Holiday Nutrition for Athletes

holiday eating for athletes

The holiday season can become difficult to navigate for athletes and highly active individuals. Alterations in training routines, travel and dietary changes can bring about anxiety for those used to a regimented lifestyle. Good nutrition and timing of intake are important for training, recovery and performance, but food intake doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Holiday nutrition for athletes can allow for festivities while still maximizing training and performance. Read on for the areas of concern and the best ways to navigate eating during this joyous, but stressful season.

holiday nutrition for athletes

Mistakes Athletes Make With Holiday Eating

You’re dedicated to performing your best and think you’re doing the right thing based on what you hear in the media or see your friend or family member doing. In reality, you’re compromising your training, recovery and even physical and mental health. Below I’m covering some big mistakes athletes make this time of year.

And don’t think that just because you don’t restrict yourself from “fun foods” that you’re doing it all right. It’s not that everyone who is athletic deprives themselves from treats. Many times it’s the fear that that consuming something “different” from their norm may throw off digestion, energy levels, and performance. Start paying attention to why you’re making food decisions – if they’re fear based, it’s time to meet with a dietitian! They can help navigate holiday nutrition for athletes… and eating the rest of the year, too.

You “Save Up” for a Holiday Meal

swimmer nutrition

In the culture we grow up in, eating less earlier in the day to save up and eat extra later is sadly the norm. Sure, it leads to bingeing and then the tendency to restrict the next day for the average person. But, on top of that, for an athlete or highly active individual, you may as well just skip your workout if this is your approach.

Heading into a training session in the morning or afternoon when you’ve been attempting to eat less means you have less energy for high intensity, power, and endurance. If performance is truly your priority, you’ll go about your day as normal, eating enough to provide your active and constantly recovering muscles with what they need.

On top of low energy availability for your workout, skimping on meals and snacks during the day or week to attempt to save up for a bigger meal can also mean compromised recovery. To deliver moderate amounts of protein throughout the day as well as healthy fats and other essential nutrients, you want to do business as usual! You can still eat the holiday meal or whatever treat you have planned, but you won’t be ravenously hungry and chances are you’ll enjoy the seasonal foods more without that desire to go over the top.

Remember: feeling a little overfull is okay. It’s way better to enjoy the food and memories and move on versus restricting all day, bingeing and feeling poorly the next day. Having a mentality that you need to save up or that the foods your eating are “bad” will increase likelihood of bingeing. This can lead to GI discomfort and a sluggish workout tomorrow.

You’re All-or-Nothing with Alcohol

alcohol athletic performance

Tis the season to eat, drink, and be merry, right? It’s a fact that excess alcohol consumption impairs performance. Key word: excess. I totally respect anyone’s decision to abstain from alcohol during their high training or competitive seasons. But, if it means binge drinking in the off season, or in certain situations (ex: Christmas and NYE only), I suggest re-evaluating.

Just as the case is with “off-limit” foods, when you completely deprive yourself from something you enjoy, there’s a much greater chance you’ll be off the rails when you allow yourself to have it. You’re better off recovery and performance wise if you’re drinking in moderation on occasion than if you shock your system with extreme alcohol intake here and there. Dehydration carries day to day and the disruption in digestive function, circadian rhythm, and ability to regulate blood sugar and glycogen are not worth it.

You Mindlessly Eat Sugary Snacks

Eat the cookie. Really. Holiday eating for athletes should still be fun. But only eat if you actually like it and enjoy it while you’re having it. Same goes for the pie, candy canes, and whatever else the holidays offer you. Take time to savor the flavors of the season and fit them into your eating pattern!

At the same time, if you find yourself consistently snacking on, let’s say, frosted sugar cookies (been there done that), check in with yourself.

  • Are you eating enough carbs earlier in the day and during your workouts? If not, your body may be craving quick energy.
  • Are you poorly hydrated? If so, when 2 cookies turns into 8, your fullness cues may not be on par with normal.
  • Are you starting to feel any GI discomfort, brain fog, alterations in energy levels, etc? Use this as a learning experience! Remember those feelings so that next time you’re reaching for cookie number 5, you remember how you felt and can decide to hold off and just enjoy another cookie tomorrow.

You Don’t Enjoy Any Holiday Treats

fall harvest energy bowl

The media scares people into thinking holiday weight gain is way higher than it actually is. I’ve seen claims of 10-12 lbs between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the limited research actually shows roughly a pound is gained. This is all to increase profitability for the fitness and diet industries in January. Don’t buy into it, ’cause it leads to restriction and poor mental health. Athletes, particularly females, are already at higher risks of disordered eating and eating disorders. Food is meant to be enjoyed and the stress of restriction or lack of participation in holiday activities is likely worse for your health than the foods you are avoiding.

