Five Tips for Limiting Holiday Weight Gain

Use these tips to balance holiday enjoyment with your needs as an athlete
Staff Writer

Matt Fitzgerald—It’s often said that the average person gains five pounds during the six-week period from Thanksgiving week to New Year’s Day. Actually, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the average person gains only one pound over the holidays—but never loses it. So, for the typical American, 20 years of turkey dinners, office holiday parties, and New Year’s Eve toasts add up to 20 pounds of lard around the middle. You don’t want that!

RELATED: The Dos and Don’ts of Holiday Eating

The holiday season coincides with the off-season for most runners. Training is typically reduced at this time, which further increases the likelihood of weight gain. In fact, for the runner who enters the holiday/off-season at a very high level of fitness, a certain amount of weight gain is unavoidable. But what you want to avoid is the common problem of gaining entirely too much body fat at this time of year, which will sabotage your efforts to take your racing performance to a new level next year.

The five tips on the following pages will help you avoid excessive weight gain this holiday/off-season.

1. Set a weight-gain limit

You will probably gain less body fat during the off-season if you replace your vague intention to stay trim with a definite goal—specifically, a maximum weight limit. Use the “8 percent rule” to calculate your limit. Every runner has an optimal racing weight, and most runners have a good idea what that weight is. The 8 percent rule dictates that you should avoid gaining more than 8 percent of your ideal racing weight during the off-season.

For example, suppose your racing weight is 133 pounds. Eight percent of 133 is about 10 pounds. So in this case you’ll want set a goal not to exceed 143 pounds. Once your weight limit is established, weigh yourself once a week to track any movement toward it and make changes as necessary (e.g., lay off the eggnog) if you find yourself getting too close, too quickly.

Note that if you are already above your optimal racing weight at the start of the off-season, you still must limit your weight gain to 8 percent above your optimal racing weight, not your current weight. Not sure what your optimal racing weight is? Refer to my book, Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance, for help in determining it.

2. Gain muscle instead of fat

The off-season is a good time to focus on strength training. Functional strength is important for running performance, but for most runners the development of functional strength necessarily takes a back seat to race-focused endurance training during periods of peak training. When the off-season arrives, you can take advantage of the time freed up by your de-emphasis of endurance training to increase your commitment to functional strength development and create a reserve of strength that will carry you through the next competitive season. A side benefit of this tactic is that it will add muscle mass to your body and thereby reduce off-season fat accumulation.

Gaining muscle mass reduces fat accumulation in a couple of ways. Building muscle requires calories, and as more of your food calories are channeled into making muscle, fewer are left over to be channeled into your fat stores. Also, a lot of energy is required to maintain muscle tissue once it’s been created. It takes 30 to 50 calories a day to maintain a pound of muscle, compared to only two calories per day for a pound of fat. So if you gain two pounds of muscle during the off-season, there will be 60 to 100 fewer food calories available for storage as body fat.

3. Be consistent

The thing that really throws runners off-track during the off-season is reducing their exercise frequency—going from working out every day to working out just a few times per week. It’s okay to take a week or two off of training after a peak race for physical and mental regeneration, but after that you should return to daily exercise. Returning to daily exercise need not equal returning to progressive, race-focused training. If you have time before you need to begin your next formal training cycle, and you still need a break from hard training, you can train lightly or in non-sport-specific ways with a focus on fun, but you need to do something at least six days a week or you’re likely to experience a damaging off-season weight gain.

4. Keep counting

It is not necessary to count calories all the time. Rather, it is sufficient to do so periodically as a way of auditing your diet and training. At times when your diet and training are consistent, one quick audit will cover you until your diet or training changes. But when either of these factors does change, it’s a good idea to perform another audit to quantify the change and keep it within acceptable parameters.

If you are like most runners, your training does change as you move into the off-season, and it’s not unlikely that your eating habits change too, so be sure to calculate your total daily calories consumed and burned early in each off-season and perhaps also periodically throughout it. This measure will help keep you from relaxing too much! Also, research has demonstrated that the very act of recording your eating heightens your awareness and steers you away from the worst excesses.

Again, you can refer to Racing Weight for simple guidelines on calculating “calories in” and “calories out”.

5. Shift from carbohydrate to protein

Unlike fat and protein, which are used structurally in the body, carbohydrate is strictly an energy source, and it is the main energy source for high-intensity muscle work. Therefore the amount of carbohydrate in your diet should vary with your training workload. During peak training you may need anywhere from 7 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily, depending on your size and exactly how much you’re training. But during the off-season you need less—as little as 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight.

In addition to reducing your carbohydrate intake, you may wish to increase your protein intake during the off-season. Doing so will help you avoid gaining fat despite your reduced activity level. Eating a high-protein diet reduces appetite, eating, and fat storage, thereby promoting weight loss in those who maintain or increase their exercise level and limiting weight gain in those who have reduced their exercise level. Calorie for calorie, gram for gram, protein provides more satiety (e.g., appetite satisfaction) than carbohydrate or fat, so when you switch to a high-protein diet, you feel fuller and eat less.


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at



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