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The Vital Role of Recovery Nutrition for High Level Gymnasts: Why Eating at Night Matters

Does this sound like you or your gymnast?


“I come home from practice late and I’m not hungry at all ….”

"I eat dinner before practice. I don't need to eat again..."


“When I get home from practice I have a lot of homework to do so I don’t have time to eat dinner…”


"I can't eat late at night; it'll make me gain weight..."


Dinner (or any meal or snack at the end of a long day) can be a difficult meal to figure out for many gymnasts because of the logistics of gymnastics practice. However, it is essential that a gymnast eats after a long hard practice.


Proper nutrition is not only crucial for daily energy and performance but also plays a pivotal role in recovery. In this blog post, we'll delve into the importance of recovery nutrition for gymnasts, and specifically, why eating at night after a workout is essential for their success.


The Demands of Competitive Gymnastics


Competitive gymnastics is a physically demanding sport that requires strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance, with workouts lasting 3, 4, even 5+ hours. This level of training places significant stress on their muscles and energy stores. To excel in the sport of gymnastics, it's essential to understand that proper recovery nutrition is as critical as training itself.


Why Recovery Nutrition Matters


During a long, difficult workout, it is likely that you have used up essentially all of the energy your body had stored up (even with a great pre and mid workout fueling strategy). Additionally, the demands of gymnastics can also cause micro-damages to muscles, bones, and accumulate a lot of byproduct's of exercise (like lactic acid and inflammation).


A solid recovery meal or snack is essential to refill energy stores, repair damage, and eliminate any of the byproducts of exercise. Without solid recovery nutrition, a gymnast is likely to see a decrease in future training, stagnant strength and endurance, a decrease in overall energy, increased and accumulating soreness, and increased risk of injury.



The Role of Evening Nutrition



Many gymnasts do not get home from a long day of school or practice until late at night. And so often, I get asked if it is even good for a gymnast to eat that late at night???


While I agree that you probably don't want to eat a huge meal and then immediately lie down (give yourself some time to digest), there is nothing magical about any time on the clock (not 7pm, not 9pm, not 12am) that automatically turns the food you eat into body fat.


No matter what time it is, please keep in mind the importance of getting enough fuel in after practice is over! Providing your body with the nutrition it needs is not just important before practice, it is super important after practice as well. You need that fuel to help you recover so that you are feeling strong and ready for your next practice. Your body won’t have the nutrients it needs to help it recover from a long hard practice if it isn’t given the fuel to do so!


Eating at night after a workout is a crucial component of recovery for high level gymnasts. Here's why:


1. Extended Recovery Window

The hours immediately following a workout are a critical time for recovery. Recovery nutrition is best thought of as a window of opportunity, meaning there is a short period of time after your workout where the body optimizes its ability to replenish it’s energy stores, begin muscle and tissue recovery and repair, and replenish fluids and restore the fluid / electrolytes balance lost through sweat. Research has found that there are 2 optimal windows for recovery nutrition, one starting immediately – within 15 to 60 minutes of the end of training, and the second being within 1-3 hours of training. Eating at night ensures that gymnasts maximize this recovery window, providing their bodies with the nutrients needed for optimal repair and growth while they sleep.


2. Glycogen Replenishment

Recovery from a workout requires carbohydrate. Eating carbohydrates at night helps replenish glycogen stores, which is especially important for gymnasts who have multiple training sessions per day. This ensures they wake up with ample energy for the next day.


Recovery nutrition requires about half your body weight (in pounds) in grams of carbohydrates as a part of that recovery snack or meal. For example, a 100lb gymnast would need at least 50g of carbohydrates in their recovery meal. This is equal to 1C of grains, 3 pieces of fruit, 3/4C of dried fruit, 12oz of fruit juice, or 4.5 cups cooked vegetables or 9 cups raw veggies. A 125lb gymnast would need about 60g of carbohydrates, or 1 1/3C of grains, 4 pieces of fruit, 1C of dried fruit, 16oz of fruit juice, or 6 cups cooked vegetables or 12 cups raw veggies.


3. Protein Synthesis

Proteins are the building blocks for the body, so it only makes sense that they are an essential part of that recovery meal or snack. Recovery from gymnastics practice requires about a 3:1 carb to protein (g) ratio. Some simple math can tell you how much protein your body likely needs as part of that recovery meal or snack. For example, if you require 45g of carbohydrates, pair that with 15g of protein. 60g of carbs would pair with 20g of protein.


