Traveler's Fitness -- Especially Gray-Haired Travelers
Being Fit for Travel & Staying That Way
Maintaining one's level of fitness when traveling is a huge challenge, especially if your adventure doesn't have sports built into it. As bike travelers, we know that our mode of travel gives us a good cardio-vascular workout but it is otherwise limited to building leg strength over a fairly small range of motion. Cycling woefully neglects building general upper body strength and does nothing to maintain flexibility.
Being aging travelers (55 years old) makes the short-comings of our sport even more apparent. As I age I am being convinced that, unlike in my youth, I now only have strength and flexibility in my body where I actively use those attributes. I can no longer engage in a new activity and assume that my body has what it needs to perform well unless I have trained for it. That realization has made addressing cycling's shortcomings while we travel even more important.
My mind that is always striving to find ways to be more thorough and more efficient has generated an assortment of activities to support us as gray-haired travelers. These exercises are targeted towards the unexpected physical tasks that confront one when traveling, like running to catch a train, lugging heavy luggage farther than expected, using a squat toilet, and climbing up and down awkwardly spaced stairs or rocky paths. They also fill in the general strength gaps left by cycling. Here's the short list of exercises that we include in our regime both at home and when traveling.
Sit-Ups and Push-Ups
Sit-ups and push-ups are old standbys that I still use for upper body strength and core stability (torso strength). I do my sit-ups with my low back kept flat on the floor and my push-ups with my hands and elbows under my shoulders to make them more intense.
If you can't do full
push-ups, do them from your knees but don't stick your buttocks out from the
plane of your torso. Even
better: be on your toes and flat like a board with your body but elevate your
hands on a wall, bench, or table. As you get stronger, slowly decrease the height of
your hand support until you are on the floor. And holding the push-up position
with straight arms for a minute or 2 without pumping the arms is a
very efficient strengthener too.
You don't actually have to carry a jump rope with you, though it is more fun. "Virtual" jump rope in which you bounce on your feet and swivel your wrists like you are jumping rope is just as effective as using a rope. And the virtual form has the advantage of not getting your rope muddy or inadvertently nailing a light fixture.
As a courtesy to others, we rarely jump rope indoors, especially if the floor below us is occupied. Instead we do our jumping with real or imagined rope outdoors in parks or on secluded corner of hotel grounds.
Jumping rope is excellent for bone density, something that non-pounding activities like cycling and swimming contribute little too. Routine experience with the jarring motion also keeps one's aging body acclimated to harsher movements so you are less likely to sustain an injury when a similar 'thud' happens unexpectedly. And if you have more discipline with jumping rope than we do, it's a great way to get aerobic exercise. We however usually do a couple hundred jumps for our bone density and leave it at that.
Stairs are usually a very available way to slip more exercise into your day, whether it's taking the stairs in the hotel instead of the elevator, or running up and down grand outdoor staircases of buildings or parking structures. In hotels with 5 or more flights that aren't too prominent, we'll even run-up and down them for 10-20 minutes at a time just for the workout if we aren't biking.
We also discovered that "doing doubles" or stairs 2-at-a-time, both up and down, is even better. "Doing doubles" (with one or both hands lightly on the railings) is a great way to add variety to the repetition of doing so many flights of stairs and to strengthen different muscles. Introduce stairs gradually into your routine however, to insure that your knees are up to the strain of the unfamiliar angles and forces.
Doing doubles as you go up keeps your strength and flexibility tuned for awkward big steps onto buses and at archeological sites, as well as intensifying the aerobic effect. And I think doing doubles downwards is a superb bit of insurance for aging bodies. The motion of dropping down farther and more forward than one's usual gait challenges your stability in a healthy way. Being able to maintain one's balance in this unusual situation pays off when you might otherwise take a dive from a stumble or misjudged step.
Once you develop a habit of using stairs for fitness, you do start to notice that choice ones aren't always available. If that's the case, look for anything steep to briskly walk up for a little extra cardio-vascular exercise. The steeper the better for your fitness work.
