Is your gymnast’s nutrition supporting her recovery from long hours in the gym?

Recovery is known as the “5th event” in women’s gymnastics. This encompasses nutrition, physical/mental rehabilitation, and sleep to fully allow the body to repair and recover from high loads of intense training required by the sport.

There are so many aspects of recovery that gymnasts can improve upon. Nutrition can be an issue when long practices run into meals and snacks (most do over 4+ hours) and needs special attention.

In this article I’ll cover the “big rocks” of recovery nutrition and what you need to ensure your gymnast is getting right today.

Recovery starts with adequate nutrition

If your gymnast is not eating enough to support her daily energy needs, growth/development, and training…it doesn’t really matter what she’s eating post-workout as the body won’t have the building blocks it needs to fully repair and rebuild. Inadequate energy availability or RED-S is a big reason that many gymnasts experience not only delayed puberty but the accompanying issues of overuse injuries and non-healing injuries, along with less-than-expected improvements and adaptions to training.

Signs your gymnast isn’t eating enough:

No period by 16 years old (called primary amenorrhea and needs to be evaluated by a physician. Most likely related to inadequate energy availability in a high-level gymnast but could be related to other hormone-related conditions like PCOS) or infrequent periods (called secondary amenorrhea which is the absence of menstruation for 3 or more months). 

-Recurrent injuries, overuse injuries, or slow-to-heal injuries that aren’t following the expected recovery timeline

-Excessive soreness and poor recovery between workouts. Many gymnasts are very over-trained by Friday/Saturday. This is often related to poor programming in the gym, but can also be a consequence of inadequate nutrition/hydration which impairs recovery between workouts.

Adequate nutrition means enough protein to keep the athlete in a positive protein balance, adequate carbohydrate to fully saturate muscle and liver glycogen stores from which the body draws upon during gymnastics, and enough fat to provide energy and the building blocks for hormones, etc.

Obviously, adequate nutrition also encompasses adequate micronutrients (vitamins/minerals) and antioxidants, but we’ll talk more about that in another post.

Recovery continues with adequate Performance Nutrition

The next aspect of Recovery Nutrition relates to the nutrition and hydration provided before and during a workout. The protein consumed before a workout provides the amino acids that are available to the body immediately post-workout to start the recovery process. This is part of the reason that you don’t have to necessarily slam a protein shake within 30 minutes of a workout (see here), though this is highly dependent on training frequency/duration and if the gymnast has two-a-day workouts.

The carbohydrates consumed pre and intra-workout will replace what the body is using during anaerobic exercise like gymnastics and spare the body from breaking down the muscle tissue for energy. As glycogen stores decline, the rate of perceived exertion increases, and muscle breakdown increases. Carbohydrate is “protein sparing” and thus should not be restricted. Using percentages of the diet as carbohydrate is out of favor as weight-based dosing of macronutrients is more specific to the athlete. Which is how I work with my high-level 1:1 gymnast nutrition coaching clients.  

Neglecting pre and intra-workout nutrition will impair the body’s ability to adequately recover post-workout. Even if the gymnast is consuming post-workout nutrition, it will serve to pay the “debt” from no pre/intra-workout nutrition and won’t go towards actually rebuilding stronger and fully repairing the body. In short, if you don’t replace the energy (calories) the body is using during a workout, the body will be left in a deficit and is forced to break down muscle tissue for energy which impairs full adaption to training.

Recovery continues with post-workout nutrition and hydration

There is a myth about post-workout nutrition in terms of having to eat IMMEDIATELY post workout or you’ll “lose the gainz”. This isn’t necessarily true. For most gymnasts practicing 3-4 hours a day the next meal/snack after practice is usually sufficient if consumed within 1-2 hours. If the gymnast has practice from 4-8PM and skips dinner when she gets home because it’s “too late”, that’s an issue. If the gymnast has practice from 8-1PM and then skips lunch because they had intra-workout fuel and are worried about “eating too much”, that’s also a problem (real life story).

If your gymnast has a long commute to and from the gym and it’s going to be longer than 1-2 hours before a meal or post-workout snack can be consumed, then it would be wise to bring a snack to gym to be consumed after practice on the way home.

