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The Road to Olympic Gold: What It Takes to Be an Elite Gymnast

Paris 2024 is (almost!) finally here! It’s been a long 3 year wait to see who will represent Team USA at this Olympic Games. 

Many of the biggest names in U.S. gymnastics are headed to Minneapolis to try achieve arguably the biggest accomplishment in the sport: a spot on the Olympic team!

All the buzz surrounding Championships, Trials, and who will make the Olympics is quite exciting. Current and former gymnasts, along with parents, gymnastics fans, and people who pay attention to gymnastics every 4 (or 3 in this case) years, will be awaiting the announcement of the Olympic team.

Each Olympic cycle brings a new wave of inspiration for young gymnasts everywhere to give them a glimpse of where they could be in another 10-15 years.

While the general public usually only pays attention to gymnastics during the Olympic year, gymnastics is a year-round sport that takes a great deal of strength, dedication, and passion.

Whether you want to make the Olympics or have your own big goals, every gymnast can train like an Olympian and take the same steps to reach their best performance and achieve their gymnastics goals, big or small.

Have you ever wondered what it actually takes to become a college, elite, or even Olympic level athlete?

While each athlete has their own unique path to get where they are, they all have a few things in common: How they approach their training and overall well-being. 

Gymnastics is a sport that takes many years of training and development before reaching the highest level. It truly takes lots of hard work, determination, discipline, and patience to make it to the top. College, Elite, or even Olympic Gymnastics may seem so far down the road for you, but there are things you can do now that will help build a strong foundation that can set you up for success, whatever your future goals may be. 

1. Commit to Recovery

A successful gymnast needs to feel their best to perform their best in the gym. Recovery is a HUGE component of continuously progressing and making it to the top of this sport!

Something you will find in all high level athletes is that they have some sort of recovery routine after practices and competitions. They treat their recovery routine as if it is just as important as each training session leading up to their next competition (because it is!).

Whether you're currently injured, coming back from an injury, or trying to prevent an injury, physical therapy and preventative mobility exercises can help you stay strong and healthy.

Doing these kinds of exercises will help you do skills with proper form (as opposed to improper form which can lead to injury) because you are less likely to compensate for weak muscles. Additionally, mobility training can increase your flexibility and lessen your chance of injury (for example, if your ankles are stronger and more stable, you're less likely to be injured by a short landing).

Two factors that play important roles in recovery are nutrition and sleep. It may seem overwhelming knowing what to eat after a long and exhausting practice, but it doesn’t have to be! The easiest way to ensure you are getting the necessary nutrients your body is craving after a tough training session is to follow a performance plate! This way you don’t have to be hung up on counting macronutrients or calories, and you know that what you’re putting into your body will be utilized in the recovery process.  

And don't forget about recovery techniques such as dynamic and static stretching, foam rolling, icing, heating, and options such as cupping, Normatec, or a Theragun (if you have access to them) that you can do at home. These can all help your body recover and heal so you can feel your best in the gym everyday, but you need to commit and go all-in to taking the necessary preventative and recovery techniques for you.

2. Get Enough Sleep Every Night.

Sleep is another important factor when it comes to recovery and improving performance! A common misconception is that the body is doing nothing when it sleeps, when in reality, it is working overtime to get your feeling your best before your next practice or competition. This is the time that your muscles are rebuilding themselves and your body is fighting off inflammation so that you aren’t as sore the next day. Without enough sleep, you are increasing your risk of injury, fatigue, lack of focus, and burnout. 

Sleep is the best time for your body to rest, recover, and repair itself so that you're ready to train your hardest and get better in the gym the next day.

Gymnasts should aim to get adequate sleep each night:

  • 6-12 year olds: 9-12 hours per night

  • 13-18 years old: 8-10 hours per night

  • 18+ years old: 8+ hours per night

If you're not getting enough sleep every night, you will feel tired, sluggish, and not at 100% in the gym. If you're not at 100% in the gym, your goals will be more challenging to reach.

Commit to a sleep schedule that maximizes your sleep and stick to it. Even schedule in short naps (20 or 90 minutes) when needed!

