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Muscle for life

How to Stay in Shape When You’re Traveling

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How to Stay in Shape When You’re Traveling

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.

Let’s begin…

How to Keep Your Diet Right While Traveling

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
  • Fruit
  • 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:

 

8 AM

50 grams protein

100 grams carbs

20 grams fat

12 PM

50 grams protein

10 grams carbs

10 grams fat

4 PM

30 grams protein

5 grams carbs

5 grams fat

9 PM

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:

 

9 AM

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.

1 PM

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.

5 PM

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.

8 PM

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.

Working Out While Traveling

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.

TRX

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.

Safe travels!

 

Have any other diet or exercise tips that can help you stay in shape while traveling? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Nick

    Hi Mike , a quick question

    when you say “1 gram of protein per pound of body weight ” , is my lean weight? or counting the fat also?

    Thanks
    Nick

    • Michael Matthews

      Body weight unless you’re over 25% body fat, in which case you can reduce it to .8 grams per pound of body weight.

  • mdringler

    Mike,
    What would you say is the longest one could go without lifting weights and without losing muscle? For example, could I spend a week on vacation, getting in enough protein and doing cardio, but not any weight lifting, then come back home and hit the weights without a muscle loss penalty? Its just so much easier to not have to worry about finding a decent weight room while traveling.
    Thanks,
    Michael

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question! I’m going to write an article on this.

      The short story is 3-4 weeks so long as your diet stays right (high protein intake, calories in maintenance or surplus).

      A week off isn’t likely to affect anything. 2 weeks off = come back a bit weaker, but without any muscle loss (so long as diet is right).

  • mattparle

    I’m off to the Caribbean for 10 days in October and have been doing the BLS routine for over 8 weeks now so have taken some great tips from this post, thanks Mike. I’ve had great results in the last 8 weeks and am now 7 pounds heavier and looking as lean as I ever have. I’m determined to enjoy the holiday but not let it set me back. Luckily I’m no big alcoholic drinker anyways.

    Thanks for more well timed great advice 😀

    • Michael Matthews

      Awesome! Great job on your progress and enjoy your trip! Use the tips in this article and you’ll have no issues.

  • John

    Let’s not forget the excellent quality Bodylastics exercise bands system. Very versatile and lite. Many exercises can be done without a door…

    • Michael Matthews

      Ah I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

  • Derrek

    Just curious is 5 days a week the best? I hear some do 6 and focus on lagging areas. Any research on this?

    • Michael Matthews

      This really depends on your level of conditioning, your diet, and how much rest your body gets.

      I’m currently using day 6 to do a short (6-set) shoulder workout as this is my weakest area right now, and I take day 7 completely off (no lifting or cardio).

  • Pingback: How to Stay in Shape When You’re Traveling | Lifestyle By Design()

  • Pingback: How to Maintain Muscle and Strength with Minimal Exercise | Muscle For Life()

  • Luke

    what do you do for work anyway, Mike?

    • Michael Matthews

      Run this website, write books, and run my supplement company.

  • Pingback: 8 Fantastic Gift Ideas for Fitness Folk | Muscle For Life()

  • Serge

    My major problem is how to “survive” a 7-day cruise? I love to it and generally, cannot resist eating. As a result, I always over-eat every time.

    • Michael Matthews

      Haha yeah that’s tough. Personally I would just save calories for the bigger meals and not snack throughout the day.

  • Joel

    You mentioned MyFitnessPal in the article. What do you think about it apart from the calorie-counting feature? I (naturally…) had to register and log in in order to use the app, and that involved inserting numbers like height and weight and setting weekly weight change goals and all that.

    My first impression wasn’t all that great. Using the Katch-McArdle numbers from your site (which I’ve used successfully to lose weight), my daily bulking calories ended up at about 2400. MyFitnessPal, however, tells me that if I want to add 1lbs a week, I’ll need over 2600 if I’m ENTIRELY SEDENTARY, and 1000 more if I’m very active (and the activity level descriptions are rather specific – none of them fit me at all).

    I dunno. Do you perhaps know how to use it properly in a way that I don’t, or is it in fact just really weird like that?

    • Michael Matthews

      MFP’s calorie recommendations are crap. Just set custom goals on the site and use it for tracking.

