How to stay fit while travelling

Stay fit while travelling - Deadlifts

“I was on a pretty good routine before… but then went on a trip and it all went out the window.”

– Everyone (including me)

It’s incredibly hard to stay fit while travelling. There’s so much good food out there. Our local gym isn’t right around the corner. Or if it’s in a hotel, it doesn’t have the same gear and classes we’re used to using. Our routines go out the window because of all the activities. We might not have gear.

And who is seriously going to look up a gym while they’re out there in the great beyond?

We are. That’s who.

For crying out loud, can’t you relax?

Sure, we can. But we relax better if we’re taking care of ourselves. And we have a year (or more!) ahead of ourselves so have to REALLY take care of ourselves to make sure we get through it sanely.

There are four things that deteriorate when we don’t take care of them. We don’t want to deteriorate in any!

  1. Cardiovascular fitness. This is the ability of your body to maintain a sustained heart rate. It drops like a rock when you stop training it. You’ll sprint slower, do fewer burpees per minute, be able to jump rope for less time. This is why we feel terrible going to the gym after a short vacation. So if nothing else, work on this. Cardio itself is split into two sub-components, sprint (let’s say <10 mins) and endurance cardio (>10 mins). It’s good to work out both.
  2. Flexibility. We tend to get lazy with stretching even at home, even though it’s easy to do. Increasing flexibility is hard, but maintaining it takes daily discipline too.
  3. Strength. This actually decreases the slowest. If you have a solid squat or deadlift one month, if you stay active, chances are you may not decrease by much (or anything!) a month later. 
  4. Muscle definition. You get flabbier when you travel. With the number of photos we take, we just can’t take that chance. Sorry, vanity wins here!

The general recipe

Here’s what we do. It’s a fairly simple regime. It’s also constantly a work in progress, so forgive us if this changes over time!

First, take care of your diet.

Stay fit while travelling by not eating hamburgers.
Yes. But No. A Gua Bao, a Taiwanese hamburger. Delicious, but for cheat day only.

We have different approaches to diet.

Jo generally watches what she eats, indulging occasionally, but not excessively. It’s meat and vegetable-forward, with bread and desserts in moderation, and minimal (but some) amounts of things like pasta, white rice and other starchy carbs.

Dana is constantly experimenting. Currently he’s pursuing the Four Hour Body diet (prescribed by Tim Ferriss in the book of the same title), which consists of vegetables, protein and legumes, and with zero carbs – no sugar, no potatoes (not even sweet potatoes), no pasta, no bread, not even fruit, BUT with one cheat day a week on which he can eat what he wants (in moderation). Prior to this he was a ‘flexible paleo’, a regime not strict enough to keep him happy so this is where he is.

The most important thing: eat consciously. Calories are important, but quality of food and types of calories are second. A lot of research has shown that prioritizing vegetables, meat and legumes over fast carbs increases your body’s ability to burn fat.

Focus harder on eating vegetables. Wherever we travel, we make sure there’s a fridge and that it has some local vegetables in it. If we order food, we make sure it comes with side dishes of vegetables. It’s really easy to forget this when travelling. Meals tend to prioritize delicious carbs like bread and pasta, and then meat, and there are always many variants of sweet treats and breads to tantalize the traveller. You have to go a little out of your way to eat vegetables. In many cheaper restaurants, there are extremely limited vegetable options – you’d be lucky if it was a salad (usually pretty heavy on the lettuce).

Focus on high quality carbs. If we are going to eat carbs, it’s important to not just spend our time eating refined carbs like those in very soft breads, cakes and sweet treats. If we’re going to eat a food with high caloric density, it should be something like rice or a dense European bread. We should never drink our carbs if we can avoid it. OK, there are exceptions here, but the important thing is we remain conscious of them.

Eliminate snacking. This has been one of the easiest things for us, in large part because we left San Francisco, a snacking paradise in the well-equipped workplaces, and secondly because we don’t stock a pantry with anything.  

Make sure we drink water. This is that easy, low-hanging fruit that seems to elude even the best of us. It’s a commonly held fallacy that you need to drink a gallon of water a day, and also a fallacy that there is a correlation between water and weight loss. The best reason anyone can come up with, though, is that if you drink water, you’re less likely to want to drink or eat anything else (that necessarily has more energy in it) just because you’re thirsty. So satiate your thirst first, then eat.

Second, exercise at least a little

We have three modes of training: Maintenance/aesthetics, fitness and aggressive development.

Maintenance/aesthetics – keep looking good

This is just for when we want to stay in shape. It’s a minimal effort, again following Tim Ferriss’ ‘Four Hour Body’ prescription, involving only two 30-minute workouts a week. You can do more, but there’s actually a risk of having a diminishing effect on your muscle mass if you do.

