Around this time of year, the health and fitness media is full of articles about how to “survive” the holidays with your abs and self-respect intact. I do agree that this time is not a two-week-long reason to completely ruin all your hard work and long-term goals. However, it is also not the time to add more stress to your life by calculating how much jogging you’ll need to do in order to work off a portion of delicious, buttery mashed potatoes. Life is just too short.
I mean, c’mon. This isn’t a war. It’s a holiday!
The next couple of weeks will be full of opportunities to overindulge at various work parties and family gatherings. Now, I am not suggesting you go and gorge yourself endlessly on beer, chocolate, and deep-fried treats, but it is a great time to enjoy getting a good amount of calories on board without worrying about it. You’ve earned it! If you normally follow a well-structured exercise program and eat a good-quality diet, a couple of days off will not slow your progress. It may even help you recover and come back reinvigorated and stronger in the new year.
All the upcoming parties will be furnished with turkey, ham, trimmings, and various nibbles. If you read around, you’ll find plenty of ideas on how to minimize the effect on your waistline, including:
- Eat at home first.
- Start with the crudités and fill up on carrots and celery.
- Follow the vegetables with plenty of protein, and you’ll be less tempted to eat the sugary desserts.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Before the party, do a workout including some heavy compound lifts or a full-body metcon to prime your muscles to absorb all the upcoming calories.
All of these are perfectly valid ways to control calorie intake, but I beg you not to take them too seriously. If there are two things the recovering body really loves, they are carbs and protein. Between them, insulin and leucine (a branched-chain amino acid found particularly in darker meats) coordinate the initiation of muscle-protein synthesis after exercise.1,2 A nice big slab of turkey with all the trimmings followed by a bit of dessert is exactly what your body needs after a year of hard training. Studies have shown that high-calorie re-feeds boost thyroid hormone (T3), testosterone and metabolic rate, particularly in very active people who err on the side of calorie restriction (which is a lot of us).3,4 A few days of higher calorie and carbohydrate intake will therefore help your long-term strength and fat loss goals, as well as recovery.
So, you might even say that a little festive indulgence is important for everyone that exercises frequently, regardless of his or her sport.
Do you know what your body really wants after your protein and carbs? Sleep. Sleep is essential for full recovery and adaptation after exercise. Sleep deprivation (even just five hours of sleep per night) has been shown to increase cortisol, reduce testosterone, and change the way the body releases growth hormone.5,6,7 All of these things will affect your ability to recover and build muscle.8 However, most of this hormonal dysregulation is restored with recovery sleep, so think about the holiday period as a time to make it up to yourself. Those who sleep better also have better fat loss.9
When you’re on holiday, there will always be the temptation to get up early before the rest of the family and go for a run or do a metcon in the garden. But why not just use the time to sleep properly? Don’t set an alarm. Let yourself wake up naturally and get the real benefits from your time off.
Just Rest and Relax
Be honest with me, when was that last time you took a real recovery or deload week? We all know it isn’t training that makes us stronger. Real progress comes down to taking the time to recover properly. However, for most of us, the time pressures of life mean that we’ll happily beat ourselves up in the gym many times per week, but often do so at the expense of time taken to look after our bodies the other 22 hours of the day.
Though you will often feel ready to workout again within a few hours of a session, it can take up to ten days for your nervous system to properly recover from particularly taxing training.10 A recent study showed that participants who followed a three-week detraining cycle after a six-week program saw much larger responses to exercise once they restarted, as opposed to those who trained continuously. Over a six-month period, there was a trend towards better adaptation and strength increases in those using the long detraining phases.11
While it’s probably worth doing some exercise a couple of times during your week off, why not make that training about keeping your body moving rather than forcing yourself into soul-crushing workouts? The rest of the week will be full of opportunities to stay active - carrying Christmas trees, cleaning up after relatives, and running around in the snow. Save the interval sprints for January.
And if you decide to just sit around, that’s okay, too. You won’t lose your gains if you give yourself a few days off.12 You’ll probably also clock up a few hours digesting large dinners in front of the TV, so why not spend this time doing a little foam rolling? You’ll come back more explosive, powerful, and mentally ready to crush everything.
Real-Life “Survival” Tips
If there is ever a time to relax about your lifestyle and have fun with friends and family, this is it. During your holiday, you’ll probably be subjected to the stress of traveling, buying presents, and having to deal with difficult family members. Worrying about the slice of cake you had is just not worth it. Please just enjoy it instead.
So, how can you come out of the holiday season fitter, stronger, happier and ready to continue towards your goal of optimal health and performance?
Decide you’re going to enjoy a certain party or evening, and then don’t think about it.
- Have a lie-in. Have many lie-ins.
- Take a real week off training, and enjoy a good number of calories to fuel recovery.
- Leave your trainers at home and give the kids a piggyback instead.
Focus on the fact that these are scientifically-proven ways to improve health and wellbeing. And, more importantly, have a great holiday!
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