Low-Stress Ways to Stay Active on Vacation

I just got back from a sunny getaway (it’s what we Canadians do at this time of year) and you know what, I’m going to say it: We should all take a break from work and getting away is a great way to do that. But getting away doesn’t have to mean getting away from our physical fitness goals.

The problem with mixing holiday time and exercise time is, well, who the heck wants to hang out in a gym while they’re on their dream vacation? Nobody, that’s who.

So, let’s flip frizown upside dizzity and focus instead on how you can incorporate movement into your vacation. Because, as you know from following people like me, Katy Bowman, Brad Kearns and Darryl Edwards, it is 100% possible to stay active without feeling like you’re exercising.

A Side-Note About Losing Fitness

You may already be thinking, “Whatever, Brock. Why do I even need to worry about this.” To that, I say “You don’t have to worry about it but let’s consider the ramifications of doing nothing during your vacation.” The bummer is that the body starts experiencing significant changes after as little as one week of inactivity (notice I didn’t say absence from workouts, I said inactivity).

Yes, when we stop consistently moving our bodies at a moderate to high intensity, we almost immediately start to lose plasma and blood volume. This means that your heart rate for a given intensity will naturally increase.

After approximately 10-14 days, your maximum oxygen utilization drops at a rate of about 0.5 percent a day. After a two-week fitness break, your brain’s ability to recruit muscle drops by 1-5 percent. After three to four weeks off, your muscles begin to atrophy, your fatty acid utilization drops, and you become more sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar.

When you get back from your vacation and start moving again, you can expect it to take roughly twice as long to get back into shape as the time you’ve spent being inactive. That means if you take two weeks off, it could take four weeks to build back up to your previous fitness level. But there’s some good news. If you’re already fit with good training history, that time can definitely be shortened. We’ll talk about that, and a thing called supercompensation, in a moment.

Move, Exercise, or Train?

OK, here’s a quick refresher. As I have talked about in a previous podcast episode, the three categories of fitness are Movement, Exercise, and Training. Movement is the indispensable way we move our bodies through our non-sedentary life. Exercise is the dedicated time we set aside to make up for the lack of movement we may have in our life. Training is what we do to reach a particular fitness goal, like run a 10K or go on a fun adventure with our friends/family.

With that in mind, it’s logical that the most fun and least disruptive way to stay active during your vacation is to increase the movement part of your days. If you can do that successfully enough, you don’t even have to think about the other two categories: getting exercise or doing training. 

No More All-or-Nothing

Shake the all-or-nothing mindset. It’s all too common in fitness and health. The trick to developing and maintaining healthy habits is to remain flexible in your approach. This becomes doubly important when you’re on vacation.

This flexibility means you may not only choose different physical activities than you normally would but you’re likely to distribute them throughout the day. If you’re accustomed to getting a good workout done first thing in the morning and then staying mildly active for the remainder of the day, you’re going to have to rethink that approach. Your vacation movement will happen throughout the day rather than in one big scheduled chunk.

So, with that in mind, what are some ways to maximize that movement cycle without taking precious time away from your sightseeing? Well, the ideas are likely infinite, but here are a few to get you started.

#1 – Take walking tours.

One of the best ways to see your vacation destination is on foot. Find a walking tour, either as part of an organized group or as a self-guided stroll on your own. It’s a great way to get in some movement while experiencing everything an unfamiliar locale has to offer. The Lonely Planet travel books have built-in walking tours, and there are many others online. It isn’t hard to find a walking tour for most major destinations.

This is my number one recommendation due in part to that fact that there’s no better feeling than putting your tired feet up at the end of an amazing day of “hoofin’er” around a gorgeous vacation setting. 

#2 – Plan an event-based trip.

In the past, I’ve raced marathons in places like Hawaii, Chicago, and Quebec, and attended triathlons in New York, Thailand, and Bermuda. Each one of those events whisked me off to an awesome vacation destination while also ensuring I got some serious activity.

But staying fit on vacation doesn’t have to involve competition. Simply choosing a vacation spot that allows and encourages you to participate in your favourite sport can make it easy to not only stay active but even increase your activity while you’re away.

