Holiday Eating for Athletes [A Survival Guide]

Holiday Eating for Athletes [A Survival Guide]

When fitness goals are balanced with family and work priorities, social eating around the holidays can be a challenge to your ideal training plan. 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 over-eating followed by mild disappointment. After all, if the plan is already blown, why not have seconds? Oh, and another glass of wine. Over-eat, disappointment, repeat.

How Do You Get through the Holidays without Losing Training Focus?

Make Your Training Social

You may not be able to skip the company party or the kids’ choir concert in favor of training, but you can take advantage of time off from work during this social time of year to schedule more social physical activity. Schedule active family and friend activities such as rides, hikes or ski outings. It doesn’t matter if it matches the training schedule exactly as long as you are staying active enough that you can pick up where you left off. Make training dates and trade kid care. Can’t get in your interval workout? Even simple play can suffice; an afternoon of tag football with the kids is still counts.

Utilize Your Coach

If you’ve got a training plan to follow, talk to your coach about modifying your riding to fit your travel and social schedule as well as the cross training opportunities available to you. Part of the value of your training plan is having your coach to help you adapt when life veers from plan. 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. Yes, easier said than done. Here are a few tips to make it go easier:

Moderate Your Moderation

  • Part of the holiday struggle includes going to the dinner table already full from the appetizer and treat spread. Sample appetizers and then LEAVE the area. Visit the kids’ room. Stand on the porch with your uncle. Offer to run the last-minute errand — 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.
  • When dishing up the main meal, give yourself a helping that covers your plate but isn’t stacked high. We’re talking small psychological tricks here! Spread out the goodies and take a healthy helping of salad (no, not the Jell-O stuff — the real one with the veggies) but do treat yourself with the things you enjoy best. Have your potatoes and gravy but don’t pile it quite so high. If you finish it, wait for a bit. Drink a big glass of water. If you are still hungry, dish up some more, but chances are you’ll be full.
  • Another strategy is to have someone else load your plate. Choose 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!
  • Pace yourself with alcohol and drink courses of water. Consuming alcohol rapidly diminishes your willpower and commitment to stick to a plan, so be careful. If you drink, sip slowly and set a drink limit; then stick to it.
  • 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.

Managing Your Daily Training and Fueling Through the Holidays

If you blow your daily eating plan 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. Sticking to your food plan may mean a new phone app or putting a few dollars toward a massage, for example.

How to Stick to Your Training Plan

Even if the weather isn’t cooperating for a ride and you don’t have access to a smart trainer, most gyms are open nearly everyday but Christmas, and they’ve got kid-care, too. There’s really no excuse to not squeeze in the spinning, studio cycling, treadmill run, rowing, or weight workout. Even if you don’t have your bike, you can handle riding for an hour on one of those huge seats on the stationary bicycle (and thankfully, more gyms are doing away with those seats). Don’t think a squeezed-in hour really matters? An hour of spinning or running can work off 300-600 calories. Get that in three times during a week-long family holiday visit week and that’s 900-1800 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 keep morale up for getting back to it quickly.

Indoor cyclists ride during the holidays together.

Additional Holiday Training Tips

  • Wait to 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-torture if you are struggling.
  • I can’t say it enough: 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 sooner than later.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Extend Holiday Kindness to Yourself

Beating up yourself over skipping a trainer workout or sampling the pie only adds negative pressure that adds more stress. It’s no secret that it’s more difficult to get the training done when there are limited daylight hours and non-cooperative weather. Just get back to it the next day.

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 (and the next day) when you could be visiting. It’s the ultimate balancing act. It’s social togetherness versus self-motivated ideals of improvement, performance and winning. For most humans, personal goals temporarily lose out to social contact nearly every time. Slipping up from optimal healthy eating isn’t a personal failing, so don’t berate yourself when you stumble a bit. For competitive athletes, every day you stay on track, you’re already pulling ahead of most of your competition. Stay positive and look forward.


Head Coach Kendra Wenzel loves to eat and lives in the food and beer mecca of Portland, OR, where it’s always a challenge to keep from overeating. She works with developing elite road, cyclocross and mtb athletes to take their performance to the next level.

Need more help with dialing in your nutrition? Check out our Nutrition Coaching plans. Our sports 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.

This article was updated for 2017.

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