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Christmas dinner of champions – what do elite athletes eat?

Christmas is a time for many to have a break from work, relax with the family and indulge in good food and drink. For elite athletes there are decisions to make. How much should I be training and what should I be eating and drinking?

Training usually takes care of itself. Some factor a rest day or take it slightly easier whilst many will carry on as normal. Daley Thompson once infamously said that he trained twice on Christmas day as that gave him a two day advantage over his competitors who weren’t training.

For athletes competing in a busy festive programme of sport or those with high aspirations for the Commonwealth Games in April and beyond, Christmas can be a tempting nutritional period to try and get through. Sweets and chocolates seem to appear everywhere and regular snacking and feelings of fullness can be common place. The key for athletes is to maintain a degree of moderation. Those with support from a team nutritionist will be well advised but it still takes a certain amount of will power to pass on the box of chocolates.

Like any training day, nutrition after exercise is important particularly if competition is around the corner. At Christmas time, after training can be a great opportunity to take on board some of the treats that are in abundance. Exercise depletes muscle glycogen stores and research has shown that replenishment of these stores is greater in the few hours after training, especially if the foods are high on the glycaemic index.

What about the main Christmas dinner? How healthy is it? A Christmas dinner, maybe with a few seasonal extras thrown in, can be a really balanced meal, ideal for further recovery after a morning training session, or if it is a double training day, can be tailored to provide fuel for later on.

For most dinners, turkey is often the main meat and a great source of protein. A few slices of this will help provide the 20-25g of protein recommended per serving to meet suggested protein requirements. Pigs in Blankets are almost a requirement at Christmas. Whilst it may be advised to avoid this sort of meat for most of the year, a few on Christmas day won’t hurt, but athletes should make sure the meat is good quality.

A Christmas dinner provides an excellent chance to stock up on healthy vegetables. How many other meals throughout the year have that many vegetable options, especially Brussels sprouts! Vegetables provide a great opportunity to fill up without containing the density of calories that other foods have.  A good tip that athletes are often told is to eat a rainbow of colours, that way there is an excellent variety of key vitamins and minerals.

Carbohydrates are typically the main source of energy when it comes to fuelling for training and competition. At Christmas, carbohydrates can be plentiful so it is important for athletes to match up the amount with the demands of training. It can be a good idea to swap in foods that have a lower glycaemic index and reduce the rise in blood glucose and insulin. An example of this would be eating sweet potatoes rather than normal potatoes.

Graphic explaining the components of a Christmas dinner

The key for elite athletes is not to over indulge. Whilst one day will not have too much of an effect, regular over consumption of calories above energy expenditure during the festive period will likely result in body mass gain. For most sports this is not usually a good thing and may affect performance.

Extra calories are likely to come from the increased snacking and plentiful meals. A study recently conducted showed that a handful of berries instead of a confectionary snack reduced energy intake in subsequent meals. This could be handy strategy to reduce overall calorie consumption. If berries are swapped for nuts then there is also a good source of protein.

Ultimately Christmas is one day and the chance to unwind and eat a few extras, spend time with family and relax may be a lot more beneficial in the long run than being extremely regimented with diet and exercise. What works for one athlete though is likely to be different for another and each will approach the festive period in the most appropriate way to achieve their goals.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 17/175

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