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Playing The Long Game Of Gymnastics

It’s so often that I see young gymnasts between the ages of 12-16 years old retire prematurely from the sport after training for years (and even reaching a high level).

Why is this?

Have you ever heard your gymnast say things like….

“I feel like i’m falling apart, physically and mentally”

“I’m tired of being so sore and injured all the time”

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time”

"I just want to be a "normal" kid and hangout with my friends"

Around the time of puberty, many high level gymnasts often really begin to struggle and go through times when they say some of these phrases due to accumulating injuries, getting sick often, and experiencing mental burnout from the sport. And while many of these are common, especially for young gymnasts that have progressed very quickly in the sport, these experiences are NOT NORMAL.

And the one thing all of these struggles have in common?All of these signs and symptoms link back to nutrition (and ultimately if a gymnast is well fueled or not).

Longevity In The Sport Of Gymnastics:

Longevity in the sport of gymnastics is all about keeping your gymnasts healthy and happy, so they can stay in the sport as long as they want and achieve their big goals and dreams. What many gymnast do not understand is that their career is a marathon, and not a sprint to the finish.

So many gymnasts are encouraged to increase their training hours exponentially at a very young age, learn new skills at a rapid pace, and sprint up the levels. For competitive gymnasts, it’s normal to be training 20-30 hours a week by the time they are 8 years old, training for TOPS and HOPES by 10, and level 10 or Jr. Elite by 13. And while it sounds fun and exciting for so many talented athletes and their parents, most cannot sustain that level of training.

Of the 70.000 gymnasts enrolled in USA Gymnastics developmental track, less than 2% ever make it to level 10. So many gymnasts get held back from reaching their goals or are not able to sustain a high level.

Gymnasts who are at a high level in the sport are not guaranteed to reach their goals. Most high level gymnasts have the work ethic, talent and coaching to reach their gymnastics goals; however, what most often hinders these goals are things like overuse injuries, major injuries, and burnout both mentally and physically.

Overuse injuries are a big contributor to gymnasts quitting the sport. Overuse injuries often occur due to under-fueling alongside over-training. The more hours in the gym and the higher the intensity of training, the harder it will ultimately be to eat enough food and nutrients to keep up. If a gymnast is expending more energy than they are fueling with, their body ultimately becomes a ticking time bomb for injuries (which many never recover from).

And for many gymnasts, even accidental injuries (such as tripping over equipment and breaking a toe) can be a sign of under-fueling or over-training. Oftentimes, these silly accidental injuries happen at times when you are feeling exhausted and fatigued, or when the body was just at it's breaking point. It’s important to pay attention to when these accidental injuries happen and evaluate how you were feeling that day. The first step is to acknowledge how your body and mind are feeling and the next step is to take action to hopefully avoid another silly injury in the future.

So how can we avoid these issues from arising and keep your gymnasts on track to reach their goals?

Fuel Your Gymnast Adequately:

Gymnasts that are chronically under-fueled are shortening the life of their career in gymnastics. Oftentimes, the energy needs of gymnasts are significantly underestimated (especially in comparison to their non-athletic peers or family members), they do not build their meals and snacks strategically, or may even intentionally restrict how much fuel they take in while continuing to push their bodies to the extreme making them fall into a routine of under-fueling leading to many negative health and performance consequences. The consequences of under-fueling include symptoms of Relative Energy Deficiency (RED-S) (frequent illness, overuse injuries, decreased coordination, irritability and increased fatigue and soreness.)

All of these unfortunate health consequences can be overwhelming and can eventually drive any gymnast to throw in the towel and quit gymnastics altogether. Luckily, RED-S can be prevented and the best way to do so is through fueling properly.

​​Eat Enough Overall Energy

Adequate energy availability is characterized by eating at least 45 calories per kilogram of lean body mass (or about 20.5 calories per pound of lean body mass) daily. For most gymnasts, this can be achieved by eating 3-4 meals and 2-4 snacks daily, utilizing a performance plate, and incorporating a performance nutrition strategy.

Give your gymnast a break to avoid burnout:

Burnout can occur because of physical and emotional exhaustion from the sport. While most gymnastics coaches are not excited when their gymnast skips practice, it’s important to understand that taking time off is exactly what your gymnast may needs at times. Let them enjoy fun events with friends, take them with you on your family vacations and honor their wishes when they ask to stay home for a day. A rest day or a vacation can help gymnasts recover both mentally and physically and help them reach their long term goals in the sport.

Communication with the coaches

It’s common for gymnasts to avoid communicating how they are feeling to their coaches (sore, fatigued, injured, tired) due to not wanting to take the easy way out of assignments or fear of getting in trouble. It’s important that both the parent and the gymnast feel comfortable enough to communicate how they may be feeling so that they don’t end up over-training.

Lets work together to stop the injury and burnout cycle and lets help our gymnast reach their long term goals in the sport!


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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