I used to be a big advocate for periodization which landed on strategic targeted overtraining just prior to big trips. There is a good case to make for it. The rest period is part of the plan, a necessary requirement, in fact. And it leaves the traveler without any pressure but to simple BE, simply have fun, simply holiday. There’s no searching for adequate training facilities, which you’re simply not going to find anyway when going to non-touristy, remote, uncrowded locales. However, there’s a psychological disadvantage with large fluctuations in programming. So I started leaning toward the opposite.
There’s no “momentum” to regain if you keep close to your productive ratios ALL THE TIME. If you know that three days per week normally maintains, then that’s still true while traveling. If you know it takes five or six days per week to see good progress, that’s still true when traveling.
And then there’s just sheer honesty. If you’re subtracting your 50-90 hours of work, commutes, meetings, picking up and dropping off kids for school, sports, activities, etc., why wouldn’t you be able to fit in some hours of training? In this most recent adventure, I was finding myself almost embarrassed by the magnitude of free time, even after sleeping in, even after workouts, even after day trips and beaches. I ended up doing A LOT of checkins and follow-ups with people, former clients, etc. I can now envision realistically living there for a significant portion of the year and taking appointments and STILL feeling under-busied.
I generally followed the model of strategic overtraining leading up to many many trips from 2004 to 2012. Likewise, I often advocated for it for clients, especially for trips shorter than two weeks. The middle spectrum of strength (as defined by exercise science) doesn't wane much in a week. If you were overtraining beforehand, you may discover you're strongER after a rest week. Peak max strength will fall only a little in two weeks of detraining/no training. And peak cardiovascular capacity basically evaporates in two to three weeks of reduced athletic programming (the good news is that it can be regained pretty quickly). But from a pragmatic standpoint, average people aren't actually going to achieve athletic overtraining anyway. So this methodology can end up being a moot point for most.
On average, people are so incredibly weak, detrained, and inactive to begin, I increasingly prefer to somehow keep the ball rolling with their program while they travel. I will not even entertain the ridiculous notion that people need to "take a break" from taking care of themselves. I have heard this idiotic proclamation from a lot of really weak, really unfit, really undisciplined people over the years. They were already taking a vacation from self-care before they took a vacation. They don't need to take an ever bigger and more irresponsible break from it.
Domestically, it's pretty easy to use the hotel gym, in-home gyms at AirBnBs, or short trips to a local gym. Internationally, it's just harder. I know it firsthand. Putting aside the fact that you're managing major changes in time zones and circadian rhythm, a lot of the world (especially in the past) didn't have what we think of as training facilities. When you go to remote regions, there are none. And that's usually fine, in that you might be doing some hardcore trekking, hiking, and really physically-demanding days. But don't delude yourself. This is just basic caretaking of health and fitness. None of it will maintain or improve your best lifts. If you do a lot of hyper-touristy urban travel with really cushy hotels, there's no excuse. You can and should do some lifting. Even in Egypt in 2009, we stayed at a high-end hotel which dedicated an entire floor to a full gym reminiscent of a Gold's or Equinox or Lifetime. However, as a student living in Greece in 2003, I never even saw such a thing. That spring and summer, I covered 26 cities, countless towns and sites, and over 14 different islands; and I don't recall passing a single gym as we think of them in America.
2013 in Puerto Vallarta was the first time I decided to do overt lifting each day of an international trip. I found it grounding. In fact, it was such an effortless return that I realized I should be more advocating for this approach for average people. In the decade of coaching beforehand, I'd already seen thousands of examples of clients and members who had a really difficult time regaining traction and positive momentum after trips. Mindset is king. We all know it. Thus, is it ever a good idea to purposely NOT tend to your fitness? Especially when you're going to create a hardER mental fight upon return?
I’ve played with a lot of different ratios, and came to like this most recent experiment most:
I approached the trip in thirds, ensuring each third had its fitness curation. In the first third, I lifted the day before and the day of the flight with the intent to just forget about it the first week (or you could simply think about it as the first third of your trip) while visiting fam, hitting beaches, dragging bags and getting settled in. The second week/middle 8 days (central third) we stayed in a more urban area, where I was able to lift every day at a gym with A LOT of equipment only 6 blocks away (some footage here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Ci21XT7uudy/?igshid=NmNmNjAwNzg=). We often swam twice in a day. You walk everywhere, and not short distances. The third week (or third third) we chartered a boat for pretty lengthy snorkeling, and the hikes were more significant. There did exist one gym about 15 miles south of where we stayed four days of the last week. In a lengthier stay, I would've added it each morning. But this is also where travel experience and intelligent budgeting of your energy comes into play. The two days afterward were both going to be pretty heavy-duty travel days, long drives, transporting bags, etc. All in all, out of 23 days, legit lifting occurred 10 days, moderate to high activity was the norm for 19 days, and low or modest maybe 4. The overall ratio was slightly less than my norm, but the FEEL was like a 90% reduction in busyness and 99% reduction in urgency. It felt SLOW.
Upon return I was really ready to get down to business. No mental reset. No rebuilding. No delay in picking up heavy where I “left off”. I was immediately able to sprint and lift at my prior-to-traveling max capacity. I liked this format a lot, as it never felt like pushing, it never felt hurried, it never felt rushed.
It’s not THE answer. But after coaching thousands of people for two decades, I liked this format best. Now, keep in mind that this was an international trip with two young kids (but they are incredible travelers). For people with younger kids, more kids, less-experienced, and a shorter or more hurried trip, or a longer sequence of flights/commutes, I realize it can be a logistical squeeze.
I've coached it all. I've experimented with difference approaches. I've personally experienced a lot. So I'll leave it at the idea of referencing your known training ratios, minding pace, and approaching with the framework of thirds.
A lot of strength can be maintained at one to two targeted training sessions per week. Most progress occurs after this. Which do you want? Maintenance or progress? Progress may not be logistically sensible when thinking about the second consideration: pace. After you answer the frequency per week ratio question for yourself, take into account how to maintain a calm pace.
If you can keep a calm pace, sky is the limit. There's no excuse not to add activity and actual training. If you can't keep a calm pace, then don't force additions. Returning to the first consideration, maintenance may be all that's attainable.
Understand that your body and mind are going to naturally oscillate through three periods when traveling anyway; so you might as well consider this for your planning and execution. There will be transition TO vacation. There will be IN vacation. There will be transition FROM vacation. You could think of it as settling in, settled, and settling out.
With all of that in mind, you can discover your perfect amount of exercise on vacation. It's not none. It's not all. It's productive while not overwhelming. It's part of the resilience-building. It's complementary, not inconvenient. It keeps your discipline toward who you want to become. It ensures you don't have to "start over".
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