Surviving the Travel Challenge for Athletes

Whether it is for business or for an event, competitive athletes face many challenges associated with travel. An athlete must maintain a regular eating schedule to ensure proper carbohydrate and protein levels, daily vitamin needs, adequate energy and hydration. Travel, however, very frequently disrupts this schedule and exposes the athlete to foreign food and water which may lead to gastrointestinal distress. This article focuses on key points that will help athletes adapt and reduce the nutrition stress of unfamiliarity. Some of these points include planning ahead, researching destinations and their catering styles, determining what food to pack, and recognizing and remaining aware of energy balance and food safety.

Plan ahead for your race travel

Once you account for time differences and jet lag, aim to keep foods and meal times as similar to home as possible. Do not assume that what is normally consumed at home will be readily available, particularly if you venture to a different country. By using the internet, embassies, travel agencies, and the event organizers, you can determine what foods are available and how assessable stores will be to you once you reach your destination.  Foods such as fruit, yogurt, string cheese, jello-type puddings, cottage/ricotta cheeses are usually available if stores are accessible.  If you want to prepare your own food, determine the accessibility of refrigerators, microwave ovens, or even blenders. You may even consider taking a mini blender (such as the magic bullet express) if electricity is present and appropriate wattage.

Packing your race luggage

Appropriateness of traveling with certain food items and/or mini appliances may differ based on whether all meals are included or part of nutrition is expected to be self catered.  With regard to preparing your luggage:

Protein/energy bars offer great snack options and are easily transportable as well as non-perishable. Make sure you pack an adequate supply.

Other non-perishable items are easy to throw into luggage, ready to provide a quick and easy snack or mini meal.  These include packets of oatmeal or other instant hot cereals (all you need is hot water which can be made in a microwave or in a coffee pot, usually available in hotel rooms), snack packs like pretzels, animal crackers, and Fig Newtons.

Consider packing protein powder for meal replacement shakes. Protein powder is easily transportable and would not take up much extra space if packed into sandwich bags. The availability of fruit is almost a guarantee in most cities, and thus protein shakes for recovery and/or as any meal replacements becomes an easy option. Protein shakers with specifically designed whipping tops are a great alternative if blenders in inaccessible, these can be purchased at most health food stores or sports stores, such as GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Sports Authority.

Proper research and packing can ensure that you have foods available when needed.

Using what is available

Hotel breakfasts, if included, often have oatmeal packets, bran cereal in little boxes, fruit, and yogurts that can be taken away from the breakfast area when you leave for the day. These can be kept in tog bags for snacks during the day (especially if you are unable to get to a store). Remember, dairy products should not be left at room temperature for very long. By attempting to eat every two to three hours when you are traveling as you would at home, not only do you maintain a well fueled metabolism but you consume these perishable foods within a reasonable amount of time.

Many hotel breakfasts not only serve yogurt and fruit options, but also serve egg options, which can be accompanied by a slice of whole wheat bread/toast or a whole wheat English muffin. Always ask the service staff if they serve eggs, because it is not always evident, and more than likely can be arranged. They may even boil some eggs by request. Be aware of buffet style breakfasts and stick to the same choices you would normally make at home – fruits, yogurts, raisin bran cereal, and egg options.  Especially when away, be very careful of portion size.  It’s easy to forget.

For lunches and dinners, even though it may be difficult and the food may be enticing, make good food choices:

Be conscious of hidden fats in restaurant foods especially in dressings, marinades, and other sauces.
Stick with grilled, baked, broiled or steamed chicken, fish, and grilled or steamed vegetables. Coastal cities always have excellent grilled fish – a great choice for good quality protein.
Limit the amount of fat in snacks and breakfast choices so that if lunches and dinners are unavoidably high in fat, at least the chance of overload is minimized.   
Try to include a carbohydrate choice for each of the main meals, like rice, grain bread, baked or sweet potato, or legumes (beans, edamame).  
Try to get the whole grain options for carbohydrate choices, such as whole grain breads, quinoa, couscous, brown rice, etc.  

Be high maintenance, wait staff are there to please you and will usually honor reasonable requests without a fuss.  

If by Air

You are more likely to receive a lower fat, higher carbohydrate meal if you request a vegetarian meal on the airplane which you should do as part of your pre-planning. Some airlines even offer a sports nutrition meal, and researching options can aid in reducing the risk of gastrointestinal distress, particularly before a competition.

Reduce the stress associated with travel by readjusting to time changes for both sleeping and eating as quickly as possible. Make sure to eat meals when the locals are eating and sleep when the locals are sleeping.  


It is important to maintain constant hydration, not only in preparation for an event, but particularly while in flight – air travel is a highly dehydrating experience. Sip water and sports drinks continuously throughout the flight as a preventative measure. Consider taking bottled water with you, as their may be a large lag in time from when seated on a plane until the first beverages are served. With regards to the new security regulations, bottled water can be purchased inside the airport once you pass security check points.  Avoid caffeine and alcohol on flights, since both have a diuretic effect, which increase the risk of dehydration in an already dehydrating environment.

Bottled water is highly recommended in foreign countries. Even though you may hear “the water’s safe”, it may be for the locals, but because the water supplies are foreign to our immune systems, they may cause gastrointestinal stress which can quickly put a damper on your time away.  

Athelete’s Travel Tips Summary

Disruptions and distractions of traveling away from home can significantly impact performance. Preparation and self education on destinations offer an extreme benefit to keep athletic performance optimal. The main priority is to remain effectively fueled. It is not difficult to adhere to good nutritional strategies away from home, even when in foreign countries. The key to successful travel is planning.