Throughout my seven-year professional Ironman athletic career, about one-third of my time was spent traveling to races. And today, about half my time is spent on the road. I love it. Traveling can be exceptionally liberating, but eating clean (avoiding refined foods) at the same time isn’t without its challenges.
Here are a few simple lessons I learned along the way that can keep you well fueled, boost your productivity and performance, and get you home feeling fit and fresh.
Know what restaurants and food stores are in the area before you arrive.
Do a search of restaurants and natural food stores near where you’ll be staying. Or even map out your road trip route. By doing this, you’ll be able to adjust your travel accordingly based on availability of the best food. I use two resources in particular. The first is called the Eat Well Guide. It allows you to search for your dietary preference by entering a key word. It will then find matches for you based on your whereabouts (just enter a city and state or a local zip code). Also, it features a handy trip planner that will automatically map out the best places to fuel up along the way.
The other is called Happy Cow. It, too, has a searchable feature, allowing you to find nearby restaurants and cafes with plant-based menus, anywhere in the world, making it particularly good for international travelers.
Carry nutrient-dense compact food with you.
I’ll often make whole food energy bars to take with me. They pack better than fruit and are made completely from whole food ingredients, unlike most commercial versions. Besides, the folks at the TSA don’t mind if you pack these bars in your carry-on, unlike, say, nutrient-dense smoothies. Another bonus to homemade bars: Unlike some commercial options, they don’t come in metallic wrappers that can also slow down the security process.
For perfect clean-burning fuel to keep you going strong for hours, try this recipe:
Ingredients • 1 cup fresh or soaked dried dates • 1/4 cup almonds • 1/4 cup blueberries • 1/4 cup roasted carob powder (or cacao to make 100% raw) • 1/4 cup ground flaxseed • 1/4 cup hemp protein • 1/4 cup unhulled sesame seeds • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice • 1/2 tsp lemon zest • Sea salt to taste • 1/2 cup sprouted or cooked buckwheat (optional) • 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
In a food processor, process all of the ingredients together, except the buckwheat and blueberries. Knead the buckwheat and berries into mixture by hand. [Yields: 12 bars; Prep Time: 10 minutes]
Never get too hungry – become a grazer.
Most of us grew up being told not eat between meals. The explanation: “You’ll ruin your appetite.” True. But isn’t that exactly the point of eating, to ruin one’s appetite?
Just make sure that you ruin your appetite with nutrient-dense snacks.
I’ve found that one of the best practices when on the road is to never get too hungry. Of course, bad decisions are made when desperation sets in. And in a world of low quality, highly available fast food, it’s a challenge not to cave in when you add hunger to the mix. Not something any of us need.
Surprisingly, most North American cities I’ve visited offer decent accessibility to whole food. Even some convenience stores, many of them open 24 hours, have reasonable options for grazers. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, etc. Some will offer bananas and apples. Nuts and seeds are even more common. Choose the ones with nothing added. Ingredients should simply be nuts or seeds. And a bit of salt is fine, but avoid ones with added flavors and modified oils. If you’re desperate (you shouldn’t be, since I’ll have your homemade bars with you), then some commercial granola bars are not a bad option. Just make sure they don’t have hydrogenated oil listed on the ingredients. Increasingly, fast food restaurants also offer green salads. That’s good. Just make sure to get the dressing on the side, or avoid it all together. Most fast food dressings are laden with empty calories, derived from low-quality oils.
Start your day with a nutrient-dense smoothie.
The easiest way to pack nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet is by drinking a smoothie. But not just any smoothie. I’m talking about one packed with non-stimulating, energy-boosting foods such as hemp, chia, and flax. These ingredients will sustain your energy and cognitive ability for several hours. I always travel with a bag of these ingredients, or Vega One, which is complete and provides compete protein, greens, essential fatty acids, probiotics, and enzymes. Plus, when you start off the day with a nutrient-packed smoothie, it sets the tone. You’ll find that you’re simply not as interested in standard processed foods. I view a breakfast smoothie as a preemptive strike against the day’s cravings and our general conditioned desires to eat poorly. And you’ll also find that, over time, your palate will begin to change; you’ll start to crave good foods and your desire for junk will simply fade.
Of course, you’ll need a compact blender to make this happen. You’ll want one that is small enough to wash in a standard hotel bathroom sink, and can easily be cleaned with water and a paper towel. Try the recipe below:
Ginger Pear Smoothie
Ingredients 1 banana 1/2 pear, cored 1 1/2 cups water plus 1 cup ice 1 tbsp ground flaxseed 1 tbsp hemp protein 1 tbsp grated ginger
Blend it all in a blender until it reaches a drinkable consistency. Makes two medium smoothies.
Get a room with a refrigerator (or have one put in there).
If possible, stay at hotels that offer kitchenettes or suites, but even traditional hotels can accommodate you. Even if there isn’t a refrigerator in your room, ask for one. For a fee – anywhere from $10-$35 – most hotels will equip you with a small fridge. Some will even do it for free (especially if you sign up for their loyalty program). A fridge can open up a whole world of possibilities, and makes grazing considerably easier when you have fresh fruit and vegetables at your disposal. And having access to fresh food whenever you need it reduces the odds of you being stranded and dependent on nearby fast- or junk-food. I usually stop by a grocery store before I get to my hotel and stock up on fresh produce.
Don't make dinner your largest meal.
If you do in fact graze throughout the day, as I like to, you won’t be terribly hungry come dinner time. This is good. I believe most people eat too little throughout the day, in relation to the amount they eat at dinner. It’s ideal to eat more food earlier in the day, naturally making dinner smaller, while not necessary eating less over the course of the day. Eating a larger meal in the evening can in fact be directly responsible for low quality sleep since it requires digestive energy, which prevents your body from total rest and reduces the odds of you slipping into the deep, restorative Delta phase of sleep. This, in turn, leads to greater fatigue the next morning.
So, a large green salad and some basic steamed vegetables will likely be all you’ll need, nutritionally speaking. Most restaurants can accommodate this. Many have brown rice and avocado on hand – another great combo – along with a bit of lemon and sea salt.
In general, ethnic restaurants are even better equipped to feed clean eaters (anyone who avoids refined foods). Japanese, Ethiopian, and Middle Eastern are among my favorites, and they all of them offer an array of plant-based whole food options. Brown rice, avocado sushi, Buticha (an Ethiopian chickpea dip), and falafel are good examples; they’re all made from whole foods and have a good mixture of protein, fiber, and good quality fats.
As an additional resource, I recently launched a web series called ‘Thrive Forward,’ in which I dedicate a chapter to clean eating on the road. Here you may watch the video and gain full access to the downloadable material, for free.
Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete, a two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion, the creator of an award-winning line of whole food nutritional products called VEGA, and the best-selling author of the Thrive book series. He is also the developer of the acclaimed ZoN Thrive Fitness program and the creator of the Thrive Foods Direct national meal delivery service. He also just launched ‘Thrive Forward,’ an online video series on wellness.
Recognized as the world’s foremost authorities on plant-based performance nutrition, Brendan works with NFL, MLB, NHL, UFC, PGA, Tour De France, and Olympic athletes and is a guest lecturer at Cornell University, where he presents an eCornell module entitled “The Plant-Based Diet and Elite Athleticism.”