Travel - and particularly business travel - can be tough on the body, and hell on fitness. Cramped flights, late nights, rental cars, non-stop schedules and restaurant meals combine to push exercise out of sight and out of mind. Short trips swell into sedentary weeks. Think: One day off to prepare, another to catch up once home, and then, well, it's Friday and time for drinks.
You lose momentum, and your hard-earned fit body suffers. Just as exercise begets exercise, one day off often leads to another (and then another). Travel often, and the cumulative disruption will kill any fitness regime.
So how to keep at it? It is a challenge I have wrestled with for decades. Being fit - and ready to go on a long expedition at the drop of a hat - is part of my job description. So is staying at hotels. Luckily, I've had the good fortune on my adventures to travel with professional athletes, Olympic coaches and even a personal trainer - my wife. Here are a few tricks I've picked up along the way:
First, ignore anyone who tells you all you need is iron-willed discipline. It's not that simple. There will be exhaustion, junk food and other hiccups. There will be days when you collapse, near-comatose, into your hotel bed after dinner and wine, defaulting to TV instead of training. Forget about replicating the regime you follow at home. Instead, the goal should be to stem the tide and limit the damage.
Next, pack a pair of runners and some light workout clothes every time you leave home - that's all you need. On the day of departure, if you can manage 20 minutes of exercise before heading to the airport, you've got the first day licked. Drink water, or tomato juice, on all flights. And lots of it. (Anything else will spike your blood sugar.) If you are organized, and your travel is domestic, bring along a snack of baby carrots and apple slices.
Now the kicker: Your workouts, while away from home, should not exceed 30 minutes. Half an hour is not a lot to ask, and should feel easy to squeeze in. But plan for 45 minutes, or worse yet, an hour, and you'll be amazed how quickly exercise gets dropped from the schedule. And remember: It's not hard to pack a thunderous workout into 30 minutes using only body weight exercises (more on that in a moment).
The final, and possibly most crucial, ingredient is creativity. It is tempting, while on the road, to find a stationary bike or treadmill, park the brain and spin mindlessly. Don't do it. You'll end up bored and will start skipping sessions.
Instead, lace up your runners and walk straight past the stuffy exercise room and out the front door of the hotel. Your goal: a guerrilla urban interval session with short but intense bursts of activity, with easy jogging in between. Your mindset: This city is my playground.
Unconvinced? Follow me.
Let's jog for a bit. You don't have to be a runner, because this isn't a run. We are just getting the body moving and warm. After a few minutes, look for grass or a quiet corner. Do 20 body weight squats quickly.
Jog for a few more minutes, until you spot a place to do push-ups. Can't do pushups? Try from your knees. Or even easier, do them standing, against the edge of a newspaper box or a tree. If regular push-ups are too easy, try placing your hands close together. Or do clappers. Or do 100.
Now run a bit more. When you pass a bench or short cement wall, stop and jump up on it 10 times. Or try standing broad jumps (position yourself with your toes on a crack in the sidewalk, and with one mighty leap, see how far you can jump).
Next run backward for 50 strides.
Then jog sideways, in both directions, overlapping your feet. Perhaps you happen upon a turnstyle suitable for dips, or a tree branch that works for chin-ups. Go for it. Work in a set of "inchworms" at the first park you spot. (To do one inchworm, start in a push-up position and hop your feet forwards to your hands. Next, walk your hands forward until you are back down in the plank position. Repeat until your abs scream.) Or maybe you would rather a few Supermans? (Lie face down on the grass, as if you were flying, and hold both arms and both legs off the ground.)
By this point you've probably been gone 15 minutes. Turn around, and do every exercise again on the way back. Cool down and stretch in the last block, and you're done. Bet you feel good the whole next day. And I bet you are sore.
Try to make every workout different. Other exercises to consider include walking lunges and tuck jumps (explode upwards from a squat and pull knees into chest).
Remember burpees from high school? They are both evil and effective. Hold a static squat, with your back against any building for a minute, or maintain a plank position for two.
Compound movements that stress large muscle groups are the key. Forget "isolation" exercises, such as bicep curls or triceps extensions. You want your heart pounding, and besides, why work just one muscle when you can work many? Search online for even more ideas.
Travelling during rainy season? Don't worry, you can work out right in your hotel room. Here is a sample routine, one that needs only a patch of open floor: 20 body weight squats; 10 dips (hands on edge of desk, feet on floor); 10 burpees; and finally the "alphabet" (lie on your back and write the entire alphabet, legs held together, using both feet). Go fast. Repeat the sequence three times. It will take less than 20 minutes and you'll be gassed. And, tough guy/gal, if you're not, hit the hotel stairs, tossing in a body weight exercise at every fifth landing.
The benefits of short but intense training sessions - intervals, fartleks, plyometrics, tabatas (try Googling tabata if you really want to hurt) - are well documented. By constantly changing the location, duration and format of your exercise, these guerrilla workouts help avoid plateaus and without question, fight boredom.
Any exercise on the road, in my experience, feels twice as rewarding as a workout at home. And the bonus: For a few precious moments, you escape indistinguishable hotel rooms and conference centres, instead exploring the city you came to visit.
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