It’s that time of year again when nutrition websites post photos of ripped bodybuilders in Santa outfits, and remind you that calories on Christmas day are still calories.
A few years ago (before I was vegan) and when I knew a little less about nutrition, a fair bit less about life, and a lot less about myself, this sort of advice led to me having an unnecessarily anxious festive season and a few equally unnecessary late-night binges after days of restriction.
Now I harp on a fair bit about the importance of treating yourself regularly, and the importance of recovery. However, I will be spending the next 10 days in a small rural town in France, surrounded by delicious vegan food and not many opportunities for exercise, and I would be lying if I acted like I didn’t care in the slightest what effect this may have on my fitness and body composition. With the odd body-image concern still lurking in the depths of my mind, I do have to actively remind myself that a little more body fat really isn’t the end of the world, and while I don’t naturally remember this I do believe it – and so should everyone. However, I have trained fairly hard for the past few months and I really don’t want to start all over again just because I have been lazy for 10 days.
Moreover, I never really feel good when I overeat and under-exercise, as I feel like my body just isn’t really working, it feels like rusty machinery after a few days spent like that. I am, after all, a creature of habit, and I feel uncomfortable without some sort of structure or purpose.
So I do need to set myself a few guidelines. And judging by the amount of articles out there about holiday fitness and nutrition, so do others. But is it really realistic to think you are going to do hill-sprints first thing on Christmas Day, and then avoid starchy carbs and refined sugars for the rest of the day? Some of us might, and if that works for you, well that’s great. I’m not saying it’s impossible. If I saw the need for it, I’m pretty sure I could do it too. But there is more to life, as long as you don’t swing too far the other way and find yourself in a position where you are uncomfortable with your body, fitness abilities, or general health.
As far as vegan advocacy goes, don’t forget that while it is useful for us to be lean, strong and athletic, it is also useful for us to demonstrate that we can enjoy a wide variety of cruelty-free yet sinful food. And regarding promoting healthy active lifestyles, we also don’t want to be that healthy nutter that nobody can relate to or aspire to be.
With this in mind, here are my general recommendations for a happy, relaxed, but ultimately healthy festive period:
Take it easy
Long periods of inactivity is the big thing to avoid. Training-wise I may benefit from a short hard session, but if I then sit still for the rest of the day I’m unlikely to reap many overall health benefits. I’ll never train as hard on my own, with limited space, time and equipment, so I won’t achieve the overload needed to make gains. So the main thing I try to avoid is sitting still – going for walks is an obvious one and is a nice family activity, but even just things like helping out with chores, or stretching whilst watching TV, will help ensure blood doesn’t just start pooling in one area and throw everything out of whack. Also, low-intensity long-duration exercise is what’s needed to burn fat, so that may be more in line with holiday goals.
Respect the basics
How likely are you to hit a new PB, really? I for one know I won’t, as I need to be spurred on by competition or encouragement to push myself to new heights. So I use my time to work on technique – slow down pressups, squats, and abs, and practice using full range of movement, which I often overlook when going for speed and power, especially in circuit formats. I use my muscles differently which will benefit me when I go back to going hard and fast, and when I’ve got limited space it’s just a little bit safer than trying to do explosive exercises! Although I may not return to the gym with the same level of explosive power or strength-endurance, I may conserve most of my strength and most importantly the confidence that I haven’t lost everything and can still do whatever I am told to.
Again I’m going on the principle, maybe not applicable to us all, that I won’t be hitting any PBs while I am away with no equipment, coach, partners, or structure. So I play around – try a circuit the other way around, find new bodyweight exercises to try, use a different set structure. It’s more motivating and fun, and yields other benefits as you use your muscles in a different way, challenge your metabolism differently, etc. Variety is the spice of life and all.
Honour the little things
So many times I haven’t exercised because “I don’t have time to do a full session”, “I don’t feel like doing X, Y or Z so I won’t do anything”, “I don’t have the right equipment”, or whatever else I can come up with. It’s the little things in life that count. Everyone has time to do a set of press-ups, squats, or abdominals. And, as above, it’s all about little and often. You’re just as well off doing a set here and there throughout the day than blasting yourself in one go then thinking that’s reason enough to sit in one spot for the rest of the day.
Conquer something new
Ever been given a new exercise you couldn’t master, and it just screwed with your session’s momentum? I have a few exercises I have tried recently that I just couldn’t get the feeling of, but when I’ve had a busy day at work and just want to get a good training session in, the last thing I want to mess around with is trying to perfect the details of a technique when I could be going harder and faster on the ones I already know. So, equipment permitting, I will be trying to master those techniques when I am not tempted to go with a heavier bar, or for more reps, or faster. And if I fail miserably nobody will be there to witness it.
