2016 Holiday Eating Survival Guide for Athletes

holiday-champaign-treatsWhen fitness goals are only one of your many priorities, social eating around the holidays can be a challenge to your ideal training and athletic body weight. Having well-defined, motivating goals can help avoid excess and junk food, but even with the best of intentions, holiday social gatherings can enter a repeating cycle of cathartic overeating followed by mild disappointment. After all, if the plan is already blown, why not have seconds, too? Oh, and another glass of wine. Over-eat, disappointment, repeat.

How do you get through the holidays (and the winter in general) without gaining weight?

Treat yourself with kindness

Beating yourself up over sampling the pie or wanting to hang out with your loved ones rather than riding the trainer only adds stress that adds more negative pressure. Plus, it’s simply more difficult to get the training done when there are limited daylight hours and non-cooperative weather. Four-hour ride scheduled for Saturday? How about 41-degree temps and rain to accompany that effort?

The holiday season brings frequent schedule disruptions in the form of parties, dinners, festivals, and performances. Plus, if you are traveling or hosting for the holidays, much of the family isn’t going to understand why you need to ride your bicycle for several hours on Christmas Day (or the next day) when you could be visiting. It’s the ultimate balancing act. It’s social togetherness versus a self-motivated ideals of improvement, performance and winning. For most humans, personal goals temporarily lose out to social contact nearly every time. Slipping up in your diet isn’t a personal failing singular to you, so don’t berate yourself when you stumble a bit. Stay positive and look forward.

Make your training social

Holiday cookies beckonYou may not be able to skip the company party or the kids’ choir concert in favor of training, but you can take advantage of the social time of year to schedule more social physical activity during time off from work. This is the time to schedule active family outings and get together with your active friends to train. Make training dates and trade kid care. Can’t get in your interval workout?  Take hikes, ski and do other activities that the whole family can do. An afternoon ski with the kids is still going to burn calories.

If you’ve got a training plan to follow, talk to your coach about the cross training opportunities that may available to you. Part of the value of your training plan is that if you follow it, holiday eating is usually only a nuisance rather than a hindrance. If you are accountable to your program’s structure and its minimum timing, you are likely to be working hard enough that you won’t need to worry about what you eat as long as you aren’t going nuts when you step up to the dinner table. Still, if you need some help on the eating side, here are a few tips to make it go easier:

Moderate your moderation

Moderation: It’s so easy to say but difficult to do. Here are a few ways to help it happen for you.

  • Part of the problem with holiday eating is that people go to the dinner table already full from the appetizers and treat spread. The first tip is to sample appetizers and then LEAVE the area where they are. Go visit the kids’ room. Go stand on the porch with your uncle. Offer to run the last-minute errand to get the can of olives. Just get away from the place where you’ll hang out and graze. Offer to clear dishes rather than carve the ham, duck or turkey, where pre-eating is also difficult to resist.
  • Second, when it comes to dishing up the main meal give yourself a helping that covers your plate but isn’t necessarily stacked high. We’re talking small psychological tricks here! Spread the goodies out, take a healthy heap of salad if there is some (no, not the Jell-O stuff — the real one with the veggies), and have your potatoes and gravy, but don’t pile it quite so high. Then, if you finish it, wait for a bit. Get yourself a big glass of water and sit down again. If you are still hungry, dish up some more, but chances are that you’ll be satisfied from what you’ve already had.
  • Another strategy for holiday eating is to have someone else load your plate. Pick someone with a small appetite to set up your plate the way they’d do theirs. It’s sometimes easier to face a plate of food that’s presented to you as in a restaurant rather than one you’ve loaded yourself. If you have a partner, you can load each other’s plates. That way you’ll want to be nice to each other and eat all the good stuff, but only so much you won’t fatten each other up!
  • Finally, understand your triggers at holiday functions. If you stay quiet during family debates by filling your mouth with food, try heading out to help with dishes instead. Chances are you’ll still be able to hear well enough from the kitchen! Consuming alcohol rapidly diminished your willpower and commitment to stick to a plan, so be careful. If you drink, sip slowly and limit yourself to one drink at a meal.

Everyday eating through the holidays

Holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Eve are just two days of the year, and the problem isn’t just those two days, but the whole succession of days of office treats and social gatherings that make controlled eating more challenging. If you blow it for a couple of days, don’t punish yourself by starving; just get back to eating and working out normally. Alternatively eating heavily and severely restricting yourself sends you into a pattern where the body may actually hang on MORE to the food you eat.

Eating holiday treats doesn’t usually pack on pounds if you are training regularly; it just makes them more difficult to shed. Stressing over being inconsistent doesn’t help. Try rewarding yourself with non-food items when you manage to stick to your eating goals. Skipping the goodie plate in the office might mean a few new songs from I-Tunes to one person or saving up for a massage to another.

Sticking to your training plan

Even if the weather isn’t cooperating for a ride, most gyms are open full hours every day but Christmas, and they’ve got kid-care, too, so there’s really no excuse to not squeeze in the spinning, treadmill run or weight workout. Even if you don’t have your bike, you can handle an hour on one of those huge stationary bicycle seats. Don’t think a squeezed-in hour really matters? An hour of spinning or running can work off 300-800 calories. Get that in three times during a week-long family holiday visit week and that’s 900-2400 calories expended. That calorie count could encompass numerous servings of wine, desserts, or second helpings. It all counts. Plus, your energy level and attitude will be better adjusted. If you follow one day’s excess with a workout the next, it will get you back on track and proud of yourself for getting back to it so quickly, which will prime you to be better to yourself next time as well.

Additional Holiday Training Tips

Don’t weigh yourself until at least one week after the New Year. Make a commitment to yourself to do this! Climbing on the scale regularly through the holidays is self defeating if you already have issues.

If you get off track during the holidays, forget it and move on. Avoid dwelling. Hop right back into your routine and get rolling. What matters is that you DO get back.

Schedule a New Year’s Day ride or workout where you celebrate the New Year with an unrestricted outing. You are healthy and can run, swim, ride, ski and play! Celebrate it and start the year right.

Check in with your coach during the holidays. You aren’t bugging him or her. Your coach is there to help you. Make use of the resource and support.

A common theme in all of this? Keep your attitude positive, stay active and keep looking forward. For every day you stay on track, you’re already pulling ahead of most of your competition.


Need more help with dialing in your nutrition? Check out our Nutrition Coaching plans. A dietitian can help you dial in the exact amount and kinds of calories you need to consume around your training and events so that you can make the most of your performances.

Head Coach Kendra Wenzel loves to eat and lives in the Beervana of Portland, OR, where it’s always a challenge to stay at athletic weight. She works regularly with developing elite athletes to reach their potential. 

This article was updated for 2016.

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