Nutrition Essentials for Gymnastics
This blog post was written by dietetic intern Natalie Larsen. Reviewed and edited by Mandy Tyler, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD, LAT.
Gymnastics is a demanding sport that requires strength, agility, flexibility, and precision. It is important to recognize the physical toll that gymnastics has on the body. In addition, athletes should understand how proper nutrition plays a vital role in optimizing gymnastics performance.
The demanding nature of gymnastics training requires a high level of energy, strength, and endurance. A well-planned sports nutrition diet can provide the necessary fuel, nutrients, and hydration to support optimal performance, recovery, and overall health.
Carbohydrates play a crucial role in providing energy for gymnasts during training and competition. Gymnastics relies heavily on the body’s carbohydrate stores to support the high-intensity, explosive movements of the sport.
Gymnasts can add carbohydrates to their meals and snacks with foods from the following food groups:
- Fruit: Fresh, frozen, dried, canned (natural juices)
- Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, corn, peas, beans, legumes
- Grains: Bread, cereal, oatmeal, rice, pasta, quinoa
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt
Consuming carbohydrates before, during, and after activity can provide athletes with the energy needed to train and perform at their best.
Protein plays a crucial role in supporting the performance, recovery, and overall well-being of a gymnast. Gymnasts need protein to meet their unique nutritional needs when engaging in a sport that demands strength and power.
To get the most benefit from protein intake, gymnasts should spread their protein intake throughout the day with meals and snacks (1). In general, aiming to consume 0.25 grams of protein/kg of body weight at each eating occasion (~20 – 30 grams).
By combining protein consumption with a well-planned training program, gymnasts can support muscle development, enhance strength and power, and promote injury prevention.
While carbohydrates and protein are often emphasized for athletes, incorporating healthy fats into a gymnast’s diet is also important. Dietary fat provides the body with a source of energy and is also necessary for hormone regulation, the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and satiety.
It is important for gymnasts to incorporate sources of healthy, unsaturated fats into their meals and snacks. Gymnasts should aim to balance their fat intake with the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein) for optimal energy. To support health, gymnasts should consume at least 30% of total energy from healthy sources of fat (2).
When it comes to performance, gymnasts should limit the amount of dietary fat consumed with the pre-game meal. Fat is digested slowly by the body and may cause GI distress if eaten too close to the start of the activity (3).
Adequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals is crucial to support performance, recovery, and the overall health of the gymnast.
Some of the micronutrients gymnasts should focus on include:
- Calcium: Calcium is essential for strong and healthy bones, which are vital for gymnasts to withstand the impact and stress on their bodies during training.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is necessary for absorption and utilization of calcium. It also helps maintain bone health, supports muscle function, and contributes to overall health.
- Iron: Iron is essential for oxygen transportation in the body and is crucial for gymnasts who engage in intense exercise.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is involved in energy metabolism, muscle function, and nerve transmission. It helps reduce muscle cramps and supports proper relaxation.
It is important for gymnasts to consult with a sports dietitian nutritionist before taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Excess consumption of micronutrients can result in a toxicity and cause adverse side effects, such as nausea and vomiting.
Before training or a meet, it is important for gymnasts to consume a balanced meal or snack that provides sustained energy and supports optimal performance. With the pre-workout meal, gymnasts should include a good source of carbohydrates along with a moderate amount of lean protein.
It is best to eat the pre-competition meal approximately 3-4 hours prior to the start of the gymnastics meet. This allows time for the body to digest the food and for the gymnast to go to the bathroom if needed before the meet begins.
When planning the pre-competition meal, individual tolerance and food preferences should be considered along with meal timing. It is best to practice with different foods and meal timing to determine what works best for you.
Smaller carbohydrate-rich snacks can be consumed 30-60 minutes before exercise to provide gymnasts with a quick source of energy for the upcoming activity.