Deep knee bends or squats were a banned exercise in my youth as they could damage the knees. Of course, some of us squat in our daily activities as a way to bend over without sticking our rear-ends out and millions of people in the world spent hours every day squatting. The trick is to do them correctly.
For most people, being very precise about keeping their knees lined up over their toes, rather than letting the knees drift inwards, is all that it takes to spare the knees. If you keep the knees in line, you'll also notice that your feet won't roll inwards. And why bother? Well, being confronted with squat toilets quickly makes one a believer as often there is nothing in sight that you want to touch with your hands to assist you. And I think squats are a good counter to the limited range of motion inherent in cycling and in most people's daily lives. The extreme range of motion also takes one beyond what you experience in doing stairs.
I find that just doing 10 squats at a time a few times a week is enough to keep my legs primed for a variety of situations. I do them very slowly, especially coming back up. Rather than drop down and bounce right back up, extend the challenge by being very controlled in both lowering yourself down and lifting up. For something more difficult, keep your head centered over your buttocks, like a ballet dancer doing a full plié. That alignment (rather than letting the head and chest pitch forward) will challenge even more underused muscles. And of course, if you haven't done a full squat for ages, just do 1, then wait a couple of days before doing another so your body has a chance to register any important complaints.
Simulating walking on a balance beam, with your eyes closed, will help sharpen your balance. Balance relies on 3 elements, with one being proprioception, a special kind of spatial awareness involving your muscles. Walking along the grout line or a crack in a floor like you were on a tight rope is a safe and easy way to tune-up your balance. Do it a couple of times with your eyes open, then try it with your eyes closed.
After we got so we could track in a straight line for a dozen or more steps with our eyes closed, we took it outdoors to a curb that was only 1" high. Our success with walking on this slightly raised curb with our eyes closed increased from abysmal to respectable after only a few attempts. It's a good little game to play with yourself a couple of times a month to keep your balance skills tip-top.
Even if you aren't a runner, consider running at least a block or 2 every now and then just so can if you need to. It's one of those abilities that we take for granted that will slip away from you as you age if you don't do it occasionally.
In 2006 we confronted our cycling-related upper body weakness. I was intent on buying several elastic exercise bands but the $20-30 prices per band in the store available to us was a turn-off. We went over to the bike repair corner in the same Italian store and walked out with a free, defunct, bike inner tube. I kept the continuous circle quality of the tire but cut it into 2 separate circles, 1 twice the width of the other. That gave us 2 exercises bands with 2 different degrees of resistance.
We loop 1 end of a band around a railing, post, or picnic table and start pumping an arm in as many directions as we can find that creates an interesting sensation of effort in our muscles. We don't worry about being systematic but instead go for a playful variety. We work our muscles with the bands overhead and behind us, as well as in more usual positions in front of our bodies. Most evenings after we've done some band work, I'll feel the effects in my upper back muscles.
These free exercise bands have the advantage of being expendable and easily replaceable. If you run out of room in your luggage, then pitch them with no remorse. And remember, they could be used as an emergency strap to hold together an ailing suitcase.
Use Whatever You Can Find
About once a year we stay in a hotel with an exercise room and we take advantage of the equipment offered--though sometimes we skip the stationery bike. We each have a pair of sport shorts and tank top in our wardrobe that we usually wear when hand washing our riding clothes and they become our workout wear. People may stare, but we use our sandals instead of sport shoes in the fitness room.
In the northern Central European countries we sometimes find playground equipment we can use for a little strength work. Bill has reclaimed his 1 chin-up and I am working hard to be able to do even one. We jump at the opportunity to use any such equipment to work on our upper body strength that is so underused in cycling.
When Not Traveling
When at home, we take advantage of our greater opportunities to keep our aging bodies symmetrical and versatile. We are devoted consumers of massage therapy, especially sports massage. Our success in sustaining our cyclotouring for years is largely because of the improvements in our musculature from the prior years of yoga and massage, including what those disciplines have taught us about our specific vulnerabilities and how to remedy them ourselves when things are amiss. In addition to massage therapists and yoga teachers, physical therapists are wonderful resources for untangling problems that interfere with your sports or general comfort in your body.