How Your Nutrition is Hurting Your Recovery from Injury
Injury is a regular part of gymnastics (waayyyy more regular than it should be).
A 2019 survey of NCAA athletes found that 77% of NCAA gymnasts had sustained a major sport-related injury prior to college!
As a gymnast growing up, I also struggled with my fair share of breaks, sprains, and tears. With every setback, I'd always want to come back stronger.
So you listen to your doctor. Wear your cast/brace/boot/sling. Go slow. Do all your PT. You even do extra strength training.
To help 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.
There are quite a few amazing gymnastics-specific physical therapists out there (this blog was written in collaboration with Dr. Jenny Borda, PT DPT, so make sure you check her out!)
But you still seem to be struggling to recover fully from your injury. Nutrition is also an important piece of this puzzle.
As a gymnast, I didn't understand the role the foods I ate played in coming back from an injury. And neither do many of the high-level gymnasts I talk to.
Often when I suggest using food to help with their recovery, so many gymnasts are hesitant.
You're scared to eat since you are training less.
You don't feel as hungry.
You call yourself a picky eater.
You're sad or upset about your injury.
You're scared to gain weight.
You just don't know what you should be eating to adjust.
I get it, eating when you're out of the gym or limited at practice can be scary! Our sport and our society tells us to eat as little as possible and avoid foods. That our body shouldn't change when we take a step back from full training.
And I get it. I've been there. As a gymnast for 15 years of my life, I understand the pressures you face.
As a dietitian, I also know that well fueled gymnasts recover faster and are less likely to get injured in the first place.
So, let's take a look at the 5 Reasons Your Nutrition is Hurting Your Recovery from Injury.
1. You're not eating enough.
As a gymnast, your body needs a lot of energy. And this doesn't suddenly stop when you're injured.
When talking about energy in terms of food, most often we are referring to calories. I know that word gets thrown around a lot and can seem scary, but calories are just a measurement of energy in foods. Less is not always better: enough is best.
When trying to figure out how much a gymnast should be eating, there are a few different factors that come into play:
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): The baseline. The bare minimum. This is how much energy a gymnast needs just to stay alive! This includes basic body functions like breathing, keeping your heart beating, and growing. This baseline usually factors in your height, your weight, your age, and how much muscle mass you have, as well as hormone balance. For most people, BMR accounts for anywhere from 50% of your daily energy needs (for a highly trained athlete) to about 70% of your needs (for someone who's more sedentary).
The Thermic Effect of Food: The process of eating, digesting, and using the food you eat actually takes a good amount of energy, and can vary based on the types and amounts of foods you eat (protein, fat, and fiber specifically take energy to break down). This process means you need about 10 to 15% more energy on top of that bare minimum just to get the most out of your food.
NEAT: aka "Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis" is the energy your body needs to do everyday activities, like walking the halls at school, typing on your computer, or fidgeting. This can vary from person to person or even from day to day and can account for anywhere from 15 to 30% more energy that you need.
Exercise: This is everything from gymnastics and strength and conditioning to PT, walking your dog, and PE class at school. Most gymnasts need an additional 300-500 calories per hour of gymnastics training.
Injury recovery: Healing from an injury also takes some additional energy. While this can vary based on the severity of your injury (bruise, sprain, or soreness vs broken bones or surgery), recovering from an injury can mean you'll need anywhere from 10-50% more energy.
So as you can see, this all adds up. Even if you are not training at full capacity due to an injury, you still need to eat enough food to keep you alive, for everyday activities, any exercise you are doing, and to help your body heal.
2. You're coming up short on carbs or protein.
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 3/4 of your plate).
Carbs (for short) come from many different foods, including:
Grains (like bread, rice, pasta, oats, quinoa, etc.)
Starchy vegetables (like potatoes, squash, corn, etc.)
Non-starchy Vegetables (like carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, etc.)
Plant-based proteins (like nuts, seeds, beans, and soy)
Fruit (like apples, bananas, berries, melons, etc.)
Dairy (like milk and yogurt)
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 > healing.
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 an injury to heal without the materials it needs.
Most gymnasts need anywhere from 1.2-2 grams of protein per kg of their body weight 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, are "complete" proteins, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Choose leaner sources to get the more bang for your buck (more on this later). 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, include protein into all meals and snacks. Most gymnasts will get more than enough protein by including 30-40g at meals (or the equivalent of 4-6oz), and 10-20g at snacks (or the equivalent of ~1-3oz).
3. You're eating the wrong kinds of fats.
There are 2 main types of fats found in foods: Saturated and Unsaturated
As a gymnast, you want to strive to get most of your dietary fat from unsaturated sources, including:
Nuts / Nut butters
Unsaturated fats are not only heart-healthy, but are also anti-inflammatory, which are essential for healing and recovery. 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 2-3 times per week, or if you do not eat seafood, you may benefit from a fish oil supplement with DHA + EPA.
Foods with saturated fats are more pro-inflammatory. These are most often found in animal foods (like beef, poultry, pork, full-fat dairy), butter and foods made with butter, and coconut, as well as fried foods. When planning your meals:
Choose unsaturated cooking oils, like olive oil, avocado oil, or grapeseed oil
Choose lean cooking methods like grilling, baking, steaming, or broiling
Opt for leaner cuts of meat (like poultry vs red meat, chicken breast or thighs vs wings or legs, beef or pork tenderloin vs rib or shoulder cuts)
4. You eat the same fruits and vegetables.
There are more than 25+ major vitamins and minerals that your body needs to stay healthy. And while I'm not saying all of them come from fruits and vegetables, these foods are some of the most nutrient dense, meaning they have a lot of nutrients like these vitamins and minerals.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, I always encourage my gymnasts to "eat the rainbow". This is because many of these vitamins and minerals are similar within color groups (ex. the nutrition is similar in blueberries, blackberries, and cherries). If you eat the same fruit or vegetable every day, you could be missing out on the potential benefits of others.
Injured gymnasts should make it a point to meet the daily recommended intake for:
Vitamin A (>600mcg): promotes cell growth and development.
ex: sweet potato, pumpkin, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, bell peppers, mango, tomato
Vitamin C (>45mcg): promotes wound healing, tissue repair, immune function, and can work as an antioxidant
ex: citrus fruits (like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes), bell peppers, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, tomato, strawberries, broccoli, brussels sprouts
Anythocyanins (no RDA): has been shown to be an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
ex: cherries, pomegranates, blueberries, blackberries, beets, purple cabbage, acai (as well as their juices)
5. You avoid bone-healing vitamins and minerals.
If you're dealing with bone injuries 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 daily) can help keep bones strong, as well as supply the building blocks to repair any damage. Calcium is found in:
Dairy foods (like milk, cheese, yogurt, cheese) ---> be sure to check your non-dairy alternatives
Leafy green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, kale)
Tofu and soy
Fortified foods (like OJ)
Vitamin D is also essential for bone health, since it promotes the calcium to be absorbed by bones. 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 be found in a limited number of foods, including
Oily fish like salmon and trout
Fortified foods (like cereals and milks)
It is important for your doctor to regularly test your Vitamin D level through blood tests (in summer and winter) to determine if you should be taking a supplement.
Even if you are out of training due to an injury, nutrition is still an important part of your training and recovery.
Want to feel confident with your fueling plan and learn to fuel success? I help competitive gymnasts fuel their bodies, prevent injuries, and reach their highest potential. Curious about how working together could improve your performance in the gym? Apply to work with me!