  • Seth

    Hi Mike,

    No access to gym during upcoming two week vacation. Plan on mainly doing HIIT & Tabata workouts (similar to one’s mentioned in your article) but want to incorporate IF also. I like to train in the mornings (around 7:00am) fasted but usually have breakfast right after I workout. Do you see any issue with incorporating IF with these workouts in the morning and not eating my first meal of the day until around 11:00? I’ve made a lot of progress over the past few months and don’t want to blow it.

    Many thanks,
    Seth

    • Michael Matthews

      Nope that’s a great idea. It’s exactly what I would do.

  • Pingback: How to Maintain Muscle and Strength with Minimal Exercise | Muscle For Life()

  • O.T.C.

    Hello Michael. I have a doubt on something: Can I still eat the same way you mention even though I’m not working out at the time, or the caloric intake changes in any way. Thank you very much upfront.

  • James

    Hi mike I’m travelling around Asia for 8 weeks. I’m worried about losing my gains out there. I’m really hoping I can find some decent gyms out there! Think I may swap to a push pull legs routine and TRY and get three workout in at gyms with heavy enough weights! If not I’ll take on these points cheers mike!

    • Michael Matthews

      That would be perfect. If you hit the weights 3 x per week and keep your diet in check, you’ll be good to go!

  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Blanca

    Love this article! I’m going to Rome to study this summer and was worried about gaining weight with all the pasta I know I’m going to eat!

  • Pingback: MFL Podcast 45: Staying fit while traveling & advice from Buffett on setting goals | Muscle For Life()

  • Robin

    I’ve have made a huge preparation for my arrival at the gym, reading both your book Bigger Leaner Stronger, bought the custom meal plan and now getting the 1 Year Challenge Men for myself. (Also bought the cook book, I feel like i’m prepared enough.)

    I believe that I might start going to the gym this month as a beginner and my family have decided to travel next month north to our summer place to rest for about four days and then travel one’s more to a place called Nolia whereas I will work for some time before returning to the capital.

    Now I wonder, as I am a beginner, would it be better for me to travel first and start going to the gym when I am back home? If not, could you provide some tips as to what could help me? I read a bit in this article but I got the feeling that the article is mainly for people that travel outside of their country and not inside.

    • Awesome! I’m excited for you!

      You could start while on the road. Things might be a little “loose” but why not get going?

      This article is for all traveling actually…

  • Jason Tsai

    Hi Mike,
    Have you heard of myonuclear domain theory? Is it true that if you made gains over the course of a few years and took a couple months off lifting it doesn’t take very long to gain back the strength/muscle mass?

    I plan on backpacking Europe for 3 months and my biggest fear is losing muscle mass during this time as I won’t have access to barbells and gyms. Would I be able to minimize the damage if I brought rings and progressively overloaded body weight exercises such as pull ups, dips, push ups, and pistol squats?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Ryan

    Taking Cayenne pepper, or a bunch of caffeine 45 mins before a cold bath or long swim in a pool will multiply the loss of calories through thermo dynamics.

    • Not enough to make a big difference though. Caffeine would be the most effective out of those 3. Cayenne will do nothing. Cold bath would help if you cooled to the point of shivering…

  • Katie

    Hey mike-
    Cheat meals or no cheat meals two weeks before a wedding? (I’m on my 3rd week of TLS, going great…) I will be on vacation for 8 days with the wedding in the middle of it. Going to do my best to stick to the macros on my meal plan while there plus gym. Hope to gain no more than a few lbs, if at all.

    Thanks!!

    • Hmm up to you, haha. Personally I would cut out just to “be safe.”

  • Shaun Bretle

    Whether you’re working all day and tired or you’ve been eating out for every meal, staying fit while traveling is tough work. You may not always have access to a gym or fitness center. Traveling should be fun, though, and even when you’re away from home you can still get a great workout.

    Shaun@MapDestinations

  • Alex M

    Hi Mike, I’m about to go on a vacation and I had two questions:

    1. Regarding getting enough protein, is there a way to cheat with this a bit? Maybe take some HMB during the day or drink BCAAs? Or protein shakes? My concern is that I don’t want to spend my whole day focusing on finding protein sources while eating out. Maybe I want to try a meal that is indulgent and doesn’t have much protein and in general have more of my calories come from carbs and fats (i.e. desserts). Is there any way to make this work? Would any sort of cheat be ok for short periods but not for longer ones?

