holiday party people

Cyclist Guide to Staying Strong and Fit Through Holiday Season


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist

December presents many training and nutrition challenges for athletes, but with some planning you can hit January strong, fit, and ready to ramp up your performance. You don’t have to live like a monk for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. We want you to have fun through the Holidays, enjoy the parties and spend time with family and friends. The CTS Coaches have used the following training and nutrition advice to help thousands of athletes emerge from the Holiday Season feeling great, rested, energetic, and ready to go.

December Training Recommendations

The months of November and December are often less structured, even for time-crunched athletes who typically rely more on shorter, structured workouts. It’s a smart idea to think of December as pre-season training for January. Some cyclists focus exclusively on easy Zone 2 training to maximize aerobic conditioning and fat oxidation. However, if you’re training volume is decreasing or you have early-season event goals, some intensity is a good idea. Consider following these recommendations:

Incorporate intervals once per week

While you may do interval workouts 2-3 times a week during the height of your event-specific training, you only need to commit to 1 interval day per week in December. It does not take much training stimulus to retain your fitness and avoid detraining. Focus on aerobic conditioning and lactate threshold/FTP power. The two workouts below are good choices for December:

SteadyState: These are cornerstone lactate threshold intervals. They are not complicated nor all that exciting, but they are incredibly effective. Three 10-minute intervals at your SteadyState intensity (96-100% of Threshold Power, 95-100% of Threshold Heart Rate, or an RPE of 8-9/10) is a standard cycling workout for moderately-fit cyclists and triathletes. More advanced riders can increase the duration of the intervals to 12-15 minutes. Recovery between intervals is half the interval time, so 5 minutes recovery between 10minute intervals, and so on.

ThresholdLadders: We love these interval sessions for athletes who have some early-season event goals because the maximal effort at the beginning generates a lot of lactate. Learning to adapt to that high lactate environment gives your lactate threshold training a significant boost. These 12-minute intervals start with two minutes at maximal intensity (10/10), then transition to 4 minutes at ClimbingRepeat intensity (101-105% of Threshold Power, 101-105% of Threshold Heart Rate, 9/10 RPE), and then a final 6 minutes at SteadyState intensity (see above for SS intensities). Take 6 minutes easy spinning recovery between intervals. Moderately-fit athletes should do three 12-minute intervals. More advanced athletes should add a fourth interval.

Get Field Test instructions, intensity calculations, and workout descriptions here.

Lift weights or start resistance training 1-2 times per week

Even if your cycling volume (hours) decrease during December, try to maintain your strength training volume and frequency. Ideally, you’re already incorporating at least one strength training workout per week. If not, this is a good time to start. You can read more about the benefits and specific exercise recommendations in this series of articles.

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At least one long endurance ride per week

Long aerobic rides can be challenging in December because of the weather, and it is sometimes difficult because of competing priorities (holiday shopping, travel, family events, etc.). Nevertheless, try to commit to at least one 2- to 4-hour endurance ride per week. Although this would be best at an easy Zone 2 pace, hopping into a faster group ride or an adventure ride with friends is fine if that’s what gets you out the door. Also consider indoor cycling for these rides, as you can control the intensity and environment.

One 5- to 7-day endurance block

If possible, schedule an endurance training block in December. Many athletes find the week between Christmas and New Years to be a convenient time. Aim to ride at least two hours per day for 5-7 consecutive days and try to make a few rides of these rides 3-4 hours. Be careful not to go too hard or too long in the first two days. You’ll be excited and tempted to ride hard, but remember that you want to ride strong on the final two days and that won’t be possible if you’re exhausted. You can find more tips here on executing weeklong endurance blocks, like the Festive 500.

