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.
Gymnastics is a high-intensity anaerobic sport that requires incredible strength, power, and yet also grace and artistry. Because gymnastics is an aesthetic sport, there are great risks of disordered eating due to weight/shape concerns. There is also an incredible need for proper fueling day in, day out, and in and around workouts to optimize performance and recovery.
Nutrition is really important for gymnasts. Those who do not fuel properly are at major risk of injury. Often these injuries occur at peak time for competition (like during high school when a gymnast is trying to get a college scholarship).
Many high-level competitive gymnasts do not eat enough to fuel optimal performance. Gymnastics as a sport has had a poor history of promoting proper nutrition. Plus the sport has changed considerably from the 1970s in terms of the difficulty and power required (and thus greater energy). Most high-level competitive gymnasts are not fueling their workouts and thus do not maximize the results of their efforts. Ultimately, this can lead to a situation where the body is not recovering from training and results in inadequate energy availability, or relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). This will compromise all aspects of training, performance, endurance, concentration, mood, and many organ systems including the bones and reproductive system.
First off, a gymnast should eat enough. Gymnasts need more calories than you think, but obviously, this varies with the intensity and duration of practice. A recreational gymnast practicing for 1 hour three times a week does not need additional nutrition compared to that of a generally healthy diet with three meals and some snacks, whatever is age appropriate.
An elite gymnast training 30 hours a week will easily need a few thousand calories, with several meals, snacks, and performance nutrition in and around training. While high-level gymnasts do not need as much nutrition as Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps, they still need more than the stereotypical gymnast has been assigned.
They should be growing along their own growth curve. They should have energy throughout training. They should have minimal injury, and if injury occurs it should heal well and according to predicted timelines.
It’s normal for children and teens to eat different amounts each day, but on average they need to be getting enough nutrition to grow, develop, repair, and recover from training.
A good starting place is three main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and about 2-3 snacks per day. This is what we consider “normal nutrition”. And would be in addition to performance nutrition or the pre, during, and post-workout nutrition and hydration used to optimize gymnastics performance and recovery.
If your gymnast is constantly tired, sore, struggles to keep up in the gym, complains of stomach issues (like bloating or constipation), hasn’t gotten her period by 15-16 years old, or just doesn’t seem to be progressing or getting stronger…it’s time to assess nutrition.
Gymnasts need a varied diet of food groups. The main food groups can be broken down into the categories of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
All humans need a certain amount of fluid each day to maintain appropriate hydration. Fluids play an important role in the body:
Most gymnasts do not drink enough during the day nor at practice. Under hydration or dehydration will impair performance, concentration, endurance, and recovery.
Gymnasts should drink mostly water but it’s also recommended they get at least 2-3 cups of milk (or a fortified plant milk per day, though not nutritionally equivalent) to help meet calcium needs for bone health. Whole fruit is preferable to fruit juice from a vitamin/mineral/fiber standpoint, but for high-level gymnasts who need a lot of energy, 100% fruit juice can play a role in the diet.
A gymnast may also need a sports drink if they are working out 4-5+ hours a day at high intensity in hot/humid climates. Or gymnastics facilities without air conditioning, which is common.
Coffee or energy drinks are not recommended for children under the age of 17 per the American Academy of Pediatrics.
As for gymnasts, caffeine does not provide “real energy” compared to food. Although you do get a quick burst of energy from caffeine through adrenaline and mobilized glycogen, this is insufficient if the diet is lacking in energy from food.
Many gymnasts face logistical challenges when it comes to meal and snack schedules. Practices are often 4-5 hours long and span at least one meal or snack, so careful thought and planning are needed to ensure optimal fueling.
Meals should be consumed about every 4-5+ hours and snacks can be used to bridge in between meals, both to satisfy hunger and also to provide adequate nutrition for the gymnast.
A common meal pattern for competitive gymnasts might look like this:
Gymnasts should get up in time to eat breakfast before morning workouts and to stay on a schedule and fit in enough nutrition.
