Gymnast parents are often shocked to learn just how much food their gymnast needs. From level 5 to Sr elite, if a gymnast is training 20+ hours a week…that is a lot of nutrition.
While nutrition (proper, adequate nutrition—not just “healthy eating”) is not given the proper attention it deserves in the sport of gymnastics, it’s often the reason many gymnast’s fall short of their dreams.
Why #dietculture has gymnast parents fooled
Healthy doesn’t equal adequate. Most parents just want healthy meal and snack ideas or feel like if their gymnast just ate less sugar, everything would be better. It makes so much sense as to why parents might think this, but this mindset is often counterproductive to fueling the gymnast.
Upper-level gymnastics uses much more nutrition than gymnastics culture teaches.
Thinner doesn’t equal better, and underfueling can lead to undesirable body composition changes.
What happens when a gymnast eats enough?
Improving Performance with Nutrition
Most upper level competitive gymnasts have no idea how good they could feel at practice and during competition. They are training 20-30+ hours a week on “fumes” essentially as most are not fueling their bodies appropriately for these long, intense workouts. The problem with gymnasts is the “tough girl/guy” complex they’re taught from a young age, and so they don’t speak up if they feel tired, sore, can’t concentrate, etc, which are all signs of underfueling and underhydration. Many gymnasts just assume if the workout feels difficult, if they feel tire/sore, etc that it’s just “part of the sport” and they need to “try harder”. This ultimately is very counterproductive and leads to overuse, injury, and overtraining.
Nutrition and fueling should be strategically used in and around workouts to sustain and level up performance. This will make a huge difference in the gymnast’s overall performance, endurance, and longevity in the sport. And, this can be the difference between making elite (or not), competing at Nationals (or not), or securing that college scholarship (or not). This often overlooked aspect of a gymnast’s training can truly separate them from the best.
Optimizing Recovery with Nutrition
Nutrition for the gymnast doesn’t just stop at what they fuel with before and during workouts. Most gymnasts are not eating enough to support the long hours in the gym, and thus they are not giving their body the “building blocks” it needs to repair and recover.
Again, this is such a crucial issue when it comes to a gymnast’s day-to-day recovery and longevity in the sport. So many gymnasts “live” at physical therapy, are constantly sore, injured, etc and yet no one bothers to assess for underfueling (RED-S) which will keep them stuck and struggling.
Any time a gymnast it tired, overly sore, injured, etc a nutrition assessment should be part of the initial diagnostic workup. And, from a preventive standpoint, all high level gymnasts should work with a sports dietitian to make sure they’re fueling adequately for optimal performance and recovery.
Negative Effects on Underfueling on Body Composition
The real issue when it comes to gymnasts underfueling and restricting their nutrition to “manage their weight”, “stay slim”, etc is that long-term underfueling leads to negative body composition adaptations.
In simpler terms, long term inadequate nutrition will lead to increased fat mass, decreased muscle mass, and decreased bone density. These things are the complete opposite of what any high level gymnast wants, yet most of them do not know this is a consequence of not eating enough (whether intentional or not).
What keeps gymnasts and parents stuck when it comes to nutrition?
Gymnasts Often Fear Weight Gain and Body Change
In a sport where little girls with ripped six-packs are practically “worshipped” as the “gymnast body”, it’s no wonder that our teen gymnasts are often TERRIFIED to go through puberty. From such a young age they’re taught that getting “bigger”, growing up, getting a period, etc are all “bad things” and they worry they won’t’ be as good of a gymnast.
What’s really crazy about this toxic thought process is that the current best of the best are full bodied women. They are not pre-pubescent little girls who haven’t grown or developed since they were 12 years old. The average age at this Tokyo 2020 Olympics was 20 years old, so this is no longer a little girls sport although many coaches still feel this way and want their gymnasts to stay “small”.
On the other side of puberty is a new-found strength and power that will allow these gymnasts to excel, and this should be embraced as it’s a normal and necessary part of growing up and being a human.
Most Gymnasts and Parents Think Healthy Eating is All that Matters
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times. Gymnasts and parents just think if only the gymnast “eats healthy enough”, then everting will be fine. If they eat healthy, they’ll perform well, recover, have a good body composition, etc.
Here’s the deal: Healthy doesn’t equal adequate. You can eat “healthy” or “clean” (which are both ambiguous, arbitrary terms) and overeat, undereat, or not eat the right mix of macronutrients to fuel a high intensity sport like gymnastics.
What’s more important than a gymnast eating “healthy” is adequate fueling and a felt sense of safety around food. A gymnast having a good relationship with food and their body is way more important long-term than them “eating clean” or eating the vegetables you want them to eat. The vegetables and whatever “healthy foods” you want them to eat will come, but the first priority if adequate nutrition and a healthy relationship with food if you want them to succeed in the sport (and in life).
Most Gymnasts Don’t Have a Nutrition Plan
A big issue with getting high level gymnasts to fuel properly is the tough logistical challenges of 5-6+ hour or two a day workouts. Sometimes practice is 8-1PM which makes it easy to do breakfast, a snack, post-workout lunch, and then normal meals/snacks the rest of the day.
Unfortunately, gymnasts will often have random practice schedules like 10:30-3:30PM which makes it difficult to fit in normal meals/snacks due to nerves, schedules, etc. No one wants to eat a real lunch in the 1-hour break between double workouts, nor is this ideal from a digestion standpoint.
Others will have really late evening workouts like 5-9PM, which makes it a real challenge to get enough sleep, to fit in adequate nutrition, etc.
Coaches should keep in mind that a lot of gymnasts, especially at high level gymnastics clubs, have anywhere from 30 minute to 1.5 hour commutes which can make fueling, sleep, etc really tough especially in areas with a lot of traffic.
This is where working with a sports dietitian can really help improve your gymnast’s fueling which ultimately leads to increased performance and longevity in sport. Even when a high-level gymnast is young, let’s say a 10-year-old level 9 or 12 year old level 10, it’s prudent for the gymnast parent to work with a sport dietitian if they need support with figuring out the logistics of fueling, making sure the gymnast is getting adequate nutrition to repair, recover, etc. This will make such a big difference in the gymnast’s performance and longevity in the sport.
How to Help Your Gymnast with Nutrition
Most gymnast parents are never taught how to help their gymnast with proper nutrition and navigate the crazy busy schedules they have to maintain.
If your gymnast doesn’t need 1:1 support yet or you aren’t sure, our online nutrition course for parents of competitive gymnasts will be the perfect fit for you to learn how to help them and prevent food/body and injury struggles down the road. Click here to learn more about The Balanced Gymnast Method™ Course.