Here at The Gymnast Nutritionist™, we get asked a lot about the best nutrition for gymnasts. We love that parents are doing the work, trying to learn how to best support their athlete on this rollercoaster ride. We applaud you for taking the time to get it right!
This post is a compilation of your most asked gymnast nutrition questions throughout the past couple of years. All in one place for your reference any time you need. Many of these questions were received from parents or coaches of high-level gymnasts through my Instagram, Facebook group, or course.
There are many blogs on these topics for you to enjoy, that will certainly answer a lot of your questions that others are also asking! We encourage you to check out the links below for more detail on how to help your gymnast with her nutrition.
1. How do I know if my gymnast is eating enough?
One of the most common questions I get from parents (and gymnasts) alike, especially when they hear about the severe ramifications of under-fueling (poor growth/development, bone loss, cardiac abnormalities, poor performance, and recovery). While one may think that just analyzing a gymnast’s caloric intake and comparing it to reference standards is adequate, this is missing several key signs of adequate fueling.
Questions to ask to assess adequate fueling:
- Growth/Development- are they following “their own” curve and tracking appropriately with normal signs of physiological development (puberty)
- Energy- are they exhausted all the time or are they able to complete workouts and make it through the day without falling asleep during school or every time they get in the car?
- Relationship with food and body– are they able to enjoy all foods without guilt/shame/anxiety or are they struggling to fuel their body? Are they constantly “body checking” in the mirror or saying things like “I’m so fat” even though they are at a seemingly healthy body composition?
- Female Health- are they getting a regular period and have started menarche by 15 years old? Sure, there are some subtle variations in this timing, but it is not normal to be amenorrheic “just because” they’re a gymnast.
- Injury Status– Is your gymnast plagued with stress reaction/stress fracture injuries or has other overuse/acute injuries that just aren’t healing as they should?
2. Help! I think my gymnast is eating too much sugar
Another super common concern of parents and coaches is rooted in fear-mongering about weight and inflammation. There are a lot of misconceptions about carbohydrates and sugar, and this often leads to parents over-restricting their gymnasts which only breeds obsession.
Healthy eaters are able to enjoy all foods and see foods as “neutral”. I’m a huge advocate for Ellyn Satter’s method of child feeding, where “all foods fit” and the parent’s job is the “what and when” and the gymnasts’ is “how much”. This helps to build trust and autonomy within the gymnast so that they are competent eaters in life during and beyond sport.
Her methods include frequently serving desserts or “fun foods” with meals and snacks to lessen the “luster”. When your gymnast knows she can have a cookie or some ice cream and it won’t be the last time EVER (which it can feel like when these foods are restricted), she is free to pick and choose what sounds good and eat until satisfied.
Food restriction breeds obsession which then leads to overcompensation. If your gymnast is never allowed Oreo cookies but loves them, she may eat “a lot” of them when she finally gets access. If she regularly gets these treats in her lunch, as a snack, or with dinner, she may find she doesn’t need nearly as many to satisfy the craving because they’re just not the special if always available.
3. Are sports drinks bad for gymnasts?
Another huge misconception comes from misguided statements and fear-mongering like “sports drinks are toxic”..
This statement couldn’t be further from the truth, and ultimately your gymnast has choices about what she wants to fuel her body with.
When it comes to hydration, there comes a point where plain water is not sufficient. This is where the need for additional carbohydrate and electrolytes come in to facilitate fluid absorption. And yes, gymnasts can sweat a lot and need fluids other than plain water to sufficiently hydrate during high-level workouts.
4. What are the best foods for the pre-workout snack?
Another excellent question, and one where I like to differentiate “snacking” vs “pre-workout fueling”.
Snacks are generally a bridge between meals and additional nourishment needed for high-level athletes with large energy expenditures.
Fueling a workout is specifically giving the body what it’s going to need to support optimal performance. This is very relevant for 3-4+ hours workouts, including two-a-day practices for upper-level gymnasts.
5. Do older gymnasts need a snack during practice?
YES. Just because gymnasts are older and can go longer between meals than little children doesn’t mean they don’t need adequate fuel during high-level workouts (3-4+ hours, 4-6+ days a week).
We know from the literature that athletes who spend more time “in the red” (negative energy balance) tend to have suboptimal body composition compared to those who fuel appropriately and meet their energy needs throughout the day.
We also know that a well-fed brain can perform longer and harder than the starved brain and body.
6. What are the best foods to fight inflammation?
I wrote an entire blog post on muscle soreness and inflammation, and what proven nutrition strategies one could implement to help. These strategies are considered the “small rocks”. If you don’t have the “big rocks” in place, you’re likely wasting your time and money with any strategy.
