5 Nutrition Mistakes Gymnasts Make Before Working Out
Gymnasts and their families invest so much into the sport in hopes of reaching their goals. Most gymnasts practice 3, 4, or even 5+ hours a day, 4, 5, 6 days every week. There's no off-season in gymnastics - no break. That's a lot of time and energy invested!
However, many gymnasts are not able to make the most out of that investment.
I might be a little biased, but gymnastics really is the greatest sport. I have such a special place in my heart for the sport and all the athletes that dedicate so much of their lives to being the best they can be.
But, ask yourself this. Are you actually investing in the things that make the biggest impact?
Sure you need to invest in a great coach and place to train.
Sure you need a well-fitting competition leo...
But, are you actually invested in doing what it takes to make the most out of your gym time?
As a Registered Dietitian for gymnasts, I see so many gymnasts making major mistakes! Mistakes that are actually hurting their performance (instead of helping). I want you to feel your best, practice and compete your best this season and beyond.
Fuel your body right and avoid making any of these common mistakes:
1. They Don't Eat Anything
Being your best in the gym means showing up with full energy. And that is not likely to happen if you don't eat before.
Many gymnasts are hesitant to eat before practice. They feel like they don't have enough time.... They are afraid to get an upset stomach, feel nauseous, or sluggish from the food... They don't want to look bloated in their leo...
Without eating before a workout, your body will likely run out of energy before the end of practice. That means you cannot give your best effort or work as hard on your events at the end of practice. You are most likely going to feel tired, unfocused, and sluggish. Your brain needs food in order to function and without food it can be hard to think clearly. Not having fuel doesn’t just lead to a productive practice and it also puts you at risk for injury.
To be adequately fueled for practice, a gymnast should eat a full pre-workout meal 3-4 hours before the start of a workout AND have a high energy snack 15-60 minutes before the start of a workout when possible. If this isn't possible, aim for a modified mini-meal about 1-2 hours before practice.
The goal of pre-workout meals and snacks is to top off your energy stores with foods that make you feel your best. For most gymnasts, this means a snack containing mostly simple carbohydrates.
If your snack is between 1 -2 hours before practice, look to build a modified high-intensity athlete's plate that is 50% grains and starches, 25% protein, and 25% fruits or veggies. Simple carbohydrates like fruit and quick-digesting (low in fiber) starches are best when eating a snack 15-60 minutes before practice. You know your body best, so try to choose your pre-practice snacks based on how you feel at practice after consuming each snack. Choose the ones that don’t upset your stomach and make you feel the best!
Some of my favorite pre-practice snacks for gymnasts to eat 1-2 hours before a workout include:
A PBJ with pretzels
Oatmeal, berries, and nut butter
Veggies, Pita, and Hummus
Cottage Cheese, Cantaloupe, and mixed nuts
Peanut butter and banana wrap
Cereal, milk, and blueberries
2. They Rely on Caffeine
You've had a long day at school, and now it’s time for practice. You’re just so tired from school (and maybe from lack of enough sleep and enough quality sleep). You decide to have a drink with some caffeine (like a coffee or Celcius) before practice to give you the energy you want for your long practice. However, drinking caffeine before practice will not actually give you the long-lasting energy that you think it does - only a balanced meal can. Caffeine can not replace the actual energy that food provides (and even "tricks" your body into thinking it has energy, making you crash even harder when it wears off), and a successful practice is dependent on fueling your body in a way that meets your energy and nutrient needs through food first.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests consuming caffeine with caution. For teens between the ages of 12-18, daily caffeine intake should not be more than 100 mg (or the equivalent of one 8oz cup of coffee). For children under 12, there's no designated safe amount of caffeine.
Excess caffeine intake can do serious damage to your health. Some research has found that excessive caffeine intake is associated with nervousness, irritability, nausea, cardiovascular symptoms, osteoporosis, gastric ulcers and can negatively impact your training sleep and performance.
Caffeine in high doses is also a banned substance by the NCAA. A urinary caffeine concentration that is higher than 14 micrograms per milliliter (equivalent to about 500 milligrams of caffeine, 1-2 energy drinks, or 48-64oz of coffee), will result in a positive drug test. As for energy drinks, they are not reliable, and may contain unclear amounts of banned substances along with unknown amounts of caffeine.
3. They Try to Eat "Too Healthy"
Nutrition is a powerful tool to help athletes improve their performance. So often the nutrition advice told to a gymnast sounds a lot like just “eat healthy” or “eat clean”. And while the intentions behind these messages are likely good (most often are meant to insinuate that an athlete should eat more whole foods, more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, unsaturated fats, etc., which is the backbone of a solid performance nutrition strategy), this is not always the most helpful advice, especially when fueling up for a long workout. Often times, the foods that seem the *healthiest* (like vegetables, sugar free snacks, and other "health foods") are not actually what an athlete needs to be eating in the hour before a workout. These foods are often low in carbohydrates and high in fiber.