- Banana or small piece of fruit
- Dried fruit
- Applesauce squeeze
- Fruit snacks
- Low-fat granola bars, fig bars
- Mini bagels, bread
- Animal or graham crackers
- Pretzels, pita chips, crackers, dry cereal
- Sports drink, chews, gels
For gymnasts, hydration and electrolytes play a vital role in performance, health, and well-being. Hydration and electrolyte consumption is not only important for performance, but also for temperature regulation, muscle function and recovery, as well as cognitive function.
Tips for Hydration and electrolyte balance:
- Drink fluids throughout the day, not just during training sessions or competitions.
- Aim to consume water regularly, but also consider electrolyte rich beverages or sports drinks during intense or prolonged workouts.
- Monitor urine color. Pale yellow urine (color of lemonade) generally indicates good hydration, while darker urine (color of apple juice) may indicate dehydration.
- Hydrate before, during, and after training and meets to ensure fluid balance.
If a gymnast does not consume enough fluid to replace the amount lost in sweat, dehydration may occur. Symptoms of dehydration include: dizziness, weakness, fatigue, headaches, and decreased performance (4).
It is important to note that as dehydration becomes more severe, the stress on the body increases. This results in an increased risk of individuals developing heat illnesses requiring medical attention.
Carbohydrates During Gymnastics Workouts
Consuming carbohydrates during workouts that are of high-intensity and/or of a long duration can provide gymnasts with energy to support performance. Gymnasts should aim to consume ≥ 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour of activity (2).
The same carbohydrate-rich snacks enjoyed leading up to the workout are great options to enjoy during the activity as well.
Sports drinks containing a 6-8% carbohydrate solution can support gymnasts with meeting carbohydrate needs during activity. In addition, sports drinks can help gymnasts replace the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat (5).
Nutrition for Gymnastics: Post-Workout Recovery
Ensuring proper nutrition after the workout is just as essential as what the gymnast consumes before and during the activity. Well-planned post workout meals are essential to support proper recovery from exercise, to replenish energy stores, and to promote muscle repair.
The key concepts that athletes should keep in mind when planning a post-workout meal include:
- Hydrating – Replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat
- Refill Energy Stores – Consume carbohydrates to replace energy stores used during activity
- Build and Repair – Consume protein to help build and repair lean muscle mass
If it will be several hours following the workout until the next meal, gymnasts should consider eating a post-workout snack containing carbohydrates and protein. A post-workout fruit smoothie can be a convenient option following a gymnastics practice.
Individual nutrition needs may vary based on factors such as training intensity, body weight, and performance goals. Gymnasts should keep in mind that recovery nutrition is of particular when the amount of time between workouts or competitions is limited.
Gymnasts and Disordered Eating
Gymnastics is a weight-sensitive sport, as it requires athletes to lift and flip their own body weight. As weight pressures increase among young gymnasts, so does the concern for disordered eating behaviors. Research has found a higher prevalence of eating disorders in athletes participating in aesthetic related sports, such as gymnastics (6).
It is important to note that disordered eating exists on a spectrum, ranging from occasional unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors to clinically diagnosed eating disorders (7). If a gymnast is demonstrating disordered eating behaviors or a unhealthy relationship with food, body image, or weight, it is important to seek help for the gymnast.
Underfueling in Gymnasts
Underfueling occurs when a gymnast’s daily caloric expenditure exceeds the dietary intake of calories from food and beverages. This imbalance of calories results in inadequate energy being available to support the gymnast’s health and performance.
By underfueling, a gymnast is at risk for a variety of potential health concerns such as (7):
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Low bone density leading to increased risk of stress fractures
- Disruption of the menstrual cycle in females
- Reduced metabolic rate
It is important for gymnastics coaches and parents to be aware of underfueling and potential signs of disordered eating. Gymnasts should be educated on the importance of healthy diets to fuel their bodies to perform at their best.
Proper nutrition is a key component of success for gymnasts. From fueling workouts to promoting recovery and supporting overall health, the right balance of nutrients plays a crucial role in the performance and well-being of gymnasts.
For additional sports nutrition tips, check out the blog: Balanced Snacks for Busy Athletes.
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Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.