Enjoy that fruitcake. There's nothing wrong with athletes gaining a few pounds over the holidays. In fact, for someone like a runner who's been competing at race weight, it's healthy to bulk up a bit during off-season.
"This can be a great time to work on your strength and your endurance by really feeding yourself well and giving your body a little extra fuel," says Jim White, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and certified personal trainer. "It's hard to maintain a super clean diet during the holidays, and taking a break from it will give you both a physical and mental breather."
It’s possible to compromise your immunity if you've been restricting calories and therefore restricting nutrients needed for your body to operate optimally, White says. Adding a few extra pounds can help your body better defend against stress, the demands of exercise, and cold and flu germs.
The catch? You've still have to be smart about what you're eating—and not overdo it. In other words, enjoy that slice of fruitcake, but don't eat the whole pie in one day. "Whether training or not, you should never aim to eat a lot of desserts or rich holiday food," says Alicia Shay, a nutritionist and professional runner. "Too much indulgence will leave you feeling heavy and crummy when training resumes."
Instead of trying to gain weight, Shay says, let it happen naturally as a result of your decreased training. "There is no need to try to do this, but it's okay to allow it to happen without panicking," she says. (You shouldn't stop working out entirely, of course, but you do have our blessing to trade in your two-a-days for some easy 30-minute holiday workouts.)
Gaining weight the healthy way means enjoying a balanced diet and filling up on protein and complex carbs like sweet potatoes, brown rice, squash and pumpkin, and whole grain breads and cereals, says White. And it's okay to allow yourself a few cheat meals and holiday indulgences, but take Shay's advice: "Moderation is key," she says. "A good guideline is to eat 80 to 90 percent healthy and clean and allow for indulgence 10 to 20 percent of the time."
Too often, White says, athletes do one of two things during their off-seasons: Some try too hard to keep their weight down all year long, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and compromised immunity (not to mention, becoming a real Scrooge at the family party). But more often, he says, they use their break as an excuse to pig out on anything and everything.
Andrew Lemoncello, an Olympic marathon and steeplechase runner, has been that guy. On his all-inclusive honeymoon a few years ago—which came directly on the heels of his marathon season—he packed on 18 pounds.
"I came off that race slightly lighter than usual, about 143 pounds, and my mission was to just eat and drink as much as I could for a week," he says. In hindsight, he says, it was a bit extreme. "The first five or 10 pounds came right off when I got back, but it probably took about a month to lose the rest and get back down to my normal weight."
For non-pros, such a large weight gain would take much longer to lose. That should be your main motivation for keeping things relatively healthy, says Shay. Normally, Lemoncello gains just five to 10 pounds during his off-season, which he says gives him extra energy and incentive when he starts back into his training.
That's the right way to go about it, says White, who recommends fluctuating no more than five to 10 percent of your normal body weight. "Give yourself a buffer of about five pounds," he says. "When you reach that, you want to start reining in the calories and watching the scale a little more carefully."
Chances are, you won't reach that point anyway. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the average weight gain during the holiday period is just one pound. The real problem for most people, experts say, is how those single pounds can add up over the years.
Bottom line: Don't stress about gaining an extra five pounds or so. Especially if you've been at a super-slim competition weight the past few months, the extra weight can help your immune system during cold season by ensuring your body is getting essential vitamins and minerals. Just make sure your holiday diet doesn’t consist entirely of eggnog and rum cake—leave room for healthy foods.