Carbohydrate, as previously mentioned, is the body's primary fuel source for gymnastics activity, including short moderate-to-high intensity activity (like a stop-and-go circuit or a 30-90 second routine) in addition to bursts of extremely high intensity activity (like sprinting 5 seconds down the vault runway). A pre-workout meal or snack without enough carbohydrates will likely leave you feeling sluggish and tired.
Fiber is one of the nutrients that takes a longer time and a significant amount of energy to digest, meaning that it will be hours before any of the energy is actually accessible to use and will, instead, be more likely to cause an upset stomach, nausea, and bloating.
For a gymnast with a performance nutrition strategy, there are many other opportunities in the day to incorporate nutrient dense foods (like vegetables). At the pre-workout snack, it is much more important to prioritize energy and performance, meaning grains, starches, fruit (or even something with sugar). Some of my favorite high-carb pre-practice snacks for gymnasts to eat with less than 1 hour before a workout include:
Fruit cup or piece of fruit
Pretzels or Crackers
Applesauce or GoGo Squeeze
Cereal (dry or with milk)
Fruit Leathers or Dried Fruit
Fruit smoothie (made with yogurt, fruit, and oats or cereal)
Bear Bites or Belvita Bites
Oatmeal (a hot bowl, overnight oats, or baked oatmeal)
4. They Fuel With Only Protein
Athletes are often told about the benefits of eating protein. Protein is the body's building blocks – it’s essential not just for strength and muscles, but for all growth and development (including bones, organs, immune system, muscles, tendons, skin, hair, nails, and more). For gymnasts, protein is an important component of your fueling routine and should be included in most meals and snacks to ensure adequate intake. HOWEVER (see #3), protein is also one of those nutrients that takes time and energy to digest, meaning if your pre-workout meal or snack is mostly or exclusively protein, it wont be readily available for a workout and can leave you feeling less than great on the floor. Instead, save the protein for your meals and snacks more than 1 hour before your workout and after!
5. They're Dehydrated
Hydration means providing the body with enough fluid, as water is necessary for every system in the body. If you are dehydrated this means that the body does not have enough fluid to do all of these functions.
Hydration status can have a major impact on energy and performance in the gym. Being dehydrated can lead to:
Fatigue and drop in energy
Muscle cramps and muscle fatigue
Slowed reaction time
Additionally, factors like heat, physical activity, and excessive sweating, you may be more likely to become dehydrated.
Most gymnasts need to be drinking a minimum of .4-.6oz of liquid per pound of body weight each day. To be adequately hydrated for gymnastics, most will need to drink an additional:
8-16oz in the 2 hours prior to training
8-16oz per hour of training
16-24oz in the 1 hour after training
Hydration also requires more than just water. Staying hydrated requires the right amount of fluid balanced with electrolytes and carbohydrates. Electrolytes are minerals that help maintain fluid balance in your body. Those that play a role in hydration are mainly:
These can easily be eaten through food (like salty pretzel sticks) or drank in a sports drink (like Gatorade, Propel, Nuun, Liquid IV, Scratch, UCan, etc.).
As a gymnast, being your best and having enough energy means staying hydrated. A few of my favorite tips to help you stay hydrated include:
Drink with each meal and snack
Carry and sip from a water bottle all day long (at school and at home)
Drink in the car before and after gymnastics
Bring a large enough bottle to drink at practice (or multiple bottles or drinks, or have a plan to refill when empty)
*BONUS TIP* 6. THEY'RE TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT ON THEIR OWN
There is so much nutrition information out there: between Instagram and TikTok influencers, Netflix documentaries, your parents and coaches, even your teammates, everyone is always looking for that perfect answer that solves all their problems. Diet talk can feel NON-STOP!
It can all feel so conflicting. But what you really want to know is what's right for ME.
Many gymnasts feel like they don't need to work with a Registered Dietitian. That dietitians are only for those with a problem. That they can just eat "healthy" and figure it out on their own...
When I was a gymnast, I was in your same spot, trying it on my own, spending countless hours trying to figure out what would work best for me with no real strategy. As an athlete, I made all the mistakes. I struggled with my energy, with injuries, and came up short on a lot of my goals. Investing in education, mentorship, and support will make nailing down your fueling routine so much simpler.
When you learn about fueling your body from a licensed nutrition professional who also understands the sport of gymnastics (and the culture that comes with it), you can guarantee that the information you are learning is backed by science and specific to the unique challenges you face as a gymnast so you can actually make adjustments and move closer to your goals.
Want to feel energized during practice from start to finish? As a registered dietitian, I help competitive gymnasts fuel their bodies, prevent injuries, and reach their highest potential. I have a few opportunities for high level gymnasts to work with me this month. Curious about how working together could improve your performance in the gym? Apply to work 1-on-1 with me today and let's chat!