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The Importance of Pre-Practice Nutrition for Gymnasts: Why Breakfast is Essential Before Summer Training

With the start of summer practice just around the corner (or may have already started!), you are likely refocused, re-energized, and extremely motivated to get back to work and make this a productive off-season to get you ready for the next competition season and feel better than ever! However, many gymnasts really struggle time of year, especially when practice times shift from the afternoon to the morning.


The key to adjusting to a morning workout schedule?


Eat a fueling breakfast!




Breakfast is often rushed and overlooked for gymnasts with morning practices, but it shouldn’t be! You’ve grown up hearing that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day". But why is that?


Think of it this way - you wouldn’t expect your car to drive 300 miles on a near empty tank of gas, or for your phone to last all day if you left the house on 10% battery, right? The same goes for eating breakfast! Breakfast gives you the fuel to feel energized and powerful during a morning practice. 


Gymnasts that skip breakfast are more likely to:

  • Feel tired and sluggish

  • Gas out during practice

  • Struggle to feel awake or deal with brain fog

  • Need a nap after practice and waste their precious (limited) summer

  • Feel extremely hungry (and crave carbs and sweets) in the afternoon and late at night


You can’t feel and train your best if you aren’t eating breakfast. 


Think about it, breakfast is the first time you are refueling your body since dinner or a bedtime snack the night before, which is likely at least 8+ hours since the last meal.


While you sleep, your body is actually much more active than you think! Sleep is when the body prioritizes recovery. Your body will use all that energy and nutrients from dinner to repair and recover from the previous day and refill your body’s energy stores so you can do it all over again.


Without breakfast, the body is basically be running on empty until you do eat again, which can affect your efforts in the gym. Do you really want to go into a 4-5  hour practice and not eat until 12-1pm after already fasting since 8pm the previous evening?!


Breakfast also plays a crucial role in:

  • Improving focus, concentration, and memory

  • Reducing stress levels

  • Regulating blood sugar levels (which is essential for preventing mood swings and fatigue later in the day)

  • Providing the body with essential nutrients and energy for the day

  • Promoting recovery


And yet, it is still overlooked and pushed to the side to allow more time to sleep or commute to practice, or just because you don't "feel hungry yet".


Skipping breakfast can also make it even harder to meet all of your energy and nutrition goals for the day.


Meaning you will have less time and fewer opportunities to get adequate nutrition and risk being under fueled


Most gymnasts likely need to be eating 3 meals a day as well as several snacks in between. Think of your nutrition needs like a pie chart and the “slices of the pie” are your meals and snacks each the day.



Your goal is to get 100% of the pie (total energy, macro, and micro nutrients) daily.


Skipping breakfast also likely means you will have less time and fewer opportunities to get adequate nutrition throughout the day, especially if you have a summer practice that is 5 or 6 hours long. If you only prioritize time for 2 meals (say, lunch and dinner), you are now cutting the pie into 2 pieces (instead of 4 or more).



That means that, in order to actually eat enough and meet your body's demands, you’d need to eat 50% of your nutrition at lunch and 50% at dinner - that’s a lot of food in one sitting! More likely, you'll find yourself either uncomfortably full or coming up short.


When you skip breakfast and potentially some snacks as well, the distribution of your energy consumption will look more like this:


See how you are missing an important piece of the pie wedge? Without adequately compensating for this missed meal, you are never going to fuel to 100% of your energy needs! This can lead to severe underfueling and low energy availability  if consistently done. 


Additionally, most gymnasts that skip breakfast earlier in the day experience what is known as "rebound hunger" later in the day. This happens when you've been running behind on your fuel all day and in the afternoon, dinner time, or even right before bed, you'll feel especially hungry (likely with strong cravings for carbs, sweets, and treats)! Like even if you eat a reasonable meal or snack, 15 minutes later, you're back in the pantry looking for what's next.


Sound familiar?


While a recovery and pre-sleep meals (like dinner or a snack) after practice are important, you don’t want to find yourself hurrying to get your nutrition in at the end of the day, stuffing yourself before bed. Eating a lot before bed can also affect your sleep, causing poor sleep quality by interfering with digestion, and likely leaving you less hungry the next morning for breakfast.


If your pie is cut into 4 or even 6 slices (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks between meals, during gym, etc.), you won’t feel overwhelmed trying to eat enough each day. Eating breakfast will set you up for a successful day of fueling.



Eating breakfast will help decrease the likelihood of underfueling and will set you up for a successful day at practice because you won’t be training on an empty stomach and will have some fuel in your tank. 


So, what should be included in a pre-practice breakfast?


