One of the most frequent topics I discuss as a nutrition counselor is how to successfully stay on track with goals while traveling. This is understandably a confusing and anxiety filled topic. Yet, the answer to success is simple. You must care. In this piece, I will offer some helpful tips for different travel situations. It is important to understand that ANYTHING can be successfully executed in any situation if you care enough.
Personally, I have had some real life experience with successfully executing a nutrition program while traveling. My first (and hardest) cut to the 63kg weight class came at a time when I was traveling frequently. In particular, I vividly remember being at the GRID League Combine in Las Vegas for an entire week, staying in hotels, eating buffet food, being social at poolside parties, but caring so much about my weight cut that I made it work. That was probably the most challenging travel has even been for me while following a nutrition plan. I knew I had very little room to stray from my blueprint of attack if I wanted to successfully make weight only a few weeks later.
Since then, each trip (and there has been HUNDREDS) has become easier and easier. Each trip has also served a different purpose. I am on the road (or in the air) quite a bit and, as an experienced athlete, I know and understand when trips are going to include a pretty strict nutrition regiment and when I can be a bit more lenient. Numerous trips have been during the last few days of a weight cut, yet just as many have been for CrossFit competitions where I am simply worried about optimal performance – not bodyweight. On the complete opposite end, plenty of my trips have been for pure pleasure and I know how and when I can step outside of my “normal” eating plan and enjoy myself a bit more.
As an athlete, it is incredibly important to have balance. It is equally as important to understand that the key to success is knowing how to improvise and stick to a plan even when you are outside of your comfort zone – or on your way there!
TRAVELING DURING A CUT
This traveling scenario is probably the most difficult and requires the most dedication. Some of the helpful tips and recommendations I am going to give may result is strange looks from others – both those who know you well and those who don’t. That is understandable, but you are on a specific mission and have specific goals. Note that this is a very unique situation, and some of these “extremes” do not need to be present during every travel situation. Traveling during a cut is a very common occurrence and I have some tips to get you from point A to point B without affecting your progress!
- Bring your food scale. I know this may be a pain and may send some strange looks your way. But, in airports, hotels, and long car rides, having your scale handy can help you stay on track and make sure you are getting enough of what you want. Very often, I find that my clients who don’t bring a scale tend to avoid meals or snacks in fear that they will overestimate. You are cutting and calories are already limited – packing your scale will ensure that you are getting what you need. This also allows my clients to chose better food options, as they aren’t always grabbing something packaged on the go just for assurance of nutrition facts. There are small travel scales available in almost any kitchen store that are about as big as a calculator and can be packed in a carry on very easily.
- Be a protein hunter. Protein is usually the macronutrient that is hardest to find and fill while traveling. It seems that so much “on the go” food is much lower in protein than it is in carbohydrates and fat. Protein is also the least sustainable macronutrient meaning it tends to spoil fast, and usually isn’t easy to transport. I always teach my clients to be hunters of protein when they are traveling. Whenever you can, order extra lean meat like chicken breasts or turkey burgers. This will allow you to have constant protein sources that are going to come from places other than powders and bars. Most of my cutting athletes are already accustomed to eating lean meat as a main source of protein, so this allows their bodies to stay comfortable with familiar food.
- Pack familiar foods. This one seems obvious, but it is surprising to me how many of my clients often forget. By packing familiar snacks and foods, we can keep our body eating as “normal” as possible which will make our progress trend in the right direction. Think about foods that you eat daily. If it can be packed and consumed while traveling – BRING IT. Items such as bars, wraps, single serving oatmeal, nut butter packs, fruit, nuts, single serving yogurts and even deli meats are all great options of familiar foods that are easily transportable. If you are able to premake meals (or work with a food service like Trifecta Nutrition) and can pack them with you in a cooler bag, go ahead! This will make your life much easier and keep your belly and your weight cut happy!
- Restaurant strategy. When cutting, I always recommend my athletes dine out at restaurants as little as possible (which is why the above 3 steps are so important). However, it is very likely going to happen a time or two. My advice is to order as PLAIN as possible. A simple order of a lean meat and steamed vegetables is always a safe plan. A salad topped with lean meat and dressing on the side is another safe bet and will likely fill you up great from sheer food volume and fiber! This sounds pretty boring, I know – but keep in mind, a trip like this is unique and there is a specific goal at the end of the tunnel.
TRAVELING WITH PERFORMANCE IN MIND
This food scenario is probably going to be the most common amongst our readers. A trip like this would be somewhere where you intend to eat “normally” and would like to feel good while traveling. This is where making healthy choices in order to insure you perform your best is the primary goal. Sometimes, this is challenging for my clients as they don’t have a specific weight goal ahead of them to keep them totally strict, yet they don’t want to completely derail progress we have made and effect training or performance. Strict isn’t the word I would use on a trip like this referring to nutrition – this one falls more under the category of “smart”. Some of the same keys from above could be useful, but here are a few specifically for this kind of trip:
- Continue to track and log. I often find that my clients decide to forgo tracking and logging altogether when traveling. I feel that privilege comes with experience and sometimes even the most skilled travelers can benefit greatly from continuing to track their food on the road. Yes, it is very likely you will be estimating 90% of the time and that is fine. However, it will keep you in the ballpark of your normal intake and it will allow you to make sure you are getting enough protein (we already covered how that often suffers in travel). There is no need to bring a scale to weigh and measure everything, however keeping tabs on what you put in your body is going to help performance and keep you feeling great.
