In November 2020, I set off for Europe to travel indefinitely. I was fresh out of journalism school but had already lived a previous life as a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter for three years before enrolling. The lessons I learned during those years of fighting are what gave me enough discipline, confidence, and fortitude to complete my degree and set out to travel the world on my own.
Since fighters are notorious for being broke, one of the best lessons I learned was how to eat properly while on the road with a tight budget. When I had the time, I would spend several days in a row driving around the Pacific Northwest in my pickup truck, where I would sleep and eat the food that I had packed beforehand.
It was during that time that I realized that staying healthy on the road just took a little practice and discipline. It’s a lot easier than most people realize, and working out while traveling doesn’t have to take up much time out of your day or even involve a gym.
Maintain a Steady Routine as Much as Possible
Getting adequate rest, maintaining a healthy diet, and establishing a steady exercise routine while traveling long-term can be extremely challenging even when you’re at home, and sometimes it can seem downright insurmountable while on the road. I always seek out jiu jitsu gyms once I arrive in a new city and attend as often as I can. Try your best to follow a healthy schedule as much as possible and you should be fine.
What it really comes down to is discipline, which is something that I learned during my days of competing and going through training camps. I know what it is like to be in great physical shape, so I try to maintain a base level of strength and endurance at all times. A level where I would be able to prepare for a fight in a couple of months if I wanted to. That’s where discipline comes in. It helps if I look at it as general maintenance of my body and I start feeling guilty if I start neglecting it. I need to take care of my body so it will function properly and extend my lifespan.
I rarely stay in the same place for more than a few days at a time, which means that I don’t always have access to the same foods and places to workout as I did the day before. Since I don’t have the luxury of being able to regularly afford private hostel rooms and entire apartments, I often find myself in shared rooms, some of which can hold up to a dozen people. The odds of noise being made during times when most normal people are asleep increases exponentially under these conditions, whether it be from drunk people coming in late or people digging through their bags at weird hours, it’s never a good idea to assume that you will be getting a lot of REM sleep while there. Even if you happen to find a good deal and only have to share a room with one or two more people, your entire day could be ruined if one of them has a snoring problem.
These are all obstacles that are more annoying than anything else. No matter how tired you are or how few resources you have to work out, doing something is always better than doing nothing. I have forced myself to do pull-ups and burpees when I felt like a zombie before. It was horrible, but I always felt better after and was in a much better mood even if I didn’t have the strength to complete a normal routine.
Stretching is incredibly boring but is also absolutely necessary for maintaining a healthy body. I will admit that I tend to slack off more with stretching than anything else on this list, but I still manage to do it several times a week.
Stretching helps aid in circulation and also prepares the muscles for physical activity. I always feel like I accomplished something after I stretch, especially first thing in the morning. Nothing bad can come from it.
Walking and Hiking
I walk as much as I can just about everywhere I go, but the amount I walk in Europe is several times more than it is in the United States. Staying active as much as possible is essential when leading a sedentary lifestyle or if you are forced to sit for long periods like you do on a bus or train.
While my backpack weighs around 35 pounds, I usually carry a tote bag with food and my computer to lighten the load on my back, so overall I am carrying close to a total of 50 pounds once I step off the train or bus. I will normally just walk to my destination if it takes a half hour or less to get there because I like to see part of the city and get some exercise at the same time.
Doing that helps me stay conditioned during those days when I hit the hiking trails for several hours at a time.
Proper Breathing Cadences
One of the most important yet underrated skills I learned while fighting is how to properly regulate my breathing cadences to further increase my endurance. Learning how to stay relaxed while my body is undergoing intense physical stress has had innumerable benefits for me both inside and outside of the MMA world. Training your body to exhale while exerting energy seems counterintuitive at first and takes a little time to get over, but it is an essential part of growing as an athlete or for your own benefit.
Take something as simple as walking up several flights of stairs. Once I start feeling fatigued and my leg muscles start hurting, I focus on keeping a steady pace and breathing pattern, where I usually exhale long enough to take two or three steps before inhaling again. Doing so helps push me through to the end. While I have witnessed many people needing to take a short break at the end to catch their breath, I can catch my breath much quicker because I maintain the same breathing pattern the entire time.
