The sport of gymnastics requires a lot of energy (not to mention the energy a growing body also needs to live and function optimally, participate in everyday life and activities, grow and develop and recover in addition to the hours spent in the gym). And while meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner are a crucial cornerstone of a gymnast's daily intake, the importance of snacks often goes unnoticed. In this guide, we explore how snacks play a crucial role in a gymnast's fueling plan, providing the necessary energy and nutrients for training, recovery, and everyday demands.
The Significance of Snacking for Gymnasts
A gymnast's fueling plan involves frequent eating - likely a meal or snack approximately every 2 to 3 hours, to provide enough energy and nutrients, and make sure the body has those at the right times to make the most out of workouts and recovery. In addition to regular meals, incorporating 2-3 well-balanced snacks is essential for most gymnasts.
However, snacking and "snack foods" seem to get a bad reputation, both in our society and in our sport. Whether it's the amount, frequency, or types of foods normally associated with snacks, the reality is, snacks can be another great opportunity for gymnasts to meet their energy needs and to incorporate foods with macro and micro nutrients their body needs!
Let's delve into the components of a nutritious snack that align with an athlete's plate.
Components of a Balanced Snack
The components of a snack are not so different than the components of an performance plate. They can include:
Color: AKA fruits and vegetables offer lots of micronutrients and promote fullness
Energy: Grains and starches offer up useable energy
Protein: Like dairy, eggs, soy, meat, nuts/nut butter, and seeds helps a body promote recovery and maintain muscle mass
Fat: Building snacks with fats like avocado, nuts/nut butter, seeds, dips, and dressings help promote fullness and adequate energy
Fun Foods: Like desserts, sweets, treats, and other non-food-group foods can make snacks feel more fun, exciting, and enjoyable
Tailoring Snacks for Gymnastic Scenarios
For a gymnast, the components that make up your snack may differ depending on when or why you are eating. Let's talk about the 4 most common situations a gymnast may need to build a snack.
1. The Everyday Balanced Snack
The everyday snack is one that a gymnast eats outside of the workout window (<1 hr before / during / <1 hour after) with the purpose of keeping your energy levels high, assisting in meeting daily energy and nutrient needs, and bridging the gap between meals (that are more than 3 or 4 hours apart) so you don't feel overly hungry by the next meal. This is also the snack to build between meals on days off from gymnastics or exercise.
When building an everyday snack look for at least two food groups:
A food providing energy (like a grain, fruit, or veggie)
A protein or fat (for your muscles and help you feel full and satisfied)
Some of my favorite everyday snacks for gymnasts include:
Cheese board (cheese, fruit, crackers)
Yogurt parfaits (Greek yogurt, fruit, granola/cereal)
Peanut Butter and Banana (or apples)
Roasted Chickpeas + carrot sticks
Mexi dipping plate (guacamole, fresh salsa, multigrain chips)
Hummus, whole grain pita, cherry tomatoes
Mini wraps or pinwheels (some ideas are nut butter and banana, or turkey and cheese!)
Edamame or snap peas
Beef jerky + Cherry Juice
1/2 sandwich or wrap (PBJ, turkey/cheese, tuna, etc. on wg bread)
Bear Bites dipped in chocolate hummus
Cereal with Milk (or plant based milk with added protein) and Blueberries
2. The Before Practice Snack
A pre-practice snack is one a gymnast eats before practice with the purpose of topping off energy stores so they feel energized (and don't get hungry). When choosing a pre-practice snack, prioritize foods high in energy (aka carbohdyrate dense foods), and may also include a small amount of protein, fiber, or fat (depending on how much time you have until the start of practice and how your individual responds to foods while exercising). Foods that are too high in protein, fat, or fiber are the most likely culprit of an upset stomach or bloating while training (and the reason so many gymnasts fear eating before a workout), so experiment with what works best for you.
An energizing, filling, easily digestable snack (or mini meal) eaten 1 -2 hours before practice should model a modified high-intensity performance plate that is:
50% grains and starches
25% fruits or veggies
Some of my favorite pre-practice snacks for gymnasts to eat 1-2 hours before a workout include:
A PBJ or deli meat sandwich with pretzels or fruit
Oatmeal made with milk, berries, and nut butter
Veggies, Pita, and Hummus
Cottage Cheese, melon, and mixed nuts
Peanut butter and banana wrap (sprinkle in granola for an extra crunch)
Cereal, milk, sliced almonds, and blueberries
Simple carbohydrates like fruit and quick-digesting (low in fiber) starches are best if eating a quick snack 15-60 minutes before practice. Some of my favorite pre-practice snacks for gymnasts to eat with less than 1 hour before a workout include:
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!
