High-level gymnasts are often tired (from inadequate energy or calories), under-fueled (in terms of carbohydrate for the intensity/duration of their workouts), and many report difficulties with sleep at night.
Sleep is crucial for optimal recovery. This is when the “magic” happens. Often there is an overlooked connection between adequate calories and carbohydrates that can help a gymnast fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
To most, it doesn’t make sense that gymnasts would have trouble sleeping after a long day of exercise (4-5+ hour workouts AND school, etc.). One would think that as hard as high-level gymnasts work out that they’d be completely exhausted by the end of the day.
For many, this isn’t always the case. The sleep issues often center around under-fueling, specifically inadequate caloric and carbohydrate intake.
How much sleep does a gymnast need?
Let’s review how much sleep a gymnast needs and why it’s so crucial for repair and recovery. Per the National Sleep Foundation, 6-13 yr. olds need 9-11 hours a night and 14-17 need 8-10 hours.
For athletes, aiming for a minimum of 9 hours a night is supported by research in terms of improving athletic performance.
Many experts will suggest athletes optimize their sleep hygiene to improve the duration and quality of sleep at night. Sleep hygiene centers around doing things that will optimize quality and duration of sleep. This can look like creating a bedtime routine, keeping the bedroom cool and dark, getting off electronics at a certain time before bed, and so forth. These things are always a good idea and recommended for all gymnasts. However, two other issues come into play that will get in the way of the gymnast’s sleep.
The Cave Brain
When a gymnast doesn’t eat enough to fuel their long 4-5+ hour workouts, the brain will switch into “fight or flight”. What some call “cave brain” mode. This is an oversimplification that describes the disrupted sleep-wake cycle seen in undernourished individuals.
In cave times, this would make sense. If food was scarce, the brain would be on higher alert (especially at night) in case some wild animal walked by. That may be the only chance at food for days.
Even though most all gymnasts have access to food, the brain doesn’t know that if it senses there is inadequate nutrition. All it knows is that it’s not getting enough fuel, so it needs to be on the alert.
This is one reason why gymnasts often struggle to stay asleep or wake up repeatedly throughout the night.
What is REM sleep?
Outside of adequate sleep duration, we also want to make sure the athlete is getting quality sleep which is measured by how much time is spent in REM and Non-REM sleep.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep occurs in cycles of about 90-120 minutes throughout the night. It accounts for up to 20-25% of total sleep time in adult humans. REM sleep dominates the latter half of the sleep period, especially the hours before waking.
REM sleep provides the energy to the brain that supports it during waking hours and is necessary for restoring the mind.
Non-REM sleep is known as slow-wave or deep sleep. This phase is essential for muscle recovery and restoring the body. It makes up about 40% of total sleep time. During this phase, your blood pressure drops, and your breathing becomes deeper and slower. Your brain is resting with very little activity, so the blood supply available to your muscles increases. This delivers extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients which facilitate their healing and growth. Muscles and tissues are rejuvenated during this phase of sleep.
This is why the ‘Non-REM sleep cycle’ is the most important for muscle recovery. During this cycle, the production of growth hormone occurs which is also crucial to growth and development. As the body enters the Non-REM deep sleep stage, the pituitary gland releases growth hormone which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Not enough sleep causes a sharp decline in growth hormone secretion. Growth hormone deficiency is associated with loss of muscle mass and reduced exercise capacity.
So, why do so many gymnasts have trouble going to sleep and staying asleep?
Carbohydrates Role in Gymnastics Performance
As a review, carbohydrates are found in foods such as grains, starches (potatoes, corn, peas), legumes (beans), sugars, fruit, and small amounts in non-starchy vegetables (greens, broccoli, etc.) and dairy products (lactose or milk sugar).
The greater the intensity of a workout, the more the body relies upon carbohydrate. Gymnastics, a high-intensity anaerobic sport, relies almost solely upon carbohydrate.
