Working toward a goal and fueling for it — that’s the athlete way. But let’s cut to the chase. Nobody, not even the most elite athlete, is immune to the lure of junk food. It’s sweet, savory, and satisfying. Even if you’re disciplined enough to live by your meal plan all season, once the season ends, it’s all too easy to gravitate toward the not-so-healthy foods you crave.

As delicious as it sounds, working hard during the season isn’t a free pass to load up on pizza bagels or frequent the drive-thru — not if you want to perform your best next year. “Don’t get me wrong,” says EXOS performance dietitian Denise Alvey. “Athletes deserve a break and can incorporate a little more of the not-so-good choices within reason.” But the mentality that your meal plan is suddenly less important comes with risks.

Offseason is a time to recover from the intense demands of the season. “If an athlete chooses to ditch consuming nutrient-dense foods during the offseason, they’re potentially causing inflammation which can put them at risk for injury as well as decrease their energy levels,” explains Alvey.

That said, you probably clicked on this article for a reason, and it’s not because you were busy eating kale all offseason. The good news is hope isn’t lost. There are a few simple fueling habits you can begin to follow as you get back to your training. Bob Calvin, director of performance nutrition at EXOS, advises not to overthink it. “Take it one step at a time. You’re in search of an upgrade, not perfection,” he says.

Step 1: Calculate your H20 needs.
“Hydration is a good place to start,” says Calvin. Aim for a half ounce of water per pound of body weight daily. Then, focusing on recovery nutrition strategies will be crucial. “Always rebuild with protein, refuel with a source of carbohydrates, and rehydrate as soon as possible after a workout,” he says. You can rely on good ol’ fashioned chocolate milk or a simple protein smoothie with grass-fed whey protein, one to two bananas, water, and ice.

Step 2: Take it one meal at a time.
Start to plan and prep simple breakfasts each night before you go to bed. Think oatmeal with walnuts or berries, a whole-grain bagel with peanut butter and banana, or a breakfast sandwich with eggs, veggies, and cheese on a whole-grain English muffin.

Take it one meal at a time rather than suddenly expecting everything that hits your plate to be dietitian-approved. You want to avoid overwhelming yourself. Once you’ve nailed a good breakfast routine, ease into more meal planning. “Simply prepare one more meal at home than you are currently,” advises Calvin.

Step 3: Assess how you feel along the way.
While everybody is different, you should start to feel better after a few days and notice more significant changes in three to four weeks. “It helps to write things down,” says Calvin. “A great exercise is to self-evaluate your soreness, sleep, and mood each morning to help you get in touch with your body and connect your nutrition habits with results.”

Think of breakfast as an opportunity to start your day right, and assess how you feel after sugar-loaded meals versus meals that include foods like yogurt, oatmeal, fruit, or eggs.

Take it one meal at a time rather than suddenly expecting everything that hits your plate to be dietitian-approved.

Step 4: Give yourself a break.
We can be pretty diligent creatures, and still, we’re not perfect. There’s no need to beat yourself up over cheat days. In fact, they can work to your advantage. Yes, that’s right. It’s better to follow your nutrition plan 80 percent of the time for the long haul than to follow it 100 percent of the time short term. Cheat days help you find balance.

“Being too restrictive may result in throwing your plan completely out the window,” says Alvey. Calvin agrees, saying that if you deprived yourself of some of your favorite foods last season, it might have played a role in your need to overindulge once it ended. On the other hand, let’s not overlook the other extreme that being too focused on eating clean can also lead to malnourishment. “You don’t want to trigger any disordered eating,” explains Alvey.

Plan your cheat days to come before a day or two of light workout or rest days. “I encourage athletes to hydrate well and be mindful of how much of a cheat they’re diving into,” says Alvey. Stick to cheat snacks or just one meal instead of going off track for the whole day.

Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated. Seek out simple dishes that deliver a balance of protein, carbs, and fruits and vegetables.
Keeping a journal of how you feel every day helps you connect your eating habits to results (or lack thereof).
It’s good to treat yourself if you want to stick with your meal plan long term. Just make sure you do it strategically. Plan ahead and set limits.

Stick to cheat snacks or just one meal instead of going off track for the whole day.

Step 5: Start preparing for the next offseason.
While you can’t change the past, you can learn from it. Once the season ends, prepare to alter your nutrition plan to support your activity levels. You may only intend to reduce your training a little, or maybe you’re slowing down dramatically. If so, you’ll probably want to reduce your carbohydrate intake. Either way, it’s beneficial to consult with a dietitian about the smartest nutrition avenue for you. And don’t underestimate activity outside of your sport. What do you need to fuel for in your personal life even though you may dial back your training?

If you can maintain an 80/20 split of healthy, nutrient-dense foods with the not-so-healthy foods, you’re in good shape. “This gives some wiggle room but still provides the nutrients needed to recover and perform well,” explains Alvey. Keep in mind, the more you stray from 80/20, the harder it may be to jump straight back into intense training. To help you stay committed, spend time reflecting.

It’s always easier to stick to your nutrition plan when you’re working toward a goal. Whether it be a team championship or personal record, qualifying for the Olympics or making the roster for your high school team, it’s motivating. You want something, you fuel for it. It’s simple. Just remember that offseason is just as much a part of that journey, and, hopefully, you’ll be more motivated to keep your nutrition game strong.

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