Gymnast Performance Nutrition

It’s one thing to tell you “how” to fuel your performance in the gym. I’ve got tons of free resources for you on this (Instagram posts, blogs) and paid content (premium 1:1 coaching for high level gymnasts or my course The Balanced Gymnast Course for a really comprehensive education—launching again soon!). ⠀

If your gymnast isn’t fueling her workouts, it’s likely not due to lack of knowledge or resources. ⠀

Some gyms don’t allow any food or beverage except water for 4+ hour practices, which is misguided at best and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of exercise physiology and energy expenditure. This is something that goes back to the coaches and club owners and stems from a lack of education. I’d love to help empower them to create a culture of optimized performance nutrition.

But, for most of you who are able to bring food and drink to gym, why is your gymnast not taking advantage of this distinct performance enhancing tool?

Let’s explore the “why” of your gymnast not eating before a workout…

I’m going to throw out a few factors and see if they resonate, okay? ⠀

-Your gymnast is worried about weight gain or “looking fat in a leotard” they don’t want to eat or drink anything before practice. Maybe her coaches weigh the gymnasts before practice (SO INAPPROPRIATE) and there’s punishment if the number on the scale deviates from what they want. I cannot stress how inappropriate this behavior is; a coach is not equipped to make health care decisions based on their gymnast’s weight. This kind of judgment is reserved for the pediatrician or registered dietitian nutritionist, who both understand growth/development, energy needs, etc. Together, with the coaches, they can evaluate a gymnast and decide if her body composition is hindering performance, but weight alone cannot tell the full picture.

Food and fluids before a workout that would cause any degree of abdominal distention or “bloating” is not bloating from water retention (which is harmless) or “fat gain/weight gain”. I’ve heard stories of coaches telling gymnasts to “suck it in” and then accuse them of being “noncompliant” if their lower abdomen is pooching out a little from whatever they had to eat/drink. Again, this is not extra body fat but simply abdominal distention which is harmless and normal. ⠀

-Maybe your gymnast is eating before her workout, but she’s choosing the wrong foods. I say “wrong foods” not to mean good or bad in terms of nutritional value but choosing the wrong kind of macronutrient that will not provide the appropriate fuel release for body during exercise.

-Maybe your gymnast struggles with “nervous stomach” (irritable bowel syndrome-like symptoms) and she is worried she’ll have a bowel movement during a workout. Some gymnasts may even get sudden diarrhea from nerves, especially before competitions which not only produces a lot of anxiety but can lead to under fueling and dehydration.  Other gymnasts may get nauseous and feel like they’re going to vomit which precludes eating anything before practice or competition. All of these gastrointestinal issues can be manifestation of anxiety which is a HUGE reason why I’m a fan of counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (just a kind of counseling, not scary!) to help realign their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. The gut houses what we call the “enteric nervous system” which is like the second brain. We’ve all experienced “butterflies” or even upset stomach in nerve-wracking or highly stressful situations.

-Or, your gymnast has never eaten before practice and thus thinks they are “invincible” thus don’t see the value or need to eat before practice. Adolescent herd-mentality can exacerbate this. If none of the gymnasts eat before practice, yours will likely not want to as to not be “singled out”. Regardless, if your gymnast is not fueling and hydrating before practice, they’re missing out on both performance and recovery benefits. How much better would your gymnast be if she showed up to practice every day fueled and hydrated. ⠀

Fueling the workout is something you as a parent or coach CAN impress upon your gymnast to help improve their performance in the gym and recovery post-workout. If your athlete is serious about her training, then you need to start incorporating some fuel and hydration pre and intra workout for workouts over 2+ hours.

As an aside, this article is primarily for compulsory, optional, and elite gymnasts who are practicing at least 3+ hours per day. If your gymnast is practicing less than this, say 2-2.5 hours per day, they will still benefit from a pre-workout snack but won’t need as much intra-workout carbohydrate as the upper level gymnast due to training intensity, duration, etc.

Alright, let’s jump in to performance nutrition!

Performance nutrition is about “fueling for the work required”. Your high-level gymnast needs to intentionally start replacing some of the energy that will be used during practice before it’s needed. This is being proactive and taking into consideration the lag time from digestion and absorption of nutrients. If your gymnast is not eating before a workout and just try to make up for it after, they’re hurting their performance and recovery.

A realistic meal and snack schedule for the high-level gymnast could look like the following:

Breakfast: 6:30AM (Moderate-High Intensity Plate; watch fiber/fat content as to not slow digestion too much)

Workout: 8AM- 1:00PM (5-hour workout)

Intra-workout Nutrition (carbohydrate/fluids):  9:30-10AM (after conditioning + first two events or first 3 events if conditioning at end of workout)

Intra-workout Nutrition (carbohydrate/fluids): 11:30AM-12:00PM (smaller amount as compared to 10AM, help get the gymnast through the last hour of practice)

1:00PM *Recovery snack (protein/carbohydrate): If you’re gymnast is hungry, didn’t have much for breakfast, or has a long commute home before a meal can be prepared and consumed.  