The same especially goes for the much more arduous task of hiking. By myself, I have managed to hike several miles at a time, without stopping, before reaching my destination because I usually prefer to take my time shooting photographs on the way back if it is a one-way hike. Even if I am breathing heavily when I reach my final destination, I manage to recover faster if I keep moving a little less as time passes and ease back into my natural breathing pattern instead of stopping immediately.
Even though I live an active lifestyle, there are times when I find myself sitting in front of the computer for several days at a time. Because I know how to regulate my breathing patterns, I am able to go for a hike the entirety of the next way without issue, take off running for twenty minutes without breathing heavily, and participate in several rounds of jiu jitsu whenever I am able to make it to a class. It’s a total game changer once you’re able to do it.
Calisthenics is Key
Your body stays strong through resistance training, which can range anywhere from swinging a sledgehammer to doing lunges in your living room. Luckily, calisthenics can be performed almost anywhere, is one of the most effective ways to stay in shape, and is much easier on the body than lifting weights
Burpees are my favorite thing to fear because of how effective they are for me. If you want to boost your metabolism, start with doing 20 burpees when you first wake up and eventually work your way up to 60 (or more if you have that kind of energy). I usually receive the same annoyed look followed by an eye roll every time I mention it to people the myriad benefits that burpees bring, but we are always able to both agree that they can be good for you and can be done almost anywhere, from a large park to a small space on the hostel property.
If burpees are too hard on your knees, you can still work your legs by doing bodyweight squats and lunges (don’t forget about side lunges). Pack your bag and hold it or wear it while doing lunges if you want some weight added.
Resistance bands are amazing pieces of equipment. Not only are they highly effective in developing and maintaining strength, but they take up very little space in your bag or suitcase.
I am also a major proponent of pull-ups. It is my favorite compound exercise because it burns a lot of calories, builds muscle, and works your core all at the same time. Pull-ups work every muscle in the back along with your deltoids and biceps. If you can’t do a pull-up or struggle doing a few of them, then use the resistance bands to help you. The most important thing is to maintain good form. If it takes you all day to do ten pull-ups, that’s ok; you still did them. If you don’t have resistance bands, another good way to build up pull-up strength is by doing negatives, where you jump up into the completed position and slowly let yourself down. Count to either five or ten before letting go if you’re just getting started.
Since pull-ups don’t target the triceps, I like to brace myself against a countertop using an inverted grip while performing a push-up motion. You can also perform dips on the edge of a bed or coffee table.
I also have a proclivity to shadowbox a lot, especially between sets. Once I finish a set of pull-ups or other exercises, I shadowbox until it’s time for the next one. I do it to keep my speed and reflexes sharp, but also because it keeps me active while I’m resting.
Get Creative While Working Out
Almost anything can be used as a piece of exercise equipment if utilized properly. A lot of chairs can be used for doing arm curls by holding two of the legs halfway up with your hands and balancing the bottom half against your forearms. I have also used a microwave before to do a version of the standing military press. If it is heavy, it can probably be used as a weight in some way.
I stayed for several months at a hostel in Bulgaria that had a wood-burning oven and open space in the back, so I grabbed a log and took it back there. I lifted it on my shoulder and threw it down the same way I would a medicine ball or punching bag. I also lifted it over my head while standing and threw it in front of me as far as I could after the fifth repetition.
There was a horizontal pipe away from everybody where I would go to do my pull-ups. There were also two large chemical jugs that I filled up with water so I could work my shoulders and back doing farmer’s carry and standing rows.
Shoulders and back are two muscle groups I work on often since I carry all of my groceries in the tote bags I mentioned earlier. As I go back to my apartment or hostel, I carry in each hand a bag of similar weight and will switch hands several times along the way back if there is a noticeable discrepancy in weight so that the muscles on each side are being worked the same way.
As the old saying goes: you really are what you eat. If you eat junk foods then you are going to develop a junk body. Conversely, eating clean and nutritious gives you more energy and helps maintain a high metabolism. It truly is that simple. A common misconception is that eating healthy is just too expensive, especially while on the road, but this claim could not be further from the truth. Difficult, yes, but it’s not much more expensive than eating ramen noodles and chips, and the trade off of staying healthy is most definitely worth it.
It’s difficult because maintaining a healthy diet can be challenging when you are in a different place several times a week. It makes meal prepping less likely and sometimes the grocery selection isn’t all that impressive. But if you view your health as a priority instead of a luxury, your habits will inevitably change for the better.
