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.
If you’re a parent to a gymnast, more than likely you’ve approached summer training with a sense of anticipation…and dread.
It’s exciting to kick-off the up-training for new levels. Maybe there’s new training groups, different coaches, or added hours. Perhaps your gymnast has been craving something new after months of running the same old routines and skills. Summer training really is a magical time. It’s a time of new beginnings and the butterflies of “what if”.
However, it’s not just rainbows and unicorns and smooth sailing. Off-season brings with it new stresses and concerns for the gymnast and their parents. Injuries that were ignored during season are now demanding attention. Recovery is more important than ever but hard to prioritize for fear of “falling behind”.
Athletes are also working out harder than ever, often in hot or humid (or both!) climates in gyms without air-conditioning. I know many parents worry about their gymnasts in the midst of summer training becoming dehydrated or not eating enough to compensate for the longer hours due to lowered appetites. Something about being hot and sweaty just doesn’t inspire the teen gymnast to prioritize eating a balanced meal at the end of practice.
The good news is there is a straight forward formula for ensuring the high-level gymnast gets what they need during off-season summer training. We first have to address what the 3 biggest off-season nutrition mistakes are that are keeping your gymnast stuck/struggling. Then explore why so many gymnasts end up injured and exhausted by pre-season (and how to prevent this). Which will bring us to the how to fuel high-level gymnasts for life beyond sport and take the pressure off of YOU.
But WHY are gymnasts doing it? Probably the easiest answer is that adequate fueling just isn’t talked about in the gymnastics world. There’s ALOT of focus on “clean eating”, eating “healthfully” etc, but not much regarding how monumental and imperative adequate fueling is. It tends to get lost in the white noise of #dietculture because it’s not as sellable a soundbite like “clean” is these days.
There’s also the belief that fatigue/soreness is normal and gymnasts just need to try harder/push through. If you’re training 4-5 hours a day on 4 different events (5 if you count conditioning!) it’s totally reasonable to expect some soreness and fatigue, right? Sure, after a particularly hard assignment, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to be sore or a little tired the next day. But to feel that way after EVERY practice? Big red flag.
And of course, there’s also the mindset that gymnastics doesn’t have an “off season”. Gymnasts are super tough and can push 100% for 365 days a year! Sounds pretty crazy when actually written out like that, doesn’t it…
A gymnast will tell herself, “I’m not good enough, I’m not trying hard enough, there’s something wrong with my body” when this exhaustion sets in. Or maybe they think, “I eat so healthfully, what else can I do?”
Going into off-season already overtrained and underfueled can lead to major setbacks down the road (upper level optionals), cause poor performance (deductions, upgrades, etc), increase risk of injury, and shorten longevity in the sport.
When a gymnast moves past ignoring fueling needs, her performance, recovery and body composition improves. Gymnasts aren’t “starving” when they get home from practice. And even better, she’s preventing major issues from happening down the road…often when it matters most.
This is probably one of the biggest issues I encounter when working with gymnasts, parents and coaches on performance nutrition. There is colossal confusion when it comes to the difference between snacking and fueling. More often than not, gymnasts are unknowingly using the wrong types of foods to fuel workouts. Maybe because of bad advice from coaches and other professionals, or fears around appearance and weight. Or maybe they’ve just never learned what performance nutrition actually is.
But even with just a simple misunderstanding, failure to implement pre/intra workout snacks for fueling purposes can lead to poor performance, compromises recovery, and increases risk of injury while shortening longevity in the sport.
Being smart and strategic about using pre/intra workout snacks and hydration during training can help improve recovery, performance and body composition (seeing a reoccurring theme here yet?). The properly fueled gymnast gains a competitive edge over the athlete struggling to make it through practice. Especially a gymnast training in the summer when it’s extra hot and exertion is at peak levels.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times (or certainly feels that way), “healthy eating” does not equal adequate fueling, proper timing of Performance Nutrition or a healthy relationship with food
Plus, “clean eating” is arbitrary. No sugar? No salt? Nothing “processed”?
You can “eat clean” and under eat. OR overeat. Or eat enough, but not the proper macronutrients to support high level training. And unfortunately, for many, clean eating leads to overeating, sneaking, and binging.
What does this look like? The gymnast who isn’t growing well or the gymnast who is “obsessed” with sugar, carbs, chips, etc. It can be the gymnast who is always tired, sore, and has little nagging injuries (or big injuries that aren’t healing well). Its the gymnast who isn’t developing, or hasn’t started their period by 16 years old. And sadly, it looks like the gymnast who food sneaks, hides food, etc
Too many gymnasts focus on “clean eating” because of the culture we live in and what they see on social media. Filters, camera angles and lighting give an unrealistic impression of what bodies should look like. They see the impossible goal and think they need to match their eating habits to achieve something that is smoke and mirrors. To say nothing about the negative impact it will have on their actual performance capabilities or the creation of unhealthy relationships with food—guilt, shame, anxiety.
There’s also the “old wisdom” that is passed down through generations of coaches + gymnasts. These false beliefs about food and how it works in the body are harmful. Plus, there are the athletes and parents who truly just don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to performance nutrition.
