For many, prolonged bouts of travel signify an inevitable regression in fitness and body composition. This fear may even be to the extent of avoiding travel altogether, as to preserve one’s hard-earned gains.
And although the fitness-naïve outsider may not comprehend this concern, it’s a very real threat for the seasoned trainer whom has accumulated years of consistency in their pursuit of excellence.
Lost fitness? My travel apprehension
In December 2015, with an imminent 4 week expedition to Japan, and acceptance of the fact that gym facilities would not be readily available, I too found myself facing the predicament of lost fitness.
In hindsight, this concern was completely asinine. The disrupted structure of my training was, at the time, compounded by the danger travelling imposed on my meticulous nutrition; though this uncertainty of daily routine is inherent to travel.
In fact, the element of spontaneity adds to the thrill of solo travel, which I later came to realize.
Perhaps more of a revelation to me, however, was the realization that travel made fat loss quite effortless, and actually improved my relative strength upon returning home.
Prior to leaving for Japan, my training had been reliant on commercial gym equipment. While I was quite advanced at weighted chin-ups & dips, I never fully appreciated nor explored bodyweight training in its entirety.
For me, this trip represented the first “disruption” to my training & nutrition routine since undergoing a health catharsis in mid-2013.
Up until that point, I had single-handedly annihilated my health & muscular development. At the time, I was an emaciated 58kg frame primarily focused on chronic cardio and suffering a bout of orthorexia.
The reason for mentioning my former health hardship is to better illustrate why I felt some degree of apprehension to travel.
I was also going to Japan aware of their non-existent strength culture and, conversely, their obsession with cardio exercise. This stems from a nation that strives to be thin, even by the alarmingly endemic means of starvation.
My friend and renowned nutritionist in Tokyo, Erica Angyal, tells me that many teenagers there will subsist on gummy bears or cookies for breakfast and then not eat anything for the rest of the day. But I digress.
Arrival in Japan
Upon arriving at my small but cosy apartment in Shinyurigoaka (Kanagawa prefecture of Tokyo), I came to realise that this city was littered with calisthenics-friendly playgrounds. Even though I had decided that training was not a number one priority on my trip, it was comforting to know that I could use these playgrounds for a quick session if required.
One of the hallmarks of a holiday is a different schedule, both during the day and the evening.
My trip to Japan was no different.
I had always placed tremendous value on sleep before my trip, knowing how crucial it was in one’s overall health. Sleep is the keystone to training adaptation, and it should be protected as such.
However, 4-5 nights a week saw me returning to my apartment at sunrise, ‘sabotaging’ my circadian rhythm.
Why was I pulling consecutive all-nighters?
I was captivated by Tokyo’s electric nightlife.
The trains stop running from midnight-5am, and catching a taxi from Tokyo to my somewhat remote prefecture too often would have quickly broken the bank.
Tokyo truly is the city that never sleeps.
It would have been reprehensible to not indulge in Tokyo’s endless selection of restaurants, so I duly exercised my inner glutton. In fact, I ate at a restaurant nearly every day I was there. My meals of choice consisted mostly of sushi trains which can get expensive (as I experienced below) but also ramen, which is very satiating, but generally less damaging on the hip pocket.
While imbibing generous amounts of alcohol in lieu of sleep, breaking records at sushi trains, and going to the gym only twice in my four weeks is antithetical to a sound fitness pursuit, I returned home with improved body composition, increased upper body strength, and maintained deadlift strength.
And in general, I just felt healthier.
Bizarre, but how did this occur?
Enhanced Strength & Fitness
There are three things, in particular, that I can attribute to enhanced fitness during my hedonistic time in Japan. Strategies I implemented to retain as much fitness as possible without hindering my enjoyment were as such:
1) Playground Workouts
As mentioned earlier, I had never fully appreciated the power of bodyweight training until I was compelled to use it during this holiday. In fact, I was astounded by the effect training on playground bars had on my upper body.
After waking up and fueling myself with a black coffee, I would head to the playground for a training session. My workout would last for 30-45 minutes and take place 3-4 times a week.
