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.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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