Holiday Season Nutrition Recommendations

After spending most of the year eating well, sudden increases in sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol can throw your sleep, workout performance, recovery, and mood all out of whack. We discourage athletes from focusing too intensely on bodyweight. Your weight will fluctuate throughout the year and we prefer to focus on helping athletes create a healthy relationship with food and fueling. The Holiday Season can be a challenging food environment, so here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. Socialize away from the buffet:
    The closer you stand to the food, the more of it you’re going to eat. You’re at the party to socialize with friends and family. Visit the food, and then find a good location away from it for people watching and catching up.
  2. Seek healthy food options:
    Cranberries are packed with antioxidants, sweet potatoes are full of beta-carotene, and smoked salmon is a great source of quality protein. Want a simple dish to take to a party? Slice sweet potato wedges, spray lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and cayenne pepper before baking at 350 degrees until soft in the middle and crispy on the outside (about 20 minutes).
  3. Stay sober:
    Alcohol has no redeeming qualities for athletes. The more you drink at a party, the more you’re going to eat, and your food choices will likely steer toward sugar, salt, and fat. Alcohol reduces the quality of your sleep, which hinders your recovery from training. In December your training hours are likely already down due to social and work commitments. Alcohol just adds insult to injury by hindering your recovery and diminishing the quality of tomorrow’s workouts. Fortunately, there are a growing number of non-alcoholic mocktails and non-alcoholic beers that taste better than the ones you remember. If you choose to consume alcohol, consider limiting your intake.
  4. Arrange your plate wisely:
    Research into eating behaviors shows you are likely to finish whatever you put on your plate, even though eating more food doesn’t increase your level satisfaction. People also eat with their eyes, meaning what you see on your plate affects your anticipation of feeling full or satisfied. This is where the “small plates” theory sometimes fails people. You see the small plate, and there’s a sense of deprivation despite the amount of food on the plate. One potential way around this sense of depriving yourself is to take the big plate and distribute the food more widely. If it sounds like a trick, that’s because it is. But then again, our brains trick us all the time into eating and drinking more than we should; at least this is a trick in your favor.

5 Behaviors to Avoid During Holiday Season

  1. Don’t go to the party hungry:
    Having a snack or a small meal before heading out to the party will keep you from gorging yourself. The best foods for this snack are high in fiber or low on the glycemic index, because these are the most filling. Think vegetables and hummus rather than cookies.
  2. Don’t skip meals to “save up” calories:
    Some people skip breakfast or lunch in anticipation of indulging at a party. Despite good intentions, this often accentuates cravings and provides a false sense of “I’ve earned this”. Where you might have normally indulged a little bit, you end up going overboard.
  3. Don’t let stress wear you down:
    People make poor decisions when we’re tired and stressed out. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the holiday season. Find the days and weeks that will be tough because of schedules, parties, and travel; as well as the days where you can recuperate and pencil in time for yourself.
  4. Don’t take or keep leftover sweets:
    Make your home your refuge from the holiday dessert overload. If you go to someone else’s party, don’t leave with their extra pie or cookies. If it’s your party, give the pie someone else. Take treats into the office the next day, but don’t keep them in your house. If no one will take them, toss them.
  5. Don’t close down the party:
    Make a memorable appearance at the party, socialize, eat, drink, thank the host, and then find a reason to leave. The longer you stay, the more you will eat and drink, and the later it gets, the more you’re likely to overindulge, in a variety of ways.

It’s important to keep the holiday season in perspective and do your best to maintain your normal routines. Continue exercising, but don’t obsess about every calorie you put in your mouth or burn off with activity. And even if you start to gain weight, it’s not the end of the world; just keep your gains under control. Three to five pounds will melt off within a few weeks after the holidays, but it could take well into the spring to shed 15. Above all, stay safe and enjoy the opportunities this season presents to spend more time with friends and loved ones.

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Comments 16

  1. It is articles like this that contribute to the eating disorder problem in this country. Trust me, the world will not end nor will your FTP be ruined if you have that extra holiday cookie or egg nog. Maybe we should put more emphasis on our MENTAL health this coming year.

  2. Although I’m slowly putting on pounds now (stress), I’ve been successful with changing my food habits cause I choose healthier versions of flavors I want. E.x. (don’t laugh) a fruit salad I make that includes pineapple, walnuts, various melons, apples, raisons, NO sugar. This satisfies my sweet tooth through most of the week. Salt urges = steamed broccoli, cauliflower (I treat this like potato), and green beans – salted. Mexican flavors – add tomato and cilantro. Chocolate urges: bananas with peanut butter (dried plus real mixed together) – has the same texture as chocolate.

  3. All work and no play make Kevin a dull boy. I eat and drink what I want from about Sep.t/Oct. to the beginning of January. Then it is no sugar (refined), yeast, dairy, wheat. Very little processed foods.

    I actually increase the frequency of eating and probably the calories too, but the workouts increase and the lbs come off.

    Enjoy life and food, you are going to die no matter what you do. Plus many cyclists are or are one step away from having an eating disorder.

  4. I just got to the liquor store in time last night before it closed. I got a bottle of single malt which I only do this time of year. Ride hard and drink some and be Happy and Safe. Happy Holidays to all!

  5. The first 6-8 months of healthy eating and eating less are the hardest because you’re used to eating large portions and eating lots of junk. Once I got through this period, the rest was relatively easy – I just couldn’t eat as much as I used to, I no longer ate until I was full, and my internal food censor steered me towards fruits and veggies and away from cookies and other sweets.

