Nutrition in gymnastics has long been a very stigmatized topic that many in the community are afraid to talk about.
For many decades, the only times nutrition was discussed for a gymnast was if there was some sort of "problem"...
A major injury...
A *perceived weight problem" (and I say that in heavy air quotes)...
Or god forbid, a full blown eating disorder that could not be swept aside...
And even then, most coaches would prescribe extremely restrictive, low-calorie diets that did more harm than good OR would just defer to the parents with no real guidance.
For years, the culture in the sport of gymnastics pushed the idea of "less". Less food creates smaller gymnasts who are more appealing to the judges and are easier to teach skills (read manipulate) - said in very heavy air quotes, as we know now that there is no such thing as a gymnast body and that adult women in grown, developed bodies can have incredible success in the sport.
And yet, for so many decades, the sport of gymnastics has been plagued with astronomical rates of injury, burn out, and disordered relationships with food and body. All of which have left devastating scars on retired athletes for years to come.
And not once in decades did we stop to think that maybe there was a connection between all these negative outcomes and poor, inadequate, disordered nutrition habits.
Let’s talk healthy, happy, high-performing gymnasts.
Weather you are a parent, coach, or gymnast, I know one of your main priorities is to mold your athletes into the happiest, healthiest, highest performing gymnasts they can be. You want to see them not only have success on the competition floor, but also be able to learn and grow through the sport and leave a better person because of it.
Over the last several years, it has come to light that the most successful gymnasts, not only in the gym, but also outside of the gym, all have a one thing in common. They put just as much emphasis on what they do outside of the gym and how they care for their body as they do their training inside the gym. This includes:
Working closely with their doctors and sports medicine team (monitoring growth charts, bloodwork, and being open and honest about pain and injuries)
Seeing a physical therapist (not only for injuries, but for preventative work)
Working with a strength coach
Prioritizing their mental health and mental skills
Getting enough sleep
Fueling their body with adequate and appropriate nutrition strategies
As a registered dietitian for gymnasts, I know that nutrition is an essential component of building strong, resilient, happy, healthy, high performing gymnasts. The food a gymnast eats - the energy and nutrients they take in - is the foundation for everything they want to accomplish in the gym.
The energy to get through long practices
The building blocks to build strength and endurance
The tools needed for recovery
The focus, mental strength, and fortitude
The critical thinking skills and quick reaction times
And yet, teaching our gymnasts to fuel their bodies like the high level athletes they are is often left untouched.
Coaches and gym owners are either too scared to bring up such a sensitive subject (they don't want to offend parents or cause harm to their athletes) or they don't see this connection.
Parents are juggling a lot. Between parenting, jobs, all the driving, other siblings, and more, it can feel near impossible to add one more (mental or physical) task into an already packed schedule.
Athletes often just do not understand all of the ways that how they do (or do not) fuel their body shows up and impacts the things they care so much about (gymnastics, school, family, social life, etc.)
How can I get everyone bought in?
Specifically when it comes to the world of nutrition, it can feel so difficult getting everyone on the same page.
How do I get my gymnasts to buy in?
What about the parents?
Are the coaches helping (and not harming?)
Gymnasts and their families invest so much into the sport in hopes of reaching their goals. But, are they actually seeing a return on that investment?
If they're not invested in ensuring a gymnast's diet is adequate in energy and nutrients and strategically timed to maximize performance and recovery, it is highly unlikely...
Without adequate fueling a gymnast will not:
❌Practice as well
❌Repair and recover after workouts
❌Build strength and endurance from workouts and PT
❌Be able to do the mental work it takes to succeed in the sport
For everyone to be bought in and on the same page, it takes 3 things: awareness, education, and empowerment.
There are so many different ways that underfueling is impacting a gymnast. However, many gymnasts, parents, and coaches have not put those puzzle pieces together. Realizing that underfueling in a gymnast can look like:
Insatiable Hunger or Frequent Cravings for High Carb foods (like sugar, sweets, treats, and carbs)
Mood Swings or acting *Uncoachable*
These are things that even the youngest gymnast may notice are impacting their ability to do what they want in the gym. Having frequent conversations about what a gymnast is noticing or experiencing will pave the way for change.
