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The Sneaky Ways Under Fueling Is Impacting Your Gymnastics

As a gymnast, have you ever said any of the following:

I'm just so tired...

I'm doing the same workouts as my teammates but they're getting better, stronger, faster, and I'm dying...

These skills and routines used to be easy for me... Why am I struggling?

I feel like I'm constantly dealing with injuries...

I'm not getting my period anymore, but that's normal for a gymnast, right?

Unfortunately, as a Registered Dietitian for gymnasts, these are things I hear gymnasts say all the time. But, just because so many gymnasts are struggling does not mean this is normal or it has to be like this!

Often, the missing piece to your training puzzle is not more practice time, more strength training or cardio, more PT, or even more specialized therapies (like cryotherapy, massage, cupping, acupuncture, etc.). That missing piece likely has to do with how you're fueling your body.

Since you're reading this, I bet you've heard that nutrition is an important puzzle piece to your success. But what does that even mean?

Food is fuel! The foods you eat provide all of the energy and building blocks for your body.

As a gymnast, your body needs a lot of energy. Of course you need energy to keep up in training. But that's really just the tip of the iceberg! Your body needs energy to live, run all of your organs and body's systems, grow and develop, and do everyday activities ON TOP OF the demands of gymnastics training, recovery, and injury prevention!

When you are eating enough and getting all the nutrients that your body needs, you'll feel energized, refreshed, focused, and strong in the gym, which will help you practice your best and reach your goals. (Please remember: "prioritize" DOES NOT mean "exclusive" or "always". Going "all-in" on proper nutrition and fueling is NOT the same as having an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to nutrition.)

Prioritizing nutrition does not mean "going on a diet", cutting out foods like carbs or sugar, or "eating clean". A gymnast who makes fueling for performance a priority understands that food is fuel for both the body and mind. They commit to eating enough food (gymnasts you need A LOT of energy), eating a wide variety of foods from all the food groups, and eating enough often to support training. They know that a gymnast can easily find balance and eat both nutrient dense AND fun foods.

So, what happens when you aren't fueling your body properly?

For many gymnasts, under fueling looks like:

A spectrum of symptoms of REDS
  • Gassed out, winded, heavy legs, and poor endurance during floor routines or endurance assignments

  • Stalled progress in the gym

  • Downgrading routines

  • Slow reaction time, clumsiness, a lot of *freak accidents*

  • Increased perceived exertion

  • Cheating during conditioning

  • Excessive soreness

  • Frequent nausea, stomach aches, dizziness

  • Often missing practices due to sickness

  • Frequent or poorly healing injuries

  • Mood swings, irritability, poor attitude, frequent crying and frustrations

  • Being called *uncoachable*

  • Mental blocks

  • Small stature, stunted or stalled growth

  • Not getting a monthly period (for female gymnasts older that 15)

  • Unanticipated body composition (decreased muscle mass and bone density, increase body fat mass)

So many of the most common things that gymnasts of all ages and levels experience are actually signs of under fueling, and a result of low energy availability.

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, basic body functions, growth and development, recovery, 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 energy availability is low, the body does not have enough energy to support exercise and everyday activities causing your body to make compromises.

Causes of low energy availability

There are many different reasons a gymnast may have low energy availability.

1. Underestimating their energy requirements needed to thrive:

The energy needs of gymnasts are much higher than the average child their age. So it’s important that they are fueling with more food and are eating more frequently throughout the day than their peers or even what is shown in mainstream media.

Since gymnastics is a very body conscious sport, some athletes may feel the need to purposely restrict their food intake with hopes of increasing their performance or reaching a certain body standard goal. This can be very dangerous and never actually achieves the desired result. If this is the case, please reach out to a dietitian for fueling guidance.

3. Influence of diet culture:

Diet culture, or the way food and body is portrayed coming from places like family, friends, mainstream media, social media, even schools and of course within the sport - can influence gymnasts to eat a certain way or try to eat “too healthy”. The fixation and obsession with an unrealistic standard of “healthy” and “clean” eating (often referred to as orthorexia) can become problematic and can also lead to low energy availability. While a small salad for lunch might sound "healthy" and be okay for an adult who doesn’t have high energy needs, a salad is simply not going to be enough food for a gymnast at meal time. Sometimes “healthy” or "clean" options are not the best option for gymnasts who need tons of energy.

4. Unintentional under-fueling:

As a gymnast (likely with a small stomach) who is balancing 4-5 hour practices with school, fueling can be forgotten about. This is why it is important to get into a routine of eating meals and snacks frequently throughout the day.

No matter the cause, low energy availability in gymnasts will affect their wellbeing. When gymnasts don't eat enough to provide energy for exercise AND basic functions, they can develop what's called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)

RED-S is a low energy availability state that can impact every system in the body. This includes:

A spectrum of performance symptoms of RED-S
Performance model of RED-S
  • Bone health

  • Cardiovascular system

  • Muscle health and function

  • Growth and development

  • Gastrointestinal function

  • Immune function

  • Energy metabolism and regulation

  • Hematological function

  • Urinary function and incontinence

  • Mental health

  • Cognitive function

  • Sleep

This condition occurs when you are expending more energy than you are taking in which leads to negative side effects such as stress injuries, reproductive dysfunction, decreased muscle strength, decreased concentration, decreased balance/coordination and increased risk for depression. The body will actually slow or even shut down many functions to save energy to make sure it has enough for absolutely essential functions (like breathing and digestion).

RED-S is a spectrum, meaning that not everyone will experience all of the same symptoms, and may be impacted at differing levels of severity, depending on the length of time and size of the energy defecit. While clinical RED-S is diagnosed after years of under fueling, the negative consequences can impact a gymnast even after only a few days of

How can gymnasts reduce their risk for developing RED-S?

The most important thing a gymnast can do to reduce their risk for developing REDs and experiencing both the negative health and performance impacts of under fueling is by ensuring they are fueling their body adequately with enough energy and nutrients as well as eating meals and snacks frequently throughout the day. To help a gymnast build meals and snacks that are adequate in energy and nutritions, gymnasts should aim to follow a performance plate (moderate intensity / baseline plate pictured below) for three to four meals a day along with 2 to 4 snacks or more per day.

Moderate intensity performance plate
Moderate intensity performance plate

Since gymnasts are using SO much energy, to ensure they have enough opportunities to eat enough, most will benefit from eating a meal or snack every 2-3 hours to keep up with their body's high energy demands.

If you feel like you are eating enough but are still experiencing symptoms of RED-S, it might be beneficial to reach out to your dietitian or physician for extra help. Luckily, RED-S can be prevented and treated! The best way to do so is through fueling properly to ensure that you get the energy you need in AND out of the gym!

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