How to have your Christmas Cake and eat it!

by Claire Fudge of 4th Discipline
Let’s face it; it has not exactly been a normal year!  No races to speak of, limited training outside your home or with squads, and little in the way of feeling like you have had a great year with medals, podium places, or simply that sense of achievement. 

So Christmas may feel a little different for us athletes with the down time that we usually have not feeling quite the same as after a hard season. That doesn’t mean however that we can’t all have some fun! 

Food is not just fuel to nourish our bodies ready for the next training bout or race.  Food is for many a part of religious and historic festivals, a social part of getting together with family and friends forming a major part of Christmas festivities too! Food is also able to nourish our soul sometimes. It should not be seen as something to feel guilt about. 

Off-season nutrition for triathletes

Can athletes eat festive food?

So many athletes are very careful with what they eat throughout the season, or even over-restrict affecting their performance, but we can not simply be expected to constantly try and stay race weight or strive to restrict foods that we may not see as nourishing our bodies for training.  By this I mean the cream covered mince pie, chocolate log or festive tipple!  In fact; over restricting our intake often leaves us feeling hungry and then overeating later on in the day.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Do I restrict my intake and then overeat and think “stuff it” diet starts tomorrow?
  2. Do I allow myself to eat something I fancy even if it isn’t really nourishing my body or healthy?
  3. Do I end up feeling guilty when I break my rules about healthy eating?
  4. Do I end up really over-eating over the festive period and thinking ‘I will start in January’; almost eating for the sake of it?  Black & white / on-or-off style of thinking? 
  5. Do I really let myself enjoy food that I don’t usually have?
  6. Do I think about how to manage my nutrition over this festive period?

Restricting diet for triathletes, sports nutrition

Overly restricting intake, especially if training over Christmas, will no doubt cause a little over-eating later on when you are really hungry. What about planning the day a little and slightly reducing your intake at meals if you are not hungry?  Think about your hunger and try and listen to it.  If you are hungry, eat.  If you are not so hungry maybe hold back a little.  Managing your appetite is a skill; and something that we all have the ability to be able to do if we just listen a little! 

How to recognise hunger as an athlete

The great thing about listening to our hunger is even if we realise that we are not hungry but we fancy something to eat such as a piece of iced Chritsmas cake with a cup of coffee at 11.00 despite not really feeling hungry, it is OK to eat it.  Better to recognise that you are not really hungry but that you fancy it and enjoy it!  If you listen to your body then at the next meal you may not serve as much on your plate as you might have; so really your energy intake starts to even out a little! 

You see that little extra dollop of brandy butter really is not something to feel guilty about.  Rather approach this with having a little and enjoying it.  If we approach it this way then you are less likely to crave it, give in and over indulge later in the festive period or later in the evening! 

Can I eat holiday food as a triathlete?

Try to avoid the black & white; by this I mean swinging from super restrictive and not allowing yourself something you fancy to then just saying “stuff it, I might as well finish all of it so it has gone”.  This is not listening to your body and is not helpful to managing your appetite. 

If we just find that little bit of grey, so to speak, we can enjoy a little of what we fancy.  If we think about what we really want, listen to our hunger levels, we really can manage our appetites. 

Think of it as a scale or perhaps a traffic light system:

Green: GO - I am hungry I need to fuel

Amber: I am neither hungry nor full but if I fancy something I will have a little and enjoy it!

Red: I am full. Perhaps I could leave what is left on my plate or maybe I can wait to have that lovely pudding a little later on in the afternoon?  If I do choose to eat then I have the knowledge that I am doing so because it tastes good!

Christmas training snacks

What about training?  Well I think as athletes we all get ants in our pants and need to get out in the open to expend some energy!  So certainly training or simply doing something active over Christmas means that we may be more hungry than other people around us and that’s OK!  Having that little piece of chocolate log pre-training may not be a perfect pre-training snack, but it certainly is pretty quick release energy with 20-25g of carbohydrates before popping out for that tempo run. 

When you get back in from training?  What about some cold turkey, cranberry sauce, a little brie encased by some granary bread (50g carbohydrates and 30g protein!!) 

Turkey sandwich is a perfect post-training snack for triathletes

Now for the big question about weight …... remember that weight is just one metric.  Certainly standing on the scales over the festive period daily may not be useful psychologically for some athletes.  Remember that if our training is a little lower coupled with a little more in the way of carbohydrates and fibre our weight will fluctuate.  With well-stocked glycogen stores in our muscle and liver we will weigh a little more.  Also if we are eating a little more in the way of vegetables and fibre (I am thinking sprouts here!!) then we will likely weigh a little more too until it passes through the digestive tract! 

So yes, we may gain a little in terms of grams on the scale but the festive period doesn’t last months.  It is a moment in time.  It is to be enjoyed.  It is a time to kick back a little and enjoy ourselves.  Try to keep in mind the off-season idea of avoiding more than 2-3kg weight gain, as it is easier to manage when we get back into a new training cycle again. 

So with a little appetite management, some gentle activity and exercise, listening to your hunger and responding; Christmas does not need to be a time to feel guilty, a time to restrict and worry about weight.  Feed your mind, body and your soul and have your Christmas Cake and eat it! 

Is it ok for triathletes to eat Christmas Cake?