Lunch (Recovery meal): 1:30-2PM (let’s be realistic time-wise, some of you have a longer commute to and from the gym). Use the moderate to high activity plate based on activity.

Mid-Afternoon Snack (balanced carbs + protein/fat): 3:30-4:00PM

Dinner (Moderate-High intensity plate): 6:30-7PM

*Bedtime Snack (balanced protein/carbs): 9:00PM (not all gymnasts may need this, but this is one way to help fuel the next morning’s workout if they don’t like to each much before practice). If your gymnast is hungry, she should listen to her body and eat. 

If your gymnast has an afternoon workout, we can rearrange these times to fit the schedule. For the sake of this article, we’ll work from the morning workout schedule since it’s summertime right now and this is more common for a lot of upper level gymnasts.

Alright, so now that we have an idea about timing with a morning workout schedule, let’s talk about the “what” of performance nutrition for the gymnast. 

Pre-Workout Meal vs Pre-Workout Snack

Should my gymnast have a pre-workout meal or snack? Yes, if practice is over 2 hours. Why? Because the body will likely exhaust its carbohydrate (glycogen) stores from the muscles and liver about 2 hours into a workout. That then forces the body to rely on fat and protein (muscle protein) which are not as efficient fuel sources for gymnastics activity.

If your athlete has an early morning practice, it’s unlikely they’ll want to eat a full-size normal breakfast (moderate to high intensity plate), and that’s OK. We can make up the energy (calories) later, but most importantly we need to make sure they get enough carbohydrate in their body to get them going at practice.

Carbohydrate is the Gymnast’s Fuel

Carbohydrate is the gymnast’s fuel during a sport like gymnastics which is anaerobic. Anaerobic exercise can only use glucose from broken down carbohydrates or broken-down glycogen (chains of glucose which are stored in the muscle and liver and then broken down/released when needed).  

Children and adolescents have a limited capacity to store carbohydrates (glycogen) as compared to adults, so you can’t just give them a bunch of carbs at dinner the night before and hope that’s enough through their 4-6-hour workout the next day.

I recommend at least 20-30g of carbohydrate with about 5-10 grams each of fat and protein pre-workout if they’ve had a meal 2-4 hours prior. If this is the first meal of the day, they may need 30-50g+ of carbohydrate (this is very personal, based on weight/age/activity/goals, etc.). This is not a balanced snack compared to what I’d recommend between meals, but there’s a reason for this. You want to make sure this meal/snack isn’t too high in fiber (about less than 5g) as fiber, protein, and fat all slow down digestion. We want this snack to release gradually into the blood stream and from there the glucose (broken down carbohydrate) can get into the muscles and brain during the workout. Your gymnast is welcome to consume more carbohydrates than this (~30 grams carbohydrate equals 2 slices wheat toast and 1.5 tbsp peanut butter would provide about 12 g fat and 6 g protein- close enough. If you need more carbs, add fruit or milk, etc.).  The “how much” of pre-workout carbohydrate is dependent on a lot of factors (age, weight, intensity of training, injury status, etc.).

If they have an afternoon workout, say 4:00-8:30 PM, then you want to use the Moderate Intensity Performance Plate for lunch (about 12-1:00PM) and then add a pre-workout snack (at least 20-30 g carbohydrate and 5-10 g protein and fat) about 30-60 minutes before practice (3:00PM).

Intra-Workout Nutrition

Regardless of if your gymnast has a pre-workout meal or snack, they need some source of carbohydrate during the workout to provide more carbohydrate once the muscle and liver glycogen stores are depleted (about 2 hours into the workout). Aerobic workouts like running, cycling, soccer, etc. use about 30-60 g carbohydrate per hour or about 0.25-0.4 g carbohydrate/pound bodyweight per hour. This is a range of carbohydrates due to the variations in age, gender, intensity/duration of sport, goals, etc. Aerobic exercise can also use the by-products of protein and fat metabolism when the carbohydrate stores are depleted, but this is not the case for high-intensity anaerobic sports like gymnastics.

