The Vegan Athlete’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays (And Still Having Fun)

Christmas lights on dark background close upAh, holiday season.

A time for family, friends, and cornucopias. Big meals, red wine, and Home Alone on repeat. Presents, football, and … you get the picture.

The holiday season is a joyful time for most people, but for the plant-based athlete, it can also be full of temptations and anxiety. The healthy eating and fitness habits we work so hard to maintain throughout the year suddenly go down for a long winter’s nap.

Not to mention the stress of having to explain to Uncle Bill where you get your protein. Sheesh Uncle Bill, how many times do I have to tell you? From plants!

Not to worry, No Meat Athlete is here with a complete guide to not only surviving the holiday season, but keeping your healthy habits intact and having fun in the process.

Why Most People Fail During the Holidays

There’s no law of holidays that says we need to overeat, skip runs, or stop being vegan, so why are holidays such a struggle?

Here’s my theory: We give up.

We either (1) feel like we deserve a break or treat and don’t even try, or (2) lose faith in ourselves and fall victim to temptation and peer pressure.

We think it’s all or nothing, and because the holidays are a time when we depart from our typical routines, we give up on ourselves and the work we’ve done throughout the year.

That sounds a little defeatist, I know, so let’s move on to the good news …

There’s a middle ground. A way to keep your habits in tact and still have a good time, and it all comes back to what I like to call, “The Four Fs of Surviving the Holidays.”

No, not that kind of Fs.

The Four Fs of Surviving the Holidays

The Four Fs are designed to be approachable. They allow for a little leeway without dismissing your healthy habits, and provide a simple structure for handling the temptations of each holiday.

Let’s start with food:

1. Food indulgence in moderation.

Modern day Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve all encourage indulging in the good stuff — stuffing your face with too much Tofurkey or throwing back a few too many Christmas ales at night. And you know what, who am I to tell you not to let loose and treat yourself?

I love a plate full of comfort food just as much as the next guy.

But there’s a happy medium between depriving yourself and over doing it — it’s called indulging in moderation.

Indulge, but do it in moderation. Here’s what I mean:

We all know it’s hard to resist going back for seconds during holiday dinners, so go ahead and embrace your desire for more. Only instead of loading up the first plate, keep it on the smaller side or primarily full of healthy salads.

Then if you’re still hungry, there’s no guilt when going back for more, and you can make it through two helpings without over-stuffing your belly.

You can also indulge in moderation with alcohol. I love a good seasonal ale around the holidays, but instead of drinking anything and everything around, I try to be selective. I’ll hunt down a new beer I’ve wanted to test, or a limited edition I can’t get year-round, and stick to that throughout the night. I’m replacing quantity with a quality that gets me just as excited.

Eliminating an indulgence completely (especially around the holidays) only works temporarily. You get frustrated or overcome with desire and that’s that. By indulging in moderation you fulfill the need to treat yourself without going overboard.

2. Fitness on the schedule.

I’m a firm believer that we should take an extended break from running and exercise at least once per year (even ultrarunner Scott Jurek takes four to six weeks to hibernate at the end of each season).

Time away from your regular training or workout routine gives the body a chance to rest, restore, and relax, and your mind a chance to remember why you love running (or yoga, weight lifting, cycling, etc.) in the first place. We need breaks to avoid burnout and breakdown.

Since you’re already with family and friends, traveling, and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, stuck with winter weather, the holidays are a natural time to take them.

But here’s the thing: For most of us, dropping the training schedule is a first step in the downward spiral to sitting on the couch eating junk food. We need something to keep one foot in and one foot out.

That’s where planning ahead comes in. Go ahead and push the training plan aside, but keep certain big, exciting fitness days on the schedule:

  • A planned long run on your home trails while visiting your parents
  • A hike or ride with family
  • A holiday 5K with your siblings
  • A pick-up football or ultimate Frisbee game before the big Thanksgiving dinner
  • A post-Christmas yoga or spin class

The scheduled activity doesn’t need to be directly related to your typical fitness routine, as long as it raises your heart rate, makes you sweat, and brings you joy. Just knowing that you have a healthy activity on the schedule will impact your decisions and keep you connected to other fitness goals after the break.

3. Family step aways. 

Family … one of the best and worst parts about the holidays.

By now most families have come to realize that politics and religion are off-limit topics around holiday dinner tables, but somehow diet never seems to make that list.

Thankfully, I’m pretty lucky in that I can get through most family meals without someone giving me a hard time about what I eat (or don’t eat), but I know not everyone is as fortunate.

While Matt and I recommend a few strategies for dealing with the unrelenting uncle or friend — laughing along with them, poking fun of yourself too, etc. — it can still get old and lonely. And the more we’re around non-vegan friendly meals or family that don’t get it, the more likely we are to break a diet.

So what do I do when in this situation? I step away. I head out for an hour run or read a book in bed. I take time to myself away from family, friends, and temptations to breathe and regroup.

I find it amazing how quickly someone can psych us out, and how powerful a little alone time is for psyching ourselves back up.

4. Fun first.

And finally, the fourth and most important F for surviving the holidays is that fun should always come first.

It’s the holidays, and if that doesn’t make you want to act like a kid I don’t know what will.

So let loose.

Stay up too late playing games with your siblings, and sleep in the next day. Scream at the TV when your team scores a touchdown, and sneak a late night snack after everyone has gone to bed.

You can maintain your anchor habit — the single most important habit you do every single day — and still allow for freedom and flexibility away from other habits or routines to have fun.

Don’t do be afraid to enjoy yourself during the holidays or you’ll come to resent the positive habits you’re hanging onto.

Let the Holidays Replenish You, Not Break You

I’ve called this a survival guide, but if done right, the holidays are your time to not just survive but reset and replenish. You can indulge in foods you might not otherwise, step back from a regular workout routine, spend time with family and yourself, and have a blast doing it.

All without dismissing the hard work and habits you’ve built throughout the year.

The best part? It’s a holiday gift you don’t even have to ask Santa for.

About the Author: Doug is an ultrarunner, coach, and the co-host of NMA Radio. Pick up his free eBook, Why Every Runner Should Be a Trail Runner (And How to Become One), or learn more about advancing your running through the Next Level Runner program.

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  1. Lori Stevens says:

    Thanksgiving is coming. Time to play the whiskey game inspired by your podcast last year. I think I had a huge pot of whiskey. It had cinnamon, cloves and orange slices in it. This year we will take one shot each time a relative says the word protein. Two shots if they manage to throw in a bacon joke, because those bacon people don’t care what holiday it is.

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