Additionally, by being hyper-vigilant with your food intake this time of year, you may actually under-eat. If you’re at a holiday function or meal and limit your choices, the food you actually ingest may be too low in calories, protein and nutrients to support your level of activity and recovery needs. Remember, all foods have a nutritive value: carbohydrates, fat, and protein are all essential nutrients and all foods contain at least one of these things.

Holiday Nutrition for Athletes

power lifting nutrition

While you should follow the principles above just like anyone with a low activity level, you do have some special considerations. This doesn’t mean deprivation. Still, it may mean more mindfulness and it’s helpful to be in tune with how foods make you feel during activity and how they impact your digestive function tomorrow.

Timing of nutrient and treat intake is what is likely most important to focus on if the holidays are amidst a high training cycle or competitive season for you. This does not mean that you shouldn’t eat other traditional holiday recipes that have more fat, sugar, sodium, etc. Use mindfulness and memories of past eating experiences to determine when to enjoy those treats.

Pre-Workout Holiday Nutrition


preworkout holiday breakfast

Moderate to high intensity exercise is highly reliant on carbohydrate. Unless power lifting is your high intensity activity, and you’re utilizing mainly the creatine phosphate energy system, carbs are your BFF during intense workouts. Without adequate amounts, you may fizzle out early in a training session, or intensity and power may be lower than they could have been, thereby compromising gains.

You can totally just keep up with your normal routine if you’re not feeling all of the holiday vibes. But, if you are, just be choosey about when you’re having your favorite holiday treats.

For example, some of you reading may be able to eat a frosted Christmas cookie walking into a workout and feel great since it provides you with necessary carbs. For others, you may metabolize the sugar at a different rate and/or wind up with some digestive distress. If you’re the latter, save the cookies for after dinner. It’s not a bad idea post-workout, too, so long as they’re paired with adequate protein!

You may also want to be mindful of excess fats in holiday foods pre-workout. Again, for some people this may not cause any issues no matter the training session. For most people heading into a lower intensity workout, there’s no worry there either. But, for people heading out for long runs or to sessions with a lot of power movements, save the higher fat fudge, pies and dishes for another time of day. Ultimately, use trial and error and find what works for you.

Post-Workout Holiday Nutrition

After your sweat session, you need to replace the carbs you used up, plus ingest quality protein for recovery. While waiting a couple of hours to ingest protein may not impair muscle recovery, waiting too long after your workout to eat may throw your appetite. Depending on how intense and long your training session was, you may deal with post-workout appetite suppression and waiting too long means hunger can slap you in the face at any time. This can potentially lead to over-eating, and with sugary treats around, a binge may be a little too easy.

If you are reaching for a holiday treat post-workout, just be smart with pairing it appropriately. If the candied nuts look good, don’t think they’re an adequate source of protein on their own. Grab a yogurt or a couple of hard boiled eggs, too. If you’re gravitating towards the sugary treats, you want to keep protein in mind, too. This post has great holiday recipe suggestions to support you post-workout.

Holiday Nutrition At Big Meals and Events

USOC performance plate


Remember, one meal or day will not derail your typical routine, unless you let it. Athletes tend to have all-or-nothing mentalities, so try to find the gray area this season. Eating a little extra or something out of the ordinary doesn’t mean throwing in the towel and eating processed foods all week between Christmas and New Years while avoiding all vegetables. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but think of it this way: if you drop your cell phone on the ground, you aren’t going to throw it in the middle of the highway to finish it off, right?

When it comes to the meal itself, as with all other meals, aim for a balanced plate. It sounds cliche, but it helps you enjoy things you love, get the nutrients you need, and keep up with energy and recovery needs. Think of the Team Nutrition USA plate above whether you’re navigating a family style meal or a room filled with small bites. Your protein source may be more fatty than usual and your carbs may be higher in added sugars, but if you’re getting all three macronutrients, enjoy it and move on!

Holiday Recipes for Athletes

This roundup contains recipes with top nutrients that support the high demands of athlete’s lifestyles while still allowing for those warm and fuzzy holiday feelings! All of the recipes are from registered dietitians.

Another roundup has the best holiday pre and post workout recipes so holiday nutrition for athletes is still up to par.

Have a favorite recipe that you want to share to help out with holiday eating for athletes? Leave it in the comments!

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