If you think about gymnastics, which is an anaerobic high-intensity stop-and-start kind of sport, there is not constant training going on during every minute of a 4+ hour practice. Based on my experience with gymnasts and athletes with type 1 diabetes (who have to very carefully calculate carbohydrate needs during exercise to prevent hypo/hyperglycemia), I’d estimate the gymnast uses about 10-30g carbohydrate per hour based on the intensity of the exercise in each hour of practice. The first hour of a workout may only use 10-15 g carbohydrate if the gymnast is warming up and stretching without intense conditioning before the first event. During an event like floor with back to back tumbling passes, sprinting, etc. the gymnast may use upwards to 30g or more. The amount of carbohydrate needed per hour of gymnastics is highly individual and based on the intensity of the workout, age/weight of the gymnast, pre-workout meal carbohydrate content, and various other factors. If you need a specific answer, let’s work together to find out.

Given the difficulty of getting most gymnasts to eat before a workout and much less during, I like to start with an intra-workout snack of 20-30 g carbohydrate at the mid-way point of practice. This may not be enough, especially for the level 10/elite gymnast training 5+ hours. See above.

What to eat during gymnastics practice?

Your gymnast can use liquid carbohydrate (juice, carbohydrate solution) or a whole food source like fruit, dried fruit, rice cakes, whole grain crackers/pretzels, etc. for some added nutrition (vitamins, minerals).

My rule for sports drink usage is that I’d want to make sure the gymnast is getting several servings of fruits and veggies throughout the day if they want to use this beverage which is just sugar. There’s nothing wrong with using a sports drink as the carbohydrate source, but using whole foods like fruit, fruit leather, dried fruit, etc. will provide more nutritional value and make up some of the necessary vitamins/minerals that a sports drink won’t provide. This isn’t about “eating clean”, it’s about making sure your athlete is getting the necessary vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants throughout the day to help with recovery and normal growth/development.

When using a source of sugar like a sports drink or fruit gummies intraworkout, the sugar will be directly used to fuel the activity. This is different than just eating a bunch of sugar and being sedentary, which if in excess will contribute to inflammation, etc. The most important thing is making sure your gymnast is fueled, so even if they haven’t had any fruits or veggies that day, they still need a source of carbohydrate during the workout or their performance will be compromised (which can also increase the risk of injury).

Food is better than no food, and sugar still counts as “fuel”.

My gymnast won't eat because she says food will make her throw up or have to go to the bathroom!

Worries about gastrointestinal issues is a big barrier for a lot of gymnasts when it comes to performance nutrition. I have a whole article on that here where you can learn more. 

My best advice in the general sense is to make sure there’s enough time for food to digest before practice. If there isn’t enough time, you need to choose liquid carbohydrates and/or simple carbohydrates that will digest and leave the stomach quicker than a complex carbohydrate meal or snack. I work with high level athletes who struggle in this regard all the time, so feel free to message me and we’ll figure out a plan for your athlete. 

But isn't sugar bad for the gymnast?

A lot of parents and athletes balk at the thought of eating “sugar” during a workout, but you have to remember that all carbohydrate breaks down into its most basic building block in the body- glucose, fructose, or galactose. Fruit contains glucose and fructose, starches like potatoes or rice contain glucose, and milk contains galactose (lactose) or the natural milk sugar.

It is 100% your choice as to what kind of carbohydrate you want to consume during a workout, i.e. how “healthy” it is, but the only difference is the vitamin/mineral and fiber content. You could use dates or skittles, your choice, but the difference is minimal and hinges on the vitamin/mineral/antioxidant content.

If your gymnast’s diet is 90% of the “healthy foods” and they want to fuel their workout with some skittles, this isn’t a problem. I know that statement makes some of your skin crawl but understand where I’m coming from. Their intraworkout snack most likely isn’t going to make or break their health. If your athlete has a 5-6-hour practice, they will need several snacks during the workout, and it would be wise to make some of them more nutritious in the context of their overall intake. If they only need one snack (3-4-hour workout) and the rest of their diet is rich in fruits, veggies, whole grain/high fiber starches, etc. then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to use a “less nutrient dense” source of carbohydrate that they enjoy during the workout.

I like to encourage clients and parents to “maximize nutrition when able”. If you can use fruit as an intraworkout snack, great. You’ll get some extra vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. If you already eat a ton of fruits and veggies and don’t want to feel “heavy” or “bloated” from consuming whole foods during a workout, then you are free to use a juice, electrolyte beverage, or even candy. Yes, I said candy. One packet of fun sized skittles contains 19 g carbohydrate as a simple sugar (glucose) which would work very well intraworkout for an intense practice. All of the “sports products” like Clif shot blocks, Gatorade Chews, Jelly Belly Sport Beans, etc. are all just fancy, expensive sources of carbohydrate which break down into simple sugars. The advantage of some of these products is the mixed carbohydrate source which allows for maximal intestinal absorption, but this is only an issue where there is a very high level of carbohydrate usage per hour (>60 g).

You and your gymnast are not “superior” for using dates versus skittles during a workout. The bottom line is that both would work to replace the carbohydrate needed to sustain the same work output throughout the second part of practice as the first and that is the goal. Don’t get distracted from the purpose of fueling a workout by which food is “healthier” or “more nutritious”. See food for what it is, understand that some have more vitamins/minerals/fiber than others, and move on.

