How to Stay in Shape While Traveling

How to Stay in Shape While Traveling

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I love to exercise. I tend to get a little restless when I haven’t done something active in a while. I’m also a creature of habit so I like my routines. During my Ironman training, I had a very set training schedule consisting of a morning and evening workout during the weekdays and long workouts during the weekends. Travel, however, puts the best laid plans to the test, especially if it’s work travel. The good thing about exercising during our trip is that I don’t have to worry about getting up for work or working late, but there are sites to see and places to go so I don’t want to sacrifice experiencing new places for getting in a workout. Below are some options (non-exhaustive) on some workouts you can do while traveling and then I’ll get into what I plan on doing for our trip.

Running – Probably the easiest way to stay in shape. It only requires running shoes and running clothes it also is a great way to see and explore the cities you visit.

Cycling – You can rent bikes in pretty much any major city, but most bikes for rent will be the beach cruiser or a single-speed type of bike. There are certain locations (e.g., Taiwan) where they rent out actual road bikes if you want to get a serious ride in but it will require considerable planning and will likely be expensive to stay consistent with it.

Swimming – Requires a pool or body of water. In most cities this will require going to a gym that has a pool and getting a day or week pass depending on your length of stay. Best and cheapest way to get a good swim workout is to go to a beach and just go along the shore.

Do you even lift bro-tein shake?
Do you even lift bro-tein shake?

Weightlifting – Like the swimming workout, this will require a gym and paying the entrance fee unless you’re lucky enough to belong to a gym with a global presence (We’ve seen a couple of Gold’s Gyms while in Asia but not many).

Yoga – There are a number of local yoga studios that I’ve seen while we’ve been traveling teaching a variety of yoga practices. The costs of going to drop-in classes can add up. You could also bring your own mat and do your own practice but that will add the amount of things to pack for travel.

Any exercise plan will depend on your exercise goals. Are you training for a marathon, 5k, weight-lifting goals, 100 mile bike ride, cross-fit goals, or just generally to feel good and look good naked? After training and completing my first (and only, for now) Ironman, I had a void of what my next goal was going to be. I also struggled, and continue to struggle, with some injuries (IT band syndrome and torn rotator cuff) which have affected my training plans. During this year abroad, I also had to adjust my goals based on the realistic types of training I could do. For example, triathlons were out since I would not get consistent access to a bike to train and compete. I’m a regular listener to a few fitness and health podcasts (Endurance Planet, Ben Greenfield, and Fat Burning Man) which keeps me up to date on different exercise routines, specific workouts, and different approaches to exercise and overall health depending on your goals. I’ve decided that my goal for this year abroad would be to build my aerobic base for running so that I can qualify for Boston within two years of returning home and to incorporate some resistance training. This is a mixture of the endurance strategy emphasized on the Endurance Planet podcast, the workouts in the book Primal Endurance, and the workout strategy from the Ben Greenfield article “How to Look Good Naked and Live a Long Time.”

For me, I love running when traveling. I especially like it early in the morning because you get to see the cities before all the tourists and locals fill the streets. So my general running routine will follow a method made famous by Dr. Phil Maffatone (also called the MAF method) and consists of running at a speed where your heart rate stays around 180 minus your age. For me, while I’m running my heart rate should stay around 145. When you first start this method, you may find you are running intolerably slow but after time you should see improvements to your fitness and your minutes per mile while maintaining your same heart rate (145). After you do this type of running for at least 8 weeks you can start to add in some sprint and resistance training to supplement your MAF running and prevent plateauing.

One important thing that the experts on the podcasts preach is that incorporating sprinting and resistance training should only be done when you are fully rested.  The way I judge whether I’m rested or not is to measure my heart rate variability (HRV) each morning. If you don’t know much about HRV here’s a link to an article giving an overview. Measuring HRV involves wearing a Bluetooth heart rate monitor and using an App on your phone to measure your HRV. Generally, the higher the HRV score the better and a high HRV means you can go ahead with any planned workout activity. A lower HRV means you should maybe think about doing a low stress exercise (e.g., yoga, walking) and get more rest.

