Having spent many years on the road as a touring musician, I understand firsthand the health issues facing travel warriors with respect to maintaining proper nutrition and exercise. Several years ago, I received a wake up call in the form of a checkup at the doctor’s office in which I was informed that I was overweight with high cholesterol and heading toward a possible diabetes diagnosis.
Determined not to need medication, I immediately purchased a gym membership, started working with a personal trainer, and began tracking my calories using the iOS version of MyFitnessPal. I also began reading as much as I could about nutrition.
Fast forward several years and I’m now 30 pounds lighter, my cholesterol and lipid levels are within a normal range, and I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for three years, having just earned my blue belt. Just as important, I’ve found systems that help me to stay healthy while traveling. We all know how difficult it can be to stay faithful to a nutrition and exercise regimen while on tour. Aside from being a certified Pilates instructor (as a result of an educational benefit I received while playing keyboards for Cirque du Soleil), I’m not a fitness professional. Therefore, any advice I offer here is based on my own research and experience. I urge anyone considering a new nutrition or exercise regimen to check in with their doctor first.
Nutrition Tips for Road Warriors
One of the most difficult parts of staying healthy on the road is keeping your nutrition in check, especially when traveling in small towns with limited restaurant selection. The most effective way to keep nutrition on point is to stay in an apartment with a kitchen, but that’s not always possible. When traveling, even for just a few days, I always request a refrigerator in my hotel room, even if it requires an extra fee. I then shop at the nearest reasonably decent supermarket for fresh fruit, vegetables for snacking, nuts, raisins, bottled water, and any other healthy options I find that would be helpful.
The key here isn’t to address every possible food craving, but rather to keep a supply of healthy options around for snacking. When on the road, and especially at the theatre, we’re often bombarded with a myriad of unhealthy food options. As an emotional eater, I’ve made extra trips to the company manager’s office just to grab another mini candy bar. It’s much better to rely on a stash of baby carrots or a banana than to fill up on M&M’s and Snickers bars. However, it’s important to remember to divide your food into proper portions, especially with regard to the nuts. I always bring some ziplock plastic bags to set aside exactly 24 almonds, 16 cashews, or 1/4 cup of raisins. Otherwise, the calories and fat levels can add up quickly and you’ll wind up sabotaging your diet.
A fantastic nutrition book I read was Joel Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Revised Edition. The premise of the book is that we should focus on eating foods that are rich in nutritional content. Rather than counting calories, by simply eating whole foods as part of a plant based diet, we’ll get the nutrients we need, will be satisfied, and won’t have to worry about counting calories or reading labels because our bodies will tell us when we’re truly full. While Dr Fuhrman is a strong advocate of a plant based diet (read “vegan”), I believe the lessons of his writing apply to everyone. Though I’m intrigued by the possibility of adopting a plant based diet, I still eat animal protein in moderate quantities. However, Eat to Live has encouraged me to include a much larger percentage of fruit and vegetables in my diet. This book promotes a lifestyle change rather than relying on formulas.
When eating out, try to gravitate toward salads with limited dressing and toppings, keep animal protein to a reasonable level, and limit intake of processed carbohydrates. A good rule of thumb that helps me stay on track is to try to eat at least one large salad during the day. This is a great source of plant based nutrients in one sitting, yet also has the side benefit of keeping you in a healthy mindset throughout the day. More on this mindset concept later.
Finding a Fitness Regimen on the Road
This is actually much easier than it seems. I’ll propose some options here, but in reality, the road actually presents many excellent opportunities for getting adequate exercise.
When on the road, I often begin the day with a bodyweight workout in my hotel room. This will be as short or as long as I have time and energy for. I’ll also include some solo drills for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as well so that I can stay on top of my game a bit. A simply bodyweight workout might include the following exercises performed as a complex:
Burpees / Squats / Lunges / Pushups / Plank
You could do 5-10 reps of each exercise and plank for 30-60 seconds (or as long as is appropriate for your ability). Rest for 30-60 seconds between each complex and repeat as many times as desired. For a great guide to bodyweight exercises, I highly recommend Paul Wade’s book Convict Conditioning: How to Bust Free of All Weakness-Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength.
