There's a pretty infamous story in athletic circles about Seb Coe going training on Christmas Day in 1979. That winter was particularly harsh in the U.K. but, despite the nasty weather, he got up and did a hard 12-mile run early in the morning before sitting down to enjoy the Coe family’s turkey dinner.
In the afternoon Seb sat around relaxing with the family but, after a while, he noticed he was beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Eventually he realised that the source of his growing discontent was not the amount of sprouts he’d eaten, but the fact he was pretty sure his rival Steve Ovett was out doing his second run of the day whilst he was just slobbing out on the sofa!
So, he got kitted up again and went and did some hill reps in the ice and snow to make sure he wasn't being outdone by his nemesis.
Many years later, Seb and Steve met for dinner and Coe told Ovett about what he’d done all those Christmases a go. Steve was highly amused and quipped back ‘Did you only go out twice that day?!’ (For the full story, see this Daily Telegraph article from 2009).
A good example?
The Coe vs Christmas Ghost of Ovett tale is often used to exemplify the kind of grit and work ethic athletes need to succeed at a high level. You don’t have to look too far for other examples.
Daly Thompson is quoted as having said “I train twice on Christmas Day because I know the others aren't training at all, so it gives me two extra days” and, more recently, Mo Farah was reported as having spouted an almost identical soundbite in an interview with the Radio Times.
Whilst we all know that elite athletes do have to make sacrifices and train, well, really bloody hard, the problem with these kind of stories is that, if taken at face value, they seem to imply that there is something especially important or beneficial about training hard on Christmas Day specifically.
They make it seem like you somehow get extra credit for whatever you do on December 25th when, in actual fact, when you look at it rationally it's no different to any other day of the year. It also implies that you’ll get a leg up on rivals by simply ‘doing more work’ than them and proving to someone (though I'm not exactly sure who) that you're more dedicated or committed. All of this is pretty much a load of rubbish.
What's way more important than deserting your family and friends for hours on Christmas Day - just to convince yourself that you’ve got the discipline to put the work in - is making a lot of smaller, more regular and less flashy sacrifices on a day to day basis. It's dedication shown over the other 364 days of the year that'll help inch you towards your goals.
That's also probably a lot harder as it requires consistent effort over a long period of time, rather than a grandiose statement on a single day. Improvement in sport is almost all about the aggregation of small incremental gains over a very long period of time. Whether Christmas Day ends up being one of the days when you train loads, a little or even not at all is really not going to matter one bit when you zoom out and see the bigger picture.
So, will I be out training on Christmas Day?
Despite everything I've said above, I would never say that I disagree completely with the idea of going training on Christmas Day. Far from it in fact and I’d be a real hypocrite if I did...
A quick check back in my training diaries shows that I’ve done a little bit of running, cycling or kayaking on Christmas morning almost every year for the last 20 years or so!
The point I’m trying to make here is that, if you enjoy training (as most athletes do), then doing some kind of workout on Christmas Day is probably a good idea, assuming you wake up and feel like doing it.
It's what a lot of us would choose to do with our free time on any other day after all. I know that, if I go for a decent run in the morning, I’ll be in a better mood and enjoy all the food, drinks and opportunity to sit around with the family later in the day even more, so its a 'no-brainer' for everyone involved really.
It’s only illness or injury that would likely stop me from heading outside to do some kind of exercise once Santa's been and gone.
If you're going to train on Christmas Day, I do think it’s important not to try to prove anything to anyone (least of all yourself) by forcing out some incredibly hard or long sessions in the deluded expectation you’ll get some kind of enhanced returns on that effort just because you’re making "a great sacrifice" to do it on December 25th.
You’re probably far better off going out for a quick jog, spin or splash and then getting stuck into a little bit of the inevitable over-indulgence. Enjoy some quality time with the people close to you. After all, there are 364 other days in which to fit in those more brutal workouts.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. And, if your in-laws really are that bad then maybe what you actually need is a six-hour hilly bike ride…
Happy holidays from everyone here at Team PF&H!