Mindfully Navigating the Holidays

The late fall and winter can be a challenge for anyone when it comes to maintaining healthy habits.  We are often confronted with experience after experience which tempts us with more alcohol or foods/treats than we would normally see in weeks or heck, months!  This is especially true for the health-conscious endurance athlete.

It would be easy to lay down a bunch of simple points that may or may not have any evidence but which you could apply to keep lean and well through the holidays. For example:

  • Drink water prior to going to your office and family holiday parties so you are less hungry upon arriving and thus less easily tempted with treats. 
  • Sip seltzer with juice at parties so folks assume you are having alcohol, and are less likely to get you a drink or offer you one. 
  • Park yourself by the veggie tray so the cheese and crackers stay on their own platter.  I could go on and on here. 

While I’ve heard all of these used, and I’m certain I’ve used them at some points with athletes over the past 20 years, it has become very clear that… They are at best, temporary… And at worst, absolutely fail to help you get through the holiday’s any healthier than you started, or any more prepared for the rest of life than you came into this 4-6 week period of revelry!

There are a lot of levels to consider when we look at what drives us to eat/drink to excess this time of year.  The happiness that comes from fond memories associated with big meals and family/friends.  Reduced inhibitions from excessive alcohol intake.  And less often considered, but certainly a big factor, reduced inhibitions, and a desire to cope, as a result of extra life stress in the form of end of year deadlines, holiday shopping, less time for everything we may want or need to accomplish and even increasingly cold and dark conditions!  It’s our ability to handle these sorts of things, which will guide us  through the holidays, and let us come out the other side happy, fit, and well.

So, what is the most important thing to help you get through the holiday season lean and healthy?  What is this “trick” or “secret” that can be applied through out the year, and not just related to your diet?

It’s not a secret at all, it’s a process.  Mindfulness.

For some athletes, when I mention this, they assume I’m suggesting they go chant on a misty mountain to avoid one more holiday cookie or that extra pint of ale.  I’m not.  Mindfulness is really about being aware and curious of your experiences, and moving towards them with interest. 

Judson Brewer MD, PhD, has a great, and simple description for how to build greater mindfulness, which I’ve found extremely helpful for athletes I coach over the last several years.  Much simpler than approaches I used in the past!

Acknowledge what’s happening without applying a grade to it.  Your experience is just that, an experience – don’t put a value on it, just be aware of what’s occurring.

Get curious about it.  What’s happening and what are some options here?

Let go.  You are aware of what is happening, you came up with a plan based on that experience.  Try it.  Don’t focus on it over and over and over.  Don’t ponder if you made the right choice.  Just enjoy expanding into your experience and moving forward.

Repeat this process – to me, this is almost like a computer scan.  It’s in the background, you’re not really focused on it, but when a difference is noted it pops onto your screen, you acknowledge it and repeat.

How can this help you stay away from a second or third helping of Pumpkin Pie?  By letting you experience it, learn, and move on.

For example, as you reach for the second serving: “That was so good, I really enjoyed it.  Why am I reaching for more?  I feel full.  It’s not going to taste better the second time.  Lets leave it there.”  Now you move on, and continue your evening.

Here’s the catch with this approach.  You may still end up eating some pie or having a drink.  So are you going to blow through the holidays, coming out 5 pounds lighter and ripped?  No.  But are you going to come out of the holidays very close to the weight you went into them, and having built tools that help you make the best dietary choices you can for life?  YES!

And that, is a huge value!

You get to experience life, you get to improve your ability to handle challenging situations – since mindfulness translates to everything you do and experience – and you get to stay lean, healthy and well through the holidays.

When you toe the start line at your next race, you will be grateful that you have developed this skill!

This article was written by USA Cycling Certified Coach Will Kiriousis. Will has been coaching endurance athletes since the late 90’s. He started via his current company, Tri-Hard, in 1999. He has written for or been interviewed by magazines such as Trail Runner, Triathlete, Runners World, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal among others. He lives in Leominster, MA where he can be found riding the local trails. Find Will on social @willkirousuis or will@tri-hard.com