Beat Christmas weight gain

The season of festive treats and stodgy puds is upon us! Our nutrition expert Nigel Mitchell explains how you can indulge without losing fitness...


You trained hard all season, watched what you ate and reduced your alcohol consumption, so as the long, dark nights draw in your mind and body will no doubt be ready for a much-needed break. After all, this is the time of year that you can relax a bit in both your training and your diet, right?


Well, to a certain extent, yes. From a nutritional perspective though, it’s still important to observe a few basic rules in order to avoid a Santa-esque belly situation come January. Firstly, consider this: If you’re reducing your training load, that means that your overall energy expenditure is lower, meaning you don’t need to eat as much. But in the festive season triathletes can be hit with a double whammy – a reduced expenditure and an increased intake. In short, the quickest route to weight gain. So here are some of the key things to watch as the season of temptation approaches:

Keep it sensible

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to gain a bit of weight in the off-season as this can help the body to fully recover after a physically hard season. But how much is a ‘bit’? It’s probably better to think about things in percentage of body weight and with athletes I use a green, amber, red system. For most people I would say gaining up to 2% is green, 2-5% is amber and anything over 5% is red. So, for a typical 70kg male and 65kg female triathlete, a gain of over 3kg would put you into the red.

ut the excuses

Some people say that you need to eat more in the winter to keep warm. It’s true that shivering burns more calories, but with modern central heating and the layers upon layers of clothing we wear it’s unlikely any of us are truly cold, either at rest or in training. The same goes for the old myth about needing to store extra fat for insulation… unless of course you’re swimming in open water in just a pair of Speedos, when you’ll need the insulation blubber of a seal!

To help manage things this winter, look at acceptable targets from a weight gain point of view. You know your body and how much work you will need to do to get back into race shape. Many triathletes now use the winter season to work on some of their physical areas of weakness, usually in the gym. The nature of triathlon can lead to muscle imbalances, especially around the glutes, lower back and hamstrings, so this is a good time to address those areas.

Winter is a good time to work on your strength in the gym

at healthy fats

So if we accept that gaining some weight this winter is not a bad thing, how can we keep a balance, and what should we cut down on? If the overall work is lower, then cutting down carbohydrates by about one quarter is a good rule of thumb. Really focus on low glycaemic index (GI) foods, include about 20g of lean protein foods at each meal and really target healthy fats, such as those found in chia seeds, flax seeds, fish oils, olive and coconut oil and avocado.

imit alcohol

It’s easy to overindulge at Christmas – especially with alcohol – so keep an eye on how many empty calories this is adding to your diet. As a general rule, spirits mixed with low-calorie mixers are the least calorific option, with around 61 calories per 25ml measure. Compare this to 182 calories in a pint of beer or 159 calories in a small 175ml glass of wine and you can see how the calories easily rack up. You can find more information on this at

Winter deserts made (a bit!) healthier

Here’s how to make festive favourites a better choice for triathletes…

Christmas pud

These are packed with dried fruit and nuts which, although of nutritional value, add a lot of calories. Limit the damage by adding a healthier topping, such as créme fraiche instead of double cream, custard or brandy sauce.

Christmas cake

Again, the amount of dried fruit in this makes it quite high in sugar and calories. Making your own gives you more control over this, so if your family is making one look for a lighter recipe – and, ideally, keep off of the icing and marzipan!

Mince Pies

I have to admit this one has got me beat – unfortunately mince pies are very difficult to make healthy, so limit the number! If you really must though, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose make mini mince pies with just over 100 calories each.

So in conclusion, it’s fine to relax a bit with your diet this winter, but monitor your weight and make a decision about when enough is enough. Use the winter as an opportunity to rebalance the body and refocus the mind. It won’t hurt to have a little of what you fancy this winter, but remember that before too long you will have to rebalance the books!


For more top nutrition tips, head to the nutrition section of our website