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What Should A Gymnast Eat Before Practice?

With crazy school schedules and having to rush from one place to the next, fueling during the school day and before gym can be a major source of stress and question marks. The first piece of a performance nutrition strategy is what is eaten before gymnastics. This is one of the most common questions I get as a registered dietitian working with gymnasts and their families.


Why Does A Gymnast Need To Eat Before Practice?

Gymnastics practices are long and intense. In order to have optimal energy, be able to perform, stay focused and mentally tough, and be in a good mood, a gymnast needs to have enough energy in their tank.


The goal the a meal or snack eaten before gymnastics is to provide adequate energy for training in a way that keeps the athlete full enough so they're not hungry, without feeling overly full, bloated, with a stomach ache or cramp, or causing any sort of GI distress (which is the biggest complaint I hear).


It is most commonly recommended that athletes eat their main pre-workout meal between 2-4 hours before the start of the workout, however, I know this is not always possibly, especially on school days or days with morning workouts.


So, I wanted to outline the most common pre-practice schedule scenarios and share the recommended performance plate. Remember, every athlete is different. This is not a hard and fast rule, so please ensure you are communicating with your athlete and making adjustments on amount and types of foods accordingly. As we head back to school, fueling for your best practices can be a challenge but it doesn’t have to be!



For Meals or Snacks 3+ Hours Before Practice


For most gymnasts, any meal or snack eaten 3 or more hours before a workout should follow their performance plate. This is likely more than enough time for the body to digest the food, break down nutrients, and have useable energy.


During the school year, it is very common that a gymnast's large pre-practice meal is the lunch they eat at school. And yet, many gymnasts do not eat enough food during their lunch and then struggle to feel energized at practice.



It can be difficult to know what to pack for school lunch for multiple reasons…

  • You have a “picky eater”

  • They have a limited amount of time to eat

  • Rules about what you can and can’t bring to school

  • It has to be able to stay fresh in a lunch box for a few hours

One of the most important things to remember when packing school lunch is that it doesn't need to be the “perfect” lunch. Don't overthink it, nutrition is cumulative. Your gymnasts will get their nutrients over the course of the day from the different foods they eat. There is no need to pack the “perfect” lunch everyday. Try packing one food from each of these categories to include in their lunch box and use the athletes plate as a guide.

Some examples for each section of the plate include:

  • Protein: Meat, eggs, nuts, beans, cheese, fish

  • Grains: Bread, rice, oats, granola, crackers

  • Healthy fat: Nuts, nut butter, fish, avocado,

  • Fruit/Veggie: Carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, apple, banana, berries

  • Fun food: Cookie, fruit snack, rice crispy treat, animal crackers


Some of my gymnasts's favorite fueling school lunches include:

  • 2 Nut Butter and Sliced Apple Wraps – Spread your favorite nut butter on a whole wheat tortilla, top with fruit slices and crunchy seeds and fold in half. Enjoy with veggies + dip

  • 2 Mexican Chicken Pitas – Fill whole wheat pita with leftover (or rotisserie) chicken, lettuce, salsa, guacamole, and shredded cheese

  • Chopped Salad - Top 2C of mixed greens with chicken, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, peppers, and cheese. Top with your favorite dressing and pair with a piece of fruit and and a dinner roll.

  • Caprese Salad – Mix 2-3oz of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes (and your other favorite Italian veggies like roasted peppers), and basil with olive oil & balsamic. Enjoy with a nice crusty piece of bread and a piece of fruit.

  • Turkey Pinwheels: In a whole wheat wrap, add 2-3 slices of turkey, fresh spinach, and tomatoes (with your favorite condiment). Enjoy with fruit.

  • Picnic Pasta Salad: Mix rotini pasta with precooked chicken sausage (like these), 3-4 of your favorite cooked or raw vegetables (like broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, etc.), mozzarella cheese cubes, and Italian dressing.

  • Pizza Rollups – 2 tortillas or wraps, spread tomato sauce and top with shredded mozzarella cheese, turkey pepperoni, & favorite veggies like peppers or baby spinach. Heat to melt the cheese or enjoy cold rolled and slice into pieces and enjoy with a side salad or fruit.