The foods you will include on your pre-practice breakfast plate will depend on a few factors, including:

  • How much time you have until practice starts

  • How your body deals with digestion before a workout (especially with nutrients like fat, fiber, and protein)

  • Your personal food preferences


Most often, if a gymnast has a morning practice, they are eating breakfast between 30-90 minutes before starting warm-up.  The more time you have (2-3+ hours), the more fiber, fat, and protein will be on your plate, since you'll have time to digest it. The less time you have (15-90 minutes), the more low-to-moderate fiber grains and fruits you'll want to include.


Most often, I encourage gymnasts to follow this modified high intensity performance plate when building a pre-practice breakfast, where you can adjust portions and proportions of foods based on your own needs.


Some of my favorite examples of a pre-workout breakfast include:

  • Bagel or roll with 2 eggs, ham, cheese, and a side of fruit

  • Oatmeal or overnight oats made with milk, berries, nuts or nut butter, and granola on top

  • 2 Protein Muffins with an orange and glass of milk

  • Waffles, peanut butter, banana, and milk

  • Greek yogurt, granola, fruit, and chia seeds


What if I struggle to Eat Breakfast In The Morning?


If eating breakfast is a challenge for you in the mornings, I've shared 5 of my most helpful tips to help make the mornings a little easier and to help reach your fueling goals! 


1. Make Breakfast Grab & Go!


Breakfast doesn’t have to be fancy to get the job done (and follow a performance plate). It can be as easy as grabbing a couple pre-packaged snacks on the way out the door. Here are some grab and go options to try!

  • Uncrustable with chocolate milk and an apple

  • Protein bar (or 2) with dried fruit or fruit leather/strips

  • Greek yogurt (or yogurt drink) with some cereal snack mix and a banana

  • Granola bar with some hard boiled eggs and an apple

  • Grapes with crackers and 2 cheese sticks


While individual amounts and portions will vary, all of these options can fuel a gymnasts for a workout and they take less than a minute to grab! When grabbing your breakfast try to pick a protein, carbohydrate and fat to go along with the athlete's plate. Remember that breakfast doesn’t have to be elaborate or even traditional breakfast foods! Leftovers, as well as “lunch” or “dinner” foods are still effective morning fueling options!


2. Put It Together The Night Before


So often when we think of "meal prep" we think about dinner or even lunch, but why not breakfast? Meal prep doesn’t have to involve a full day of cooking to prepare for the entire week. It can be as simple as setting your grab and go breakfast on the counter so you don’t forget it in the morning. Or maybe making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or yogurt bowl the night before so you can grab it in the morning. Having a plan or idea of what you want to eat the night before can make your mornings less stressful.


Easy meal prep breakfast ideas:

  • Make a PB&J sandwich the night before

  • Set out an oatmeal packet or cereal and a bowl on the counter

  • Make a yogurt bowl the night before

  • Cut up some fruit the night before

  • Make breakfast sandwiches or burritos ahead of time


3. Start small:

If you are used to not eating breakfast early in the morning, it is unrealistic to expect to start eating a large breakfast on the first day of morning workouts. Start with something small and work your way up to a larger more balanced one. This might mean starting with something simple like a piece of toast, a granola bar, drinkable fuel like a smoothie, chocolate milk, or even juice, or something low-volume like dried fruit, nuts, nut butter, or seeds in the morning. Even this small amount of food will be a great start to fuel your body and jump start your energy. Keep in mind though: eating a small breakfast might make you start to feel hungry soon after. This is actually a good thing, as it means your body is using food for energy! Make sure to bring an extra snack with you for when you start to feel hungry again. 


4. Make it a habit:

The only way eating breakfast in the morning gets easier is if you do it consistently. If you start getting in the habit of eating breakfast, it will become a part of your routine and set you up for success all day long. It can seem hard to make this change in your day, but once you do it will become easier and easier the more you practice - you will become used to it! Try to make breakfast a habit before summer practices start by setting the intention to eat something before heading to the gym, so that you are already used to eating when you wake up.


5. Something is always better than nothing! 

Remember that you aren’t going to create the perfect performance plate the first few times you start prioritizing breakfast. Eating too much food when your body isn’t used to it can cause some GI distress and leave you feeling uncomfortable throughout practice (and make it a major turn off for you). This shouldn’t scare you into eating nothing though! You can work your way up to bigger meals, but start with something simple like a PB&J sandwich or toast and eggs until you feel like you can tolerate more food. You’ll never be able to tolerate larger breakfasts if you don’t start with something small! After all, any amount of food is providing you with some form of energy, so you should prioritize at least something each morning to give you at least a little fuel going into practice as opposed to fasting for 12+ hours until it’s time for lunch!



Remember, if you want to reach your goals this summer, you have to eat! A pre-practice breakfast that is easy to digest and will give you energy is heavy in simple carbs (like starches and fruit) and has a little protein to help keep you full. Breakfast is the key to turning your body “on” for the day. So, you need to give your body fuel if you expect it to give you the energy you want to get through a long day filled with school and gym! 


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.



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

AND

  • 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.





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Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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