Christmas eating for athletes - tips to eat well through the festive season

 Image by  Bec Doyle Photography , Lamb salad with chickpea, spinach and mint cous cous from  Eat Right for Your Life

Image by Bec Doyle Photography, Lamb salad with chickpea, spinach and mint cous cous from Eat Right for Your Life

While the majority of the population are enjoying the Christmas cheer at this time of year, if you are training you may not find December quite so joyful.  Christmas is considered a time for some rest and relaxation, but if you are an athlete in pre-season or with competition in early January, this is not the best time to be in holiday mode.

Your nutrition and fitness goals may be very different to most of those around you, who seem to have absolutely no concern or interest in your training needs (and are quite happy finishing off their bowl of chips right under your nose).  Instead of cocktails and canapes and all night parties, many sports people are more about water, early dinner and watching the clock so they can be in bed for a solid 8 hours sleep.  Some even find it easier to knock back invites….alcohol and late nights don't seem quite as appealing when you have an early morning training session that requires a reasonable amount of effort.

Just because it is Christmas, it doesn’t mean you forget about your nutrition and training goals, and here are some of the reasons why:

Recovery -

Late nights and party food are not the best recipe for optimal recovery, and if you have repeated instalments of this combination you might find yourself feeling tired, sore and lacking motivation

Body composition -

If you are in pre-season or the early stages of competition, you may have some body composition goals, such as increasing muscle mass or decreasing body fat.  Either way, Christmas can have an impact by ensuring you are super busy and have less time to shop, cook and plan your eating around your day and training.  Add in a few dinners and functions and it can be a challenge to get the results that you are striving for.

Injury risk -

If you are not recovering well, and not fuelling well, then you may be increasing your potential risk for injury.  Not to mention the effect of alcohol when you are out late and judgement is impaired.  Not a great outcome for an athlete to get an injury from tripping over something or falling down some stairs at a nightclub.

Immune system -

Late nights and a busy schedule can leave you tired and run-down, plus add training to that mix and the stress on your system can leave you at risk of getting sick.  This time of year is when nutrition becomes more important than ever.

Energy levels and Fatigue -

If you are not fuelling and recovering as normal, it can impact on energy levels for training and competition, and ultimately performance.


It can be difficult to stay on track when everyone else seems to be in relaxation mode, but looking after yourself doesn't mean you have to lock yourself in an altitude tent for a month.  Here are some tips to help you enjoy the festive season while eating well for your sport.

  • Eat before you go

    • This sounds terribly boring, but it can save you from getting too hungry.  I was at a function recently and I was glad to have had a snack prior as there was very little food on offer and it was mostly deep-fried.  If you are not sure what will be on offer, be sure to have a snack or small meal before you leave.

  • Enjoy the healthy options

    • With an increasing interest in health and nutrition these days, a lot of caterers are providing healthy options.  Parties where finger foods are served can be the hardest, but try to find yourself some fresh seafood (prawns, oysters, grilled calamari, fish), vegetables/dip, sushi, fresh sandwiches, smoked salmon, salad or stir-fry bowls to enjoy. 

  • Choose mains over appetisers

    • If your function involves a sit-down meal, think about how many pre-dinner snacks you really need.  Think about what food will be offered over the entire event and be selective (you may even be able to see the menu beforehand or when you arrive).

  • Plan your portions

    • If you do get caught out at a function that is over-flowing with deep-fried snacks and pastry, it’s the portions that will make all the difference.  The same applies to dinners with shared dishes, or buffet style eating - it is often the volumes consumed that can be a problem, not just the type of food.    For more info about portions, read about 5 secrets of the French... and how they manage portions so well.

  • Drink plenty of fluid

    • If you are going to be standing up at a function for a number of hours, in warm conditions, and have training the next morning, it’s important to stay hydrated.  Water or mineral water are probably your best bet, try with fresh lime or lemon to make it a bit more interesting.  Or even a fruit-based mocktail can be a good option for some extra carbohydrate.

  • Don’t compensate the day before or after

    • Some people prepare for a night out by eating less that day, or cutting back the day after.  If you are an athlete this is not all that helpful as you need consistent nutrition for ongoing recovery and training.  Don’t starve yourself or it will show in your performance.

  • Host a party

    • The best way to be sure that you can eat well at a function is to host one yourself!  That way you have complete control over what is offered, and others will probably appreciate some healthy options too.

  • Choose your night

    • If you like to have a drink, then maybe pick one event where you can have a couple of drinks.  For example maybe choose between Christmas Day and NYE to have a drink, not both.  Plan ahead, and try to pick the time that will have the least impact on your training.

  • Re-gift the chocolates

    • Resist the urge to rip into the chocolates straight away, hold onto these as a perfect new year gift for someone else.  Or if you really want one, open them on the spot and share them around so everyone gets to enjoy the fun, and you won’t end up eating the whole box.

  • Plan ahead!

    • If you continue to plan your nutrition during busy times, and maintain consistent training, you can enjoy yourself in the lead up to Christmas

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