3. The Mid Practice Snack
Eating a snack during practice can be an important performance nutrition strategy to help a gymnast get through long practices feeling focused, energized, and powerful. Many gymnasts practice 3 hours or more each day - this is too long to go without fuel (and many gymnasts see a decline in their energy, mood, focus, and performance around the 2 hour mark). One of the best ways to keep energy levels and performance high for the entire workout is to incorporate a snack after about 90 minutes - 2 hours. If practice lasts 4 or more hours, a gymnast may need additional snacks every 60-90 minutes after that first snack.
When deciding on the best mid-practice snack (similar to that pre-workout snack you ate 1 hour or less before the start of practice) this snack should be high in carbohydrate and low in fiber, fat, and protein (for most). Since the purpose of a mid-practice snack is an easily accessible energy boost for the body, snacks other than simple grains, fruit, and other high-carbohydrate options will be slow to digest and won't actually provide the body with energy in time.
Weather you eat a mid-practice snack or not should not be based on if a gymnast feels "hungry" or not. For most gymnasts, the high-intensity physical activity of a sport like gymnastics blunts traditional hunger feelings, meaning most gymnasts will not experience that normal "empty" feeling during a workout (although may notice a drop in energy, dizziness, nausea, change in mood, or other biological hunger signals), but still likely need to refuel anyway. IF a gymnast is experiencing hunger during a workout, it may be helpful to work with a registered dietitian to help idenitfy and implement more appropriate fueling strategies prior to practice.
Some of my favorite mid-practice snacks for gymnasts include:
Honey Stinger Waffle
Dried fruit or fruit leather
Oat/Gran based granola bar
Fig/Fruit Filled Bar
Many of these snack options are quick and easy enough to eat even if your team doesn't get an designated snack break, and can be consumed quickly during a water break, bathroom break, or in between rotations.
If eating a snack during practice might not work for you, you may also try liquid fuel. A sports drink (containing fluid + electrolytes + carbs) can be useful when you don’t have time for a snack at practice or you notice a drop in your energy after 90 minutes and you need some quick carbohydrates and electrolytes. This could be a store bought option like Gatorade, Powerade, Skratch (or others) or one you make yourself (mix equal parts of your favorite 100% fruit juice with water or coconut water and add ~1/8t of salt).
4. The Post Practice Snack
The role of post-workout nutrition is recovery. It is essential to replace the energy that was used up during practice and provide the body building blocks to start the recovery process (where the body can begin building muscle and repairing any damage done).
The post-practice snack is needed and should be consumed within 1 hour of practice ending if you do not plan to eat a full meal within that hour. For snacks after practice, include mostly quick-carbs (easy to digest, low in fiber and fat) with 1-2 servings of protein.
Ultimately, a goal of a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates (g) and protein (g) will help the body start to refill its energy stores and repair muscles. If you have a long ride home after practice, either pack a snack that you can have in the car ride home, or ask your parents if they could bring you something from home when they pick you up!
Some of my favorite post-practice snacks for gymnasts include:
Chocolate Milk (shelf stable boxes are great!)
Trail Mix (make your own mix with your favorites like pretzels, popcorn, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and dark chocolate)
Apple slices with peanut butter
Tuna packet and crackers
Beef jerky and tart cherry juice
Almond butter stuffed dates
A protein bar
Greek Yogurt Parfait
Drinkable greek yogurt and a banana
Goldfish, roasted chickpeas
Popcorn with nutritional yeast
Pretzels and Cheese
Remember that in addition to your snack also try to eat a full balanced meal within 3 hours of practice ending! When choosing a meal or a snack after practice try also incorporating foods that can aid in recovery.
Snacking is an integral part of a gymnast's nutrition strategy, playing a vital role in meeting energy and nutrient needs. Remember that snacks are not here to replace your meals. They are simply an addition to your fueling plan along with your 3 or 4 meals each day that can help meet your energy needs, nutrient needs, and fuel your workouts.