Many gymnasts skip breakfast and then aren’t appropriately fueled for their workout. They also then tend to get so hungry or “hangry” and have a hard time listening to hunger/fullness cues as the brain just recognizes it needs food.
A lot of gymnasts and parents are concerned about eating late at night after workouts due to fears that eating past a certain time will “cause weight gain”. This is just not scientifically true. Gymnasts need to refuel and rehydrate post-workout, no matter the time of day. Food does not magically increase in caloric value after a certain time of day.
If you want to learn how to fuel your gymnast, click here for more information.
There is a difference between “snacking” between meals (which is needed for high-level gymnasts) and “fueling” during and around workouts.
For every day, between-meal snacks, pair at least 2 or 3 food groups (carbohydrates, protein, fat) for energy and staying power.
Some between-meal snack ideas:
For more great ideas specific to the gymnast, click here
Pre-workout snacks are different. You want to pair carbohydrates like grains/starches/fruits with protein or a little fat as to not slow down digestion and make sure the body has the right fuel when needed during exercise.
Some pre-workout snack ideas:
Gymnastics practices that last 3-4+ hours benefit from intraworkout nutrition and hydration to enhance performance. Many competitive gymnasts tend to get fatigued towards the end of practice and this impairs performance. But they don’t realize this is due to a lack of nutrition and hydration. Most gymnasts (parents and coaches as well) just assume being “tired” and everything feeling more difficult (increased perceived exertion) towards the end of a long workout is normal. Yes, your gymnast will be tired after working hard, but optimized nutrition can allow her to work harder, longer.
What a gymnast eats and drinks before, during, and after practice to optimize performance is called Performance Nutrition. Every gymnast should have a Performance Nutrition Strategy where they know exactly what their body needs no matter the time, duration, or intensity of the workout (or competition).
YES! There is no evidence to support gymnasts (or any human) needing to restrict certain foods to perform better. Yes, the diet should be made of nutrient dense foods like whole grains, protein, fruits, vegetables, anti-inflammatory fats, etc. But, there is always room for less nutritious foods or “fun foods” like cookies, chips, etc.
Food is social, cultural, and emotional. Most of the time we eat because we are hungry, but sometimes we eat because foods taste good. Gymnasts need to be able to enjoy all foods without guilt, shame, or anxiety. It’s often the over-restriction of foods that then leads to overeating, food sneaking, or binging.
If your gymnast seems “obsessed” with sugar or only wants junk food, she may need more food more frequently. She also may be too restricted. So it makes sense that she wants what she’s not “allowed” to have. We want our gymnasts to be confident with all foods and be able to eat to satisfy needs and not eat out of “fear of missing out” or guilt/shame.
Also, no one food is “fattening” or can cause weight gain. There are a lot of myths and misinformation in the sport about certain foods being inherently fattening, and this is just not physiologically true. Weight is not the same as body composition, and nutrition and weight regulation are a lot more than just “calories in, calories out”.
Not only are carbohydrates not “fattening”, but they are the “gymnast’s fuel” and something that’s an important part of a competitive gymnast’s diet.
First off, you are not alone if your gymnast is a selective eater. There is a wide spectrum from “doesn’t like most vegetables” to “has only 4-5 safe foods that they will eat”. The most important thing regardless of where your gymnast is on learning to try new foods is that she is eating enough.
So, even if your gymnast is a “picky eater”, she can still be fueled. She may need some additional nutrients, supplemental foods, etc to fill in the “gaps”, so it would be best to consult with a pediatric registered dietitian and possibly a feeding therapist (often a speech or occupational therapist trained in feeding).
Forcing, coercing, and threatening do not work to get kids to try new foods (and keep eating them) in the long run.
It’s also not advisable to sneak food into meals or snacks or try to “disguise” healthier foods. This breaks trust in the feeding relationship and can lead to even more selective eating.
If you’re looking to level up your gymnast’s nutrition, join our free training “How to Fuel the Gymnast for Optimal Performance”
on the blog