Prioritize getting enough sleep by going to bed early enough! If you have trouble falling asleep, building a bedtime routine can help. This may include things like:

  • Using blue light blocking glasses for screen time

  • Setting a tech curfew 60-90 minutes before bed

  • Taking a hot bath or shower

  • Writing daily gratitudes

  • Preparing for the next day (pulling out snacks, setting out clothes, making to-do lists, etc.)

  • Breathing, meditation

  • Stretching

  • Reading

3. Focus on Performance Nutrition 

One thing all these gymnasts have in common is their attention to detail and discipline when it comes to nutrition. This doesn’t mean that they only eat “clean” or “healthy” and never indulge with their favorite treats, it just means they are aware of how having a performance nutrition strategy that is easily executed can give them a competitive edge over their competition. 

These elite level gymnasts have an intense training schedule, and in order to have productive practices, they make sure to eat three meals a day and fuel with snacks during practice and between those meals. Eating enough is incredibly important to support athletic performance. Gymnasts (not just those preparing for the Olympics!) have elevated energy needs, meaning they need more energy consumed through food in order for their body to practice for several hours a day and do normal functions and processes to survive. 

Under fueling is extremely common in gymnasts and presents itself through fatigue and low energy levels, lack of power in tumbling and vaults, difficulty making it through a routine or conditioning at practice, feeling sore all the time, increased risk for injury, and having a hard time recovering before the next practice. 

These gymnasts also understand the importance of proper hydration and replenishing with electrolytes when needed in order to perform their best. Proper hydration affects many physiological functions in the body and can impact your ability to concentrate, leave you feeling tired and sluggish, and even lead to cramping if you’re not paying attention to how much you should be hydrating throughout the day. 

4. Focus on Mental Health

We are so fortunate to be living in a world of athletics right now that really emphasizes the importance of mental health and prioritizing your well being. It’s not hard to find athletes that openly speak out about how they routinely set time aside to meet with Sports Psychology and other Mental Health Professionals. 

Think about it, how are you supposed to perform your best at the highest level, if you aren’t able to take care of yourself and utilize strategies to optimize your concentration and strengthen your mind? Your brain is just as important of a muscle as your biceps, quadriceps, or abs in terms of performance. The top gymnasts constantly visualize their dance and tumbling passes, have strategies to overcome mental blocks, and use mental cues when performing their routines. All of these techniques and strategies require a strong mind to be effective! 

Please, do not neglect your mental health in exchange for more hours in the gym or less sleep. It will significantly decrease your performance and will likely lead to quick burnout. 

Another way to support your mental health is to find passions outside of gymnastics. Whether it be arts and crafts to unleash some creativity, spending free time with friends and family, or even cooking or baking - find something that you love! It can be a great mental release engaging in activities outside of gymnastics and allows for your body to rest and recover and use different parts of the brain!

5. Focus on Overall Wellbeing

While I’ve touched on important aspects of performance like utilizing sports dietitians and sports psychologists, there are so many other practitioners that can be consulted for improving overall performance like athletic trainers, physical therapists, and chiropractors. Not all clubs or high school teams have access to these professionals, but it is worth consulting them if you have the opportunity! 

Physical therapists are a great resource to help recover after an injury, but can also be utilized for preventative health measures. Chiropractors can also be great for preventative treatment to help realign your back after lots of wear and tear on it throughout training. 

Athletic trainers may be found at some clubs and high schools. They are great for providing treatment to help you perform your best like taping ankles, fitting braces to make training more comfortable and are your first line of defense if an injury were to occur. 

Not every club, high school, or training center will have all these practitioners available, but you can always seek referrals if needed for additional treatment and services to help you feel your best and train your best. 

So, weather your goals are The Olympics or not, you can still be "all in" as a gymnast to be the happiest, healthiest, and highest performing version of yourself. Not every path will be the same, but by focusing on these 5 tips, you can put yourself on the right track for whatever your end goal may be whether it is High School Gymnastics, College, Elite, or even the Olympics! 


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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