What does it take to stay in shape while traveling? Can you actually enjoy the food and relaxation without gaining weight or losing muscle?
Us fitness folk have a love/hate relationship with traveling.
Business travel usually means hectic schedules with no time to eat, which often drives people into the drive-thrus.
No matter how great a vacation is, after a couple of weeks of no exercise and over-eating, we just can’t wait to get back into the gym and restore balance to our lives (and scales).
Well, what if I told you that you travel without gaining weight or losing your conditioning?
What I told you that you could do it without following a strict eating schedule?
What if I told you that you could do it while still eating large “cheat” meals every day?
And what if I told you that you could do it with or without a proper gym?
Sounds to good to be true, right?
Well, I used to travel quite a bit, and in this article, I’m going to share you with several training and dietary strategies you can employ to minimally maintain your physique while traveling, or even continue making progress as usual.
When traveling, the biggest dietary hurdle is regulating our caloric intake every day.
Traveling usually means eating out a lot, and restaurant food almost always comes with way more calories than we realize, thanks to butter, oils, sugar, and other sources of hidden calories.
The large daily surplus of calories plus reduced exercise is a particularly bad combination for our physiques.
It can also be a challenge to keep tabs on where our calories are coming from in terms of protein, carbs, and fats.
If you’re following a weightlifting program and accidentally drop your protein intake to, let’s say, 10% of your daily calories, and stop working out for a couple of weeks, you’re very likely to lose muscle.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to not only avoid these problems, but do so while still maintaining a flexible daily schedule.
Ensure You Get Enough Protein Every Day
Protein is your staple nutrient for maintaining your muscle–you have to make sure you’re getting enough every day.
A good rule of thumb is to shoot for getting about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day.
The easiest way to keep track of your intake is a diet app like MyFitnessPal, which will allow you to research and track the nutrition data of the food you’re eating or thinking about eating throughout the day. This takes the guesswork out and helps you make better choices about what you’re eating.
Plan Your Meals According to Your Goals
Before you give any thought to meal planning while traveling, you have to ask yourself what you want to see happen with your body while you’re gone.
Are you cutting and would like to continue to lose weight?
Would you like to just maintain your weight while away?
Are you okay with gaining some weight but want to keep it minimal?
Your choices will dictate your meal planning.
If you’re cutting and want to continue losing weight, the easiest way to do this is to keep your meal plans simple.
Eating out too much, even if it’s at restaurants like Chipotle that give you a rough idea of how many calories are in each meal, is the easiest way to halt weight loss.
Instead, what I like to do is create a simple meal plan out of foods that I can pick up at a local grocery store or health food store like Whole Foods, and that don’t require cooking or preparation.
Here are some of my favorite choices:
- Greek yogurt
- Protein powder
- Rotisserie chicken
- Low-sodium lean deli meat
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Almonds and almond butter
- Salad (buy salad dressing and packaged greens).
When you book your hotel, make sure you ask about the mini-fridge. The bigger the better.
Then, when you land, you simply head to the grocery store, pick up your food, throw it in the fridge, and you’re good to go. Not exciting, but it gets the job done.
If you’d like to maintain your current weight, you can be more flexible with your meal planning.
The reason being is you simply get to eat more food every day, and you have more wiggle room when you’re maintaining.
(In terms of actual daily calories, your maintenance calories will be somewhere around your weight multiplied by 15.)
What I like to do in this case is have a couple meals per day that are planned ahead (as when cutting–foods that I can track exactly), and a couple meals per day that aren’t.
For the unplanned meals, I always stick to foods and dishes that are relatively simple, and whose numbers I can estimate with some accuracy using MyFitnessPal.
This way I may end some days a little over maintenance and some a little under, but the net result is no noticeable fat storage.
I try not to be in a large caloric surplus more than 1-2 days per week.
If you’re fine with gaining some weight but want to keep it minimal, you still need to watch what you’re eating.
As we’ve all experienced, eating one meal of delicious “cheat” food can quickly turn into an all-out binge that, when you’re on vacation, can last for days. (Yup, I’ve done it before!)
I like to avoid this by doing the same thing as I would if I were eating for maintenance, but my daily calories are a bit higher (about 18 per pound of body weight).
That is, a couple planned meals per day, and a couple unplanned that I still track with decent accuracy.
Reduce Meal Frequency if Necessary
While I enjoy eating 5-7 small meals per day, I will usually reduce my meal frequency when I’m traveling to allow for larger, more calorie-dense meals.
For instance, if I know that I won’t have access to much food for a large chunk of a day, or don’t like what I’ll have access to (fast food, for instance), or want to “save” calories for a large meal that is planned, here’s how it might go:
50 grams protein
100 grams carbs
20 grams fat
50 grams protein
10 grams carbs
10 grams fat
30 grams protein
5 grams carbs
5 grams fat
100 grams protein
150 grams carbs
60 grams fat
This style of dieting, known as “flexible dieting” is incredibly useful when you’re traveling. It allows you to keep your daily food intake under control without having your schedule revolve around eating times.
If you’re afraid that reducing meal frequency will impair your metabolism or cause weight gain, it won’t. Check out my article on meal frequency and weight loss to learn more.
Use Intermittent Fasting to Help
This is related to the meal frequency tip, but warrants its own section because it’s very useful when you’re on the road.
