Gymnasts and parents alike always want to know what they should be eating in a day. I think “what I eat in a day” social media posts can be really harmful, but I do think it could be helpful to see just how MUCH food an adolescent optional/elite gymnast who is training 20-30 hours a week might need.
While I’m going to walk you through a typical day of a high-level gymnast, this does not feature the day-to-day variations in appetite, energy needs, etc. Following this will very likely not meet YOUR nutrition needs. I want to give you a glimpse of what fueling for performance looks like, how all foods can fit, and real-life examples of meals/snacks.
“What should a gymnast eat in a day” starts with breakfast. Gymnasts need to have breakfast. Why? Because this contributes to overall fueling for the day. Regardless of whether practice is first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon. If you don’t like breakfast and you’re not a high-level gymnast, fine. But, for gymnasts, this represents a large portion of their energy needs. And it aids in continuing repair/recovery from previous workouts.
One of my elite gymnast clients had to “practice” with breakfast. She initially was getting sick (vomiting) during morning workouts. There were many factors that contributed to this. A big one was intense conditioning at the start of the 4-hour workout versus towards the end. The high intensity of the conditioning demanded breakfast be earlier and very strategic from a digestion/absorption standpoint.
It took a few weeks, but she eventually landed on a combination of a bagel, yogurt + fruit, and chocolate milk. This provided her with the right amount of carbohydrate and protein. But without excessive fat or fiber which would compromise digestion and contribute to the gastrointestinal issues. She had to wake up earlier than she preferred, but it was essential she was well-fueled at the start of her two-a-days.
Every gymnast should have a Performance Nutrition Strategy once they’re training 3-5+ hours a day, 3-5+ days a week. This strategy encompasses the pre, intra, and post-workout strategic nutrition and hydration. All used together to level up performance, endurance, and enhance recovery.
Typical endurance sports use about 30-60g of carbohydrate after the first 1.5-2 hours of exercise. At that point, the carbohydrate stores are somewhat depleted and need to be replenished to sustain a high level of performance.
For gymnasts, this is where performance nutrition becomes both an art and a science. Anyone who’s ever done or watched gymnastics knows that even a 4-5 hour workout is not 4-5 hours of continuous exercise (like in running, cycling, etc). There are lots of stops/starts, quick explosive movements, and rest periods. Plus slower less intense events like balance beam, and potentially exhausting events like floor exercise.
Making Nutrition Work for You
For this high-level gymnast, she was fine hydrating with water for the first half of morning workout. However, she then required additional carbohydrate in the last half to sustain her work output. How many grams of carbohydrate and how many ounces of fluid a gymnast needs during a workout is highly dependent on their age, weight, level, the intensity/duration of the workout. Plus how well they are fueled going into the workout and other individual factors.
It may take some experimenting to figure out what and how much works best for a gymnast. And note, this can change over time depending on the season, injury status, etc.
This gymnast liked a mixture of solid and liquid carbs, using a sports drink for some and a granola bar for the rest. She was very strategic with her hydration. We had to get permission for her to have a water bottle with her during each event to help meet fluid needs (versus just getting a drink between events).
The post-workout meal is a critical piece of a gymnast’s recovery nutrition. For high-level gymnasts with two-a-day workouts, it’s even more crucial that they are refueling and rehydrating adequately to support the next workout and ongoing recovery.
Again, what a gymnast eats during their lunch break is highly variable. It can depend on how long the next workout is, the intensity, and how much time there is between workouts. Some gymnasts will train from 8-12PM and then have a break from 12-3PM with the second workout from 3-5PM. This is a pretty solid schedule that allows for adequate nutrition between workouts and time for digestion.
Some gymnasts may only have 1 hour between workouts. This requires careful planning and preparation to make sure they get adequate fluids, carbs, and some protein. All without compromising digestion but still avoiding tummy troubles in the subsequent workout.
This high level gymnast would bring a good variety of meals to lunch that her parents helped prepare. One day she might take a turkey and cheese bagel sandwich with fruit, mixed nuts, and some other carbohydrate snack like a granola bar or pretzels. Other days she’d have a thermos of leftover pasta from the night before like cheese tortellini with grilled chicken, some alfredo sauce/cheese, and fruit/veggies on the side. A lot of gymnasts will get tired of sandwiches at lunch, so it can be helpful to pre-plan at dinner to make enough for leftovers.
As this gymnast would do her school work between workouts, she’d finish up her lunch, continue to rehydrate, and then have a small carb snack before her next workout like some fruit, a handful of dried fruit, or even something sweet like her favorite gummy bears.
