Soreness, pain, and injuries are a regular part of gymnastics.
Especially at this point in the competition season, most gymnasts are really starting to feel it. The aches and pains are really starting to pile up. You're counting down the days until you no longer have to do full routines on hard and you can give your body the break it so desperately needs...
But, did you ever think that maybe this sport didn't have to be this way?
As a gymnast growing up, I also struggled with my fair share of aches, pains and injuries and it definitely held me back from being my best and achieving my goals.
A 2019 survey of NCAA athletes even found that 77% of NCAA gymnasts had sustained a major sport-related injury prior to college... And when we consider all of the gymnasts that don't get to the NCAA or those with minor (but still significant) injuries, aches and pains, that number is even higher.
Just because soreness, pain, and injury is a major part of the sport for many gymnasts does not mean it has to be like that for you.
To help recover, heal, and prevent injuries, it is important to make sure that your body is moving properly and has the strength, stability, and mobility to do everything you want. But at the end of the day (and season), more conditioning, more stretching, more PT, more acupuncture, cryotherapy, massages, chiropractic adjustments, ETC... is not going to make the big impact you think it will if you are missing this one crucial thing...
Yes, you heard me correctly! The reason you're likely still struggling with recovery and feeling your best at this point in the competition season is nutrition.
As a gymnast, I didn't understand the role the foods I ate played in my day-to-day recovery as well as coming back from injury. And neither do many of the high-level gymnasts I talk to.
So, you're telling me that there are specific foods I can eat that will help me recover faster?
Yes and no...
As a registered dietitian, I know that well fueled gymnasts recover faster and are less likely to get injured in the first place. This first and foremost means that a gymnast needs to be consistently meeting their overall energy needs in order for specific nutrients to be prioritized for specialized roles, like recovery.
Additionally, there is not one specific food you have to eat if you want to be the best gymnast. So often we hear certain foods touted as "super foods", as they pack in high amounts of certain nutrients. However, that does not mean that those foods are the only foods rich in that nutrient. And no single food — not even a superfood — can offer all the nutrition, health benefits, and energy a gymnast needs. Not to mention, many of these foods can be expensive, not readily available to everyone, or may not align with your personal preferences. Instead, it is more important to focus on meeting your macro and micro nutrient needs with foods that you enjoy and are readily available to you.
Look to Incorporate Foods With These 5 Nutrients To Help You Recover Better
1. Whole Grains
Whole grains are going to serve two main purposes in a gymnast's diet - energy and essential micronutrients.
Carbohydrates are a gymnast's #1 source of energy - so much so, that they make up anywhere from 50-70% of your total energy intake (and about 2/3-3/4 of your plate at most meals and snacks). Energy coming from carbohydrates is the body's preferred source of energy to run everything from your heart, to muscles, and even your brain! Carbohydrate also fuel your workout - from keeping you energized for 2, 3, 4+ hour practices, helping your body do complex combinations and routines, and giving you that extra high-intensity burst of energy when you go to sprint down the vault runway or for a tumbling pass.
And while carbohydrates can come from a wide variety of foods spanning many food groups, more than half of what your body needs is likely coming from grains and starches (like bread, rice, pasta, oats, etc.). Grains are an important food group for gymnasts to eat because they are carbohydrate rich, energy dense foods. This means that per serving, you will get more energy from gains compared to fruits or veggies. Knowing this can be extremely helpful for a gymnast to meet their high energy demands.
IF you are not eating enough carbs, it is very difficult for you to eat enough, overall (see point #1). If you're not eating enough energy from carbs, the body will have to pick and choose what functions it prioritizes. More often than not, breathing will be prioritized before recovery.
It is important for a gymnast prioritizing recovery to get 3-4 servings of whole grains (like whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, farrow, barley, bulgar, oats, etc.), most days. The bran portion of the grain, which is not removed during processing when grains are left "whole" is rich in micronutrients that play an important role in recovery, including B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (more on these later).
Protein is the body's building blocks. It helps to build everything from new cells to muscles (and everything in between). You can't expect recovery to happen without the materials it needs.
Most gymnasts need anywhere from 1.6-2 grams of protein per kg of their body weight (or .7-.9g of protein per pound) to support the demands of training and recovery, PT, or injury healing.
To make the most out of your food, choose high-quality protein sources. Animal sources of protein, like poultry, beef, pork, seafood, dairy, and eggs, as well as soy, are "complete" proteins, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids (most plant-based protein rich foods are "incomplete" proteins, meaning they are missing at least 1 essential amino acid and need to be paired with a complementary protein food to ensure adequate intake of all amino acids). If choosing plant sources of proteins, prioritize those with the amino acid "leucine" (like lentils and soy) to maximize muscle growth.
In order to give your body doses of protein you can use throughout the day to promote recovery, include protein into all meals and snacks. Most gymnasts will get more than enough protein by including 20-30g at meals (or the equivalent of 3-5oz), and 10-20g at snacks (or the equivalent of ~1-3oz).
What about Creatine?
Creatine is also a derivative of protein (although not a complete protein). The body naturally makes about 1g of creatine daily and can be consumed from the diet in limited amounts through animal proteins.
Creatine (creatine monohydrate) is one of the most well studied supplements for sports performance in post-puberty athletes and some studies have also shown that it can be beneficial for recovery by reducing muscle damage after hard workouts in addition to adequate nutrition, hydration, and appropriate performance fueling strategies. Additionally, there is also some research showing that creatine supplementation can be benificial for lessening the severity of and shortening the recovery time from a concussion.
Creatine is not widely recommended for young athletes and those who have not completed puberty. Vegetarian and vegan athletes may see benefits from creatine supplementation.
What about Collagen?