In his article I linked to above, Ben Greenfield gives good exemplary workouts for his workout routine. These involve more high intensity training intervals. What I like about them is that the entire workout for a given day can take as little as 7 minutes and requires very little equipment. I’ve brought a set of resistance bands to add some variety in my workouts and to do some physical therapy exercises for my injuries. These take up very little space and are a pretty good substitute for weights. So those that wish to do more weightlifting and don’t want to pay for gym fees should consider getting a good set of resistance bands. Here’s a link to a workout plan I created that incorporates MAF running, high intensity workouts, and summarizes some of Ben’s key points and exemplary exercises. It’s only a template because my day-to-day workout will depend on our travel plans and my HRV rating. The exact workouts will also change because I believe it’s important to try different exercises not only to target different muscles but also to keep your body adaptive. I also plan on adding a recovery week every 3-4 weeks where there will be no resistance training, some MAF runs, and some more Yoga/stretching.

One of the key points that Ben mentions is staying active throughout the day. This aspect has been the easiest to implement for us. We walk everywhere, go up and down a lot of steps, and I’m typically carrying either a daypack of ~10lbs or our full luggage ~30-35lbs which adds extra load and helps burn more calories. When we go back to the US in July, we really want to get some Fitbits to keep track of all the walking we’ve done. It’ll be really interesting to compare our steps during our honeymoon to our steps once we get back to our lives in San Diego.

Hiking on Miyajima Island, Japan
Hiking on Miyajima Island, Japan

Lastly, I will say that I believe the best way to stay in shape is a good diet. During my training I switched to a low-carb, Ketogenic diet in combination with intermittent fasting. This diet turns your body from a sugar (carbohydrate burner) into a fat burner. I saw a dramatic change in my body composition, recovery, performance, and overall energy. Here is a link to a TED talk discussing the benefits of intermittent fasting and there are a number of books and studies on the benefits of a low carb diet. It’s a diet I highly recommend but it can be hard since it cuts out huge portions of a typical American diet, namely bread, wheat, grains, pasta, etc. It’s also been known to have different effects on women than men. I also found out that after the race, I tried to return to my previous diet of eating sandwiches, pasta, pizza, etc. and found out that I became gluten intolerant. I didn’t test myself for celiac disease but I was having some pretty serious reactions (i.e., vomiting) to eating gluten. These reactions kind of forced my hand to continue a gluten-free/ketogenic diet but I’ve added in more gluten-free carbs just for more enjoyment (e.g., wine, rice, sweet potatoes, etc.). I’ve recently found out my gluten-intolerance doesn’t apply to food outside the US. I’ve been able to eat Ramen noodles, dumplings, bread, and whatever without issue so far (knock on wood). Rather than deprive myself of experiencing these authentic foods in each country we visit (e.g., pasta in Italy, dumplings in Taiwan, Ramen in Japan, etc.), I’ve decided to keep my intermittent fasting but not be so concerned with low carb or gluten free foods. This post concerns more exercise rather than diet so I won’t get into it much but I just wanted to give my two cents.

arnoldAll in all, staying in shape while traveling involves a commitment to getting some kind of regular exercise. I find it easier to stay committed when I have a specific race or goal to train for. I’ve only been traveling for about a month and actually wasn’t able to start implementing this routine until last week when my IT band started feeling better. I may provide an update later on if I see good results or decide to switch routines, but I’m excited to have a new goal and a plan of attack that will allow me to stay fit while not having to stress too much about taking too much time and energy training while we’re abroad. Whatever exercise plan you decide to go with while traveling, be sure to add some variety in there and have fun while doing it!


** Disclaimer: I am not a physical trainer, nutritionist, doctor, or any kind of expert. Information and opinions provided here are strictly for entertainment purposes and are not meant to be fitness or health advice. You should consult your doctor when beginning any fitness or diet routine. **

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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