If your gymnast has a morning workout, you should consume breakfast, pre-workout/intra-workout nutrition, recovery snack/lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and maybe a bedtime snack.

If your gymnast has an afternoon workout, they should have breakfast, mid-AM snack, lunch, pre-workout snack, intra-workout snack, post-workout snack/dinner, and maybe a bedtime snack.   

The recovery snacks in addition to lunch or dinner are all dependent on energy needs, frequency/duration/timing of training. I also factor in the athlete’s appetite and preferences when deciding on the meal patterns with them.

So how much protein should my gymnast be consuming post-workout?

Post-workout protein is about attaining the “leucine threshold” so that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is maximally stimulated. We know from the research that it takes bout 20-40 g of high-quality protein (contains 3g leucine, animal proteins) to “turn on” MPS. How much protein is dependent on whether this is a post-workout snack or meal and what has already been consumed. Nutrition is about “context”. Just giving a blanket recommendation of 20-40g protein post-workout and other 20-40g at the meal when the gymnast arrives home could be too much for a young high-level gymnast or even inadequate depending on age, weight, goals, gender, etc.

The gymnast should be consuming at least 0.7-0.9 g/lb protein (1.5-2 g/kg) per day, divided into 3-5 “feedings” which works out to 3 meals and 1-3 snacks.

Does the gymnast need carbohydrate post-workout?

Yes, for two reasons. First, carbohydrate is needed to start the refueling process for muscle/liver glycogen stores. Aggressive carbohydrate refeeding needs to take place if the gymnast has two-a-day workouts to ensure they are properly fueled for the second training. Secondly, carbohydrate causes a small spike in insulin which works synergistically with muscle protein synthesis (this is a good thing). This is nothing abnormal about this mechanism. When carbohydrates are consumed, they are broken down into their most basic building block- glucose. When the body senses the blood glucose levels rise it signals the pancreas to produce insulin which is a storage hormone that allows glucose to enter the cells for energy.

There are lots of myths floating around about insulin and people erroneously believe that any amount of insulin production will cause fat storage which is untrue. More on this in another post.

The “how much” of the carbohydrate is dependent on frequency/intensity/duration of training, age, overall energy needs, goals, etc. Using the moderate to high activity performance plates is a good place to start. More specifically, anywhere from 3-10g/kg is recommended for gymnasts though needs to be tailored to their energy needs and training.

Is it bad for the gymnast to eat late at night?

One big issue with post-workout nutrition is gymnasts getting home late (past 8PM) from practice and worrying about eating a big dinner so close to bed. There are lots of myths out there about not eating past a certain time and the notion that somehow foods magically gain more calories at 8:00PM versus 7:59PM. Again, nutrition is all about context. Most people who “eat late at night” and are struggling with their health/weight are snacking on junk foods, going past their energy needs, etc. That is very different than the gymnast getting home and eating dinner at 9:30 PM because practice goes until 9:00PM and they need to recover and make up the nutrition.

I prefer gymnasts not to eat dinner before practice unless there is sufficient time for digestion. Dinner meals tend to be high in fat, fiber, and protein. Because of this, I’d recommend a pre-workout meal/snack which has to do with the timing of the carbohydrate digestion and availability to the body when needed during training. This is also the reason I don’t want gymnasts eating dinner during practice as blood flow to the stomach is compromised and the digestive capacity is unlikely to support a full meal that has normal amounts of fat, protein, and fiber. There is nothing wrong with coming home and having dinner when it’s “late”. Sometimes gymnasts will just “snack” because they don’t believe they can enjoy a full sized meal. But it comes down to timing and energy balance if there are body composition concerns.

There are more subtleties to recovery nutrition in terms of managing inflammation, specific nutrient like casein, etc. but these are not the “big rocks” of nutrition and thus will be expounded upon in another post. Before you get into those things that make the 2-3% difference, focus on adequate nutrition, timing of performance nutrition, and adequate post workout nutrition (and hydration).

In Summary

If this article was helpful but you still have questions about your gymnast, please send me a message or apply for 1:1 nutrition coaching if you think your gymnast has a problem and needs help. I work with high level gymnasts and help them find food freedom while pursuing elite performance. Those two things can co-exist, and I’d love to show you how!