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Challenging the Standard: An Olympian's Journey to Redefine Nutrition in Gymnastics

Zuzana Sekerova is no stranger to world-class competition. Through a career that spanned from the young age of four years old to the Olympics (twice), she’s garnished an immense amount of experience. However, her time in gymnastics –and abrupt departure from it– has allowed her to reflect on the education and nutritional guidance surrounding the sport. Inarguably, she had a successful career – but she'd say something big held her back

We’re fortunate to share her journey with you as well as the desire to influence the culture of fueling for performance.

So, who is Zuzana?

Zuzana: I always tell a little joke that my mom took me to gymnastics and then never picked me up. I started at four years old and for nearly 20 years gymnastics was a big part of my life. As early as the second grade I was asked to join the advanced team – which meant more training (about 25h per week) and also more routine, more structure, more expectations, and harder and longer practices. That also meant, at this early age, a lot of expectations of how I was supposed to ‘look’ as a gymnast.

Which kind of hints at what we dive into today around nutrition and the culture at the time... but for now, more on her palmarès.

The earliest record I have of competing at the National Championships was in 1993, so that would've been nine years old when I started competing at that level. Standing on podiums over 10 years every year at national championships, many, many international competitions, several European Championships, World Championships, World Cups, two youth Olympic Games, and two summer Olympics… and then, my career ended by tearing an Achilles’ tendon in 2007 in warm-up at European Championships. That injury made me miss the 2008 Olympic Games.

After my Achilles injury, I tried to come back into training but I ultimately decided that I’d achieved enough and it probably was not worth further injuries. After all, I’ve already competed in two sets of Olympics. When I ended my gymnastics career for good, I kind of fumbled around trying to figure out who I was when I wasn’t a gymnast and what life after gymnastics looked like. [I was] looking for other hobbies, mostly just permitting myself to try other things.

After some years of learning Latin dance and then some years learning photography, I ultimately landed in the world of cycling through a friend. I didn't race for the longest time, but my friend helped me pick out a cool cyclocross bike. I always got lots of compliments on my bike but I was only commuting it to work about three miles. In 2019, I went from a three-mile commute to racing cyclocross (nearly spit out my lungs in the first race). Even though I wasn’t even able to finish that first race, being a competitive spirit, I got hooked and wanted to see what I could do in this sport. Now, I’m enjoying racing for the Cantu Cycling Wheels race team and leading rides in Austin, TX for Rapha Austin.

From an early age, in gymnastics, she was training over 25h per week. Taking on huge burdens of performance-focused training. You’d be hard-pressed to find many endurance athletes that can even put in that amount of time. So we asked what she could share about the philosophy around training, nutrition, and whether she followed a specific nutritional plan.

Growing up, the philosophy that was generally taught to us was, “Don't eat.” It was as brutal as the club manager making jokes that we needed to have our mouths shut closed so we don’t eat so much. There was no real nutrition education or plan to support the amount of training we were doing. I remember as early as maybe nine or ten years old starting to build a very negative image of my own body because of how we were coached and how food was not positioned as fuel but rather something that makes you fat. With the cruel jokes, the pressure of as many as 4 times per day weigh-ins, and a lack of nutritional education, I ended up sick with Bulimia at the age of 15.

Today, I'm seeing all the mistakes that have been made in our nutritional planning and know that even as far as I got – competing twice at the Olympics – the lack of proper fueling stopped me from maxing out my potential in the sport.

There was no real education or plan to support the amount of training we were doing.

From here, though, Zuzana explained how her relationship with nutrition evolved as she transitioned into the cycling and endurance world of sport.

It was an interesting time in my life. I was getting into cycling and I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my body for both fitness as an athlete and for health as a human.

People have always assumed, “Oh, you were a gymnast, you're an Olympian, you know about nutrition” but in reality, I've never learned a thing. What was taught to us was “Don't eat! You’ll get fat.” That was the ‘nutrition plan.’

At this stage of my life, I was already trying different things because I figured there's got to be a better way than what I was taught as a child in the sport of gymnastics. Moving into cycling, I had to find people that would help me learn more about racing and nutrition. I kind of started realizing that all the cyclists had the bars and gels in their pockets but I genuinely had no idea what I should be doing. I didn’t understand the nutrition labels. The label would say this food has X amount of carbs, fat, or protein – and all I am thinking “Is that a lot, a little, or what?”.

This is where her interest and appreciation for nutrition were sparked. As she got into cycling, Zuzana began to become curious about fueling for better performance without falling into the “fad diets” and getting discouraged by the confusing space of nutrition.

I hired a nutritionist –David Guerra of Foonguerra Health Consulting (@aero.guero)– who was helping me figure all this out. Dave’s philosophy on food just really aligned with me. Rather than talking about good foods and bad foods he always talked about food as fuel to nourish my body and help me recover. The goal was to optimize my eating habits to achieve the most effective fueling to reach my goals.

This shift in both education and experience around her training changed her mentality around fueling for performance. The newfound positive performances in cycling were a testament to the benefit of taking care of her body and fueling to meet her demands. Zuzana was hooked.

