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4 Things I Wish I Knew As A Young Gymnast



Many of you know me as a UCLA gymnast. From the outside looking in, it looked like I "made it" - I had achieved the goal of so many gymnasts. But, things are not always as they seem...


As a young gymnast, I was under-fueled, over trained, and struggled to develop a healthy relationship with food.


Just like so many who grew up in the sport of gymnastics, I was misinformed about nutrition and how to properly fuel my body for the demands of the sport. As a result, I was constantly injured, sick, and fatigued.


By the time I was 14 years old, while I was competing as a level 10, I had endured 7 stress fractures, a torn hamstring and a torn achilles. I felt broken, defeated and didn't understand why I just couldn’t stay healthy.


Looking back, I know that so many of my struggles with injuries and illness could have been prevented if my family and I knew how to properly fuel my body.


Now as a retired athlete and a nutrition professional, my mission is to help other young gymnasts avoid making the mistakes I made. So, I've shared 4 things I wish I knew as a young gymnast.

4 Things I Wish I Knew As A Young Gymnast:


1. There is no such thing as “junk food”


As a young gymnast I was taught that there were certain foods that were considered “junk” and certain foods that were considered “healthy”. Along with that went the idea that if I ate (or even craved) any of these bad foods, it would directly and negatively change my body and make me a bad gymnast. This black and white thinking led me to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. I felt like I needed to put every food in either the “junk” category or the “healthy” category and this caused me to feel guilty when I ate foods that I believed were in the “junk” category.


The truth is...


All food is fuel for your body. All food provides a level of energy and nutrients that the body knows exactly how to use. And that eating less nutrient dense foods does not take away any of the nutrients from other foods, nor does it make me a bad person or gymnast for enjoying them. Additionally, food is more than just food - it is social, cultural, and emotional. I now know how important it is to enjoy the foods you love. When all foods can fit into a gymnast's fueling routine, there is no reason not to enjoy your favorite foods.


2. You don’t need to count calories or macros


As a young gymnast, I was very quickly made aware of calories in foods. They were positioned to be a really bad thing and I was told by coaches to eat under a certain amount, which ultimately made me question my own body's signals and personal hunger cues if a tracker told me I had met my daily calorie limit but was still hungry. This caused me to think about food as nothing but a number that I could or couldn't afford to spend that day, and led me down a dangerous path of restriction.


The reality is...


Calories are ultimately just a measurement of energy in food, and that getting enough would have been much more beneficial to me, my health, and ultimately my gymnastics. They were never something that I needed to count or micromanage. That my body is not a robot, who needs and desires different things on different days as a result of a number of factors. That I am the expert of my own body, and it is smarter than any tracker, And, that food is so much more than the number of calories they contained. Food is fuel for your body and is what helps you have awesome energy during practice, build strength and endurance, and stay healthy (and so much more).


Instead of Counting Calories...


Focus more on your own body's signals. Things like your:

  • Energy levels (during the day and during training)

  • Sleep

  • Feelings of hunger and fullness throughout the day

  • Focus and Mood,

  • Overall Health (immune function, ability to recover from training, injury patterns, etc.)

If all of these things are good - meaning your energy levels are high, you're keeping up in the gym, you sleep through the night and wake up feeling refreshed, you're not constantly thinking about food or distracted by feelings of hunger, you rarely get sick and have stayed relatively injury free - then how you are currently fueling your body is probably ok (and no need to stress).


If, on the other hand, some or all these signs are not great - you feel sluggish during the day, you feel like you can't build strength or endurance and you're falling behind in the gym, you have difficulty sleeping, you have a hard time controlling your mood or emotions, you're often distracted by your hunger and thoughts about food, you get sick often and have a long list of injuries - then it's time to reassess how you're currently fueling your body because something's not working. And that doesn't mean start counting calories, trying to eat less or eat cleaner, or doing some internet prescribed diet. That likely means sitting down with a registered dietitian who can help you fuel your unique body for everything you do.


3. You don’t have to fit into a certain body type to be a great gymnast

As a young gymnast, I was told that I needed to match a certain body type in order to be a great gymnast. And just like the majority of gymnasts, I didn’t (genetically) fit into this “gymnast body type” standard, which caused me to feel insecure about my body type and lead to some pretty harmful practices with food to try and change my body.


The reality is...


It is so important for you to remember that there is no one “gymnast body”. All bodies are meant to be different and that is normal. Even if we look at the highest levels of the sport of gymnastics (like elite and NCAA), body diversity is a real thing and gymnasts have had massive success with all different body types. There is no one specific body that is required for success in this sport or preferred by the judges.


Trying to make your body look a way it was not meant to be will only lead to injuries, decreased performance, mental stress, (and the very real possibility of developing a serious eating disorder). When gymnasts train appropriately, fuel their body adequately, and take care of themselves, your body will always settle at the optimal place for you, where you feel the best (both physically and mentally) and are doing your best gymnastics.


4. Your weight does not determine your gymnastics ability


As not just a gymnast, but a human being, your body and your worth is not defined by a number on a scale. When I was younger I weighted myself every single day and I let that number dictate my emotions and my self-worth. If I weighed heavier one day I felt like a failure or like I was doing something wrong.


The truth is...


Your weight is not static. It is going to fluctuate frequently - hour to hour, day to day, week to week, as a result of so many factors that are really not within your control. AND it is going to change throughout your life, especially when you are young and growing. Even when my weight changed there wasn't actually a noticeable difference in my performance and that’s because your weight ultimately has nothing to do with your performance ability in the gym.


Instead...


There is no need to weigh yourself constantly or obsessively, and it is really not helpful to base your food or workouts around what the says scale. While medical professionals may need to keep tabs on your weight as one of the many measurements of normal and healthy growth, you can even ask medial professionals to withhold this information from you (you can ask to step on their scale backwards) if you do not find knowing the number helpful.


The more important thing to focus on is how your body feels. If you have great energy while training, are staying healthy, and are performing your best, then the number on the scale does not matter, and you are likely fueling your body just fine.

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So many gymnasts and gym families just like me and mine I wish we knew all of these things about nutrition when we were young gymnasts because we know how much struggle and heartbreak it could have prevented. Now my mission is to help other young gymnasts understand these important concepts so their careers don't have to end up the same way mine did.


I have now put all of the most requested, helpful, and transformational fueling resources specifically for gymnasts inside my brand new Fueled Gymnast Team Toolkit!



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Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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