We know that reaching for a six-pack instead of a protein shake, or that big ‘ole serving of fries instead of the roasted chicken, could interfere with our gains. And we know that our bodies need some extra TLC in the form of an Epsom salt bath, extra sleep, and a little bit of foam rolling after an especially hard training day or week in the gym.
But, just as we need to recover from a solid sweat session, we need to recovery from planes, trains, and automobiles. Travel can put a real wrench in our training plans, recovery routine, and overall health, explains Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., Pn1, founder of Training2xl. Not only does travel leave us cooped up in a seat for hours on end, but we often arrive to our destination tired, dehydrated, swollen, and sore, she says. So, if you think a few toe-touching-stretches and a celebratory drink is all our body’s needs after a long flight or drive, think again, she says. Recovering from a day of travel is just as important for preventing injuries and maximizing training results as recovery from what feels like The Toughest Workout of The Year.
Once we get on a plane we can’t do anything to reduce the length of the flight, eliminate, the bumpiness of the flight, or any time difference. But we can change our approach to post-travel recovery.
The relative stress of travel is huge for most people, says Dan Daly, C.S.C.S., an NYC-based strength and conditioning coach and endurance runner and OCR athlete. The experience of planning a trip, packing, waking up early, taking time off of work, going through security, and then flying can be incredibly stressful, he says. At times of stress our bodies respond by releasing cortisol, the stress hormone, which can impede muscle growth and fat loss, Daly explains. To minimize the stress, pack in advance, get to the airport early, and know how you’re getting to and from the airport. Minimizing the stress of travel (and therefore the effects of stress on the body) is easy, it just takes some planning, he emphasizes.
That doesn’t mean use the flight or passenger-seat as an excuse to order an A.M. Bloody Mary or sip some Bourbon. It means reach for the H2O and keep on reaching for it during the duration of your travels. By continually hydrating with water and coconut water you'll minimize skin dryness, avoid headaches, reduce puffiness, keep your mind sharp, and help move nutrients and toxins through your body, explains Luciani.
“Your body uses water in a myriad of ways such as ridding waste from the body, fueling the metabolism, and regulating pH and body temperature which means that hydration, hydration, hydration is non-negotiable for recovery,” explains registered dietitian nutritionist Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
It may be an in-transit day, but you still need to hydrate and fuel your body and muscles for your goals, Daly says. That means don’t: forget about your water bottle, stop eating ample protein, reach for the booze, or consider rest day a food free-for-all, he adds.
Even if you’re not starving before you hop onto a flight, don’t board the plane or start clocking miles in the car until you have a lunchbox of trainer-approved snacks packed. “If you're flying, be sure to pack things that will get through security like nuts, seeds, protein bars, a scoop of protein powder in a baggie, or fruits and vegetables,” suggests Luciani. If you’re driving, don’t depend on gas-station goodies to get you through the commute. Instead, pack grilled chicken, veggies with dig, or bring along a smoothie that packs a protein punch.
Whether the flight is 3 hours or 8, moving whenever possible is key, says Luciani. “Travelling makes us sit for long periods of time with little to no movement which is a sure-fire way for our muscles to stiffen up. Not to mention, our bodies require movement to help circulate our blood (and nutrients)” says Luciani. “Our circulation system is 70% passive which means blood blow is facilitated by muscle contractions,” Daly explains. Without those contractions (which happen from movement), blood begins to pool in our brain and extremities, which is why flying causes our hands and feet to swell, he says.
To help prevent the negative effects of sitting for too long you can use the active approach: stand up and walk down the aisle when the seatbelt sign is off, stop every 50 miles for a quick walk, or every even just reach overhead or stand for 30 seconds every 15 minutes, suggests Luciani. Or do a couple stretches before hopping on the plane, and make a point of getting up to go to the bathroom every hour, Daly adds.
There is now an alternative approach that many athletes are taking advantage of during their air-travel, it's called firefly™ and it's quickly becoming the latest trend in recovery methods. firefly™ is neuromuscular electro-stimulation (NMES) device that simulates the muscle contractions of walking, which means it’ll get the blood in your legs flowing to your upper extremities before any fat-fingers, asleep-limbs, or stiff muscles occur.
Aim to get plenty of sleep in the nights before you take off. This will help counterbalance the lack of sleep you’ll likely get on the plane or train (or while in the driver’s seat), so that you’ll still arrive at your destination well-rested. Plus, poor sleep contributes to excess cortisol levels, while extra sleep will put your immune system in tip-top shape for fighting off coughs and colds that seem to come hand-in-hand with plane travel, says Luciani.
Not to mention that sleep deprivation impairs the recovery of muscles following muscularly taxing training session, according to a study published the Sleep Medicine Journal. After a workout when your muscles are torn, sleep actually helps them regenerate. Ditch the sleep because of travel and you’re saying goodbye to the gains, too. While one or two nights of poor sleep might not impact your performance, consistently low hours of sleep will, says Daly, that means it’s time to stop scrolling through firefly™’s Instagram and get to sleep, because there’s no such thing as just one more episode.