For professional athletes and regular folk alike, the holiday season is expected to be a time to take a brief respite from the daily grind, enjoy homemade foods and visit family and friends. But with games to play or a full season of training just around the corner, there’s often little opportunity (or time!) for the pros to unwind and indulge.
Still, while their schedules may be demanding, elite athletes, both in-season and off-season, do find ways to enjoy the holidays during the winter months without compromising their performance or physical condition. SI EDGE talked with three pros—experts in fitness, endurance and nutrition—to collect the best tips and tricks from athletes across a range of sports that you too can incorporate to your lifestyle this holiday season.
11Travel can interfere with training, but don’t sweat it.
For professional triathlete Andy Potts, the winter months are considered an off-season period and he typically cuts down on high intensity training during the holiday season. But even when he’s traveling and not on a strict workout schedule, Potts stays active at the recommendation of his coach, Mike Doane.
“During the holidays, we’ve come to the conclusion that having structure and trying to train if he is away is hit or miss,” says Doane, who is also the USA Triathlon resident team swimming coach. “I tell him to do what he can: go for a run, catch a swim somewhere or do whatever you can to get moving.”
Potts says he doesn’t worry if he misses a workout, but when he does train, he makes sure to use his Polar fitness watch to monitor his heart rate to make sure it doesn’t get too high.
“When it’s time to focus and get back to work I want to be motivated to do so,” says Potts, who placed fourth at this year's Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. “If you've wasted bullets over the holidays, you may not have the focus when you really need it. For me, the holidays are a time for me to relax, take a step back and try to enjoy the accomplishments of the year and get motivated for what's ahead.”
22Recover from a big holiday meal or late night out with a workout.
Indiana Pacers head strength and conditioning coach Shawn Windle knows that the holidays don’t have a huge impact on his players because of the already-busy NBA schedule, but he still makes sure his team knows the importance of exercise during their few short nights of festivities. Windle says that, whether a personal chef is preparing a holiday meal or it’s mom’s special dish, the best way to get calorie-dense foods out of your system is to get the blood flowing.
“Instead of heavy explosive workouts, we do more mobility movement to loosen and wake the body up and get the players back into game mode,” says Windle. “Sometimes that just includes body-weight exercises, but we also do single limb training—using less weight, we’ll focus on one arm or one leg to put them in an environment where they have to focus on balance and concentration and emphasize the quality of movement.”
Single-leg box squats, step-ups, one arm rows and different variations of one-arm pushups are some of the single-limb exercises Windle incorporates to help his team bounce back from a holiday indulgence.
33Make some healthy swaps.
Cleveland Cavaliers team nutritionist Stacy Goldberg says moderation is key for her athletes, who will play directly before, on, and the day after Christmas Day. She suggests focusing on foods that are nutrient-dense and will boost the immune system during the short time of rest. Goldberg encourages small trade-offs, such as choosing sweet potatoes without a marshmallow topping over white potatoes.
“It’s important that [the players] still aim to get colorful foods,” says Goldberg. “They can work with their families, a local restaurant or chef to prepare healthy versions of traditional favorites such as Brussels sprouts or green bean casserole, which are still rich in antioxidants and nutrients.”
She says some sweet treats can even provide a nutritional benefit if prepared properly, such as a pumpkin pie made with a coconut and almond crust and less sugar. “Pumpkin is a great high-fiber, low-carb and low-fat food option and when the pie crust is made with almonds or pumpkin seeds, it's a good source of iron as well,” she says.
44Don’t forget about sleep.
“Sleep is probably the biggest area that everyone can improve on,” says Windle, who looks for visual cues from his players that can indicate a low quality night’s sleep, such as droopy eyes or more yawning than usual. Windle makes adjustments to workouts for players who may be performing at a slower rate because of a late night out or lack of sleep, which are especially common scenarios during the holidays.
Goldberg says that rich, heavy foods can also affect sleep, especially if a player’s big, indulgent meal is combined with the ill effects of traveling.
“Most of these elite players understand how certain foods are going to affect their performance, but the digestion system can still be disrupted by holiday meals,” says Goldberg, who suggests drinking fluids all day long to flush toxins and prevent dehydration—another common issue for athletes who travel. She suggests water, low-sugar electrolyte replacement beverages, milk, nondairy milk beverages, unsweetened sparkling water and unsweetened teas to stay hydrated during meals.
55’Tis the season for protein.
While her team typically focuses on consuming adequate amounts of protein all year round, Goldberg says it’s especially important to remember to eat the amino acid-rich, muscle-building foods during the holiday season.
“Be sure to have animal- or plant-based protein at every meal to help stabilize blood sugar levels,” says Goldberg, who recommends taking the skin off of turkey or chicken to save fat and calories. “This will help prevent sugar cravings or crashes—and the temptations at holiday meals—and help repair a player's tired muscles.”
66If you’re celebrating with a drink, remember these cocktail rules at the holiday party.
While she advises players to limit or avoid alcoholic beverages at any point during the season, Goldberg knows “it’s something you always have to discuss, whether for an elite athlete or the average consumer.”
Goldberg’s recommended beverage for her players is an antioxidant-rich glass of wine. “Try to avoid flavored liquors or drinks sweetened with sugar, fruit juice or energy drinks,” she says. “Alcohol may help you fall asleep initially but will contribute to a less restful sleep, headaches, frequent awakenings and dehydration— all of which can create a negative effect on performance.”
Goldberg encourages drinking alcohol on a full stomach and having a glass of water or sparkling water in between each cocktail to minimize any adverse effects the following day.
77Don’t forget: the holidays are a time to decompress and relax.
“For me, the best way to sap excitement from my training is to do it at an inopportune time,” says Potts.
Most professional triathletes do what they can during the off-season, whether it’s simple core exercises at home or riding a bike for 30 minutes, and Potts says the holidays are his time to recover and build up anticipation for the upcoming season.
“It’s important to be motivated at the right times,” says Potts. “Part of our goal is to take a break, monitor the body and get excited for how good you can be in the New Year.”