At this time every year, athletes add another important aspect to their lives that can impact their training and performance: celebrating the holidays. With more time dedicated to seeing friends and family, this can be a healthful and restorative period for athletes—a chance to mentally recharge. The holidays, however, bring several temptations that when left unchecked can lead to negative effects on training that outweigh the positive energy during this month. Let’s look into how people tend to overindulge and what strategies you can exercise to maintain fitness through the month. Respect your hard work and discipline during the rest of the year by following these tips!

Indulge in moderation.
One lavish meal won’t dig you into a hole but a season of calorie-dense meals will, so try to exercise greater vigilance throughout the month. It is unlikely that the one to two pounds the average American gains during the holidays (and doesn’t lose, according to a The New England Journal of Medicine study) comes from a specific meal you had. The hidden calories are in all the little treats throughout the season. Included in that category are peppermint mochas, the candy bowl that sits on the table for the month of December, the endless supply of holiday cookies, and many more parties that involve festive drinks.

Focus on the holidays by spending time with family instead of focusing on the food. Enjoy a generous meal once or twice this season, and in between recognize all the seasonal treats that you don’t need to incorporate into your diet on a regular basis, as these are the calories that add up with the blink of an eye.

Approach seasonal beverages like pumpkin spice lattes and hot chocolate as dessert, reserved for special occasions.

One medium sized peppermint mocha will run you 330 calories and 60 grams of carbohydrates — the same amount of carbs as there are in 4 brownies! This can affect how you feel in training due to the high volume of sugar you may be drinking that you normally do not choose.

If you are of age and attend holiday parties, know that alcohol decreases the time your body spends in REM sleep. Rapid Eye Movement sleep is the deep sleep during which dreaming and learning occurs and memories are stored. Less time in REM sleep can lead to restlessness, grogginess during the day, and an increase in appetite.

Be sure to get plenty of sleep.
Pick carefully which holiday events you feel obliged to attend because multiple late nights can be disruptive for your training. If you are returning to school or work in January, your goal is to hit the ground running on the next phase of training and to be mentally re-invigorated to work hard.

Engage in new, but safe, activities.
Share experiences with your family that create more memories than the typical gatherings around food. Go for family hikes, walks, or try ice-skating. For all athletes, save the skiing and snowboarding for retirement; instead pick sledding or lower-risk activities in the snow. You have the rest of your life for recreational activities and do not want to risk injury. If you like to bake, try giving away most of the cookies as gifts to friends.

Healthy Holiday Alternatives:
After dutifully listening to this set of tips, here are a few simple substitutes to make your holiday meals healthier.

  • When baking, try switching out half of your all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour (you’ll lose the spike in blood sugar and get a boost in fiber, vitamin B-6, folic acid, and potassium)
  • When possible, use olive oil instead of butter. Sautee items in a pan or roast meat, poultry or vegetables in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Use coconut milk, yogurt, or even soft tofu in place of heavy cream for making soups or dips during the holidays. Coconut milk works well as a replacement in desserts while tofu can be used in savory dips and provide a little boost in protein.
  • Try switching out half of the butter in a baking recipe for applesauce or another fruit puree. The puree will not change the flavor and will keep your baked items moist. Use prune puree for darker baked goods like chocolate cake or pear puree for lighter baked items such as muffins.

Most importantly, enjoy the holidays! Allow time with your family and friends help restore your mental health as you build momentum for the coming training cycle in the New Year. 


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  5. Ebrahim, I. O., Shapiro, C. M., Williams, A. J. and Fenwick, P. B. (2013), Alcohol and Sleep I: Effects on Normal Sleep. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37: 539’–549. doi: 10.1111/acer.12006