    I also figured out a formula that worked for me. We’ve all heard the old “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” saying. The problem was, when I ate a big breakfast it piled up too many calories in at the beginning of the day. By the end of the day, I was too hungry to satisfy myself with a pauper dinner and I would end up overeating. I found that eating a balanced, but relatively small breakfast and lunch piled up a big enough calorie deficit that I could eat a moderate dinner and still stay under by 1600-1700 daily calorie budget.

    This runs counter to most diet advice, but it works for me.

  6. You need to get as lean and fit as you live longer. But you may as well turn your identity into a great cyclist! Counting calories is tough. So is exercising just because you’re supposed to. Choosing healthy foods and training for events is more effective and rewarding.
    1) Eat plant based foods, not processed. Follow the Mediterranean diet and snack on nuts. (The most clinically proven diet for preventing heart disease, cancer and weight gain)
    2) Sign up for an event or several and learn how to train with Chris at CTS. (I was healthiest the three years I just signed myself up for the Leadville MTB race since I was scared into getting lean and fit!)
    3) Fear not the statin. They’ve saved more lives than any stents or bypass surgeries. (I take atorvastatin 80m daily without any risk factors because they work, and I know my muscles ached as much from doing intervals way before I started the statin.)
    Cardiologist, Boise Idaho

  7. Do you have any holiday suggestions for someone whose doctor has told them that his/her blood pressure is 150/70 and either cut out the sodium or go on statins? That his/her H1ac is 6.4 and that to prevent in increasing to diabetic levels, he/she should avoid sugary food and drink? That his/her LDL is 155mg/dL and that if it increases, he will prescribe statins?

    So, no bacon, no cheese, no fired potatoes, no butter, no fruit juice, only 1alcoholic drink

    What are your recommendations?

    1. I’m diabetic, with cholesterol issues and allergic to statins. Frequent exercise, with a good dose of intensity, is the best possible thing for controlling A1c, cholesterol and blood pressure. Reasonable dietary choices are important, but cutting everything “bad” out is a recipe for disaster. You’ll feel deprived, and resentful and won’t stay “clean” for long. Then you’ll feel guilty for “cheating” and swear off the “bad” stuff. Repeat ad nauseam.

      Have the chocolate covered bacon, just not often, and not a lot. Explore new foods or new preparations of familiar foods to break the habit of a high fat/starch diet. And if a goal helps you stick to a fitness regimen, enter a race, or a gran fondo, or a big charity ride.

      Above all don’t think of the dietary and exercise changes as something you’re doing because your doctor (or someone else) said to. It’s something you’re doing because you want to, and it’s not a “diet”, it’s changing the way you think about food. It’s not “exercise”, it’s training. Either for an event, or just because you want to.

      Good luck!

    2. You have a lot going on as we head into the holidays. The majority of the advice still applies to you. Continue to exercise as this improves your body’s insulin sensitivity and will help not only your blood glucose but your blood pressure and cholesterol. Go heavy on the vegetables, as stated, making up half of your plate. Avoid the obvious high sugar items and ask your doctor for a consult to a dietitian. And take a friend or your spouse with you so you get the most out of it and someone else can understand and be supportive. Best wishes.

    3. Personal changes that have worked for me last 6 months:

      * Daily calories ~ 1500 =~ BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) AND daily total Sodium = 1500 mg.
      * Do the calorie & sodium math from Nutrition labels and online technical references (watch out for online recipes as their calcs should be ‘taken with a grain of salt’… pun intended!!)
      You can’t manage what you don’t measure…nothing is forbidden just account for it on your daily tally.
      * Add back CHO/CHO-N (Complex carbs/Protein) at 4:1 ratio for higher activity levels (Rides, vigorous gym workouts etc.)
      * Minimize daily caffeine intake – 1 mug or 2 small cups MAX
      I dropped ~20 points BP after 1st 2 weeks and another 10 since (YMMV); resting Heart rate 48 – 50. Took about a month to get used to portion sizes and doing the calcs from memory.
      Essential tools: Kitchen digital scale, home BP monitor, easy access to calorie/Sodium values.
      Senior rider 74 years old, 34 years cycling

      Good luckwith your lifestyle improvement efforts

    4. Look into longevity science research Dr Peter Attia learn the realities via his podcasts and health thoughts learn what and how your BLOOD sugar issues are a HUGE PROBLEMS that can be dealt with differently and more affectively than youve been told

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