The prescription we follow is

Set 1: 1 x per week, 2-3 rounds

  • 10 slow (5 seconds up, 5 seconds down) squats at 50kg
  • 25 KBS, 24kg
  • 10 slow lunges (per side) with 15kg dumbbells
  • 10 slow deadlifts at 50kg
  • 10 hyper-extended slow crunches
  • 10 back hyper extensions

Set 2: 1 x per week, 2-3 rounds

  • 10 slow curls (5 seconds up, 5 seconds down) at 12kg
  • 25 KBS, 24kg
  • 10 slow shoulder presses at 10kg
  • 10 slow single leg hamstring curls (on a ball)
  • 10 slow incline press
  • 10 tricep extensions
  • 10 “cat vomit”

That’s it. Super minimal. It just keeps the muscles pumped. Dana might do an extra set during the week if he feels inclined, focusing on squats and deadlifts again. This just keeps the muscles going.

Increase fitness

When working out to get fitter, we exercise six days a week (if we’re not doing something active like hiking on vacation).

This involves

  • At least two days of strength training. Squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, shoulder-press, bench press. Sometimes some Olympic lifts thrown in (for Dana). The goal of these is to build muscle and get stronger. These might follow the above prescription or might involve 5×5 or 5-3-1 progressions in Olympic or power lifts using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and machines.
  • At least two days sprint cardio. This will involve 5-12 minute workouts combining high-intensity movements (burpees, pull-ups, sprinting, bag work, jump rope, lightweight squats) with something more moderate. The goal of these is to sustain high heart rate for short periods of time. For us, sprint cardio is one of the following: actual sprinting, rowing, jumping rope, kettlebell swings, burpees and squats/jump squats. Sure, there’s other stuff we can do, but nothing moves the heart rate up like those.
  • At least two days of endurance cardio. This is something like long-distance rows, runs or cycling (for 30+ minutes), maybe interspersed with movements like sit-ups, push-ups etc. The goal of these is to sustain a moderately high heart rate for longer periods of time. 

Increase strength, agility and ability

When we want to get stronger and faster, we use specific workouts to get there. More when we get to it. These will be for skills we develop like in sprinting or swimming.

Equipment we use

Dana’s a huge fan of bodyweight fitness and regularly does hundreds of push-ups just for fun. He drags Jo into it. But despite how fun burpees are, there are some things you just can’t do with your body alone. We did bring some gear along with us (maybe slightly too much)… here it is below.

Trainers/running shoes and jump rope

The ideal shoes for training can be work casually, in weight training and running. For these, obviously Dana prefers anything marketed to the ‘Crossfit’ crowd, mostly because they’re pretty hardy shoes that will wear out their soles before anything else. The main two types are Nike Metcons, and Reebok Nanos.

Both of these shoes are similar (try them on and see what you like), just differnet in style. They offer

  • Low heel-toe drop of 4mm – optimized as a balance between benefits weightlifting, and what can be used for running
  • Strong sides, for rope climbing
  • Resilient sole for pavement work
  • Reasonable styling (sometimes)

It’s really up to you whichever fits better.

Option 1: The Nike Metcons

Stay fit while ravelling - Nike Metcons

Option 2: Reebok Crossfit Nanos

Stay fit while travelling - Crossfit Nanos

Travel training gear

This is what we packed for travelling. It might seem like overkill, but in our experience, sometimes you have NO idea how far or accessible a gym is going to be. With this gear, all you need is floor space, dedication and a little creativity.

Heavy Bands – for light weights training

Stay fit while travelling - amazon heavy duty resistance bands

We (well, Dana) like to use these for squats and deadlifts. Find a broom or some pole and they work really well for both.

For front squats, you get the bands and either hold them in your hands, or loop it around a broom handle and then hold the broom handle up.

For deadlifts, you have to use a broom handle. It’s impossible to get extremely high resistance simulating over a hundred kilograms, but it’s easy to get something like 60-100kgs of resistance and to do slow reps to maximise time under tension.

The best value resistance bands are the heavy ones from Amazon. These aren’t terribly cheap. In the end, We only use the black and the green.

Monkii Adventure Kit – for bodyweight suspension training

Stay fit while travelling - Monkii bars (like Olympic rings)
It is as light as it looks. Image from Monkii.

This is like an ultraportable kit of rings that lets you do things like pull-ups, muscle-ups and other dynamic movements out in the wild. Also good for at home to do things like rows, push-ups, crunches, curls and anything else you can set your mind to.

It costs $149, which is more than a TRX, but it’s lighter and has two anchors, which means you avoid getting your arms scraped all the time.

Stay fit while travelling - Monkii bars and muscle ups
That branch looks dry as. Good luck. Image from monkii bars.

Leather jump rope – for cardio on the go

Staying fit while travelling - leather jump rope

The final core piece of gear is a leather jump rope. This is Dana’s pride and joy. He says:

“I like these more than speed ropes because they’re barely heavier, but provide a much more efficient high-intensity workout. Three minutes with one of these and you’ll be destroyed before you even THINK of switching to double-unders! They’re also easier to use for the amateur rope jumper because the heavy rope gives you much more tactile information. Finally, I find the experience less variable… lighter speed ropes seem to depend heavily on having exactly the right length dialled in.”

Anything else you like using? Tell us what you do.

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