    2. If I’ve been cutting and then jump straight to eating at maintanence (or slightly more if I miscalculate) will I gain more fat than usual so to speak since I didn’t reverse diet?

    Thanks!

    • 1. Don’t sweat it. Just try to get around 0.8 g/lb by the end of every day, however you get there. Or just get less protein for a week or so. It’s not going to matter, really.

      2. No, not necessarily. Just don’t explode your intake.

  • Georgia

    Hi Mike

    Do you have any advice for anyone who has lost it completely on holiday and needs to get back on track?

    I had just cut to my ideal bf% of 17%, reverse dieted back up to maintenance and now I’ve come back from a week away looking and feeling dreadful. Would you recommend going back to a cutting diet for a period of time and if so would this mean going through the reverse dieting process again? Or should I stick to maintenance macros and add in a few extra cardio sessions?

    Thanks very much 🙂

    • Hey Georgia,
      If you have a bf% target in mind, recalculate your targets, and you can jump back into the cut!

  • Lucas

    Do you have to wake up early? Let’s say my last meal is at 8pm and I don’t eat till 12-1pm the next day. (Therefore a 12-8 feeding period). Can i, for example, sleep till 10 or 11am. Also since I’m on vacation 😛

  • Francisco Velasquez

    Hi. I am currently cutting at about 9-10% bodyfat. I am traveling for about two weeks and not sure if I will always have access to a gym. So my question is, without a gym- and following a high intensity interval circuit workout for two weeks- can i keep dropping fat and minimize muscle loss in two weeks? I’m afraid i will lose too much muscle not lifting heavy :(, for TWO weeks! I plan to use my old insanity DVD videos :), and while im sure I can keep dropping fat by doing HIIT circuits i am more worried about my lean mass. Additionally, I intend to do a leangains approach of 16/8 hour windows of fasting/eating while supplementing with FORGE before the workouts. Let me know what my options are and what I should expect

  • Edward Furst

    Hey Mike,

    I’ll be traveling next month to a hotel that only has cardio machines (perfect for some daily HIIT) and dumbbells. The dumbbells only go up to 50lbs. No squat racks, flat bench presses, etc. Also, unfortunately, it’s a small island and there are no locals gyms around. Do you have a recommended daily weight training workout that can be done with dumbbells that only reach 50 lbs? I’ll be away for 7 days and want to hit the gym on a daily basis. Thanks!

    Ed

  • Emma Weiss

    Hi Mike,

    This summer I’m planning to volunteer on a farm in Ireland for a month (yay!) but that means probably no lifting (aw :/) and even the chance of being on a vegetable farm with little to no protein (oh no!). Do you have any suggestions on how to avoid losing as much muscle as possible I’m away?

    Thanks!

  • Vishruth

    Hi Mike,

    On business travel, I usually have time for either 30 minutes of weights or HIIT cardio but not both. My travel is usually only a week. Do you recommend that I choose weights or HIIT cardio, since I would have time for only one of them during my travel?

    Thanks!

    • It depends on your goals, but I’d pick weights over cardio

      • Vishruth

        My immediate goal is to lose belly fat – atleast 1 inch. Should I still pick weights in the constrainted time?

        Thanks

        • I would. Losing fat is all about energy balance, so the key will be your diet. Lifting weights will help you retain muscle while burning fat.

  • Pat Geale

    Hi Guys,
    I’ve been following BLS for the last 9 months with great results, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in!
    Currently going through my “gain” phase, and have managed to slowly tip the scales and photo composition up in my favour with minimal fat gain however, I’m about to head off on a 3 week vacation. I will have some gym time, and we’ll be fairly active, but would I best to reduce down to my maintenance calories during this time instead of eating in a reasonable surplus?
    Cheers,
    Pat

    • Hey Pat, great job so far! Keep it up 🙂

      Yeah, I’d drop to maintenance while you’re on vacation. No reason to eat in a surplus if you won’t be able to lift much. You can resume bulking once you’re back on the normal routine.

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