As the quality of hotel gyms can vary greatly, flexibility is key. Hotel gyms almost always have cardio machines, which are great, but it’s important to have options for strength training. I usually do a combination of bodyweight and dumbbell exercises. Try to include the following in your workout to cover the major body movements:
1. Starter / warmup
Turkish Get Up (with dumbbells): This is one of my all-time favorite exercises. It’s a full body exercise that is especially great for shoulder health and mobility. It’s usually done with a kettlebell, though it can be done with a dumbbell if that’s what’s available. Do 5 reps per side, alternating between each side. I prefer to start with my non-dominant side. You can find many great tutorials on YouTube. I recommend finding a video that’s been made by a StrongFirst or RKC certified instructor.
Pushups: You can do many variations of this one depending upon hand placement, incline of the feet, etc. Try going for sets of 5-10. Once you can do sets of 15-20, aim to increase the difficulty by introducing a variation.
Pull-ups, Lat Pulldowns, or Bent Over Row: You can mix this up. If you can’t yet do a single pull-up, you can stick with lat pulldowns or use a resistance band to assist you until you can perform pull-ups unassisted.
4. Hip hinge
Dumbbell Deadlift or Bridge: This is one of the most basic and essential body movements. We use this movement for picking up heavy objects. It also is very helpful for any sport movement that relies on the hips such as a golf swing or certain punches such as the cross. The deadlift in particular is excellent for working the core and the entire posterior chain. This, along with the squat, is an extremely important movement to counter the affects of sitting in a chair for long periods of time.
Dumbbell squats or Bodyweight squats: This is another hip hinge variation, but it works the muscles in a different way and from another angle. The emphasis here is more on the hamstrings and quadriceps.
Portable Exercise Options
I usually travel with my TRX GO Suspension Trainer Kit as it’s small, lightweight, and can easily be set up in any hotel room for a full body workout. One can get the same benefits from traveling with a yoga mat, Pilates resistance bands, or any other of a number of options. You can read my full review of the TRX suspension trainer kit here.
This simply involves finding an everyday activity that involves movement and incorporating it into your daily routine. This includes taking long walks, biking, yoga, running, swimming, etc.
This is where it gets really fun. There are all sorts of sports that can be done while on the road. When I used to tour regularly, I would travel with my golf clubs and played regularly. I have a colleague who finds a tennis pro to train with wherever he travels. These days, I always travel with my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Gi (kimono) and I visit dojos to train wherever I am. I’ve trained Jiu Jitsu in Hamburg, London, Osaka, and Tokyo, just to name a few. Playing sports on the road is a great way to get out and see your surroundings, get exercise, and make new friends.
Often, we spend lots of time in dry places with tons of germs. Specifically, airplanes and theaters. This makes it even more important to hydrate. Conventional wisdom tells us to drink 8-10 8oz glasses of water per day. I find that when I’m exercising vigorously, I need as many as 12-15 glasses per day. This aids in keeping us hydrated as well as helping to flush out the toxins and germs that build up.
Rest and Recovery
Just as important as fitness and nutrition are rest and recovery. Our bodies need proper sleep for rest and recovery. This aids with muscle growth, weight loss, and mental abilities. It’s not uncommon for UFC fighters and professional boxer to sleep for as long as 10-12 hours per night in order aid with physical and mental recovery.
I find that it’s absolutely essential to being each day with something fitness related. This could mean a brief bodyweight workout in the hotel room, a long walk, or even just stretching. This has a twofold purpose. First, it’s healthy! Second, I find that by beginning my day with a fitness related activity, it sets the tone for my relationship to my personal well being for the rest of the day. When I begin each day with something fitness related, I’m much more likely to hydrate adequately, eat with proper nutrition in mind, and get to sleep at a reasonable hour.
Staying healthy while on the road certainly presents some unique challenges, but it’s definitely feasible, and can even be done in a way that’s interesting and invigorating. It’s not everyday that you can take a hike in Runyon Canyon, train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with members of the Gracie family, play tennis with a pro, or golf at one of the world’s greatest courses. Being on the road allows you to do all these things. Just remember to be flexible, don’t be afraid to switch up your routine, and most of all, be creative.