Traveling for competition can be a real challenge for athletes – it’s called “home advantage” for a reason! The combination of a long road trip or plane ride with an unfamiliar environment and sleeping situation, plus the pressure to perform while keeping up with school work, can disrupt any student athlete’s routine. While athletes need to be properly fueled for competition regardless of the travel circumstances, nutrition habits are easily compromised in the midst of the craziness. You can’t avoid all of the challenges that travel brings, but you can create a travel nutrition game plan to help optimize performance and recovery.
Considerations for your travel nutrition plan
You want to prepare for travelling just like you would for competition! Find out what the arrangements will be for meals. Will any meals be provided? What restaurants will you be going to? Is there breakfast available at the hotel and if so what will they offer?
The goal of planning ahead is to ensure that you can both pack and purchase options for meals and snacks that are familiar to you and cater to your personal needs. A general rule of thumb is to avoid trying any new or unfamiliar foods 24-48 hours before competition (regardless of whether or not you’re travelling) to avoid GI upset. You want to choose foods that have proven over and over again to be effective during training and previous competitions. It’s always a good idea to have some of these foods on hand when travelling so you never have to go too long without eating.
Some ideas for easy non-perishable snacks to bring that can be geared towards pre- or post- competition are peanut butter sandwiches, dried fruits and nuts, and protein powder packets. For more nutrient-dense packaged snack ideas that can easily be taken on-the-go, check out our free guide here!
Eating on the Go
Look up the menus of places you will eat in advance, so you can look for appropriate options that are rich in carbohydrates and will fuel you adequately while also preventing GI discomfort. Generally, when dining out before your competitive events, you want to AVOID foods that are described as “fried”, “creamy”, “creamed”, and “breaded”. These choices tend to be high in saturated fat and can cause GI discomfort, especially before competition. Instead, choose foods that are described as “grilled”, “broiled”, “roasted”, and “boiled” and include smaller portions of plant-based or fish-based fat for satiety, such as olive oil, avocado, or salmon.
Although travelling can create some exciting food opportunities with different cuisines and restaurants, it can take a toll on your body. Choose foods that are familiar and nourishing to support performance and recovery. You can use Google Maps and Yelp to scope out what restaurants, convenience stores, and grocery stores are nearby to buy food. If you have the opportunity, bookmark a restaurant or meal that looks exciting for after you’ve finished competing.
Take advantage of rest stops! Familiar non-perishable snacks can be purchased at many rest stops and gas stations. These can also be great places to buy perishable items, such as yogurt, cheese sticks, hummus, milk, and hard boiled eggs, to pair with the snacks you brought.
Hydration for Travel
With all of the craziness that goes along with travelling, it can feel more annoying and stressful than having to stop to use the restroom. However, maintaining hydration is exceptionally important, especially when travel is a factor. Athletes who are travelling by plane are more likely to become dehydrated due to the air pressure and dry air in the cabin. Whether you are travelling by plane, bus, or car, make sure that you continue to drink water or pack extra water bottles with you.
When you are travelling to a hot and humid environment, engaging in vigorous activity for over 60 minutes, or are often struggling to reach optimal hydration, electrolyte products may be helpful for you to stimulate thirst and maintain fluid balance. They often come in small portable packaging so you can easily take them with you on the go and add them to your water bottle.
Other Considerations for Athlete Travel
No matter how much you optimize your travel nutrition choices, you’ll still want to consider these other critical factors to improve performance on the road:
- Go to bed early the night before travel. Sleep is important to prevent getting rundown, which can be a result of travel.
- Try to limit caffeine use, especially close to bed. While caffeine can benefit many athletes, a 2019 review of caffeine intake and performance recommends about two cups 60 minutes before exercise to kickstart that increase in energy we crave. However, reactions to caffeine can be very nuanced, with habituation and genetics playing a role. It could also be detrimental to sleep and performance to begin a coffee habit during a road trip.
- Stretch at rest stops and before/after travelling to mitigate the effects of sitting and relieve stiffness.
Travel Nutrition Takeaways:
- Planning is key. Know what the arrangements are for meals so you can research what is available within walking distance of your hotel to buy water, snacks, meals, etc.
- Mimic your normal nutrition routine as much as possible. Choose familiar and nourishing foods. Avoid anything new 24-48 hours before competition.
- Prioritize sleep and stretching. Go to bed early, keep the caffeine to a minimum, and stay as mobile as possible while travelling to promote performance and recovery.