For a lot of gymnasts, the second workout of the day tends to be less intense. Think more drills/skills or just repeating 1-2 events from earlier in the day (likes bars and beam). But, I have clients who workout for 2 hours in the morning and then 4 hours in the afternoon which would change their fueling strategies. Which is another example of why there’s no “one-size fits all” approach to fueling.
If your gymnast has just one practice in the afternoon or evening, she still should be having a solid breakfast, lunch, pre-workout snack, and likely a mid-AM snack as well.
This high-level gymnast would just hydrate with water during the second workout but kept some simple carbohydrates on hand in case that workout was particularly tough and she felt fatigued. She knew how to listen to her body and pre-emptively used carbohydrate to prevent compromised performance and cognition. This has been crucial to her staying healthy after a previous injury.
A big reason why performance nutrition is so important is that a lot of injuries tend to happen when gymnasts are fatigued. It’s often towards the middle to end of practice. Underfueling and underhydration will lead to poor performance, poor cognition, poor motor control, slower reaction time, and increased perceived exertion. These are all negative consequences that to a large degree can be ameliorated with the right nutrition strategies.
Some gymnasts will also need a post-workout recovery snack as part of their Performance Nutrition Strategy. This is dependent on their injury status, growth/development, intensity/duration of training, how well they’ve fueled throughout the day, hunger, and many other factors.
My favorite post-workout recovery snack is a carton of chocolate milk. This is nature’s “perfect recovery beverage” as it inherently has a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein. An ideal ratio for glycogen resynthesis and muscle protein synthesis or recovery.
Some gymnasts may not need a snack and just come home to dinner. Others might eat dinner in the car on the way home. Neither of these is right or wrong. It all depends on the context and the gymnast’s specific needs.
Dinner is another important meal of the day for the high-level gymnast. Especially if they have a late workout and this is the last meal of the day. A lot of parents and coaches get concerned about gymnasts eating full dinners after late workouts, say those finishing anywhere from 8-9PM. This is due to a lot of myths around how eating late at night causes weight gain, etc. But this is totally taken out of context when it comes to a high-level gymnast.
If your gymnast just had a 3-5+ hour workout or two-a-days, they need a solid dinner to support repair, recovery, and adaptation to training.
This high-level gymnast had a nice variety of meals that her parents or grandparent prepared. Options range from barbeque chicken, mac & cheese, and steamed broccoli to our Teriyaki Ginger Salmon Recipe with jasmine rice and roasted green beans. Or the weekly “Pizza Friday”, an important tradition in her family (and usually served with a side salad for some color). But the question of, “what should a gymnast eat in a day” might not stop here.
Does your gymnast need a bedtime snack? It depends! They might be hungry, they might be short on fuel for the day. Maybe they need the extra nutrition to support injury repair and ongoing growth/development. Or, sometimes we eat because it tastes good (which is OK), like enjoying a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie with a glass of cold milk.
This gymnast would include a bedtime snack because dinner was earlier (6-6:30PM) and she was up late catching up on schoolwork and doing her rehab to prepare for the next morning’s workout. Sometimes she’d have a bedtime snack like Greek yogurt, fruit, and granola and other times it would be her favorite ice cream or some dark chocolate and a glass of milk. It’s important to get some protein in at bedtime to support ongoing repair, recovery and can help optimize body composition.
This gymnast worked really hard on dialing in her nutrition with her busy schedule and elite-level gymnastics, and it’s paid off in major ways. Like allowing her to stay healthy, qualify senior elite, and compete in international competitions. At first, she was somewhat hesitant about increasing her nutrition but quickly learned not only did she feel better, perform better, but her body composition improved from adequate energy availability.
Hopefully, you enjoyed this glimpse into the real-life nutrition of a high level gymnast. Here at The Gymnast Nutritionist® | Christina Anderson RDN, we’re all about helping gymnasts learn to optimize nutrition for more energy and better performance, while developing a healthy relationship with food and body. It’s not just as simple as “what should a gymnast eat in a day?” We’re proud of our athletes who trust the process and learn to fuel without a diet, rigid meal plan, or guilt/shame. Not only do we want them to fuel for their best performance, but learn to nourish their bodies in and out of the sport so they don’t struggle with food + body like so many do after retiring from the sport.
If you have a compulsory, Xcel, or lower level optional gymnast (6-8) and you want to learn how you can fuel your gymnast, click here to watch our free training on How to Fuel the Gymnast for Optimal Performance. There you’ll find more information about our online course for parents and competitive gymnasts—The Balanced Gymnast Method Course®.
If you have a level 9-10, elite, or NCAA gymnast that wants to learn to fuel for optimal performance and longevity in the sport, click here to learn more about our 1:1 nutrition coaching program for high level gymnasts.