Gymnasts and gym parents are always asking me questions about what to eat before a meet.
They want to feel their best on meet day
They want to have the best energy
They want to look their best in front of the judges and college recruiters (especially compared to their competitors...)
And of course, how you fuel and take care of your body can absolutely make or break your performance! And you can read more on this topic here.
But, what if I told you that what you eat after the meet is just as important!
When I was competing, the post-meet meal was always a celebration! Time to celebrate my competitive success (or, let's be honest, wallow in defeat). A time to relax and let my guard down. And, what I thought was, a time to just eat whatever I wanted.
But that post-meet meal always seemed to take FOREVER.
Waiting for the meet to finally end...
Sitting through endless age groups of awards...
Choosing a restaurant to go to (only to have to wait in the lobby for an hour with 30 other families from the meet who had the same idea)...
No matter how well you performed, how much you like the restaurant you're at, and how nice your parents are being to you, you're in a terrible mood (or as many people refer to it as *Hanger*)
And by the time you actually sat down to order, there was no way you were able to make any sort of fueling-minded decision (or listen to your fullness cues).
Even worse, so often I remember waking up the day after a meet feeling like I had been hit by a bus.
It was impossible to get back into the gym and keep training to be my best, especially if we had another meet the next weekend. The pain and fatigue just piled up.
So, let's talk about competition season.
For most gymnasts, competition season is the time when you're trying to do more on less. You are training more: More hours in the gym. More days in the gym. More intense practices. More routines. More hard landings. All with less time for rest and recovery (and without a fueling strategy, likely less energy).
And, while meet day might seem "easier" compared to the practices leading up to the meet itself, the stress and intensity of meet day (on top of all the preparation it took to get there) is enough to put your body over the edge into an energy deficit.
This is one of the reasons that mid-season, you start to feel
During competition season, it is especially important to prioritize your recovery. And that starts with fueling your body with enough food and the right variety of nutrients (building blocks) after the meet ends.
Fueling for Recovery on Meet Day:
In order to start the recovery process (refill empty energy stores and repair any "damage" done from hard landings, muscle use, and overall stress), and avoid the post-meet hanger, your body needs building blocks! Simply put, you need enough energy and nutrients from food, specifically carbohydrates and protein.
When it comes to maximizing your recovery, it is ideal to eat within what is known as the "recovery window", or the time after exercise when the body is most efficiently and effectively prioritizing recovery. There are two recovery windows: 0-1 hour post exercise and 2-3 hours post-exercise. In an ideal world, you would refuel with a balanced, high-intensity plate within an hour of finishing your final routine. However, on meet day, that is highly unlikely to happen.
At a minimum, it is important to eat a simple snack with carbs and protein within 1 hour of finishing the competition (and that clock starts ticking from when you salute after your last event, not after waiting an hour for awards to finally finish...). Ideally, you want a 3:1 ratio of carbs-to-protein - which could look something like (if you're reading a food label) 30g-60g of carbs and 10g-20g of protein (although exact amounts will vary based on your age, height, weight, muscle mass, etc.).
As a registered dietitian for competitive gymnasts, I always recommend a gymnast comes prepared with an "awards" snack - something to help refuel and start the recovery process. Some easy examples gym bag ready awards snacks include:
Shelf Stable chocolate milk box (like Horizon)
Pumpkin Seeds + Goldfish
Raisins + Jerky
Eating that awards snack will not only help jumpstart your recovery, but will also give you a little more time before the *hanger* comes roaring in.
After the end of your meet, it is just as important for recovery that you eat a full meal within 2-3 hours. That meal should:
Follow a high-intenisty performance plate (1/2 starch, 1/4 protein, 1/4 fruits/veggies)
Have high-quality complete or complementary protein (like grilled chicken, lean beef, eggs, salmon, or tofu, etc.)
Include unsaturated or omega-3 essential fats (like salmon, avocado, nuts, or olive oil, etc.)
Include foods with a variety of vitamins and minerals, specifically:
Vitamin A (ex: carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes)
Vitamin C (ex: oranges, bell peppers, broccoli)
Anythocyanins (ex: blueberries, cherries, beets, etc.)
Magnesium (ex: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, spinach, almonds, peanuts, edamame, etc.)
Come with a large glass of water
But... eating after a meet isn't always as easy as we'd like it to be...
Navigating The Concessions Stand:
In my 25 years as a member of the gymnastics community, there are 3 constants I have always found to be true about gymnastics competitions:
Too much glitter
A line for the women's bathroom
A terrible concessions stand (that is now even more terrible post-COVID)
Now, in an ideal world, you wouldn't have to rely on the concessions stand for either your recovery snack or post-meet meal, but this isn't always the case. When dealing with a concession stand, keep an eye out for choices like the following examples that you can combine to get some carbs and protein for an easy recovery snack:
Fruit (fresh, canned, or dried)
Whole grain crackers or other snacks
Granola bars (>30g carbs, >7g protein)
Nuts, seeds, or nut butter
Greek Yogurt or Parfaits
And if you need to make a meal out of it:
Sandwiches (like a PBJ or slice of a sub)
Pasta (hot or cold)
Salad + Chicken + Dinner Roll
It doesn't have to be pretty...you can really fit almost any food into your recovery meal!
Eating at a Restaurant:
Eating at a restaurant after a meet used to feel like a free-for-all for me. Large tables with all your teammates. Constant laughter. It's hard to remember that you still have a job to do as a competitor (recover)! Of course, you want to enjoy yourself and order what you want! But, you should also prioritize your recovery. Don't feel like this means you have to "sacrifice" your favorites, but what can you add to your meal to help boost your recovery?
Add glass of water in between every "specialty" drink
Add a salad or veggie plate to the table of appetizers
Add mixed veggies as one of your sides with your go-to entree
Add fruit salad to your all-day diner breakfast
Add veggies and guac on top of a burger, taco, or quesadilla
See, you can really add a lot to a meal without missing out on your favorite foods!
The most challenging part of competitions can be when they are far away from home. Whether you've got a few hours drive home or are stuck in a hotel in some middle-of-nowhere town, an important part of your recovery is having a travel plan that considers food!
Pack a bag of snack options (or stop at a local store and stock up when you get there) so you don't miss out
For a car trip meet, pack a cooler bag of your favorites
Scope out the area around the gym, convention center, or your hotel online before leaving so you know what your food options are
Make post-meet dinner reservations ahead of time (especially for groups and teams) or order takeout with enough time (choose your meal before the meet and have parents place the order during awards so dinner is ready when you are)
Stay hydrated and pack enough water and drinks
While this may seem like a lot to do and consider, remember, you don't have to figure all of this out on your own. As a Registered Dietitian for Gymnasts, I have made it my mission to teach gymnasts and gym families everything they need to know about fueling for optimal performance, recovery, health, and longevity in the sport. Want to learn more and start incorporating simple fueling strategies into your training? Enroll in The Fueled Gymnast Academy!