There’s nothing worse than watching your gymnast seem to move in slow-mo on competition day. They’ve been performing so well for weeks in the gym, and yet on competition day, they don’t even look like the same gymnast. Why does this happen? Many gymnasts struggle with their performance on competition day because they’re not fueling their bodies with the right foods at the right times for optimal performance.
As a gymnast, I would get really nervous and struggle to eat before a competition, and remember feeling light-headed, shaky, heavy, and slow (especially on beam/floor) at meets. And as you can imagine, I didn’t perform nearly as well as I practiced in the gym.
There’s a lot to be said for mental training and sports psychology to help with pre-competition nerves and anxiety…
But those strategies won’t work to their full potential if the brain is underfueled.
The good news is there are a lot of different nutrition strategies we employ if you’re too nervous for regular meals/snacks leading up to meet…
And at the same time, the gut is “trainable” and this is something a dietitian can help you gymnast with so that they can fuel their body for their best performance.
Here are six tips on what foods your gymnast should eat on competition day to to help them fuel for their best performance!
#1-Carbohydrates are the gymnast’s fuel
Meals and snacks in and around training (and competition) need to have adequate carbohydrate, as this is what fuels a high-intensity anaerobic sport like gymnastics. When gymnasts don’t have “adequate carbohydrate availability”, they may feel slow and sluggish, complain of “heavy legs” or not be able to focus or concentrate as needed.
Carbohydrates should make up 50-60% or more of the gymnast’s diet.
#2- Pay attention to nutrient timing and digestion
Meals or snacks right before the competition with too much fat or fiber can slow down digestion and leave your gymnast “underfueled”. In a sense, even though they may be eating enough energy (calorie) wise before the competition, if the meal or snack is too heavy in fat or fiber, the carbohydrate (if present, and it should be) won’t digest quickly enough to give them the energy their brain and muscles need.
It’s ideal to avoid foods super greasy or fried the day of the competition (and preferably the night before just to avoid any potential GI distress).
#3-Gymnasts need to stay hydrated in and around competitions
How much water your gymnast needs each day is highly dependent on their age, body weight, and the intensity/duration of their training. The “quick method” of calculating fluid need is half the body weight (pounds) in ounces.
For example, a 120-pound gymnast should start with 60 oz of fluid per day, but that doesn’t take into consideration how much is needed during training or competition which could easily be another 30-48 plus ounces or more (again, this depends on age/weight, intensity/duration of training).
In addition to adequate fluid, proper electrolyte balance needs to be maintained so that the water can move from the intestines into the bloodstream and into the cells of the body. If your gymnast isn’t getting enough electrolytes (largely sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, and calcium), they can suffer the effects of underhydration even if they’re technically drinking “enough”.
Symptoms of underhydration include fatigue, dizziness, increased perceived exertion, poor focus/concentration, headache, nausea, or just poor overall performance and recovery. Gymnasts lose electrolytes both through fluid losses (sweat, insensible losses) and stress (through the adrenal glands).
This is something we help gymnasts and parents individualize in The Balanced Gymnast® Course and VIP Program.
#4 – Stick to a regular meal and snack schedule pre-competition
A gymnast must eat enough going into a competition to perform their best. A lot of gymnasts think that since a competition isn’t “as much” exercise as a normal 4-5+ hour practice, they don’t need to eat as much.
While this could be true if the gymnast really ate enough on a regular basis, for the majority of gymnasts underfueling is already an issue, and pulling back on nutrition the day of the competition is only going to make things worse. Or, not eating due to nerves will also compromise performance.
It’s helpful to plan meals and snacks working back from the competition report time and trying to stick as closely as possible to a normal meal and snack schedule.
One of the biggest mistakes I see high-level gymnasts make is only eating 1 meal and a snack all day when competing in the afternoon and evening. That is not enough nutrition to support the body’s basic functions, much less high levels of performance and focus.
#5- A pre-competition breakfast is KEY, no matter how early
A lot of gymnasts dread competing at 8AM because it’s early, especially if they have to travel in the local area. And because of how early it is, plus pre-competition nerves, a lot of gymnasts will skip breakfast all together. Or not eat the right type of food to serve as a fuel source for a sport like gymnastics.
As mentioned earlier, carbohydrate is the “gymnast’s fuel” and if a gymnast could only eat one thing before a competition (like due to nerves), they should prioritize carbohydrate (fruit, grains, starches, etc) over anything else. A handful of almonds or protein bar pre-competition isn’t going to do a whole lot in the energy department due to timing and digestion.
Breakfast does so much to regulate the circadian rhythms, nervous system, and supports adequate fueling.
#6-High level gymnasts should use intraworkout nutrition to level up competition performance
Even the presence of carbohydrate in the mouth can improve high intensity performance. It can be really strategic for a gymnast (optional through elite, or lower levels who were too nervous to fuel adequately prior to the competition) to use a source of quick carbohydrate during the competition to level up performance and focus.
This can be from solid food carbohydrate, liquid carbohydrate, gummies, etc. It’s really up to the gymnast and what they prefer (and what they are used to using in the gym, which is why every gymnast needs a Performance Nutrition Strategy—something we teach inside The Balanced Gymnast® Course and VIP Program).
Every gymnast should have a Competition Day Nutrition Strategy, meaning they know exactly what to eat the night before, morning of, and day of the competition so that they feel and perform their best.
If you want to learn more:
Watch our FREE training, How to Fuel the Gymnast for Optimal Performance to learn more about our self-paced course for competitive gymnasts and parents of all genders and levels, The Balanced Gymnast® Course.
The Balanced Gymnast® VIP Program is a great place to start with helping your female level 5-10 gymnast with either a proactive approach or reset on their current nutrition. Click here to learn more.
If you think your gymnast needs additional 1:1 help, I am accepting a few new clients each month. Click here to inquire.