Should Athletes Worry About Gaining Weight Over the Holidays?

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Should Athletes Worry About Gaining Weight Over the Holidays?

You’ve been training hard all year, but the holiday party invites are piling up, and you’re feeling less and less motivated to eat a salad instead of a gingerbread cookie. What’s an athlete to do during the holidays, when race season seems far away — and the temptation to snack on tasty treats is constant.

As with most diet and training questions, the answer is both simple and complex: Go ahead and indulge, but do so moderately — and with an eye toward January’s training schedule.

Depending on where you’re at in your training, the answer can be more complicated. Matt Fitzgerald, author of “Racing Weight” and “How Bad Do You Want It?” says weight gain over the holidays depends on two main factors: your race schedule and how close you are to your ideal weight already.


If you’re a serious athlete who is already at your goal racing weight with a season that’s over until late spring or early summer, the holidays are a great time to loosen the belt (literally and figuratively) and enjoy a couple of extra treats.

You don’t want to gain too much weight, Fitzgerald cautions, because that can derail your training, and the extra pounds can be hard to drop. But a few pounds is fine, and almost preferred, for someone who’s at an ideal racing weight.

Race weight is like peak race fitness, he explains. It’s almost impossible to stay at your peak all the time, and gaining a couple of pounds is perfectly natural when your race season is over. Most elite athletes use the off-season to sneak in small indulgences and put a couple of pounds back on, though rarely will an endurance athlete gain more than five pounds during a break. And, luckily for most endurance athletes, the off-season corresponds with the holiday season, making it an easy time to relax and enjoy food with friends and family.


However, Fitzgerald cautions that there’s a caveat to the idea of gaining a couple pounds over the holidays: It’s all well and good if you’re already at or near your goal weight, but if you’ve just started an exercise regimen and still have a lot of weight you’re hoping to drop, don’t plan to gain any weight over the holidays. Studies have shown the weight we gain over the holidays seldom gets completely lost, and this is partially responsible for the slow-but-steady weight gain that creeps up on us as we age. So if you’re still hoping to drop 20 pounds, gaining another three isn’t going to make that any easier — and it may even derail your efforts completely.

“What gets measured gets managed.”

Fitzgerald’s top tip for keeping holiday weight gain in check is to keep an eye on your measurements. Whether that means hopping on a scale every morning or trying on the same pair of skinny jeans every couple of days to see how they fit, what gets measured gets managed. In fact, daily weighing has been linked to weight loss and weight control, and it’s a simple way to stay honest about just how many pieces of pie you’re eating. If you hop on the scale every day, you’re going to be less inclined to let the numbers slide up more than a couple of pounds, and seeing that number — whether it’s higher or lower than you thought — will help inform your food choices for the day. If you want to go one step further, you can log your meals on MyFitnessPal to see where you’ve allowed yourself to indulge.


If you’re planning on hitting a holiday party or meal where you know you’re likely to overindulge, don’t stress about it. Just make sure the rest of your day is focused on eating lots of vegetables and lean proteins so you’re going into the party with a good base.

And, of course, at the party, you know the drill: Keep alcohol intake low-to-moderate, since boozing it up may actually lead you to eat more, so you’re getting extra calories from both alcohol and hors d’oeuvres. Double whammy. Plan whether you’ll have zero, one or two drinks before you get to the party and stick to it. Then, when the buffet is open, aim for the healthier foods first — again, veggies and lean proteins — and add small scoops of the indulgent foods you’re dying to munch. Don’t deprive yourself, but try to keep portions reasonable. For dessert, again, sample what you want, but do you really need that fourth cookie?


Lastly, the holidays might be a time to relax and not stress about extra pounds, but that doesn’t mean you should eat up while skipping the gym or regular workouts. If you’re a runner, make sure you make time to sneak in runs during the busy holidays, even if they’re just quick 30-minute jogs. You’ll be happier, less stressed and might feel less guilty about sampling those tasty holiday indulgences.

So enjoy the holidays, but don’t consider December a free pass. Dropping 10 pounds is way harder than dropping two — and you don’t want to make January through March about getting back to your pre-Thanksgiving weight. You want to be able to focus on getting better, faster and stronger!

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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