“Intermittent fasting” is a style of dieting that revolves around restricting your eating for extended periods of time, and then eating your day’s worth of food during pre-determined “feeding windows.”
For instance, you might fast (eat nothing) for 16 hours per day, and eat during the remaining 8 hours. Or you might fast for 20 hours per day and cram all your calories into a 4-hour window. Some protocols even call for eating one day, and fasting the next.
Intermittent fasting not only allows us to benefit from a reduced meal frequency, but it also helps reduce fat storage due to the fat-burning effects associated with fasting.
The protocol I like best is the Leangains method created and popularized by Martin Berkhan, and it works like this:
- You fast for 16 hours per day (14 for women, because you’re all cute and special). That means no food, but coffee, tea, and non-caloric beverages are fine.
- You have an 8-hour daily feeding window (10-hour for women).
- You eat a lot of protein.
- You eat more carbs and calories on training days, and more fat and fewer calories on rest days.
- Your post-workout meal is absolutely huge–about 50% of your daily calories.
(If I’ve piqued your interest, check out my in-depth article on intermittent fasting to learn more about this style of dieting.)
It’s important that you don’t use IF as an excuse to grossly over-eat, however. It cannot prevent fat storage if you’re in a large caloric surplus every day.
Here’s what an average vacation day for me might look like using the intermittent fasting diet:
I wake up and have a 0-calorie drink like tea. I drink plenty of water throughout the morning, but don’t eat any food.
I hit a restaurant and have a steak, bread, a baked potato with butter and cheese, and some pie for dessert.
I check My Fitness Pal and calculate that the entire meal contained roughly 80 grams of protein, 150 grams of carbs, and 40 grams of fat.
I don’t want to have to eat 100 grams of protein at dinner (about what I’ll need to hit my required protein intake for the day), so I have about 60 grams of protein in a shake.
Dinner comes around and I enjoy a meal similar to lunch: 60 grams of protein, 100 grams of carbs, and 50 grams of fat.
This ends my eating for the day right around maintenance calories, or maybe in a slight surplus, and I got to enjoy two large meals.
My fasting period now begins and I won’t eat again until 12-1 PM the next day.
If you can handle the fasting periods, this is just a great way to minimize fat storage while still enjoying good food, and maintaining a very flexible eating schedule that doesn’t get in the way of everyone’s plans (“DROP EVERYTHING I NEED TO FIND PROTEIN NOW OR I WILL GO CATABOLIC!111!1!!!”).
It’s also very useful for when you won’t have good foods available to you for longer periods of time. I’ve skipped many airport breakfasts to just make it up later at lunch once I had landed.
And again, if you’re having a hard time believing that such a style of dieting won’t cause muscle loss, metabolic slowdown, fat storage, and so forth, check out my article where I set the record straight on all of these things and more.
Getting workouts in while on the road is easier than some people think.
You have several workable options:
- Stay in a hotel near a local gym.
I always try to do this when traveling for work. My workout times might vary, but I can almost always fit a workout in, even if it’s at 11 PM. I may do this while traveling for vacation—it just depends on the circumstances.
- Use the hotel gym.
I know, hotel gyms suck, but they’re better than nothing. Because they normally have very light weights and machines, your best bet will probably be a 30-45 minute whole-body routine that you can perform every day.
- Work out in your hotel room.
If you can’t hit a gym for whatever reason, you can still do a decent job of maintaining your conditioning with in-room training.
A device that is particularly good for this is the TRX Training System. It allows you to do a wide variety of body weight exercises, it weighs less than 2 lbs, and all you need to set it up is a door.
Another option is a simple full-body circuit that you can perform every day. Here’s one I like:
Push-ups to failure (one-handed if possible for men, knee-pushups fine for women)
Rest 60 sec
Pull-ups or chin-ups to failure if you can do them (you will need an Iron Gym Workout Bar)
Rest 60 sec
Squats for 30 seconds (one-legged if possible)
Burpees for 30 seconds
Mountain climbers to failure
Rest 90 sec
Crunches to failure
Rest 60 sec
Start over with push-ups
20-30 minutes of this is a pretty good workout.
- Do high-intensity interval cardio.
If you’d rather just take a break from the weights or resistance training, or if you have the time and inclination to do both, you can do a 20-30 minute session of high-intensity interval cardio to help burn off excess calories.
My favorite method of HIIT is hopping on the recumbent bike with a podcast or ebook, and doing 30-second sprints at medium resistance, followed by 60-second rests at the lowest resistance.
- Do a workout before a meal if possible.
The reason why training before a meal helps us stay on track is it depletes our body’s glycogen stores (and glycogen is a form of energy stored in your muscles and liver). When this occurs, the body is primed to replenish these stores, and it uses carbohydrate you eat to do this.
Here’s the kicker though: your body will not store carbohydrate you eat as fat until glycogen levels are replenished.
So, by depleting a percentage of your glycogen stores before eating, you can, in a sense, buy yourself some “free carbs” in the post-workout meal.
So, as you can see, staying on track while traveling isn’t nearly as hopeless as many people think.
By using the above strategies, I’ve gone on vacations for as long as 3 weeks, fully enjoyed large meals every day, and came back at exactly the same weight and conditioning as when I left.
I hope this article helps you do the same.