The “big rocks” of nutrition include:
–Adequate Nutrition (calories, overall energy intake)
–Adequate Fueling (Performance Nutrition)
-Adequate Recovery (physical, nutritional, psychological)
-Adequate Sleep & Stress Management (don’t let your diet cause you more stress, it all counts)
Once you have the “big rocks” in place, we can look at some more specific strategies to get you that last 2-3%.
It doesn’t matter how sophisticated a supplement regimen, rehab treatments, etc are if a gymnast is not daily giving their body the building blocks it needs to refuel, repair, and rehydrate.
7. When is not having a period bad?
A female’s period is like the “fifth vital sign”. It tells us whether the gymnast is taking in enough nutrition to support all body functions, including growth, development, optimal body composition, performance, and longevity in the sport.
It’s also important to note that putting a gymnast on birth control to “fix” a missing period or “get back” a missing period is not the answer. This is a band-aid that doesn’t improve bone density and only masks the ongoing issue of inadequate nutrition and recovery.
8. What do I do if my gymnast gains weight?
Another super loaded question that I got frequently after COVID hit. This was the first time a lot of gymnasts were out of the gym for an extended time. During the quarantine, many gymnasts gained weight, height, and their bodies changed. When they came back to the gym, they looked different.
Rapid growth can be really shocking and unsettling, and a lot of gymnasts/parents/coaches were bothered and worried this was “bad”.
Here’s the deal, this growth was likely needed and normal for the athlete and had been suppressed from years of overtraining/underfueling. This “catch-up growth” is a good thing. It’s not normal for height to be stunted or puberty to be delayed..
Anytime an adolescent gymnast gains weight, 9/10 it is normal, necessary, and needed. I tell my clients that their 18-year-old body shouldn’t look like their 12-year-old body. 18-year-olds are young women, and whatever that young adult body looks like is different for everyone.
9. How do I fuel a gymnast with food allergies?
This was another great question that I wrote a blog on. There is a huge spectrum of food allergies or intolerances that a gymnast can face, but most commonly it’s the “Big 8” allergies or an intolerance like lactose or celiac.
Whenever a gymnast must cut out entire food groups, it’s important to ensure they’re getting the essential nutrients they need for normal growth and development. Major micronutrients like calcium, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, B12, etc can be insufficient in the allergy-restricted diet.
10. How can we work with you?
This is a great question! I have a lot of free resources for you because I know you have a lot on your plate with participating in this sport. There is so much free information in my blog which I write weekly. If you haven’t already, make sure you sign up for the interest list to ensure you get notified when there’s a new blog up.
Secondly, my Instagram feed @the.gymnast.nutritionist is a great place for your gymnasts to learn and engage (and parents/coaches!). I receive a lot of questions and direct messages here, and when needed we schedule a free 20 min call with the gymnast/parent or coach to “take if off the ‘gram”.
For parents/coaches, I have my free community on FB- Performance Nutrition for High Level Gymnasts. This is where we have a safe space to discuss nutrition and body image for the gymnast.
Beyond that, I have a 6-week course called The Balanced Gymnast️ Method ® Course. This course is an in-depth educational online course for high-level gymnasts, parents, coaches, and medical providers on fueling the gymnast. We cover all aspects of nutrition as well as promote a positive relationship with food + body. Gymnasts of all levels (compulsory through former elite) have completed the course with their parents and loved it! Enrollment will open again in February 2022 which is super exciting!
Often, coaches and parents (usually part of a booster club) will bring me in “virtually” to their gym for my signature 4-part Nutrition Team Talk Series. This is an in-depth lecture series for gymnasts, parents, and coaches that can get everyone on “the same page” and take your team to the next level with their performance and recovery.
Lastly, for those with individual concerns, I offer 1:1 coaching in The Balanced Gymnast ®️ Program. This is a great way to get the customized support your gymnast needs to further her career. This nutrition coaching program is specifically for high-level gymnasts (level 8-10, elite, college) to help them reach their full potential and longevity in the sport. If you have a younger gymnast, please reach out as we have a different program for parents of younger gymnasts. The good news is that a lot of insurances work with both programs which is exciting!
Hopefully you found this post super helpful! Fueling the gymnast is a big job that often includes a lot of nuance to help with proper timing and meeting the high energy demands of a high-level gymnast.
As always, feel free to reach out if you know your gymnast is struggling. If you’re a coach and want to bring me into your gym to provide some proactive education for your gymnasts and parents, let’s chat.