THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO GYMNASTICS COMPETITION SEASON NUTRITION
November and December mark the end of pre-season for competitive gymnasts (optionals, elite, and NCAA). As January approaches, are you confident about your gymnastics competition season nutrition?
It’s usually at this time of year that parents and coaches want to know:
- What gymnasts should/should not eat before a competition
- What gymnasts should/should not eat during a competition
- How to help the gymnast who refuses to eat before/during competitions because of “nervous stomach”
- How to manage nutrition while traveling and having to eat out all the time
- How to manage nutrition while staying in a hotel for a while (like big competitions, college camps, national team camps, etc)
More than likely, you’re wondering some of these things as well.
A lot of gymnasts unknowingly sabotage their performance at a competition because they get “off” on their nutrition. And, many have nerves that make it difficult to eat as they normally would before practice at home.
In order to have your best performance, there are several things about fueling during gymnastics competitions that you must know.
Competition Season Nutrition Myths (no desserts, eat clean, etc)
There are a lot of myths and misinformation in the gymnastics world about what gymnasts should and shouldn’t eat before or during a competition. A lot of coaches have their own versions of what a gymnastics competition season nutrition plan should look like. They will tell their athletes they can’t have certain foods all season (like sugar, carbs, fast food, etc), and that they must “eat clean” or they’ll get injured or not perform well. I’ve also heard some other super wacky advice like “only steak for dinner pre-competition, no carbs” that do not align with sports nutrition and physiology at all.
Unfortunately, a lot of this advice is misguided. When you tell gymnasts they can’t have certain foods during season, this increases the likelihood for them to overeat, binge, or sneak those foods.
When it comes to “clean eating”, you can eat clean and: underfuel, over-eat, or not eat the right mix of foods to support performance in a high-intensity anaerobic sport like gymnastics.
Gymnasts should aim for balance with all foods during the season. Extremes are often what perpetuates the binge/restrict cycle. These extremes are detrimental to body composition, recovery, and/or performance. Simply put, just focusing on “healthy eating” will miss the mark and a lot of gymnasts won’t get adequate nutrition to support optimal performance and recovery throughout the season (which is why so many gymnasts get sidelined with injury).
Travel Nutrition for the Gymnast
Special considerations need to be made for high level gymnasts who are traveling to competitions, especially if driving long hours or flying. Click here for a full post on the subject.
Driving to Competitions
If driving, gymnasts need to make sure they stay hydrated which can be tough when having to make stops for a restroom. We get it, but better to show up hydrated than just racing to reach your destination. Some pre-planning around snacks and meals can also be helpful for proper and adequately fueling along the way. Packing a cooler with fresh fruits/veggie snacks, yogurts, string cheese, protein sources like deli meat, hard boiled eggs, etc. can provide items to pair with crackers, granola bars, pretzels, and fat sources like nuts, nut butters, etc.
Flying to Competitions
Flying in an airplane is inherently dehydrating due to differences in humidity and in-cabin pressure. You need to pay particular attention to fluid intake even on shorter flights.
It’s easy to skip meals and snacks when traveling, so make sure to pack some snacks for the plane ride.
Gymnasts often have to spend several nights or even weeks at hotels during competitions or training camps. Eating out at every meal can make managing nutrition challenging.
Hopefully you can find a hotel room that has a mini fridge and microwave; a lot of quick meals/snackscan be prepared with those appliances and a quick trip to the grocery store.
If your gymnast is at a college bound camp or national training camp/developmental camp, you definitely will want to buy or bring extra snacks to have between double training sessions, at bedtime, etc as often only some of the main meals are provided. Again, things like fruit/veggies, hummus, dips, Greek yogurt, high protein milk or regular milk, crackers, bread, bagels, cheese, cheese sticks, etc are all great options that can be paired with other food groups to make a balanced snack.
There is nothing wrong with eating out; it can even be beneficial in supporting your gymnastics competition season nutrition when used correctly. For the most part (especially prior to and during the competition), try to find restaurants that offer fresh options (instead of everything fried) with solid protein sources, carbohydrates (like pasta, baked potatoes, rice, etc), and color (fruit/veggies). Steak houses, Italian restaurants, fast-casual Mexican restaurants like Chipotle, etc all offer plenty of options to keep the gymnast feeling their best. You can save the famous fried chicken or BBQ joint until after the competition; or at least several days before the competition, not the day before or day of.
The Night Before the Competition
There are a lot of myths in the gymnastics world about what gymnasts should and shouldn’t eat before a competition.
It’s common for coaches to give gymnasts advice about what they should eat as a pre-competition meal, but often this advice is incorrect. Advice like gymnasts “can’t eat carbs”, “should only have protein for dinner”, or “to just eat salads” before the competition, will only hurt the gymnast’s performance.
Gymnastics is not as intense as a marathon in terms of carbohydrate requirements, but gymnasts still need adequate carbohydrates at all meals and most snacks. This ensures their brain and muscles have appropriate fuel.
What to eat right before the competition
This depends on what time the gymnast is competing. Ideally, a gymnast would have a pre-competition meal about 3-4 hours before the competition, a small pre-workout snack around 1-1.5 hours out, and then utilize intraworkout fuel as needed during the competition.
If the competition is early in the morning, then there likely won’t be time to have a full meal. Prioritizing the carbohydrate and a little protein is the bare minimum.
Nutrition during the competition
Every upper level gymnast should have a Competition Nutrition Strategy. They should know exactly what kinds of meals/snacks before and during the competition make them feel energized. It’s important for gymnasts to have several foods they like for flexibility with meal and snack choices.
During the competition, gymnasts should utilize their Performance Nutrition Strategy; the strategic use of carbohydrates and fluids to level up performance. This will look different (often less in quantity) from normal 4-6 hour workouts, but gymnasts can benefit from more than “just water” when competing in the upper levels.
It’s important to still fuel properly post-competition. The bigger issue for a lot of gymnasts (and coaches) is the “all or nothing” mentality around food. They eat “so healthfully” before the competition, hardly eat the day of so . . . come post-competition and it’s an all-out binge fest. This is not a healthy way to fuel and can lead to long-term issues with food and body. Here is where an “all foods fit” mindset can be helpful. No one is saying that nutrition doesn’t matter; a gymnast absolutely wants to eat foods that make her feel good before/during a competition. But, including the “fun foods” to bring pleasure and satisfaction can help avoid the need to “FOMO eat”.
In conclusion, there is undoubtedly some strategy to utilizing nutrition to level up performance during a competition. A lot of gymnasts end up sabotaging their own performance because they don’t plan for the logistics around traveling, anticipatory nerves, hotel food, etc. These factors and so much more can become barriers to adequate fueling. There are ways to ensure your gymnastics competition season nutrition works for you and not against you though. And we can’t wait to break it all down for you in our upcoming workshop.