Consuming protein-rich foods at night promotes protein synthesis, the process by which the body builds and repairs muscle tissue. Including a source of protein in the evening meal or snack aids in muscle recovery and adaptation to training.


4. Sleep Quality

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. All types of sleep related troubles can be impacted by food - how easily you fall asleep, if you stay asleep throughout the night or wake up, and if you wake up feeling well rested and refreshed or sluggish, sore, and exhausted can all be linked back to what we are or are not doing in terms of fueling the previous day.


3 of the most common fueling mistakes I see gymnasts make that negatively impacts their sleep include:

  • Not eating enough overall food

  • Building evening meals and snacks that do not follow the performance plate (and are lower in fiber, high in saturated fat (like greasy or fried food), and include excess sugar

  • Relying on caffeine for energy


Balancing Evening Nutrition


While eating at night is crucial for recovery, it's equally important to strike a balance to optimize recovery without negatively impacting sleep. Here are some guidelines for gymnasts and their families to ensure they make the most of their evening nutrition:


1. Protein and Carbohydrates as The Foundation


As previously outlined, an ideal evening meal should include a protein source (e.g., chicken, fish, tofu) and complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains, brown rice, sweet potatoes). This combination provides the necessary nutrients for recovery and energy replenishment.


2. Add On Nutrient-Dense Choices


Opt to add in additional nutrient-dense foods that offer vitamins and minerals crucial for overall health. Include plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables to ensure a wide range of nutrients.

  • Omega-3s and Unsaturated Fats (like Salmon, Mackerel, Tuna, Sardines, Herring, Cod liver oil, Anchovies, Oysters, Shrimp, Seaweed/Algae, Eggs, Flaxseed. Chia seed, Hemp seeds, Walnuts, Edamame, Plant oils (ex. canola oil, olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil)

  • Calcium Rich Foods (like milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified non-dairy substitutes, fortified orange juice, seafood (with edible bones), tofu, greens, and chia seeds)

  • Vitamin A & C Rich Foods (like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, citrus fruits, kiwi, mango, peppers, pumpkin strawberries, spinach, sweet potato, tomatoes)

  • Anthocyanin Rich Foods (like acai, blueberries, blackberries, beets, purple cabbage, cherries, eggplant, figs, grapes, plums, pomegranates, raspberries, red onion, strawberries)


3. Hydration


Evening meals should be accompanied by adequate hydration. Most gymnasts will need to drink 16-24oz after practice of either or an electrolyte-rich sports drink to replenish lost fluids and aid with recovery.


4. Sleep Promoting Foods


To help improve your sleep, look to incorporate some of the following nutrients in your recovery meal or snack:

  • Omega-3s and Unsaturated Fats (like Salmon, Mackerel, Tuna, Sardines, Herring, Cod liver oil, Anchovies, Oysters, Shrimp, Seaweed/Algae, Eggs, Flaxseed. Chia seed, Hemp seeds, Walnuts, Edamame, Plant oils (ex. canola oil, olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil)

  • Vitamin C Rich Foods (like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, citrus fruits, kiwi, mango, peppers, pumpkin strawberries, spinach, sweet potato, tomatoes)

  • Anthocyanin Rich Foods (like acai, blueberries, blackberries, beets, purple cabbage, cherries, eggplant, figs, grapes, plums, pomegranates, raspberries, red onion, strawberries)


5. Timing


To make the most out of your daily nutrition, build a recovery meal or snack that fits with the rest of your day. If you have a larger meal like dinner before practice, many gymnasts will opt for a smaller recovery snack after practice. If you just have a smaller snack before practice, dinner after a workout will be important for recovery. If you have a long ride home, a gymnast may benefit from a small recovery snack in the car and dinner when they get home or even eating dinner in the car in hopes of getting to sleep sooner.


 


Conclusion

In the world of competitive gymnastics, recovery is just as crucial as training itself. Eating at night after a workout is a strategic choice that allows high school-aged gymnasts to maximize their recovery and ultimately enhance their performance. A well-balanced evening meal, rich in protein and carbohydrates, supports muscle repair, glycogen replenishment, and restful sleep. Remember, personalized nutrition plans can be developed with the guidance of a registered dietitian to meet the unique needs of each gymnast. By prioritizing recovery nutrition, gymnasts can continue to excel in their sport and lay the foundation for a healthy future.


Please consult a registered dietitian or healthcare professional for personalized advice on nutrition and recovery specific to your situation.

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Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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