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Why you don’t need to burn off holiday treats

Running to burn off calories may lead to burnout

It’s the week between Christmas and the new year when treats and leftovers are everywhere. Yet everywhere we turn, it seems, there are new ways to cancel out what was consumed over the holidays. Whether you’re training for your next race, exploring new trails with friends, or making time for rest this season–remember that running is a celebration for what your body can do, not a punishment for eating treats. Burning off treats (or trying to) is unnecessary, and may be unhealthy in the long run. Run to burn is a recipe for burnout. Here are some friendly fuelling reminders for trail and road runners alike:   

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1. Food is fuel

Food is fuel, and not something to be shamed. As trail runners, we know this. We know what it feels like to run for hours when we neglected to fuel properly beforehand. We also know how it feels when we are hours into a trail adventure and did not pack enough calories. And we know that it is almost impossible to train hard the following day when we don’t recover. In order to fuel, train, and recover successfully, we need to put gas in the tank. Consider the holidays an opportunity to fuel and replenish the calories your body needs. 

2. Being hard on yourself will not make you a better trail runner

As runners, we can be hard on ourselves. Having negative thoughts toward certain types of foods will not help us develop positive self-talk, which benefit our performance. Running is a privilege, not a punishment for eating or not eating certain types of food. There is no shame in indulging once in a while, especially over the holidays. Life is short. If running makes you happy, great. If eating extra treats during the holidays is your thing too, that is awesome. 

3. Treats are like gels


The carbohydrate content in many of our holiday treats is not far off what is inside the fancy packaged fuel you take on the trail. One gel has 100 to 120 calories with 33 to 40 g of carbohydrates made from maltodextrin, fructose, and sodium. Maltodextrin and fructose can overload the small intestine. For some runners, gels are tough on the gut as the body tries to dilute the concentration of carbohydrates. These runners may want to consider a homemade shortbread cookie, which can have 135 calories with 16 g of carbs and 53 mg of sodium. This holiday season, skip the maltodextrin and fructose.

Holiday parties can be equivalent to pre-adventure dinners, aid stations, and recovery lunches. And just as you forgive yourself for eating the wrong foods at an aid station during a race, you can also be kind to yourself if you overindulge during the holidays.

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4. You need the calories

Humans need calories to survive (even living a sedentary lifestyle). Runners need calories to keep doing what they love. If you want to run and run well, you need calories. For many runners, additional calories sometimes can help them run faster over time. If you want to run fast for many years, you better be eating enough. As athletes, that cookie (or two) can help us in the long run. Just be mindful and avoid refined sugar throughout the year.

According to Dr. Stacy Sims, author of Roar: how to match your food and fitness to your female physiology for optimal performance, a low-carbohydrate diet compromises the ability for your body to maintain high intensity or prolonged periods of exercise. It also puts your body under exorbitant amounts of stress. The holidays are stressful enough–eat the cookie.

5. The alternative isn’t better

The alternative of not eating enough can be the bigger problem. We ought to be concerned about adequate caloric intake, versus labeling of foods and buying into the idea that we need to run off our fuel. Our bodies need fuel, and the mindset of burning it off can be counterproductive for the avid runner. 

Limiting calories is not only unsustainable for athletes, it is dangerous mentally and physically. Labeling food as good, bad, or something to run off can trigger disordered thoughts about food.  A 2014 89K Comrades Marathon study supported that a third of female racers had disordered eating thoughts and behaviours. Although this is not a female-specific issue, it is important to note the link between endurance running and the prevalence of disordered eating.

Holiday treats aren’t bad, but limiting calories can be. Once body weight drops too quickly for an athlete, it can increase stress and the likelihood for injury. Avoiding the cookie during the holidays (and onward) can also jeopardize your performance.

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If you did overindulge over the holidays, here is what you can do:

Thank your body for telling you that it was hungry. Food is fuel, and trail runners, like all runners, need to eat. Eat to run, versus run to eat. Run because you love it, not to burn off delicious goodness. For the sake of your running, preventing injury, and enjoying the holidays with limited stress, eat the cookie. No resolution required.