Prioritize Nutrients Over Taste
Back when I was competing as an MMA fighter, one of my coaches told me that eggs, oats, and brown rice were always good choices if I didn’t know what else to eat. I have consistently managed to follow that axiom ever since.
While traveling, I always carry uncooked food such as rice, tuna, eggs, and fresh produce in a tote bag so I will at least have something to eat once I reach my destination. There have been several instances where I had no choice but to arrive well after everything was closed, and a few times I stayed in places that were nowhere near any restaurants or grocery stores, so I ended up eating a couple of cans of tuna and a tomato for dinner. Not the most desirable meal after a long day of moving, but at least I was able to receive the proper nutrients my body needed to recover. Remember, nothing tastes better than being thin.
There are many times when I am either traveling a long distance by bus or by train and there aren’t many decent options along the way to the destination. Sometimes, chips and the like have been my only food choices. I learned the difference a long time ago between just being hungry and what it feels like to actually be devoid of nutrients like I was when I was cutting weight for fights. Nuts are great alternatives to chips and candies, but there have been times when I decided to just wait until I reached my destination to satiate my hunger pangs.
Being thirsty works similarly. The first time I was sitting in the sauna trying to shed those few final pounds, I learned that there is a major difference between being dehydrated and just being parched. Fruits and vegetables are mostly made of water, and so are most drinks. While it is a good idea to always carry water, you will not become dehydrated if you find yourself having to go without it for most of the day, even if the weather is a bit warm.
Eggs are easy to transport. Simply wrap the carton in a hand or bar towel and set it on top of something else in the bag. I usually boil them for around six-and-a-half minutes and eat them for breakfast every morning. On the rare occasion that a hostel has no boiling pot, a coffee maker is a great alternative, although the water gets so hot that the eggs are more prone to exploding. Many places don’t have a microwave available, but if there is one, microwaving raw eggs in a bowl works just as well as cooking them in a frying pan if you have no other option.
Before I came to Europe, I would take frequent road trips in my pickup truck for several days at a time. I would always make sure to meal prep ahead of time, and one of the main things I cooked, while I was a broke college student, was a combination of eggs, brown rice, salmon, cod, tuna, and scallops. Sometimes, I would throw some shrimp in there to substitute for the scallops. I would often mix it with some cheese and add a little hot sauce to my bowl once I was ready to eat. It was a delicious and nutritious concoction of which I would make a lot at once so I could have it throughout the week. If I decided to travel, I would load a bunch of it into a gallon ziplock bag along with some hard boiled eggs, fruits, vegetables, and whatever else I could fit in a cooler full of ice.
Aside from that, I would also have some dry oats, honey, peanut butter, and a gallon jug of water along with a few paper bowls and plastic spoons. Mixing oats and water has the same effect as if you were to boil them, they just don’t get as mushy. After adding some honey, it made for a delicious part of a balanced road breakfast.
Reduce Alcohol, Cigarettes, Sodas, and Junk Food
The thought of keeping a steady diet and exercise routine can be thrown out the window as long as alcohol, cigarettes, soda, and junk food – or any one of them by themselves – is steady in your life.
Truth be told, alcohol is one of the most harmful and addictive substances that a person can put in their body. These days, not being hungover is a much better feeling for me than being drunk. Even a little bit of the wrong kind of alcohol can disrupt your sleeping pattern and make you feel a little less energetic than you normally would, making it more likely that you will skip out on a workout or training session.
Unlike the United States, cigarettes are cheap and ubiquitous almost everywhere else you go, especially in the Balkan countries where I have spent the majority of my time. I have been around many people who choose to start smoking again once they arrive because the cigarettes are so much cheaper. Once, while training at a jiu jitsu gym in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, I saw several students along with the coach smoking cigarettes in the lobby immediately after a training session. Perhaps their active lifestyles prolong the negative effects that cigarettes have on the cardiovascular system, but it will catch up to them eventually.
As for the delicious European pastries, unfortunately, they are not very nutritious, which is why I do my best to limit my intake. Some days I will indulge in a few, but for the most part, I stay away from them. That’s about the extent of my overall bread intake as well.
Ultimately, staying in shape while traveling takes some discipline mixed with trial and error. It has taken me a lot of miles to figure out what works for me and what does not, but hopefully, this guide will be of some benefit to you.