If you’ve ever wondered, worried or googled (maybe that’s why you’re here right now!) what’s normal in regards to puberty for the high-level gymnast, you are not alone.
With so many “experts” on the topic out there, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s old, outdated, and harmful information. After a quick google search of my own on the topic, I was devastated to see just how many articles come up stating that delayed puberty is not only normal in gymnastics but beneficial. Please hear me when I say, this is scientifically untrue and harmful to your gymnast.
Ask the majority of adults within the gymnastics world, or former gymnasts as well, and you’ll get something along the lines of “not getting her period is totally normal and better for your daughter when it comes to gymnastics”.
False. Not true. And potentially catastrophic for your daughter’s adult health.
I know that as parents you want to understand what’s normal and what’s not in terms of puberty for the gymnast. As well as how puberty can affect their gymnastics, body composition and health. So, let’s dive into female gymnasts’ nutritional needs during puberty. And how parents and coaches can best help without harming.
Growth and Development
“Growth and development” in regards to puberty in a gymnast are like dirty words. Old world thinking (and most of the uninformed masses of society) says that only small, child-like bodies can succeed in gymnastics.
But we forget that these gymnasts are more than just athletes to win us awards and titles. They are human beings that need to grow and develop into healthy adults, just like everyone else.
For this particular blog, we’re going to focus on female maturation. You can expect your pre-teen (9-12 years old) daughter to gain about 5-7 lbs a year as her growth spurt begins. Breasts and hips are developing and she may carry a little extra abdominal fat as everything redistributes. You can also expect about 2.5 inches in height per year.
As she hits the teen years (13-17) weight gain of 15-40+ lbs is totally normal. She is developing more “curves” as her body composition shifts and fat redistributes to her breasts and hips. Depending on the onset of puberty, height can grow 3-3.5 inches max per year.
Her body may continue to develop into young adulthood (especially if growth has been delayed). For those in the back…her 18-year-old body should NOT look like her 10 year old body.
Tracking on her own curve
The range of weight and height gain is just that, a range. Not all gymnasts are going to gain both pounds and inches at the high end. Nor should adults be trying to keep them at the low end of the range. Some gymnasts will be in the 90th percentile and some will be in the 10th. That’s why there’s no one magic number or formula to apply to everyone who goes through puberty. We can offer ranges based on the average, but it’s really about your athlete following her own growth curve.
If she’s tracking at the 50th percentile for height for most of her young life and then all of a sudden that number plummets, that is cause for alarm. Likewise, if she’s tracking at the 10th percentile for height but her mid-parental height (prediction) is at the 50th percentile, that is also cause for concern.
As for weight, we ideally want to see a child track along their own “curve’, whatever percentile that may be. But, we have to remember that gymnasts have a lot more lean mass (muscle) than normal children and thus we can expect their weight to track at a higher percentile especially as they go through puberty. For example, your gymnast’s weight may be around the 25th percentile before puberty, but then jump to the 50-75th percentile after puberty which could be totally normal for them.
Gymnasts and Puberty
Now that we’ve established that it is normal for your daughter to experience growth and development (even as a gymnast) let’s talk about the definition of puberty and the different stages, referred to as the Tanner stages.
In the first stage, you probably don’t notice anything taking place in your child as it’s described as the stage before any physical signs of puberty appear. It usually starts around 8 years of age for girls.
Stage 2 brings with it some outward changes. Breast buds are noticeable and small amount of pubic hair begin to grow. These visible changes typically start between 8-11 years old.
In stage 3 your daughter will most likely experience peak growth –20% of adult height is gained during this time and lasts about 3 years. First signs of acne may appear and she’ll experience thicker pubic hair and armpit hair. You will likely also see her body begin to develop “curves”. Estrogen signals fat storage in the breast and hips; this increase in body fat is normal and necessary. During this rapid growth is a large increase in nutritional needs and it’s absolutely crucial to be adequately and properly fueling during this development period.
When menarche begins
Many gymnasts (and their parents/coaches) fear getting their period which happens in stage 4. Menarche may start between the ages of 12 to 14 but can happen earlier based on individual development. Periods can be irregular and take some time to regulate. Height will slow down significantly during this time and you can expect your daughter to reach her adult height 1 to 2 years after her first period.
During stage 5 your daughter will eventually reach her full physical maturation. Breasts reach approximate size (although can continue to grow), periods become regular, adult height is reached and reproductive organs are fully developed.
She will look different than she did when she was 10. Hips, thighs, and buttocks are that of a young adult, NOT a pre-pubescent child. This is good, this is healthy and this is normal.
Specific Physical Concerns for the Gymnast going through puberty
For all kids going through puberty, it can be a rough, difficult and tumultuous time. I don’t think any adult looks back and says that was their favorite stage of life! But for the gymnast going through puberty, in addition to the awkwardness and uncomfortable stages, there are other concerns and issues to address.
Puberty: Bone Health
Bone growth accelerates during puberty in concert with height velocity, but bone mineralization initially lags behind. Bone growth occurs first in length, followed by width, then mineral content, and then bone density.
The rate of bone mineral accrual peaks around the age of menarche in girls, which occurs approximately 9-12 months later than peak height velocity. This period is crucial for future bone density. Peak bone mass, the amount of bone acquired at the end of the skeletal development is an important determinant of lifelong skeletal health. Individuals who experience puberty at older ages have lower bone mass in young adulthood.
Puberty: Increased Injury Risk?