  • Dipping Day – Make a plate of whole wheat crackers or pita, baby carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, nut butter, hummus, Greek yogurt dip (mix plain Greek yogurt with any seasoning you like), fresh salsa, and/or guacamole.

Packing Snacks For School

Since school days are long (and often lead right into practice) it is highly unlikely that a gymnast will be adequately fueled if they only have the opportunity to eat once during the day. Most gymnasts will benefit from bringing one or two balanced snacks with them to school in addition to breakfast and lunch.


Snacks are a gymnasts best fueling friend! Since you likely have a busy schedule with limited times to eat, packing snacks is a MUST. School snacks need to be shelf stable, low mess, backpack safe, allergen friendly, and often need to be able to be eaten in just a minute or two.


Balanced snacks for school days should include at least two food groups: something for energy (like a fruit, veggie, or grain) paired with a protein.


Here are some of my favorite examples of balanced snacks for school days:

  • Goldfish, trail mix, fruit snacks

  • Apple sauce pouch, pretzels, almonds

  • Dried edamame, fruit leather, cashews

  • Protein bar, grapes, crackers with cheese

  • Beef jerky, popcorn, peanut butter crackers


When it comes to packing snacks, try to choose a variety of different snacks so you have options and can choose what sounds good to you for that moment of the day. Choose at least three different snacks to have in your bag. You don’t always know what you will feel like eating during the day when you are packing snacks, so give yourself options!


For Meals or Snacks 1-2 Hours Before Practice


The closer we get to practice time, the more important it will be to build a plate that prioritizes energy from carbohydrates that is easy to digest, while still having some staying power from fiber, and protein. But, the closer you get towards practice, nutrients like fiber, fat, and protein take more time, effort, and energy for the body to digest, and these are often the culprits of any mid-workout stomach troubles.


For athletes eating a meal or snack between 1-2 hours before a workout, look to build a modified high intensity plate that is high in carbohydrate, moderate in fiber and protein, and lower in fat.


This could be for an afternoon snack at school, breakfast before a morning workout, or even a second lunch eaten between school and gym.


Some examples of a meal or snack that fit this model includes:

  • a sandwich or wrap and a side of fruit

  • bowl of oatmeal made with milk, with dried fruit and nuts

  • a snack plate with crackers, cheese sticks, and grapes

  • a burritio bowl with rice, meat, cheese, veggies, and salsa

  • a wrap with peanut butter and banana


What To Eat On The Car Ride To Practice


For athletes who's main pre-workout meal is more than 2 hours prior to practice or don't have the opportunity to have a larger pre practice meal or snack at any other time, most will benefit from having a high energy snack in the hour leading up to practice to help top off energy stores.


As practice approaches, it's best to stick to simple carbohydrate based snacks to avoid digestive issues and provide the quick energy needed right before practice. Foods high in protein, fat, and fiber, while are all important nutrients for a gymnast, are much slower to digest than more simple carbohydrates and can slow down the amount of time it takes to feel energized from the snack. Additionally, if you struggle with stomach challenges (upset, cramping, nausea, needing to use the bathroom,) too much of these nutrients are likely to be the culprit.


The main type of fuel that will energize a gymnast right before a workout is a carbohydrate. Foods and drinks high in simple carbohydrates (like grains and starches, as well as fruit) should be the primary nutrient in a pre-practice car ride snack.


Try snacks like...

  • Goldfish

  • Pretzels

  • Juice

  • Gatorade

  • Banana

  • Sliced apples

  • Single serving pack of pretzels or crackers

  • Applesauce or fruit squeeze pouch

  • 1/4C dried fruit or fruit leather/strip

  • 1-1/2C dry cereal

  • Granola or fruit based bar

  • 1 pouch of fruit snacks, dried fruit chews, or caffeine-free energy chews

  • 12-16oz of a sports drink (like Gatorade, Powerade, or Skratch)

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Eating enough energy and nutrients across multiple meals and snacks leading up to practice is crucial for being a well fueled gymnast and will help sustain you through your practice. Remember, most gymnasts will benefit from eating a meal or snack every 2-3 hours to maintain energy levels throughout the day. Having a plan and schedule around fueling can help a TON to make sure you have enough energy for school and gymnastics practice.

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