to adequate nutrition for the gymnast
Why do so many gymnasts struggle to eat enough? A big reason is pure logistics. Lots of high-level gymnasts go straight from school to gymnastics practice for 4+ hours. Then rush home and have to do homework, shower, and get in bed before doing it all over again.
It’s difficult to plan and pack a full day of nutrition away from the home. Especially when there may not be a refrigerator or microwave available. Or, maybe your gymnast is a picky eater and most of what they WILL eat is not something you can pack.
Another sad truth is that a lot of gymnasts become body-conscious from a young age, and will start to restrict their food intake. Or, they’re advised that gymnasts don’t need snacks and certain food groups (like carbs). Or are told they don’t need anything beyond water during 4+ hour intense workouts.
Snacking vs Fueling Mindset
There’s a big difference between “Snacking vs Fueling”. I love snacks. They’re a great way to bridge the gap between meals, help meet nutrition needs, and contribute to overall fueling.
But, a lot of gymnastics clubs that do give gymnasts snack breaks come from the thought process that the gymnasts are getting tired and hungry. Not from the perspective of performance nutrition for the high-level gymnast.
If gymnasts are hungry during 4-hour workouts, it’s likely due to insufficient fueling before the workout. Exercise blunts the appetite, so if there’s breakthrough hunger that’s a big sign they were under fueled to begin with. This is not optimal for performance.
The snacks used during long workouts need to be strategic in both timing and type. I like to teach gymnasts to use a “balanced snack” or pairing of carbohydrate + protein or fat for between meal snacks. For intraworkout snacks, we have to focus on what kind of fuel the gymnast is using during high intensity, anaerobic workouts. This is mainly carbohydrate.
What if my gymnast won’t eat enough?
A lot of young, high-level gymnasts don’t eat enough because they’re not hungry due to the appetite-blunting effects of long training hours. Parents often tell us they know their gymnast isn’t eating enough. But when the gymnast refuses to eat more they feel at a total loss.
This is where we teach parents to do what’s called “emotion focused coaching”. They provide support during the meal for the gymnast to finish what they need to for optimal repair/recovery and growth/development. This might look like saying something during a meal like, “Hey, I know you’re really full right now and it makes so much sense that you don’t want to eat any more food. But, this is what your body needs right now to be able to repair and recover, and for you to get better in the gym”.
What if my gymnast is a picky eater?
A lot of young (and some older) gymnasts are what we call “picky eaters” or “fussy” in the UK/Australia. This term references a broad spectrum of feeding challenges. It can range from the child who doesn’t like certain foods but still eats a good variety to the child who eats less than 5-10 foods and may have such severe aversions they need additional nutrition support via feeding tube.
We have worked with gymnasts all across this spectrum, and we love the Division of Responsibility and a “no pressure” approach. Generally, we can get really picky eaters, even those with diagnosed food aversions, allergies, etc to eat enough to support their training and growth which is absolutely necessary.
Their diet initially may not be the most varied or have the greatest nutrient density, but that might come with time (and likely outside professional help from a feeding therapist). Feeding challenges are very humbling (as parents can attest!) and when a gymnast is already training that much, we can’t wait until they decide to like fruits and vegetables. While these foods are important, they won’t contribute as much overall energy as will be needed for optimal performance and recovery.
The long-term goal is to continue to liberalize their diet, but as mentioned this may require the support of a feeding therapist which is often a speech therapist with specialized training to help overcome aversions and pickiness.
What if my gymnast won’t eat healthy enough for performance?
This is a huge concern of all sport parents. We live in a culture where we’re made to think that food is fuel and that the “quality” of your food will determine performance. While this is not wholly untrue, adequate nutrition is first and foremost.
What we often observe is that in the quest of parents to get their gymnasts to “eat healthy” they create restrictive food environments that lead to “food scarcity” and sneaking, overeating, and sometimes binging (and sadly purging).
No one food is going to directly harm your athlete’s performance. When we do see gymnast performance deficits related to nutrition, it’s often due to an overall lack of nutrition, the wrong timing with nutrition, or other nutrition related issues like deficiencies or disordered eating.
We are all about the “B+ approach” to nutrition which encompasses all foods, including those super antioxidant packed foods and the “fun foods” we all know and love.
What is Performance Nutrition?
Performance: Pre, Intra, Post
Performance Nutrition for a high-level gymnast encompasses the pre (before), during (intra), and post-workout nutrition. Plus hydration, which is strategically used to level up performance, focus, and enhance recovery. We want to “fuel for the work required”. We are making sure a gymnast can perform their best for as hard and long as possible (or to whatever is required that day).
Most gymnasts only get this partially correct. Some have a snack pre-workout, but it might not be the “right” thing. Meaning it has too much fat/fiber, too little carbohydrate, and might be only protein.
The majority of high-level gymnasts are NOT using intraworkout nutrition. Why? Because of the whole “Snacking vs Fueling” mindset. A lot of upper level coaches don’t think these gymnasts need a snack because they’re older. They think they should be able to “make it” through a 4+ hour workout. Or, they secretly have their own fatphobic issues and think if gymnasts have a 200-300 calorie snack during a 4+ hour workout it is somehow going to “make them fat”. PSA: It won’t.
I can’t tell you how many high-level gymnasts we’ve worked with that have NEVER used performance nutrition. And for many of them, this is a big reason they come to us. They’re tired, sore, injured, and trying to hold out long enough to make it college gymnastics. This is really sad. They could have been so much better in all of the previous years of training if they’d been able to show up that much more in the gym.
I tell gymnasts all the time that showing up to a workout under fueled or not using performance nutrition is like walking out of a workout halfway through. “Jaws drop” when I say this, but it’s true. Your gymnast can be physically at training and giving it her all for the 4+ hours. But if she isn’t giving her body the proper fuel, she’s not getting the most out of her training.
What should gymnasts eat before a workout?
The pre-workout snack should be mostly carbohydrate with a moderate amount of protein, and minimal fat/fiber especially as it gets closer to the workout.
What should gymnasts eat during a workout?
During a workout, we want to give them the type of fuel the body is using during a high-intensity, anaerobic sport like gymnastics. This is carbohydrate. I know, that’s like a 4-letter word in our culture. But this is biochemically what every cell in the body, the brain, and the muscles use during long workouts. Most sports use about 30-60 g of carbohydrate per hour after the first 1.5-2 hours of the exercise, but gymnastics is different given the variation in intensity and duration of workouts amongst the levels and clubs. A gymnast could need anywhere from 15 to 45+ g carbohydrate per hour after the first 1.5 to 2 hours. It just depends.
What should gymnasts eat after a workout?
Post-workout nutrition should comprise of carbohydrate and protein at a minimum. For most gymnasts, they come home to their next meal after training which is often dinner. Regardless, some still need an additional snack to support recovery after training for 4+ hours (or if they hadn’t eaten enough earlier in the day). One athlete favorite is just a good old carton of chocolate milk, or some of the newer protein-enriched chocolate milk like Chocolate Fairlife (though this is a little too low in carbohydrate).
At the end of the day, the athlete that has both their normal and performance nutrition strategies lined out will do the best. This also prepares them to transition to “life beyond sport”. It’s unlikely they’ll be working out 20+ hours a week and will need to scale back their nutrition IF they were fueling appropriately to begin with in the first place.
If you want to learn more about how to develop your OWN performance nutrition strategy, you’re invited to our brand new LIVE Performance Nutrition Strategy Workshop on February 24th. There will be a replay if you can’t make it and spots are limited. Click here to learn more and grab your spot.