It’s again that time of year where the days are overcast and short while the nights are frigid and seem to begin even earlier than years past. Many people look forward to the winters for the “cuddle weather” (Netflix and chill weather?), while others increase their calorie intake with reckless abandon in the name of “bulking season”. The holidays bring more gatherings of family and friends, which in turn bring plenty of opportunities to binge eat (and drink), and it’s generally not on the healthiest of foods. This could result in feelings of guilt, shame, and certainly bloatedness. Long-term, it could also lead to breaking many good habits you formed over the year, sabotaging your nutrition, and derailing your path to any fitness goals previously set. However, I use this time of year to allow my body to rest and recover while giving my mind a chance to relax and reset all the while enjoying the indulgences of the holidays (without feeling guilty about it), and being more ready than before to take my fitness to the next level come the new year.
Like many hibernating animals in nature, this time of year encourages being less active and resting more. And you know what? That’s ok! Most of your size and strength can be maintained even with a relatively long break from the gym. I wouldn’t say that you should completely let your fitness or nutrition go, but reasonable adjustments can and should be made. Looking at this topic from an ancestral point of view, many nutrition experts believe we should strive to eat with the seasons as different crops become available with the changing weather (much like our pre-supermarket ancestors would have). I would argue that we should adjust our energy output, including our workout routine, to the seasons as well. Naturally, the winter is a time to rest and recover.
I played sports most of my life, have lifted weights regularly for over ten years, and have taken my health very seriously over the last several years. In sports, we trained aggressively throughout the year and increased the intensity as we approached the regular season. This high level of intensity was maintained throughout the season (and hopefully playoffs), but always eventually led to an off-season. The off-season typically consisted of plenty of rest and little to no workouts until the pre-season approached and the cycle started over again. Moreover, many weightlifters cycle their workouts between higher and lower intensity training sessions - some do so at more regular intervals, others less frequently but for longer amounts of time. For athletes and weightlifters alike, this off-season - also known as a deloading phase - is crucial to allow the body time to recover and repair. Many also argue that such a break is not just physiologically necessary, but also psychologically necessary.
Everyone is different and has varying needs for their body, particularly depending on their age, diet, level of fitness, and years of training. What I have found to work well for me is to apply the off-season, or deload, principle to my workout routine between Thanksgiving and New Years. Without going into too much detail, I basically use lower weights and perform less intense workouts. Throughout the rest of the year (aka regular season), I perform many supersets, burnout sets, and high-intensity interval training. These are all very taxing on my joints, connective tissues, and central nervous system; so in the winter I train with the intention of maintaining my size and shape, but not tearing my muscles to grow them or exhausting myself to burn fat. I also spend 75 to 90 minutes in the gym a strict 5 to 6 days per week throughout most of the year. During the deload phase, I strive to get in the gym 3 to 4 days per week, but don’t beat myself up over it if I miss one of those days.
Again, giving myself this break in the gym allows my body time for recovery and repair. I also enjoy the mental break it provides, allowing me to switch up my routine in the gym and try less intense workouts I wouldn’t normally perform. I have also found that if I’ve hit a plateau in my training, this rest period is a great way to break through it in the new year, allowing me to reach even bigger goals with my health, strength, and physique. Most importantly, I get to enjoy the holidays that much more. While visiting the family, a gym may not be conveniently available, and I use my extra time to spend it with them without anxiously thinking about how I missed a workout.
Another aspect of my health regime that I cycle with the seasons is supplement intake. In other words, I allow my body the chance to detox during this time of year as well. For the last several years, I start weaning myself off of supplements and caffeine after Halloween. First, I stop taking any supplement that has any caffeine in it (i.e. green tea fat burner pills, pre-workout) at the beginning of November. By Thanksgiving, I switch from drinking coffee in the morning to tea. After a week of tea (which has less caffeine than my coffee), I then cut that out and go until the New Year with zero caffeine intake (admittedly, it can be quite a challenge which reinforces my resolve to do it).
Furthermore, I also stop taking all other supplements from Thanksgiving to New Years including my multi-vitamin pack, creatine, MCT oil, magnesium, krill oil, turmeric, and other vitamins. I will only eat "whole foods" during this detox period giving my body, mind, and liver a break for at least a month. Not only does this period of time give my body a chance to naturally detoxify (no juice cleanses over here), but the supplements act more effectively when I cycle back on to them one by one starting at the beginning of the new year (especially with caffeine).
Although I am only eating “whole foods” during this time of year, it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t indulge. At Thanksgiving, the food coma I put myself in from the absurd amount of food I eat is ridiculous. I rarely say no to seconds and don’t think twice about a large portion of dessert. Beer and pie? Yes, please! I live in the moment with my family and friends and definitely don’t believe in feeling regret over a couple days of binge eating between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If your goal is to put on some more size, then taking in more calories is actually key. Just don’t completely sabotage all your hard work from before, or make yourself have to work that much harder in the new year. You can loosen the reins on your good habits, but be mindful of it and don't start reinforcing bad habits.
Other than having a couple binge days and being more liberal with the cheat days, I also take this period of time to break from the intermittent fasting. The rest of the year, I have my Bulletproof Coffee first thing in the morning and don’t have my first solid meal until around 1 or 2 PM. With the break from coffee, this makes fasting more difficult and an earlier breakfast a logical solution. There are a lot of benefits that have been shown to come from intermittent fasting, but I also believe you can have too much of a good thing.
Surely after deloading, detoxing, and “bulking” I will have gained a couple pounds and my abs may not be as visible as they were in months prior. However, I will have gained some mass in which I can chisel down to be lean again, but with more size than before. I will also be well rested and fully recovered - physically and mentally. I will have satiated my sweet tooth and fulfilled my desire to consume calories like it’s my job while spending quality time with my family. (Actually, I’m pretty sure my family gets some sort of twisted pleasure out of watching me eat ungodly amounts of food...)
Come January, all systems are go. Restarting my intake of coffee and intermittent fasting protocol will have profound effects on my energy and fat loss. Cycling back onto my supplements will start filling in any cracks from my nutrition. And my level of readiness and motivation with my more intense workouts will be at an all time high, reaching new heights with my strength and physique. With my resolutions locked in, goals set, and routines back in motion, I will be ready to take my fitness and nutrition to the next level.