#3 – Look into activity-based tours.

These days, there are more and more activity-based tours popping up. I know people who have hiked the Amalfi Coast of Italy, cycled from Bruges to Amsterdam, traversed the Inca Trail in Peru, or kayaked the lagoons of Iceland. You can pretty much type any activity and location into a search engine and find a tour company that offers a tailored getaway. Or plan it yourself and make it a real adventure!

Make sure you choose an activity that you enjoy and are already trained for so you can maximize your fun and minimize the discomfort. Remember, this is a vacation, not training camp. Although I know people who signed up for Navy SEAL training as their vacation, so take that advice with a grain of salt.

#4 – Choose active instead of passive.

This tip revolves around shunning all-inclusive resorts and cruises in favor of national parks, world heritage sites, ski hills, golf courses and other vacation spots where you don’t pay in advance for unlimited access to food and drink. Yes, it’s possible to stay active in all-inclusive situation, but the mindset that comes along with pre-paying for unlimited snacks and beverages just begs your inner lazy-bones to kick back and order another cocktail. Your stay-fit vacation spot should encourage you to bust out a map and your walking shoes.

Instead of lumbering across the manicured compound to the buffet, spend some time and energy tracking down the bar where your favorite writer was inspired to write that book you love or the restaurant that invented that dish you’ve always wanted to try. Making meal or snack time into an adventure means you not only get in some extra movement, you turn an afternoon beverage into a story.

#5 – Pre-load your workouts

Remember that it’s OK to allow yourself a bit of extra relaxation on vacation, especially if you’ve been engaged in consistent training leading up to it. For example, when I used to travel for work (the sedentary kind), and I knew well in advance that I wouldn’t have the time, the gear, or perhaps even the inclination to continue with my normal fitness regimen while I was away, I prepared myself for the break. Instead of experiencing a loss in fitness, I actually grew my fitness and strength during the time off. This is how to do it:

  1. Identify when the break in training is going to happen.
  2. In your training plan, two to three weeks before the break, remove your normal rest and recovery days and instead begin a gradual build in your training load. This may include extra kilometres of running or cycling, more weight on the bar, or back-to-back workouts that would normally be separated by 24 or 48 hours.
  3. In the final week before the break, dig deep and feel free to ignore you inner voice of reason, which I normally encourage you to heed. Launch yourself out of bed and into your workout clothes, despite your desire to hit “Snooze,” and call it a training day knowing that you will soon get all the rest you need.
  4. Be careful not to push yourself into overtraining, but definitely allow yourself to accumulate more fatigue than you usually would. Don’t be unreasonable, but also, as we say in the biz, don’t be a wimp.

By planning some hard and heavy weeks leading up to a vacation, not only can you avoid losing fitness, you can actually increase your fitness as you relax on the beach. You still need to give your body what it needs to repair and rebuild (general movement, good food, adequate hydration, deep sleep, etc.) but you don’t have to pack your kettlebells in your carry-on.

#6 – Choose a backpack

I know, those suitcases with wheels are pretty slick (some of them even have phone chargers built in – what?!?). But when I use a backpack, I can create load on my trunk. That means I have to support the weight of my belongings all by myself, actively, while I walk. Or, and this is the best part, I can switch that load. I can carry my backpack on my front, in my hand, or on one or both shoulders. Plus, I can walk and look at a map on my phone at the same time! 

Ultimately, backpacks are not better or morally superior, although I do feel pretty badass when I am schlepping my 60-litre backpack onto a subway platform. But they are definitely more adaptable than suitcases. The same can be said for messenger bags, purses, satchels and any piece of luggage that doesn’t have a telescoping handle and wheels. 

What’s the takeaway?

The truth is, even professional athletes relax occasionally and enjoy some extra indulgences. But those who manage to do this successfully don’t do it very often, and don’t spend the entire vacation lying on a lounger drinking mai tais. They do prepare for the vacation appropriately in their training, and when they get back from vacation, they get right back on track.

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