As we head into the Thanksgiving break, people across the country are loosening their belts in preparation for the holiday season.
But there's no reason runners have to pack on the pounds just because of the time of year.
Often, the holidays are used as an excuse for a "30-day gorge fest," says Krista Austin, founder of Performance and Nutrition Coaching who holds a PhD in exercise physiology and sport nutrition, when in fact Thanksgiving and Christmas are simply two meals a month apart.
The first question to ask yourself: When is your next race? If it's coming up quickly, then you certainly don't want to gorge. But if it's not until the spring (when most runners start their seasons again), then you can easily have a few extra calories now.
"There's probably not a need to be too overly concerned about having a little fun," says Austin. Just get your favorite holiday snacks in a smart way.
During the holidays, instead of eating an energy bar after a run, Austin has one of her mom's cornflake marshmallow wreaths. That way she can eat some festive treats instead of the regular bars and drinks before and after workouts.
The important thing, says Nancy Clark, author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook," is not to eat holiday treats in addition to what you normally eat.
She tells her clients to have four food buckets a day: breakfast, lunch, second lunch/snack, and dinner -- all around 500 calories (give or take). If you have some holiday cookies at the office as your snack, then don't eat your usual snack in addition. Substitute some fun holiday foods and meals in for your regular meals -- but not in addition to your regular meals.
That means at holiday parties and family meals, you'll want to strategize and eat portions of the unique, seasonal items.
"Don't waste your calories on cheese and crackers," says Clark.
It's not just the one or two family meals this time of year that often do a runner in. It's the constant holiday parties and bowls of candy sitting around the office.
To combat the deluge of sugary snacks, it's important to have a plan, says Clark.
Go into each party knowing if you're planning to lose weight, gain weight or maintain weight. If you decide to go nuts, that's fine, but don't do it on accident. "Some parties, it's worth it," says Clark -- some, it's not.
Before going to parties, eat normally, instructs Clark. Lots of people try to save up calories by not eating beforehand, but then they're so hungry they just overeat.
You should also go to socialize, not stake out a spot by the buffet table, advises Clark. Focus on some small portions of foods that look tasty or special, instead of loading up. And, when you do opt for the succulent stuffed mushroom, eat it slowly and enjoy it.
Understand the ingredients
You should also know what you're eating. Sure, your grandma's whip cream/chocolate pie might be a classic, but chances are she's not using a low-fat (or trans-fat-free) whip cream.
It's easy, says Austin, to substitute healthier alternatives, like skim milk or whole wheat bread, or offer your own healthier recipes, which can also be a way for families to get into the kitchen together.
"Search online for a low-fat alternative," says Austin.
Use that same philosophy when it comes to alcohol and pick a low-fat beer or low-calorie mixed drink, said Austin. Alcohol can be a source of many hidden calories.
It may be obvious, but continuing to train throughout the holidays also has a huge impact on your eating. There's a tendency to pack it in and stake out your spot on the couch for the next month, but that just contributes to poor dieting.
Paul Williams, the principal investigator for the life sciences division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used statistics from over 100,000 runners in the National Runners Health Study to determine that people who ran more tended to be leaner -- and not just because they were burning off the calories they ate.
"It certainly would not be difficult for runners to eat as much as they burn," Williams says, pointing out that a box of Oreos has about as many calories as are burned in a marathon and "more people are prone to eat a box of cookies than run a marathon."
The hidden factor is that when runners are unknowingly fed more calories, they unconsciously automatically balance that with fewer calories the next day. It appears that more running means being better in tune with your body, which will instinctively help you navigate holiday meals.
Runners can be "a little less concerned than other people about what they eat on Thanksgiving," says Williams.