Collagen supplements have increased in popularity over the last few years, especially for tendon and ligament health and recovery. Collagen is actually a structural protein found in connective tissues of our bodies (like joints, ligaments, and tendons). Collagen can be found in animal proteins like meat, chicken, eggs, fish, bone broth, and gelatin, or as a supplement. Limited research has shown that, in combination with >50mg of Vitamin C (like oranges, kiwi, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) collagen can be helpful for those needing extra tendon and ligament injury prevention and recovery.
Collagen supplements should not be used to replace a complete protein food or supplement, as it is an incomplete protein, and while adding collagen to your diet likely wont hurt, it's benefits may only be seen if you are meeting overall energy and nutrient needs.
3. Omega-3 Essential Fats
There are 2 main types of fats found in foods: Saturated and Unsaturated. Unsaturated fats are a good source of energy and they are anti-inflammatory, which are essential for healing and recovery.
As a gymnast, strive to get a high proportion of your dietary fat from unsaturated sources, including:
Fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel)
Nuts / Nut butters
Plant oils (like olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, etc.)
Gymnasts recovering from injury should especially focus on Omega-3 fats, which are mostly found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna. Try including these foods 2-3 times per week, or if you do not eat seafood, you may benefit from a fish oil supplement with DHA + EPA, or a fortified option like Fairlife Milk or EO3 recovery drinks.
4. Phytochemicals, Flavonoids, Polyphenols & Anthocyanincs
Polyphenols, Flavonoids, and Phytochemicals are categories of plant compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods, usually coinciding with the color or pigment, that have been show to offer various health benefits, including reduced inflammation and increased recovery.
Gymnasts prioritizing recovery and looking to decrease the time and severity of post- injury or intense workout soreness may benefit from foods rich in the phytochemical Anythocyanin, including cherries, pomegranates, blueberries, blackberries, beets, purple cabbage, acai (as well as their juices), as well as the polyphenol bromelain, found in pineapple.
Many studies have shown than 1oz of tart cherry juice concentrate or 8-12oz tart cherry juice consumed before and after a workout can aid with faster muscle recovery, less delayed onset soreness, and improved sleep (when recovery happens most). Similar impacts have been shown for 1oz pomegranate juice concentrate or 8-16oz pomegranate juice. Gymnasts looking to improve their recovery could benefit from incorporating these foods into their pre-workout meal or snack and/or their recovery meal or snack.
5. Calcium & Vitamin D
If you struggle with bone health like breaks, fractures, or stress reactions, then you want to prioritize the bone-healing nutrients, specifically Calcium and Vitamin D.
Our bones are made up largely of calcium. Consuming enough calcium from foods ( >1000mg or 3-4 servings of calcium rich foods daily) can help keep bones strong, as well as supply the building blocks to repair any damage.
Calcium is found in:
Leafy green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, kale)
Tofu and soy
Fortified foods (like OJ)
Bonus Foods: Additional Bone Supporting Nutrients:
Vitamin D is also essential for bone health, since it promotes the calcium to be absorbed by bones. Additionally, Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating the inflammatory response, meaning it is an important recovery nutrient for more than just bone health.
The main way our body gets Vitamin D is from the sunlight (converted by our skin), so many people do not get enough. You are at risk for Vitamin D deficiency if:
You spend most of your time indoors (like in a gym...)
You are rarely exposed to direct sunlight (only getting sunlight through windows, clothes, or sunscreen-covered skin)
You live at a latitude 37 degrees or more north or south of the equator (most of the USA), where you experience all 4 seasons (and the sun is not very strong for 6 or more months each year)
You have a stomach condition, such as IBS, IBD, celiac disease
If you can, try getting 15 minutes of unprotected sun time each day.
Vitamin D can also be found in a limited number of foods, including:
Eggs (particularly in the yolk)
Oily fish like salmon and trout
Fortified foods (like cereals and milks)
It is important for your doctor to regularly test your Vitamin D status through blood tests (in summer and winter) to determine your status. A blood level of less than 30 ng/dL is considered insufficient for an athlete, less than 20 ng/dL is deficient and would require supplementation.
Although less commonly talked about than Calcium and Vitamin D, Magnesium plays a crucial role in bone health as it helps with Vitamin D absorption.
Magnesium is found in:
Leafy greens (like spinach, kale,)
Nuts (almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts
Whole grains (see above)
As magnesium is found in a variety of foods spanning across many different food groups, aim to add food sources of magnesium to your diet first before looking at supplements. Excess magnesium can cause an upset stomach, GI distress, and/or diarrhea, so this is one where more is not necessarily better! Like Vitamin D, magnesium is also one of those biomarkers that can be assessed through bloodwork, so test, don't guess! Many calcium supplements, Vitamin D supplements, and multivitamins will also contain magnesium, so be cautious of the dose before adding any additional supplements.
Vitamin K2 (menaquinone, a subset of Vitamin K) is a newer area of research that plays an important role in the body's use of calcium to help build bones. Unlike Vitamin K (K1), which is typically found in leafy green vegetables, Vitamin K2 is found in:
Fermented foods (like natto and sourkraut)
Cheese (like gouda and Munster)
K2 is another vitamin that is now being added to "bone health" supplements or paired with those bone healing nutrients previously discussed (calcium, Vitamin D, magnesium).
Weather it's due to an injury or just wanting to feel a little better (and perform a little better), gymnasts are willing to do what it takes to be their best, and often times that means looking for a competitive edge through superfoods and supplements. However, the biggest gains will be made first and foremost by ensuring that overall energy and nutrient needs are being met first. Then, and only then, a gymnast can work with their Registered Dietitian to implement specific recovery strategies through food or supplements. More is not better when it comes to supplements. Blindly supplementing every nutrient can throw off the delicate balance of vitamins and minerals in the body and lead to a whole lot of unintended side effects.