- Choose quality, everywhere. This is often a difficult task on the road, yet it can most certainly be done. Some of the strategies to execute this have already been covered above. It is important to understand that restaurants often use much more additives (oils, butters, salt, sugar) than you are use to using at home. Food options that may appear just fine could be covered or soaked in an unknown. It is incredibly beneficial to scope out foods and food establishments that are simple. When in doubt, refer to #4 from cutting.
- Fast food doesn’t mean off limits. This is an important one to remember as I find a lot of my clients feel “guilty” (a word I despise in reference to food/nutrition) when they consume some kind of fast food. I am currently in the process of making a compilation of about 40-50 “fast food” establishments highlighting healthy options at each. Almost every single fast food chain I have looked into has an option that could easily fit within performance, macronutrient tracking, and health goals while traveling. It is important to educate yourself on this, and look into the establishment’s nutrition facts before ordering. This shouldn’t be a consistent habit at home, however when you are on the road it is great to have the knowledge of fast food nutrition as some quick options to have when you are on the go!
- Enjoy the ride. Food, and eating, is incredibly social and a very big part of experiencing a new town, state, or country. Personally, I always want to find a “local favorite” spot (or two, or three) and try it out to get a real feel for the environment I am visiting and also to try different kinds of food out there. This is incredibly healthy and can successfully be done without hindering goals or progress. There are plenty of ways to follow some of the above strategies while experiencing some great eats. In addition to that, I always encourage my clients to enjoy one “free meal” (a meal of their choice that is untracked yet not overboard) at some point. If you are traveling for a competition, this should be your post competition meal before you head home. Doing this allows for some great food experience, happiness, and enjoyment of the trip before you head back into “real life”.
TRAVELING FOR PURE LEASURE
Although this scenario is the most lenient, it is often the one that gives my clients the most anxiety as they are very uneasy about the fact that they will have no strict guidelines or reasons to stay on track. This is where the importance of building solid nutrition habits daily comes into play. If you have a strong foundation in quality nutrition on a day to day basis at home, executing those same habits on the road will not be incredibly difficult. Here are some tips to allow you to enjoy your vacation, while not throwing all of your hard work away.
- Be mindful of exercise (or lack of) and eat accordingly. Most of my clients are very active individuals. They attend some kind of fitness class multiple times a week, are competitive athletes, or just very active people in general. It is not uncommon for activity level to drop significantly when these types of people vacation (that is the point of getting away and there is nothing wrong with that)! However, it is important to keep that in mind when eating. The most common question I receive is “How should I adjust my intake for vacation?”. I recommend keeping protein and fats steady, and only filling carbohydrates as you feel needed. You will likely find that you are less hungry for carbohydrates when your body is not exercising as much and that is a sure sign to honor by not consuming as many. On the opposite end, there are vacations that are going to require just as much fuel as regular training days at home (or maybe even a bit more). Trips like skiing or snowboarding, hiking, biking, touring cities where you are walking miles and miles daily, will all require just as much fuel as your normal days – so stay on track as usual!
- More quality. This is a simple rule of thumb where all of your meals should contain foods of more quality than non-quality. Non-quality foods would include items such as fried foods, processed grains, low protein dishes, plates with minimal to no vegetables, and huge desserts loaded with sugar. All of these meals are going to leave you feeling too full, too swollen, all while leaving you with little vitamin or nutrient intake. Be sure to seek out quality foods wherever possible (which is pretty much everywhere if you try hard enough). Foods such as lean meats, fish, vegetables, nuts, “as plain as possible” carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, quinoa are all items that should be on your list and should catch your eye (and mouth) whenever they can.
- Salad to start, sauce on the side. This is a handy restaurant trick that is a great tool to limiting excessive caloric intake. While your party is ordering appetizers, it works well to order a house salad to start. This allows you to partake in the social aspect of eating while everyone else is consuming appetizers, yet takes the temptation away to grab a few chips or fried items that quickly turn into way to many. If you are patient, social, and eat slow, you will be through your salad by the time the appetizers are gone. You will feel great physically and mentally, and will enjoy your meal much more! “Sauce on the side” is another one of those handy tools. Whenever ordering a dish with some kind of sauce, dressing, or spread, be sure to ask for it “on the side”. This ensures you will get to enjoy the delicious topping without using an excessive amount. I find this strategy also helps me to enjoy my dish more, as the dish becomes the actual superstar instead of letting sauce or dressing take over.
- Loosen up and enjoy responsibly. This is an easy one and the one you were most likely waiting to hear. There is nothing wrong with spending a day or two of vacation time enjoying your favorite dish, or something you were looking forward to even if it follows none of the above strategies. My advice for that is to simply enjoy it. Do not let one day turn into five. Do not cram multiple high caloric meals into a small time frame. Stop when you are full. DO NOT call it a cheat meal. As mentioned earlier, one of the beautiful aspects of travel is experiencing food and culture – make sure to do that! After, you will easily get back to your normal routine, your normal choices, and your body will get back to its normal state. This will make you love and appreciate yourself for all the hard work you put in on a day to day basis to ensure that your body is a high functioning, energy burning machine!
These 12 strategies were broken up into specific categories, however you may find you work better following any combination of them for some or all of your different journeys. The most important thing to remember when traveling is you need to CARE. When you care about something it will be much easier to make better choices, stay the course, and execute what you want. It is allow important to remember that staying the course doesn’t have to include a lack of enjoyment or a missing out on fun. It just has to include some thinking ahead, some responsibility, and a solid assessment of goals and priorities. Every day we are building habits both in the gym and in the kitchen – the better habits we build daily, the easier it will be for us to carry them with us all over the world!