The greatest risk of damage to epiphyseal growth plates occurs during the periods of peak height velocity, which also is the time of greatest change in bone mineral content. Long bones grow faster than muscle/tendon that connect to bone—can lead to apophysitis (growth plate injuries ie Severs, Osgood Schlatters, etc.)
Here’s where you might see bone stress injuries as well. The disparity in the timing of bone growth and mineralization increases risk (+nutrition). Too often I see stress reactions that turn into stress fractures and were often preventable with adequate fueling.
Puberty: Biomechanical Changes
Along with this physical growth, puberty can cause changes in a gymnast’s mechanics. Her center of mass changes; her arm span/length can affect skill timing and spatial awareness or coordination. All this can lead to a gymnast struggling to perform skills that she’s done flawlessly for years. . . aka misplaced skills.
Unfortunately, this is where the fear mongering regarding gymnasts and puberty comes roaring in. Well-intentioned coaches or parents may worry about puberty interfering with the gymnast’s elite or college potential. So, in theory, preventing puberty or delaying her period as long as possible can appear like a solid plan to ensure a gymnast reaches her peak potential in time for elite testing or the college recruiting.
But you can’t prevent a gymnast from going through puberty forever. Eventually, she’s going to grow, she’s going to get her period and she’s going to get her adult body. Trying to keep her small and light for as long as possible is really just a perfect storm in guaranteeing injuries (usually at the most important time of her career), disordered eating, early retirement and an unhealthy relationship with food as an adult.
Misplaced skills…what can you do
If your gymnast is struggling with misplaced skills, best thing to do is to take it back to basics. Lots of technical prep, aka drills, and allow her to adapt to these new changes and what they feel like.
Guilting or shaming her about missing skills isn’t going to help, especially if it’s due to body changes or growth. If anything, she’ll get even more frustrated and start to hate her body because the adults around her are so mad at it. Be patient with adaptation and strength catch-up…it could take 1-2 years depending on timing of puberty.
Menstruation: The Fifth Vital Sign
Nothing is more significant that puberty has arrived for a gymnast than getting her period. Often you will hear, “it’s totally normal, expected even, for a gymnast to get her period late because of all the training and lower body fat”. Yes, gymnasts train many more hours than their peers. Yes, low body fat can be a component of a gymnast’s physic. But not getting her period isn’t the badge of honor our culture makes it out to be.
I have clients who feel guilty about getting their period at 12, 13 or 14 years of age because based off what gymnastics culture tells them, they must not be working hard enough. Or they’re not in top physical shape if they get their period “so young”.
The average age of menarche is 12.43 years of age. Average, meaning some will be sooner and some will naturally be later. Often times it’s similar to when the mother started menstruating but shouldn’t be used as the only measure. Just because mom started late doesn’t guarantee it’s hereditary since mom could have had other things going on as well. Especially if she was a gymnast.
When the body isn’t getting enough fuel/calories to support repair, recovery and growth, it’s like a giant flashing light that it’s not a hospitable host to carry a baby. Which is why menstruation can be used as the fifth vital sign. If your gymnast is experiencing delayed puberty due to underfueling/RED-S (will expand more on this in part 2) that’s a huge red flag she’s not getting the nutrients or adequate nutrition her body needs to repair and recover. Not something to be celebrated. We now know that if an athlete is adequately fueled (and they’re recovering from the workouts both physically and mentally) the reproductive system should still work. Even with all the intense training. You can read more about all the negative and possible long term affects of delayed menarche here.
Once she starts her period, it might be inconsistent during the first few cycles. She could go months between cycles before it all regulates and become predictable. Usually by the third year after menarche, 60-80% of menstrual cycles are 21-34 days long. If she starts her period, is regular and then loses it, that is definitely cause for concern and the cause should be investigated.
Power on the other side of puberty
What has been feared for decades in our sport really should be celebrated. There is so much strength and power on the other side of puberty…we just need to safely support our gymnasts through this inevitable period of life.
Growth and development will help increase muscular strength which directly translates to improved power (and thus the ability to tumble harder/higher, vault more dynamically, etc). Young gymnasts often struggle with the power events (floor/vault) and these can drastically improve with increased body mass and strength.
We need to stop saying that “lighter gymnasts fly higher” as this is just not biomechanically true. From my great friend and colleague Dave Tilley, DPT over at Shift Movement Science, he says that:
To fly higher = More Power produced / transferred
Power = Force times Velocity
More force = Increase strength
Increase strength = increase lean body mass and muscular cross sectional area
Increase velocity = increase speed = increase rate of force development via new found strength and specific trading
Fuel well, train hard and there is a lot of good on the other side of “growing up”.
Puberty is not the big, bad boogie man that every gymnast should fear. Burying our heads in the sand and pretending it’s not happening (or worse, purposefully trying to prevent it) isn’t doing our gymnasts any favors. From an outside perspective it might seem like they’re getting ahead at first, but at what cost to their adult bodies and mental health? Not to mention the burnout or inevitable career ending injuries from years of underfueling.
Fueling properly through puberty can be the greatest gift you give your gymnast as she comes out the other side with power and performance. Maybe there’s a rough patch of adjustments, but better to relearn a skill than have to quit the sport because of repeat injuries.
There’s still lots to cover on this topic so stay tuned for Part 2 coming your way soon!
If you want to learn more about helping your gymnast fuel through puberty right now, check out our free masterclass on How to Keep the High Level Gymnast Healthy this Competition Season.