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How to keep cycling and keep fit over the holidays

'Tis the season to over-indulge, so how do you stay fit and still have fun? Our simple seasonal guide explains all...

Unless you think you've got a chance of winning a Grand Tour or a Monument Classic in 2022, you really needn't worry yourself too much about letting things slide a bit in December. The winter weather is probably going to be rubbish and after a couple of years like no other, maybe we all need to relax a bit anyway.

Image: Antonio Castagna, licensed under Creative Commons 

Some might be reading this and scoffing at the idea of deviating from their strict, year-round training and nutrition plans. However, us mere mortals need to give greater consideration to family commitments and cycle-life balance.

If you're training like a pro and making the same sacrifices as them, but with a sub-4:30 finish at RideLondon likely to be your best result rather than a WorldTour race win next year, then Christmas might be the time to redress the balance.

That being the case, as a wise person once said: everything in moderation. Leave the bike to gather dust from the start of Advent to the New Year and you'll regret it when you're dropped on the first club run in January.

Have fun, don't beat yourself up about relaxing a bit but ride when you can and say no to the third helping of Christmas pudding, and you should come out the other side of the festive season happy and refreshed but with the minimal loss of fitness.

How to keep fit over Christmas

Part 1: Training

Family commitments, parties, hangovers… there are a whole host of things that can disrupt your training routine at this time of year. So what can you do to make sure that your cycling doesn’t suffer too much?

First up, be adaptable. It’s too easy to take an all-or-nothing approach at this time of the year by just ditching the riding and aiming to make it all up during January.

Do what you can

If you had a 90-minute turbo-trainer session planned but can’t find the time, don’t bin the entire thing off, instead do what you can.

Doing a quick high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session will do more for your overall fitness than you grinding out long, low-intensity miles anyway.

So after a 3 to 5-minute warm up, do 4× 30 seconds of high-intensity spinning with 1 minute of low intensity work between each one.

Then do 4× 40 seconds high intensity, with 1 minute’s low-intensity between each, before ending with 4× 30 seconds with 1 minute’s low intensity in between.

Then finally finish off with a 2-minute warm down. That intense 20-odd minutes will rev your metabolism making sure you’re still burning calories long after you get off the turbo.

Get out early

If you're understandably desperate to get some real riding time in, aim to get outside early. The roads are quieter at this time of day and this is especially true over the holidays when most non-riders will be using a day off to have a lie-in.

Start a session at 07:45, just after dawn typically breaks in Britain at this time of year, and chances are you’ll have the roads exclusively to yourself.

Otherwise, turn your ride into something sociable. Arrange to ride with a buddy – if potential impending restrictions will allow this. Not wanting to let someone down can be a powerful motivator for some people, as can the desire to avoid backing out of a task once it’s been agreed to.

Alternatively, get the family out on a ride with you. After all, you don’t need to turn every ride on the bike into a hardcore training session, and it can be fun to amble along with your partner, the kids or other family members in tow.

Just remember not to take it too seriously, and beware of icy roads on early starts.

Image: Mikael Colville-Andersen, licensed under Creative Commons

Keep it social

As we always advise, when you get on a bike it pays to be considerate to your fellow cyclists whatever their ability. Plan a nice coffee stop in the middle of it too, and you’ll make sure everyone keeps warm and enjoys it.

The result will be a fun day out with people you care about doing something you actually love to do. Clever, huh?

Don't beat yourself up

Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you do miss the odd session. This time of year is called the holiday season for a reason. The bike’s important, but so are friends and family.

And you are allowed the occasional slice of cake. Talking of which…

Part 2: Indulging

There are temptations aplenty this time of year for those of us who are mindful of keeping our weight down and our fitness levels up.

So how do you get the balance right? First, if you’ve got a Christmas party coming up, make sure that you don’t go to it hungry.

The idea that if you avoid eating all day so that the Christmas party meal doesn’t add to your calories is usually a false economy.

If you turn up at a party hungry because you’ve deliberately not eaten, you’ll either over-indulge big time or end up drinking on an empty stomach – a schoolboy error which has been known to result in the drinker waking up in the wrong city!

Stick to normal habits

So stick to your normal eating habits before a party. Also watch out for buffets. They’re sneaky. They tempt you into repeatedly filling your wobbly paper plate, often with rubbish calories like handfuls of fatty crisps, so aim to get a good plateful at the first time of asking and when we say good, we mean good.

Go in for the healthiest things on offer. Think wholefoods (lean meats, vegetable crudités, fruit) and you won’t go far wrong.

Because wholefoods are rich in nutrients as well as calories you won’t find yourself wanting to eat more, whereas sugary snacks – which are full of calories but few nutrients – will tend to leave you hungry.

As well as food, Christmas is also a time when cocktails and bubbly get cracked out, so watch what you drink too.

Water is your friend

We’re not just talking about the quantity you put away but remembering to get the odd glass of water in between alcoholic beverages, too.

Hangovers are – by and large – caused by dehydration and imbalance of electrolytes in your system.

Alcohol is a diuretic. In plain English that means it makes you pee more. So try to get a glass of water in between each glass of booze, and if you can’t manage that remember to drink a big one before you go to bed.

It’ll help stave off the aftershocks the next morning. Drinking enough water is also important for helping to flush toxins and infections from your body.

Increased socialising at a time of year when the cold (and indeed the extra boozing) can affect your immune systems mean an increased chance of catching colds and other viruses.

So staying properly hydrated will help your immune system to keep your body healthy, too.

Of course, Christmas isn’t just about 25th December. It’s about a season, which means that realistically you’re dealing with approximately a month of temptations.

Commit to good days

So rather than just giving in to the idea that you’re going to binge for a month, commit to having good days as well as naughty ones, and on those good days be really good. Dodge the alcohol and eat really, really clean food.

Whereas during the rest of the year a ‘good’ day might mean that 70% of what you snaffle is healthy – with the other 30% made up of the odd beer, bag of crisps or biscuit – over Christmas make sure these good days are entirely virtuous.

That way, days where you’re taking in extra calories (and probably getting stored as fat) will be balanced out by the good days.

One of the upsides of this is that when you do have a day of over-indulgence you can do it completely without guilt and enjoy it, because you know you’ve balanced it out with ways days of clean living.

Part 3: Planning

Finally, as with all things in life it pays to plan and getting it right over Christmas is no exception. So get your diary out and start filling in the days when you know riding and clean living are going to be out.

This will mean scrubbing out Christmas Day, for example, and probably Boxing Day, but also noting down when the office party is or that evening when you know you and your mates are going out for a blow out.

Now look at the days in between and start committing to days when you will ride, get a turbo session in and/or go dry and eat clean.

Don’t think of these days as periods when you’ll be missing out, instead turn that thinking on its head and label it as ‘me time’ that can’t be cancelled any more easily than you pulling out of a family dinner, say, or work’s knees-up.

Strike a balance

Ultimately, the trick with getting it right over Christmas is to strike a balance at a time of year when things are more weighted in favour of over-indulgence.

The idea isn’t that you should miss out on the fun, but to make sure the fun doesn’t damage – in a very short space of time – all that hard work you’ve put in during the rest of the year.

So enjoy yourself, just do it the smart way, eh?