While being very competitive is part of my DNA, I have also really enjoyed the journey of learning about my body and how to improve my performance by treating my body right. I’ve enjoyed monitoring the changes in my body and performance and tweaking that over time.

There are additional challenges with cycling that you don't have in sports like gymnastics. You're on the bike potentially for a long period of time compared to gymnastics. Whether that's an hour, 2, 3, 4, or even longer your nutrition happens while you are performing – while you ride the bike. In gymnastics, there is repeated high-intensity of performance but the length of time is much shorter. A competition routine will generally last 90 seconds or less. Some workout segments can last 10 or 20 minutes but there are generally breaks between exercises that lend themselves well to taking the time to fuel. Unfortunately, in my training and training of all the gymnasts I knew well, food happened before and maybe after but there wasn't anything in the four-hour block of training.

So, what would she do differently with the knowledge she now has? Well…

Everything! It's a night and day [difference]. In gymnastics, there was absolutely no focus on nutrition. The focus was on eating less as a means to stay lean rather than thinking and learning about what the right food is to fuel me to accomplish my goals.

In cycling, for example, when I would finish a race that was several hours long, pushing hard, I found that I would try to “eat the world” afterward. It was as if no amount of food was enough. David, my nutritionist, and I talked about that and it came back to the fact that I was under-fueling during my performance. I was like, “Oh wow, okay. That never occurred to me. I figured I could just kind of catch up after I am done racing.”

I learned that rather than withholding calories at the time I need them, I was better off giving my body what it needs so I don't come out of training/performances feeling completely depleted – then sort of overdoing it on the back end because I am struggling to recover.

In gymnastics, we weren’t even allowed to have water bottles available and we certainly didn’t have any electrolyte tablets. We had to pretty much sneak out of the gym to the bathroom and drink out of the faucet because it was down the hall and across the entire building. We would do that only a couple of times during the training, which means we were probably drinking way too much water in one go and then had the water spinning in our stomachs as we flipped around. So, finding a hydration strategy that included electrolytes [has been key for me]. Nuun is something that I love right now – one of my preferred sports hydration brands.

One of my regrets is [not knowing] how much more we could have gotten out of our training, maybe even with less training or fewer hours, have we had the proper nutrition for the training my friends and I were doing.

We were building muscle memory on skills that were not performed at our best, not doing the right repetitions in the right way. As your energy fades toward the end of the day, the training becomes less effective. I think nutrition could have had a huge impact on the quality of our training.

I’m certain we would have seen better results, with fewer hours of training, if we had fueled properly.

Are there any specific resources we have now that you wish you had or could take advantage of then?

1000%! The recovery side of things is huge. I am a huge fan of Hyperice and Therabody products for massage and compression therapy. I also love my Whoop for more visibility into how my body recovers. One of the other ways wearables help with recovery is by understanding your load. Because in many sports, staying lean equals being faster, being able to balance the nutrition your body needs while not overdoing it (but also not underdoing it!), is super important.

We didn't have the bars, the chews, and the gels of today. I think that would've made a huge difference. Something that's nutritionally packed, easy to digest, and does not interfere with the performance by blowing up your stomach – that's important in cycling but even more important in sports where you’re flipping upside down for hours. Right now I’m a huge fan of RBar Energy. They fit all my criteria: only 3 high-quality plant-based ingredients, small format, and packed with the carbs I need to perform.

In your experience and opinion, how can we improve the approach to nutrition in areas like elite gymnastics?

Where do we start if we're concerned about the ‘look’ and the performance? I think starting from the knowledge! A better understanding of what the performance of that particular athlete requires in terms of output. The performance requirements have to translate into what the body needs to be adequately fueled and generate the desired output. The desired performance. The length and intensity of the particular workout have to be considered. All of it is a consideration for how much and what type of nutrition the body needs. And then, of course, each person is different so the nutrition needs have to be personalized and tweaked over time.

No matter how you slice it, you need to support your body and what you want it to do with the right type and amount of fuel. The other part of the equation is recovery.

Especially in gymnastics, you are relying on muscle memory and extremely fast reflexes. You are asking your brain to perform at a level that doesn’t have much room for mistakes. Landing on a 4” balance beam. Swinging around, flipping, and catching the bar again in a split second. When you under-fuel your body, you’re also under-fueling your brain. You get a brain fog and in a sport that relies on quick reflexes, this can be extremely dangerous. If you are not giving your brain what it needs, you can't perform at that level. This leads to poorly performed skills, which leads to injuries.

I also learned that fueling my body is not just about performance. It’s also about recovery. If I am not recovering fast enough, now I am starting my next day's practice in a deficit. I think gymnastics can hugely benefit from the nutrition science today and the products that exist to support athletes' fueling and recovery needs.

To follow along with Zuzana, please check her out on Instagram @zu.on.wheels!

Photo courtesey of Corvin Alstot, @hardcorvtm


Avatar Carson Beckett

Carson Beckett / Thursday, May 18, 2023