“Clean eating” is kind of like the Trojan horse of gymnast nutrition mistakes. It gives a false sense of security and can leave gymnasts underfueled and missing important macronutrients. While they think they’re going above and beyond when it comes to fueling, athletes could be doing irreparable harm. And as long as they think they’re doing “fine” with food, they won’t be open to hearing what performance nutrition is actually comprised of, feeding the cycle of injury–>restriction–>re-injury.
If gymnasts (and parents!) can remove the “clean eating” blinders and see food as fuel, they will appropriately fuel their workouts for optimal performance, body composition, and longevity in the sport. And even better, they will feel confident in their fueling strategies while actually enjoying what they eat.
The elephant in the room…why do so many gymnasts end up injured before season starts?
The truth is, many gymnasts have RED-S. They simply are not taught from a young age how much energy they need to fuel 20+ hours a week of training.
What is RED-S? I’ve written about it extensively and you can read more about it here. But to sum it up, RED-S is a way to describe the physical and psychological effects of inadequate energy intake on athletes. It creates the space to erase the previous limitations of females with disordered eating, amenorrhea, and stress fractures. After all, these are only a few of the symptoms of inadequate energy availability.
To diagnose RED-S, a calculation is done that takes into account an athlete’s energy intake minus exercise energy expenditure per kilogram of fat free mass. The literature supports that a minimum of 45 kcal/kg fat free mass is required for normal physiological function and training recovery/adaptation.
When a gymnast is eating below 30 kcal/kg fat free mass, they will begin to see physiological consequences such as:
If a gymnast is not adequately fueled for the level of training in which she participates, she will forever be stuck in what I call the “recovery gap”. Without proper fueling, her body simply cannot repair and recover. Leading to injury (usually at crucial periods of competition) and early retirement from the sport she loves so much. Which is why fueling your gymnast properly during summer training is so crucial overall.
The best way to ensure your gymnast is properly fueled for her summer training this off-season is to follow a simple 3-step framework.
First and foremost, before anything else, the big rocks of nutrition serve as the gymnast’s foundation. Strength, adaptation, recovery, and growth CANNOT happen without the proper base.
When you can focus on the “big rocks”, everything else improves. There’s an over-focus on top-level strategies that won’t work without the foundation in place. It’s like trying to pick out window treatments for a house that is falling down around you because the foundation was never established. Or doing sprinting drills before you can walk. All the supplements and/or “superfoods” on the planet will not fix the underlying problem of inadequate fueling. You must first lay the groundwork, get the big rocks in place.
Nutrition is confusing, and everyone has an opinion. Parents and gymnasts are told by people they think are experts that “clean eating” is the only thing that matters. Don’t fall for that Trojan horse; establish your foundation and then go from there.
Game changer alert! When you reach a certain level in any sport, you’ll find the talent pool is deep. All the athletes at this level are talented physically. They wouldn’t have gotten to this point if they couldn’t do the skills.
But in gymnastics specifically, you’ll also see the rate of injuries go up, extended recovery times, and missed potential. What gives? Refer to above…constantly moving from competition season to off-season underfueled and overtrained, year after year…
Performance nutrition isn’t just about taking a snack to gym and calling it a day. It’s a strategic and intentional approach to ensuring the correct fuel and hydration at the right time. However, step 1, the gymnast’s foundation, has to first be in place. Building upon the “big rocks” of nutrition with a Performance Nutrition Strategy is how high-level gymnasts get the edge over their equally talented competitors. Read more about normal and performance nutrition here and how they work together.
Too many gymnasts don’t achieve their goals because of chronic underfueling, whether it’s intentional or not. Inadequate nutrition inevitably deepens the recovery gap and leads to increased injury. And it’s usually not just once. Coming back from the same injury over and over can crush any high-level gymnast’s spirits. Struggles with food/body image start sneaking in and only increase with age, distracting from focusing on performance and how good an properly fueled athlete’s body can feel.
What does a balanced gymnast look like? One that has a healthy relationship with food and her body. Who can fuel herself with the knowledge that all foods fit, even the fun ones! A balanced gymnast is an athlete who uses her nutrition to help prevent overuse injury to ensure longevity in the sport to which she dedicates so much time and energy. Someone who can utilize nutrition for when the unavoidable injuries do occur for speedy and enhanced recovery. And most importantly, a balanced gymnast moves into adulthood with an accurate understanding of and positive relationship with food.
Parents of gymnast, don’t fall for the false sense of security in thinking that “eating healthy” is enough for optimal performance and body composition. Ignoring growth and recovery will rob your gymnast of longevity in the sport.
Do something different this off-season. Your gymnast has some intense summer training in store. Don’t fall for any of the mistakes so many athletes make coming off a long, hard season. Follow my 3-step framework for fueling the gymnast that has already worked for 100s of gymnasts.
If you have a level 5-10, elite, or NCAA gymnast that wants to learn to fuel for optimal performance and longevity in the sport, click here to learn more about our nutrition coaching program for high level gymnasts with optional 1:1 upgrade —The Balanced Gymnast® Program.
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