I would structure the sessions as follows:
Plyometric movements. Performed in low volume to maintain intensity and as a primer for subsequent exercises: usually explosive pull-ups, plyo push-ups, plyo split squats.
Slow eccentrics (downward phase only of a whole movement) on more advanced bodyweight movements I could not yet do. These included muscle-up, handstand pushup and one-arm chin eccentrics.
Isotonic movements. I would end the session with whole or ‘isotonic’ movements for added volume and hypertrophy. Decline presses, archer chin-ups, inverted rows, pike push-ups were all staples in this routine.
Apart from these bodyweight workouts, I used gym facilities twice, hitting heavy doubles on deadlifts and squats for maintenance.
2) One Protein-Rich Meal a Day
I am a big proponent of high-protein diets, whether trying to gain muscle or lose fat (particularly important for the latter). Similarly, 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight (~180g for me for example) is a commonly accepted minimum to maximize muscle growth potential.
Recent work by Jose Antonio even suggests going significantly beyond this amount to for more marked improvements in body composition. However, trying to achieve this while travelling is unfeasible and, quite frankly, silly. Instead, I would prepare a large protein-based breakfast in the apartment prior to heading out for the day.
If you’re an athlete and would like to understand more about sports nutrition, I would recommend reading Sports Fitness Advisor.
Unfortunately I can’t find any photos of such breakfasts I had in Japan, but a typical meal would have comprised ~500g chicken breast fried in olive oil, a packet of frozen vegetables (for convenience and time-efficiency), and some purple sweet potato. Altogether this meal would amount to roughly 130g protein.
In doing so, I:
- Made a big dent in the 1g/lb target before my day’s adventures began.
- Enabled flexibility with the carb & fat-dense meals I would be eating out later in the day.
- Promoted satiety for many hours, and thus reduced the extent to which I consumed fast food. Protein is the most appetite-suppressing macronutrient of all
An example day after a night on the town looked something like this:
- Wake up 12-1pm (after getting home at 5:30-6am*)
- Coffee then playground workout.
- BIG breakfast as above.
- Out & about, exploring Tokyo.
- Dinner with friends.
- Drinks (usually spirits on the rocks and saké), and dancing at the many nightclubs Tokyo has to offer.
*N.B. I wore an eye-mask when sleeping during the day to upregulate melatonin production. Melatonin is a crucial hormone for deep sleep, and can be disrupted when trying to sleep in a light environment.
3) Incidental Cardio
One of my favorite things about travel is that, by nature, it necessitates lots of walking. This is especially true in cities where the public transport is excellent, and Tokyo undoubtedly falls in this category.
I was easily walking >10K steps a day, which would have expended a few hundred calories. There is no better form of aerobic exercise than exploring foreign cities by foot, in my opinion.
Don’t see more walking as an inconvenience, embrace it!
In addition to all the steps I was taking during the day, I was dancing for several hours at night, offsetting a lot of the alcohol calories I consumed. Win-win.
This overseas trip was an eye opener for me as to the effectiveness of bodyweight training, and served as a turning point in my own training programming. I love the inherent flexibility that advanced bodyweight exercises afford, being able to be perform them any where at any time.
As someone with a Powerlifting background, I believe that integrating bodyweight training into your weekly programming will serve you well.
Rather than viewing these two training modalities as mutually exclusive entities (as I previously did, and many people do), they should be considered complementary. Together, they foster long-term leanness and greater relative strength, longevity of training with improved joint health, and ultimately develop a robust athlete.
I believe travel really does lend itself to fat loss if you are still somewhat accountable in the process.
The above strategies actually worked better than I initially anticipated, which was pleasing. I definitely don’t condone the hedonism I carried out as a constant in one’s life, but I hope the fitness enthusiasts reading this may acquire some peace of mind when it comes to your own travel ventures.
Play around in the foreign territories you traverse, and come home rejuvenated and leaner than you imagined.
Happy travelling and happy training fam. 🙂
Editor’s note: Readers, how have you managed to keep active during times of travel? Do you try and keep to a similar routine, or change everything up and get creative?