Going on a long-distance motorcycle ride, your mind is occupied – if not overwhelmed – by so many things at once healthy food choices, exercise, and stress management might not make your priority list for a while (or a all). You’ve got to figure out your routes, gear, bike maintenance, border crossings, bureaucracy, funds, off-road sections, and a myriad other things that you may not have accounted for; adventure travel is intense, even when you have a generous budget. It couldn’t be further from the typical holiday package where you’re flown to a destination, deposited in a hotel, driven for your diving lessons or sightseeing tours, fed in restaurants, and deposited back on the beach or hotel to relax. On a long-distance bike trip, you’re the one who is actively doing the riding, the planning, the search for accommodation, and the rest of it; it’s a journey, not a holiday, and with it comes the price.
Unsurprisingly, with so much going on, thinking about nutrition, health, and fitness isn’t easy, either. It’s tough to spend an hour at a local produce market trying to source fresh, organic food if you’ve spent the last ten hours on the bike riding off-road and your last meal was an improvised brunch at a roadside eatery. You’re starving and exhausted, and at this point, anything deep fried will do. Equally, thinking of fitness seems ridiculous if you’re mostly riding off-road – aren’t you getting enough exercise as is? And when you and your riding buddies have just dealt with a particularly draining border crossing experience that’s destroyed your faith in humanity, the last thing on your mind is having a light meal, drinking some tea, and going to bed early. It’s beer and nachos time, and that’s that.
The thing is, though, everything – good and bad – tends to accumulate. If you’re on a long-distance adventure that’s going to last two, three, maybe four years, eating junk foods and depleting your body’s resources is going to catch up with you. Fatigue adds up, you notice your immune response has grown weaker, you feel exhausted sooner, your energy levels are down, your digestion is messed up, and you’re getting more colds and flus. The joy factor of the entire journey goes down when you don’t feel well; brain fog can destroy the most beautiful scenery around you, and it’s hard to appreciate seeing a new country when you barely have enough energy to get on the bike.
Having battled low energy, sluggish thyroid, brittle bones, and crappy immune system response since my twenties, I started to feel the effects of living on the road more and more acutely in the last few years. More and more, I’d get colds from the slightest stressors like high altitude or colder weather; riding off-road, I’d get exhausted much faster and lose the ability to focus sooner. I’d get hangry and irritated for no apparent reason at all, start feeling out of breath when hiking, go through draining bouts of insomnia and poor sleep, experience anxiety, and generally feel sluggish and uninterested in the world around me, even when I was riding through some of the world’s most scenic landscapes. It all reached a tipping point after I got a maddening sinus infection that lasted two months leaving me barely able to breathe, miserable to the point I didn’t want to leave my AirBnbB at all, and so unproductive work felt like a terrible burden. Something had to change – being ill sucks, but being ill on the road sucks twice as much.
Eat Well, Sleep Well, and Take an Ice Bath
Slowly but surely, after lots of reading, biohacking research, and experimenting, I’d concluded it was impossible to always make healthy food choices, exercise regularly, meditate, and live a near-saintly-organic-vegan-super-healthy-beer-free lifestyle on the road – it’s too hard. What I could do, however, and what had the most profound effect so far, was tweaking five areas just enough to make a difference. These five areas gave the best return on investment with minimal effort, and it was food, sleep, movement, cold exposure, and stress management.
When it comes to food, it’s impossible to eat perfectly all of the time, but it is absolutely possible to eat mostly well most of the time. I now have a policy of one cheat day a week where I’m allowed to eat whatever I feel like or come across – from pizza to fries to cheese-drenched pasta – but for the rest of the weak, I try my best to stick to mostly raw, mostly plant-based food completely eliminating sugar, minimizing white carbs, and cooking simple, basic meals from scratch. It’s not a perfect system, but it adds up, and I haven’t experienced any stomach aches or digestive issues for so long I forgot what they felt like.
Next up is sleep: as a lifelong insomniac, sleep is my most highly prized, most precious necessity, and I’ve decided to prioritize it as such. I’ll gladly swap campfire beers for a cup of linden tea, pay a little more to get a quiet AirBnB instead of a noisy hostel, and focus on breathing and sleep meditation techniques to make sure I get my eight hours naturally. It’s non-negotiable at this point – and I have a lot more energy as a result.
Movement is tricky; being constantly on the move as is, it’s hard to dedicate time to full one-hour workouts or jogging rituals. However, a ten-minute strength workout is doable; things like wild camping and hiking up a mountain rather than riding, leaving your bike parked while you walk to the market to get food, and going on canyoning expeditions can all be incorporated into the travel chaos. Whenever I can, I try to move, and the more I move, the more I want to move. I recently sacrificed two hours of book reading in a hammock and set of on a hike upstream to find a waterfall somewhere in the Slovenian wilderness – and it was more than worth it.
Cold exposure is the newest addition to my health protocol, and so far, it’s one that has left the biggest impact. Determined to fix my immune system, I found the Wim Hof Method – essentially, a philosophy (and science) of cold immersion at least once a day. Ideally, you’d want to swim in an icy meltwater river or creek, but cold showers do the trick, too; the idea is that by exposing yourself to freezing cold water for at least a minute or two every day, you’re slowly training your vascular system and your immune response to withstand temperature stressors more and more. I’m not sure I’ll be Wim Hoffing my way into swimming near icebergs or hiking up Everest basecamp in shorts, but so far, so good – I haven’t gotten a cold in months now.
Keeping It Zen
Finally, it’s mental fitness. Stress can creep up in so many forms and shapes when you’re on the road, and, just like bad food or frequent ills, it adds up – so much so it can become chronic, sapping your energy and draining you of curiosity, creativity, and productivity along the way. So far, short meditation practices (even 10 minutes have a positive effect), breathing techniques (back to Mr.Hoff and James Nestor, author of Breath), and my granddad’s advice (“Is someone dead or severely injured? No? Then that’s not a real problem”) has been working well, along with constant practice of what I call the Cloud Technique. The trick is perspective: whenever something’s bothering you, look up t the clouds (or stars). You’re tiny and insignificant in comparison – and so, by default, are your problems. Will you still be worrying about this in a month? Two years? Five? Probably not – and therefore, it’s not a real problem.
Once again, it’s near-impossible to live a very healthy, fitness-oriented lifestyle when you’re on the road, and attempts to perfection usually lead to crashing, burning, and going back to old habits. But if you take the five areas – food, sleep, movement, cold exposure, and stress management – and only tweak each one a little bit trying to do mostly well most of the time, the ROI is instant. And the best part is, it adds up, just like compound interest.
What’s your #1 health struggle on the road and what are you doing about it? Share in the comments below!