As a competitive gymnast, competition season is your time to shine! You want to show off all of your hard work not only to the judges, but to your family, friends, teammates, and of course, yourself!
Just like you want your routines to be perfect at the meet, many gymnasts also think that their meet day fueling routine also needs to be “perfect”.
BUT… in an effort to be too perfect, as a Registered Dietitian for gymnasts, I see so many gymnasts making major mistakes! Mistakes that are actually hurting their performance (instead of helping).
The reality is, there is no such thing as “perfect” nutrition!
I want you to feel your best and compete your best this season.
Fuel your body right and avoid making any of these common mistakes:
Mistake: Waiting until the night before (or the day of) to think about nutrition.
Fueling your best for a competition is not something you can do in one meal, one snack, or in one day. Meeting your energy and nutrient needs is really more of an “average” over time. Additionally, how are you supposed to know what foods fuel you the best, give you the best energy, or sit the best in your stomach if you’ve never paid attention or practiced fueling strategies before?
Do This Instead: Prioritize fueling your body every day!
Mistake: Trying to eat “too healthy”
Often, I hear about gymnasts trying to eat perfectly “clean” or “healthy” the day before or the day of a meet. Often, this looks like only building a plate with foods like veggies and lean meats and cutting out foods like bread, bagels, sweets, and desserts. Realize if you avoid grains and starches (the foods with the most usable energy) you will not have enough energy to fuel you (especially if you had practice the night before a meet). Additionally, vegetables are high in fiber. Fiber is important in adequate amounts, but overloading on veggies (eating more than usual) is one way to upset off your stomach.
Do This Instead: Use a high-intensity athlete’s plate in the days (and meals) leading up to meet day.
Mistake: Night-before pasta parties
Loading up on pasta (or a large amount of carbs) 1 night before your meet may not be as effective as you think, especially if it is not you norm. This large influx of energy may make it difficult for you to sleep and wake up feeling sluggish on meet day.
Do This Instead: 3 or 4 days before your competition, either move from a moderate intensity athlete’s plate to a high-intensity athlete’s plate OR increase your portion of grains and starches at meals by 1/4-1/3 cup.
Mistake: Eating Unfamiliar Foods
Often with meets comes traveling, hotels, and of course restaurant meals. It may be tempting to try a new food, either on a restaurant menu, OR trying to change your diet to include something you think you’re supposed to eat. If you’ve never eaten something before, how do you know if it will agree with your body or not? The last thing you want to do is spend the night before or the morning of a competition in the bathroom!
Do This Instead: Just like with your gymnastics routines, practice what you compete! As much as possible, fuel with familiar foods for meals and snacks within 24-48 hours before your competition. That may mean packing your go-to snack or breakfast options (or stopping at a store when you get there) or doing a little research on local restaurants before you go.
Mistake: Showing Up Dehydrated
Sleep, training, travel (long car rides or planes) and hotel rooms can all play a role in getting dehydrated. Plus the new environment, and a long competition can lead to forgetting to drink enough water! Being dehydrated at a meet can mean feeling sick, fatigued, and having muscle cramps.
Do This Instead: Prioritize hydration! If you have practice the night before a competition, drink at least 24oz of fluid before bed. Pack your water bottle! Aim to drink at least 8oz for every hour you are on an airplane, in the car, on a bus, or a train. Incorporate electrolyte drinks and sports drinks to help with hydration when needed, especially as part of your pre-meet breakfast if you have a morning session.
Mistake: Skipping Breakfast (or any pre-meet meal)
Maybe you’ve got an 8am report time and the meet is 1+ hours away from home. Or maybe you’re just too nervous to eat. No matter what the reason, showing up on an empty stomach is the #1 way to ensure you run out of steam and won’t compete your best.
Do This Instead: Eat your pre-meet meal before you get ready. Give yourself time to digest! And don’t be afraid to have a high-carb snack right around report time (and pack one for the middle of the meet just in case)! And, if nerves make it really difficult to eat before a meet, it might be time to work with a mental performance coach or sport psychologist. A few people that I would recommend would be Rebecca Smith and her team at Complete Performance Coaching / Perform Happy, and Stacy Fletcher & Ali Havel at Gymnastics Mindset Academy
Mistake: Drinking Coffee or an Energy Drink Instead of Eating A Pre-Meet Meal
Coffee and energy drinks rely on caffeine as the energy source. Without enough actual fuel (like the kind you get from real food and carbs) you may end up either jittery or hitting a brick wall.
Do This Instead: Eat a modified high-intensity athlete’s plate meal approximately 2 hours before your meet. Include 50% low and moderate fiber grains and starches (like pasta, rice, bread, bagels, waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, cereal, etc.) along with 25% color and 25% low-fat protein. And don’t forget to drink water with your meal!
When you skip meals, avoid foods, and don’t make performance fueling a priority, you can’t expect your body to be at its best come competition time. It’s not just about giving 100% when you’re in the gym, but also making what you do outside of the gym a priority. It’s not too late to get your nutrition sorted out and see major improvements this season!
Kerry Bair, RD, is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Food for Fuel, LLC.