Gymnasts require anywhere from 5-7 g/kg/day of carbohydrate for optimal performance, which for an average 16-year-old optional/elite-level gymnast training 20-30 hours a week is more than 250-300g carbohydrate per day.
Why do many gymnasts not consume enough carbohydrate?
The other reason many gymnasts struggle to stay asleep at night is inadequate carbohydrate consumption. Most gymnasts are not even coming close to this amount of carbohydrate in their diet per day. Why? Gymnastics culture. It’s long been endorsed by the gymnastics culture that reducing carbohydrates or eliminating “high carbohydrate foods” from the diet like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc. will make a gymnast “better”. And by “better”, it’s often meant “thinner”.
Here’s the deal: weighing less or having a lower body fat percentage does not guarantee improved performance. And carbohydrates are the gymnast’s fuel. An anaerobic, high-intensity sport like gymnastics runs on carbohydrate. So, when a gymnast is instructed to “cut the carbs”, that’s the fast-track way to slow down her performance and leave her feeling “sluggish” and “heavy”. Which then often gets blamed on her weight.
More importantly, carbohydrates are not “fattening” or “inflammatory”. These are two huge misconceptions that are still being perpetuated in the gymnastics world, and they will absolutely kill a gymnast’s performance and longevity in the sport.
Carbohydrates Role in Sleep for the Gymnast
Carbohydrates are important for sleep because they are the building blocks for tryptophan and serotonin, two hormones involved in melatonin production.
Carbohydrates—>tryptophan—> serotonin —>melatonin
Melatonin is the hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain which makes one feel “sleepy”. Yes, there are many melatonin supplements on the market, but that’s not going to solve the issues if the body still senses there is inadequate nutrition (and thus the brain needs to stay “on alert”).
How to get better sleep as a gymnast
First things first. In my professional opinion as a sports dietitian who works with international elite and Olympic level gymnasts, every high-level gymnast should have a sports dietitian they work with. Gymnasts have coaches, strength coaches, physical therapists, and often a sports psychologist. A sports dietitian is also essential to the gymnast’s “team”.
It’s our job as sports dietitian nutritionists to evaluate the nutrition of an athlete, to make sure they are eating enough of the right things at the right times for optimal performance. This also includes evaluating supplements and making sure none of them are getting in the way of adequate, quality sleep.
And for me, as a non-diet dietitian, I help gymnasts also develop a healthy relationship with food and their body while ensuring they are properly fueling. Stress over food, often from rigid meal plans or diets, will also impact sleep quality and overall mental health (and performance!).
How to Get Enough Sleep as a Gymnast
Gymnasts have super busy schedules and often inadequate sleep boils down to what feels like not enough hours in the day. This is where some discipline and intentionally will come in to optimize the schedule. Make sure that homework and other responsibilities are taken care of so that after a long day of school and gymnastics, they can come home and get into bed at a reasonable time.
The other big issue with sleep is the use of social media. Most teenagers (and adults) don’ get the amount of sleep they should because of social media. We all do it…we lay in bed, tired, but pick up our phones and start scrolling social media “just for a few minutes”. But then a few minutes turns into an hour or more. There is a simple solution for this; put the phone on a charger across the room so you cannot take it with you into bed.
Some simple meal planning and preparation can also save time and ensure adequate fueling which is often done to and from the gym during the weekdays. Here is a resource to help you and your gymnast.
Helping Your Gymnast See the Value of Adequate Sleep and Nutrition
And most importantly, it’s about helping a gymnast see the tremendous value of adequate sleep. Focusing on how they feel with more sleep, better nutrition, etc. is key. Helping them see how their performance improves, is more consistent, etc. can also help with the “buy-in”.
Sleep and nutrition are the two things that can undoubtedly give a gymnast that competitive “edge” and are often the missing piece for many talented gymnasts who just don’t quite “make it”.
Hopefully, this article gives you and your gymnast some things to work on. If you’re interested in learning more, you’re invited to check out our online nutrition course for parents of competitive gymnasts—The Balanced Gymnast Method™—where we teach you to fuel the gymnast for optimal performance and so much more.