But isn't too much salt bad for you?

In terms of sodium (salt), sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade have sodium in addition to the carbohydrate as both of these help facilitate water transport from the intestine into the blood stream, especially in the case of dehydration. The small intestine has “sodium glucose like transporters” (see here) which facilitate water crossing the intestine. If your gymnast is a “salty sweater” or is practicing in very hot, humid weather then you may need a source of sodium in addition to the carbohydrates and fluid. There comes a point in dehydration where plain water will not do the trick, you must have a source of sodium and carbohydrate. This is the reason why intravenous fluids (I.V) in the hospital contain sodium chloride (normal saline) or a mixture of sodium, glucose (sugar), and other electrolytes (Lactated Ringer’s) to rehydrate patients with severe dehydration or those unable to drink by mouth.

I get concerned when I see athletes following a SOS diet (no added sugar, vegetables oils, or salt) because the teen athlete needs up to 2300 mg sodium for everyday life and then may use 100-500 mg per hour during exercise (based on age, gender, intensity, sweat rate, climate, etc.). Your athlete is hurting herself if she’s trying to avoid sodium at all cost. This is an important electrolyte for many of the body’s physiological processes. Sodium gets a bad rap from a public health perspective in reference to hypertension, but again this is taken out of context for the fit high-level gymnast. This reason, amongst many others, is why you should be working with a trained, pediatric/adolescent sports dietitian nutritionist versus some “nutritionist” that gives you blanket recommendations of “good and bad foods” and long lists of things that are “toxic” or you should avoid. This is irresponsible and likely to do harm to your athlete.

You do want to avoid  fat, fiber, and protein in the intra-workout snack as the carbohydrates need to be able to break down quickly, cross the small intestine, and enter the blood stream where the glucose (broken down carbohydrate) can be carried to the brain and the muscles. Simple sugars (juice, glucose, etc.) take about 15-20 minutes to get from the mouth to the blood stream, and any sort of fat, protein, or fiber will further delay this process. Additionally, blood flow to the stomach and intestines is compromised during exercise so the body won’t have its normal capacity to digest complex nutrients (fat, protein, fiber) at this point in the workout. So, it’s not about “good and bad foods”, but understanding how food digests and works in the body allows you to adjust nutrition for every kind of training schedule, intensity, and more.

When “eating healthy” turns into disordered eating

If your gymnast is unable to fuel her workout because she’s afraid of carbohydrates or sugar, there’s a good chance she’s struggling with a form of an eating disorder, specifically orthorexia. Orthorexia is characterized by an obsession with eating “clean” or “pure” and refusal to eat anything that doesn’t meet these criteria. This is very closely associated with perfectionism, OCD tendencies, etc. and isn’t always about weight though weight loss can be a byproduct of drastically limited “safe foods” and inadequate nutrition.  See here for more information.

I once worked with a high-level figure skater with type 1 diabetes who started to struggle with orthorexia due to “clean eating” and got to the point where she refused to drink orange juice to treat a potentially lethal low blood glucose event (hypoglycemia). At that point, she was not longer safe to be at home as she was essentially refusing to live over having to consume carbohydrate to bring up her blood glucose.

Another example would be the gymnast who refuses to eat pizza, a burger, or a meal devoid of vegetables when it is the only thing available. I remember a turning point for me during eating disorder was being able to eat 2 pieces of pizza for dinner at a church retreat when there was nothing else available. Pizza was still a “bad” and “scary” food for me, but I was able to recognize my body needed nutrition (calories) and I wasn’t going to die from missing veggies in one meal.

Or, the gymnast who refuses to eat lower fiber, higher sugar carbohydrates during a workout (when digestion is impaired) would also bring concern for disordered eating patterns.

You gymnast needs to be able to make a decision like I just described. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be eating veggies with meals and focusing on the 90%, but part of normal eating is being able to eat whenever, wherever without having to pack your own food all the time or refuse to eat when it’s not your normal foods.  

The same thing goes or an athlete who refuses to eat before a workout or competition because her “safe” or “clean” foods aren’t available. This crosses the line from “healthy” to “disordered” and is inappropriate and unsafe. More on this in another post.

In Summary

Hopefully you’ve grasped the concept of “fueling for the work required” and understand what your gymnast needs to support their 4+ hour gymnastics practices. As always, if you and your athlete need help let me know. My 1:1 coaching program provides a very comprehensive approach to optimizing your athlete’s nutrition and health for performance and longevity in the sport.

If you want to grab my free Performance Nutrition Tool to help you and your gymnast know how to fuel and hydration for workouts, click here