Once a gymnast or parent is aware of a problem or challenge, the next step is to give them the tools to the solution. By teaching gymnasts, parents, and coaches what it actually looks like to be adequately fueled for competitive gymnastics, we can provide them with the knowledge they need to succeed. And by teaching sound, evidence based nutrition information for sport to everyone involved, we can be much more consistent in the messaging gymnasts receive about food.
Additionally, if this education is provided from the beginning, frequently, and from a lens of optimal performance and prevention, it feels much less difficult to talk about (especially if any problems ever arise).
With a topic as sensitive and personal as nutrition, the key to having gymnasts and families that prioritize fueling their body in a way that supports not only their training, but also a positive and healthy relationship with food and body is to let them take the reigns.
As a nutrition educator, it is not my job to tell a gymnast or parent exactly what to eat and when to eat it, but to help them apply the information they've learned to their own lives - taking into consideration their family's food habits, culture, preferences, health conditions, and more. That way, sustainable habits are being built along the way.
So, what is the role of the gym in all this?
A gymnastics coach's expertise is coaching. Putting together and planning practices, teaching skill and drills, understanding the code of points and putting together routines, and caring for and developing their athletes. It is a lot to expect that a coach would also be an expert in nutrition (and even if they were, often times being both a coach and a personal dietitian can come with a lot of conflicts of interest).
It's time to bring in the professionals!
As a coach or gym owner, if you've:
Tried promoting good eating habits in your gym
Tried to get the team parents on board
Tried to get your coaching staff to understand the basic principles and their role
But you haven't quite figured how how to go about this yet and it just feels like it all falls on deaf ears.
Then it's time to bring in a professional to your gym that understands both the science behind nutrition and the demands of being a high level gymnast! As a registered dietitian for gymnasts, this is where I come in!
This summer, there are 3 great ways your team and I can work together!
1. Team Camp Workshop
Your team's summer camp is a great time to introduce new skills and information that athletes and families can carry with them throughout the year and can feel like a low-pressure way to introduce the topic. Hosting a nutrition workshop in conjunction with your team's camp will teach your athletes the basics of sports nutrition so they can start experiencing big wins in the gym.
2. Fuel for Success Team Talk Series
My 4-part nutrition team talk series was designed specially for high-performing gymnasts, their parents, and their coaches to teach and reinforce the most important and essential information about fueling a gymnast all year long!
Topics Include, but are not limited to:
Introductory Class (Nutrition 101) – recommended for everyone
Back to School, Stay Fueled
Have Your Best Competition Season Ever!
Fueling for the Off Season
Growth/development, female athlete issues
Talking about food, bodies, disordered eating
Food schedules/division of responsibilities
Growth/development, female athlete issues
Talking about food, bodies, disordered eating
Prioritizing a positive fueling culture in your gym
3. The Fueled Gymnast Academy
The Fueled Gymnast Academy is my 6-week intensive nutrition program for your team athletes and parents. This is the simplest way for gymnasts (and those who feed them) to learn the ins and outs of fueling as a high level gymnast.
6 Weeks of Video Learning Modules for Gymnasts, Coaches, and Parents
Live Weekly Group Discussion and Q&A with a Registered Dietitian (with separate sessions available based on gymnast age)
Weekly Activities, Goal Setting, Journal Prompts, Recipes, and More!
Bonus Trainings for Parents and Coaches
Lifetime Access to all program materials
Please know, if you or your team have been struggling to make nutrition a priority in your gym and you know it’s holding your gymnasts back, I want you to take this first step today.
Reach out for help. It’s as simple as that.
You’re not alone in struggling to promote healthy eating habits in your gym.
Talking about food and nutrition can be a sensitive subject, especially for a coach. Leave it to a professional that understands both the science behind nutrition and the demands of being a high level gymnast!
If you're not sure where to start or which program would be the best fit for your gym, fill out this short form and I'd be happy to talk through the programs with you.