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 concern. 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 as those who do not fuel properly are at major risk of injury, and it’s often that 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 to not eat enough to fuel optimal performance. Gymnastics as a sport has had a poor history of promoting proper nutrition, and the sport has changed considerably from the 1970’s 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 recovery 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.
How Much Nutrition Does a Gymnast Need?
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 general 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.
How Do You Know If Your Gymnast Getting Enough Nutrition?
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.
Essential Nutrition For The Gymnast
Gymnasts need a varied diet of foods groups. The main food groups can be broken down into the categories of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
- Carbohydrate provides energy to the muscles and brain (especially during high intensity exercise). This should make up at least 50% of the gymnast’s diet and for many high-level gymnast is anywhere from 250-300g + of carbohydrate per day. Fiber is a kind of carbohydrate that is good for the gut health, helping with fullness, and stabilizing blood sugar (which normally increase from consumption of carbohydrates and then is used by all the cells of the body). Examples: Starches (like potatoes, beans, corn) and grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, etc) are also carbohydrates and the minimally processed versions tend to contain more fiber. Fruits and vegetables are mostly carbohydrate with a lot of water and some fiber.
- Protein is used at the building blocks of muscles and connective tissues. Protein should be included at all main meals and most snacks, which helps with staying power. It’s often thought that protein gives energy during workouts, but this isn’t true for a sport like gymnastics. Gymnastics is predominately fueled by carbohydrate. But, protein is still very important to help provide the building blocks to grow muscle and repair damaged muscles and tissues post-workout. Examples: red meat, chicken, fish, pork, dairy, eggs, soy, etc are considered proteins. Plant proteins (rice, beans, vegetables, grains) are not “complete”, meaning they are missing one of more of the essential amino acids or building blocks of protein that the body must get through food. Special attention needs to be given to the vegan or vegetarian diet of a gymnast. Plant proteins, except soy protein which is comparable to dairy protein, need to be combined at meals or snacks.
- Fat makes up 60% of the brain, insulates nerves, and cushions the organs. Examples: oils, nuts, seeds, animal fat, and dairy fats like butter are considered fats.
Hydration For The Gymnast
All humans need a certain amount of fluid each day to maintain appropriate hydration. Fluids play an important role in the body:
- Moisten tissues in eyes, nose, mouth.
- Assist the body in thermoregulation via sweat. Provides lubrication to the joints.
- Is the medium for transportation (of nutrients, oxygen, waste products) of the blood and across cells.
- Muscles are 75% water.
Most gymnasts do not drink enough during the day nor at practice, and 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.
Meal Timing And Eating Schedules
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 but also to provide adequate nutrition for the gymnast.
A common meal pattern for competitive gymnasts might look like:
- Mid-Morning Snack
- Pre-Workout Snack
- Bedtime Snack
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”, but this is not scientifically true. It’s important for gymnasts 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.
Healthy Snacks For Gymnasts
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:
- Fruit + nuts
- Yogurt + fruit
- Cheese + fruit
- Carrots + hummus
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:
- Peanut butter and banana
- Peanut butter toast
- Greek yogurt + fruit and granola
- Cheese stick + whole grain crackers
What Kind of Sports Nutrition Do Gymnasts Need?
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).
Can Gymnasts Eat Sugar, Junk Foods, or Unhealthy Foods?
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. It’s important for gymnasts to be able to enjoy all foods without guilt, shame, or anxiety. It’s often the over-restriction of foods that then lead 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 is 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.
What If My Gymnast Is A "Picky Eater"?
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.
Easy Tips to Help Your Gymnast's Nutrition
- Start strong! Learn to build balanced, filling, nutritious meals to keep your gymnast energized all day long.
- Use smart snacking. Learn to build snacks with foods that provide energy, satisfaction, and the right nutrients at the right times (especially in and around workouts).
- Help your gymnast learn to enjoy all foods without guilt, shame, anxiety, etc. A healthy relationship with food is so important for food and body issues not getting in the way of proper fueling.
- Make sure your gymnast is growing and developing, because if these two things aren’t happening it means her body doesn’t have enough energy to also repair and recover from training which will lead to injury.