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The Impact of Under Fueling and Relative Energy Deficiency in Gymnasts: What You Need to Know

Gymnasts, do you feel run down and having a hard time recovering from practice, feeling fatigued, and just low on energy, especially at the end of the season?


You’ve probably heard that this is normal and just part of being a “tough athlete”, but it actually isn’t normal, and could be indicative of something much more serious, like RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. 


Oftentimes, both gymnasts and their parents are stretched thin when it comes to down time between shuttling to and from school and practice, meetings, and any other extracurricular activities. This leaves little to no time for proper fueling, which can cause fatigue, lack of focus, and low energy levels. Gymnasts often underestimate their energy needs, which also puts them at a huge disadvantage in terms of energy availability and ability to properly recover after practice. Unintentional under fueling isn’t the only concern - sometimes gymnasts will even intentionally restrict their meals and snacks throughout the day, usually because they believe that in doing so, they will meet the “physique goals” that they’ve been pressured into trying to achieve. 





What is low energy availability?


Energy availability is the difference between the energy (aka calories) you take in (through eating) and the energy you use through everyday activities and daily exercise.


The energy that's left (available) is what your body can use for all of its essential functions: like breathing, digestion, reproduction and transportation of oxygen and nutrients in the blood.


When your energy availability is low, your body does not have enough energy to support exercise and everyday activities causing your body to make compromises.




What may be causing Low Energy Availability?


1. Underestimating energy needs/ unintentional under fueling: 

Gymnasts often don’t realize how much energy they are actually expending at practice, and must be consumed in order to close the recovery gap. If you are practicing 15+ hours a week you likely need upwards of 3,000 calories a day, which is probably quite a bit more than you are consuming now! 


2. Intentional Restriction of Food: 

Gymnastics is considered an aesthetic or physique sport where tiny and petite bodies are often seen as “better.” We know this isn’t true, however, the “old school” coaching mindset still exists and you may encounter comments from coaches, gym owners, parents, or other gymnasts encouraging one to lose weight to meet that desired body image. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of proper nutrition and fueling. 


3. Influence of Diet Culture: 

Diet culture is hard to escape, especially with it being so easily accessible on social media. Diet culture can trick you into thinking that everything you consume needs to be “clean”, organic, or “healthy”. Unfortunately, if you were to only eat fruits and vegetables because they’re considered “healthy”, you wouldn’t be able to come close to meeting your energy needs for the day and be left feeling fatigued and with no energy. The fixation with eating “healthy” all the time is referred to as Orthorexia, and is a serious concern that is best addressed by a Registered Dietitian. 


So what is RED-S?

RED-S describes a state of low energy availability and affects every system within the body. This can happen when the body is in a state of low energy availability where you are expending more energy than you are consuming. It will lead to increased risk for injury, poor recovery, little to no energy, poor sleep, poor concentration, decreased muscle mass, disruptions to the reproductive system, and increased risk for depression. In a state of extremely low energy availability, your body will start prioritizing certain functions to help keep you alive (like breathing and digestion), but you will notice a decrease in non-essential functions to help spare energy. 

Clinical Signs and Symptoms of RED-S

RED-S can impact every system of the body. Athletes with RED-S often notice

  • Fatigue and low energy

  • slowed or stalled growth and development

  • Unanticipated changes in weight, muscle mass, and fat mass

  • Amenorrhea (either not starting a menstrual cycle by age 15 or irregular or missing cycles)

  • Increased risk of bone injuries and fractures

  • changes in mental health

  • poor sleep

  • poor immune function and frequent illness

  • poorly healing injuries

  • changes in GI health and function (frequent stomach aches and nausea, fullness from small portions, decreased hunger cues, etc.)


Athletes with RED-S may also present with altered bloodwork values, including (but not limited to):

  • Blood glucose

  • Lipid panel and cholesterol

  • Iron and Ferritin

  • Vitamin D

  • Thyroid and other hormones



Performance Declines With RED-S

In addition to negative health impacts, many gymnasts notice a decline in performance in and out of the gym when in an energy deficit, both short term and long term.


Athletes struggling with RED-S and under fueling may complain of

  • Feeling gassed, winded, or having poor endurance

  • Stalled progress, downgrading routines

  • Slow reaction time

  • Increased perceived exertion

  • Excessive soreness

  • Frequent nausea, stomach aches, dizziness

  • Often missing practices due to sickness

  • Frequent or poorly healing injuries

  • Mood swings, irritability, *uncoachable

  • Mental blocks

  • Small stature, stunted or stalled growth

  • Unanticipated body composition


RED-S occurs on a spectrum. Gymnasts do not have to present with clinical symptoms or meet full criteria for low energy availability to struggle with the negative impacts of under fueling.


What can gymnasts do to prevent RED-S?

Fuel adequately!


The biggest component impacting energy availability is how much energy you are consuming compared to expending. The important thing to remember is to increase your intake so that you are consuming more calories than you are using at practice and school. A great way to focus on this is to practice building performance plates! This is an easy way to visualize how much you are eating without counting calories.  




A great starting point is to make your plate ⅓ grains, protein, and color to create a balanced meal that will help meet your energy needs. Additionally, you will want to start incorporating more snacks throughout the day to help meet those higher energy needs. 


Gymnasts are so active that they will need to eat a meal or snack every 2-3 hours just to keep up with their energy demands! By focusing on meeting your energy needs, you will not only feel more alert and energized at practice, but you will also decrease your risk for injury, increase your bone mineral density (helps with preventing those pesky fractures!), and help your body perform its normal metabolic functions without having to spare any energy! 


Luckily, RED-S is preventable, but it takes effort and awareness from both the gymnast and parents to make sure that they are meeting their energy demands without creating that recovery gap and increasing risk for complications in health and training! 


When you skip meals, avoid foods, and don't make performance fueling a priority, you can't expect to get the most out of your summer training. 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. This is the best time of the year to start learning more about nutrition and implementing fueling strategies that have you feeling and training your best.


If you and your gymnast are looking to learn the ins and outs of fueling as a high-caliber athlete and make fueling a priority this summer, I put together this exclusive bundle in a way is going to help you and your gymnast absolutely CRUSH IT this summer




Inside The Summer Training Bundle, You'll Get: 3 1-on-1 Summer Check In Calls:


1️⃣ A personalized nutrition assessment before the start of your summer training schedule so you can optimize the meals and snacks you're already eating and build a strong foundation as you head into your new routine (to be used in May or June)​

1️⃣ 1-on-1 coaching session mid-summer to help you troubleshoot and fine-tune your summer fueling plan AND strategize for any upcoming performance camps (to be used in June or July)

1️⃣ 1-on-1 coaching session at the end of the summer to help you adjust your fueling routine as you head back to school (to be used in July or August)

AND

As an added bonus, you'll get access to ALL the amazing essential gymnast fueling information inside The Fueled Gymnast Academy 🤯

That's right! You'll also get access to

  • 6 Jam packed learning modules

  • Worksheet pages to help you take the essential information you learn in both the modules and our personalized sessions and implement it in a way that works best for you

  • Fueling guides, fact sheets, information, and handouts packed with information essential to keeping gymnasts healthy, happy, and high performing

  • Family friendly recipes, meal and snack ideas, and fueling inspiration

AND MORE!

This is the PERFECT opportunity for you and your gymnast to learn the ins and outs of fueling as a high level athlete and build a strong foundation that you'll be able to build on for years to come!



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