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Maximizing Your Performance: 3 Winning Strategies For Gymnasts To Have The Best Meet Of The Year At States

It’s nearing the end of competition season which means states are soon approaching (with regionals and nationals not far behind)! While it feels like there are a million things going through your mind right now - will I compete my best, will I qualify on, will there be college coaches watching - it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and lose sight of all the little habits you have implemented this season to prepare you for this moment. 

One of the first thing that often takes a backseat when nerves and anxiousness kick in, is your self-care basics (things like fueling and nourishing your body and sleep).

There are many factors that can put a gymnast at risk for under fueling during competition season, and as a result, so many gymnasts feel extremely exhausted and fatigued during the school day, and have no energy by the time practice rolls around. You may not realize it, but this is putting you at risk for Low Energy Availability (LEA), which can decrease your performance (hello soreness, sloppy routines, no power or endurance) and increase the risk of potential injury.

Obviously, this is not what you want to hear going into the most important meet of the season, but don’t worry, there are ways to prevent this from happening starting with your fueling habits! As a registered dietitian for gymnasts, I wanted to share 3 strategies you can incorporate over the next few weeks to help you feel better and more energized, and have your best meet of the year (so far) at states.

3 Winning Strategies For Gymnasts To Have The Best Meet Of The Year At States

1. Have a fueling plan that you can implement consistently

In simplest terms, food is your fuel, so don’t skimp out on it! Gymnasts who are practicing 4-5 times a week for 3-5 hours at a time have much higher energy needs than the average person. This means that to meet your energy needs, you will want to have a fueling strategy in place that allows you to eat a fueling meal or snack every 2-3 hours to ensure you can make it through an intense practice. 

And just like in the gym, where you have practiced and perfected your routines over the course of the season, the same goes for your fueling routine.

One of the keys to fueling your body is to create a normal, everyday routine for your nutrition. In the days, weeks, and months leading up to a competition, learn what types of foods, meals, and snacks you enjoy eating, sit well in your stomach, and keep you full and energized. Every day can be an opportunity to get more comfortable with the foods you're going to eat on meet day:

Breakfast before school or a morning workout becomes breakfast on meet day.

Pre-practice meals and snacks become pre-competition meals and snacks.

Mid-practice snacks become mid-meet snacks.

Post workout recovery meals become dinner the night before the competition.

During practices, focus on how your body responds to different foods. This way, you can make informed choices about what works best for you on competition day.

How am I supposed to eat when I don’t have an appetite? 

Nerves come with the territory at this point in the season, but that doesn’t mean you have to completely neglect your fueling plan if you’re feeling anxious and lacking an appetite. By establishing a familiar routine, you'll be better prepared to tackle pre-competition nerves (and it will feel it easier for you to eat when nerves are at their peak) and ensure your body has the energy it needs to shine on the competition floor.

Small, frequent snacks may be beneficial when your jitters are making it difficult to eat a whole meal. This will help increase your energy intake to get you through those last 10 routines at practice or the start of a competition. If you are struggling with eating  breakfast before your meet, try simple foods like a smoothie and bagel to get you started, then continue to eat small portions of easily digestible foods (think back to your trusty pre-workout snacks) every 30-60 minutes depending on how your stomach feels after the first meal. You will want to avoid foods high in fat and fiber close to competition time, as these have a tendency to cause discomfort and take longer for the body to digest. Some great foods for fighting those nerves include: 

  • Pretzels and a cheese stick 

  • Go Go Squeeze pouches 

  • Goldfish crackers 

  • Bagel with deli meat 

  • PB&J sandwich 

2. Get enough sleep! 

Sleep is the best time for your body to rest, recover, and repair itself so that you're ready to train your hardest and get better in the gym the next day. Gymnasts should aim to get enough sleep each night, especially during competition season:

  • 6-12 year olds: 9-12 hours per night

  • 13-18 years old: 8-10 hours per night

  • 18+ years old: 8+ hours per night

As a student athlete, I know your schedule is jam packed and it seems like there just aren't enough hours in the day to do it all. BUT, recovery happens at night during sleep. You can expect to feel energized and recovered without enough rest.