Ben is a big fan of balance work, hugely overlooked and under-appreciated, possibly because people always want to break a sweat, feel out of breath, and look like they are training the hardest in the gym. But the truth is, every sport is about coordination. And balance is the epitome of whole-body coordination. So if you’re not willing to “waste” a precious day of training on balance work, spend some of your down-time working on it. It’s also really motivating to see how well in control of your body you are once you train your balance and proprioception. On the flipside, once you see how bad you are at balance work, you will definitely want to dedicate some more time to it! Keep an eye on Paradigm Speed, Strength & Conditioning as I have been tipped there will be some training tips up there soon.
I am the worst for taking the time to stretch after a training session, and judging by the look of the stretching area in every gym I have ever been to, I am not the only one. Lately I have been subjected to a few minor injuries and niggles due to muscular tightness and imbalances… But I’m not naive enough to think I’m going to change my ways. But while I have the joy of staying in a house where I have enough room to sit down and stretch out, and am sitting down watching TV or documentaries for an hour or two at a time, I figure I may as well do some stretching. I also often have trouble sleeping when I am holiday, as I am naturally a night-owl and can happily find myself staying up later and later, so it’s a great way to wind down.
I’m terrible at this one. I just can’t shut my mind up – which is a sign that I really should practice meditation, I guess. Watched a documentary on this last night, and if France is starting to do it, the rest of us have no excuse! The effect on your physical health? Well I’ll let you Google that one as I would be here for days if I started to list all the studies that have been done. But there’s a reason there is a Latin phrase, “Anima/Mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a sound body) – sometimes turned around to a saying along the lines of “healthy mind, healthy body”. The relationship goes both ways, so you’ve got to make sure you get the cycle going in the right direction. Even if it had no effect on my physical health, I know that my training routine results in my days being much longer and busier, not to mention more stressful, that my non-exercising counterparts. So on these rare occasions when I have time, I need to make sure I stop and exercise my brain and feelings as well.
I don’t mean this in the “No excuses, train hard or go home, beast mode yadda yadda” sense that you see plastered everywhere on top of photos of sweaty girls doing squats in hotpants and torn crop tops with more smudged eyeliner than I would get through in a year. I mean, quite simply, if you don’t want to exercise, don’t. It’s your holiday too. If you are concerned enough about your training to even think about what you can do on holiday, I promise you a day will come when you want to do an improvised session. Let it come to you. If you say you want to train but this or but that, you don’t really want to train. Your mind needs to be on your side if you are going to train, so don’t waste a session’s worth of time and motivation on a half-hearted effort. If you don’t want to train, don’t train and don’t feel guilty, just know you will train hard when you get back into it.
Keep your goals SMART
Don’t roll your eyes at me. SMART goals are important and always relevant, especially when your routine and structure has been overhauled. Some examples of simple goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-bound are:
- I want to achieve a pull-up by the end of my holiday
- I want to beat my PB of press-ups in a single set by the end of my holiday
- I want to perform 1000 squats this week
- I want to hold a good side-plank position for at least 30secs before Christmas
Some of my personal goals/aims for my holiday are:
– to go for a short (15-20min) walk every morning when I wake up – I am using the aim to find some nicely decorated houses as my motivation, but my dad is giving me his old MP3 player for Christmas so then I will be able to enjoy music!
– to beat my press-up PB and hit 55 press-ups in a single set
– to be able to complete this stretch routine smoothly and with good form
I will also try to strengthen my feet and ankles by spending as much time as I can on my tip-toes, focussing on distributing the weight evenly across all five toes, and performing calf-raises. When I’m walking – especially with my granddad when we go on long slow (very very slow) walks – I’m concentrating on improving my posture and on rolling my foot through the full range of motion. And I wouldn’t mind getting better at performing leg raises sitting upright. Of course, none of these are SMART goals but I’ll be peppering my days here with them.
In the end, you know best your body and circumstances, but I hope this serves as motivation to take care of your body, mind, and soul over the holidays – not as a chore, but as something you welcome knowing that you will continue to feel strong and healthy.
I’ll try to post up some general holiday nutrition ideas too, but in the meantime please do leave me a comment if you have any other ideas or any questions! I’d love to hear how you approach the holidays from a fitness and training perspective!