Did you know that your nutrition habits can impact your sleep quality?

This means that what you eat throughout the day can impact how well you sleep throughout the night, which is when your body is undergoing a major recovery process from the long day at school and hard practice you just endured earlier in the day. 

All types of sleep related troubles can be impacted by food - how easily you fall asleep, if you stay asleep throughout the night or wake up, and if you wake up feeling well rested and refreshed or sluggish, sore, and exhausted can all be linked back to what we are or are not doing in terms of fueling the previous day.

3 of the most common fueling mistakes I see gymnasts make that negatively impacts their sleep include:

  • not eating enough (throughout the day and after practice)

  • un-balanced evening meals

  • caffeine intake

There are also foods there that can positively impact your sleep. 5 nutrients that can help improve your sleep include:

  • Protein

  • Omega-3 fats

  • Anthocyanins

  • Vitamin C

  • Magnesium

It may feel impossible to prioritize sleep when you have so many other things on your plate and are constantly thinking about your next big competition, but an athlete who isn’t getting enough sleep is not having a productive practice and is putting themselves at risk for injury. You may think that you can outsmart your lack of sleep by drinking energy drinks throughout the day, which leads me to… 

3. Don't Rely on Caffeine

You may feel overwhelmed about your lack of sleep and low energy going into practices and you are willing to do just about anything to gain that competitive edge, so you reach for an energy drink before practice since you didn’t have enough time to eat a meal.

Energy drinks contain high amounts of caffeine which makes you feel like you have more energy because it is a stimulant for the body that impacts your brain and nervous system. Don’t be fooled though, this feeling won’t last long and will lead to a crash and burn before you know it. Not only will you crash and burn, but you may experience an increased heart rate, and difficulty focusing on your routines. This is because caffeine is not actual fuel for your body like carbohydrates are! 

But how much caffeine is too much?

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests consuming caffeine with caution, and if you are between the ages of 12 to 18 daily caffeine intake should not be more than 100 mg (this is one 8oz cup of coffee). If you are under 12, there's no designated safe amount!

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 and WADA. A urinary caffeine concentration that is higher than 14 micrograms per milliliter (equivalent to about 500 milligrams of caffeine 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.

When you feel sluggish and low on energy, it is best to grab some quick and easily digestible carbs (pre-practice snacks)  instead of the energy drink. This will give you actual energy instead of just perceived energy. 

Bonus Tip: Plan Ahead! 

If your state meet requires overnight travel and a hotel stay, don't forget to plan head for your nutrition too (this includes travel days as well as meet days). As soon as you book a hotel, scope out the area to get some ideas for easy meals to stay consistent with your fueling habits (and make reservations if necessary). If there aren’t many viable options for food, pack a cooler and hit up the local grocery store so that you can eat familiar foods before the meet and reduce the risk of discomfort. 

Bottom line… 

Stick to what you know! This part of the season can be so overwhelming and you are looking for any edge that you can get, however, remember that you have worked hard all season to put these nutrition strategies in place for a reason! This is not the time to experiment with new fueling plans, but instead, hone in on your current routines (both in the gym and on your plate). 

When you skip meals, avoid foods, and don't make performance fueling a priority, you can't expect your body to be at its best come competition time. It's not just about giving 100% when you're in the gym, but also making what you do outside of the gym a priority. It's not too late to get your nutrition sorted out and see major improvements this season!

The Fueled Gymnast Academy is the is the simplest way for busy gymnast (and those who feed them) to learn the ins and outs of fueling their body as a high level gymnast so they can

  • have more energy, reduce the risk of injury, and perform their best


  • feel confident and empowered to make their own food choices (and not just have someone tell them what they have to eat)

Fueling your body doesn't have to be a guessing game. And you don't have to figure it out on your own.


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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