Making healthy food choices can be challenging for any athlete, but when travel is involved, finding healthy options becomes even more difficult. 

Crossing time zones, competing in smaller cities with limited food choices or foreign countries with unique food choices, food safety concerns, and being a picky eater are some of the most common obstacles I see with travel fuel. 

However, in order to achieve peak performance, we must overcome these obstacles. Finding healthy foods on the road is SO incredibly important to performance. If you want to prevent fatigue, decrease your risk for injury, and enhance recovery, every vitamin and mineral counts.

The wrong nutrition on the road can lead to poor sleep, injury, and annoying symptoms like farts, acne, sore joints and sinus congestion. 

As a registered dietitian nutritionist who formerly worked with college athletes and now works full-time in the NBA, I have perfected making healthy food choices on the road. In fact, I am writing this article in the middle of five games on the road during a nine-day span. 

Keep reading to learn the best healthy foods for athletes on the road.

The Essential Nutrients Athletes Need to Maintain Peak Sports Performance

Before we dive in deep, let’s briefly discuss the six essential nutrients athletes need to maintain optimal athletic performance: protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.

Protein is a macronutrient found in every living cell in the body. The protein we eat helps maintain not only our muscle but also our bones and skin. Protein also assists the body in forming antibodies, hormones, and other essential substances. It is critical to eat enough protein each day because the body doesn’t store it the way that it does carbohydrates and fat. 

The best examples of protein include beef, chicken, turkey, fish, pork, eggs, organic soy, beans and high quality protein powders

If an active individual does not get enough protein, fatigue, soreness, hunger, and sugar cravings will be amplified

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates can be found in many different types of foods beyond whole grains. It is the body’s preferred fuel source. Once consumed, our digestive system takes carbohydrates and turns them into glucose (sugar) that can be used for energy by our tissues and organs. Carbohydrates are found primarily in foods such as fruits and vegetables – especially starchy vegetables like potatoes, grains, and legumes. If an athlete does not consume enough carbohydrates on the road, they may experience fatigue and muscle cramping.

Healthy Fats: Healthy fats provide the body with energy and help it carry out important functions such as cell growth, blood sugar stabilization, brain function, muscle movement, vitamin and mineral absorption, hormone production, and immune function. If fat intake is not up to speed, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, constant hunger and strong sugar cravings.

This macronutrient can be found in plant and animal sources. However, plant-based fats are better for overall health. Examples of plant-based fats include avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Animal-based fat can be found in all animal products, such as eggs, lard, and beef.

Vitamins: Vitamins are micronutrients that help boost the immune system, aid in brain and nervous system functioning, help metabolize food, strengthen teeth and bones, and maintain they can be found in all foods but are most heavily concentrated in plant-based foods, nuts, and seeds. Fruits and vegetables for the win!

Minerals: Minerals are micronutrients that help the body balance water levels, maintain healthy skin hair, and nails, and improve bone health. Minerals are most heavily concentrated in plant-based foods, similar to vitamins. Examples include iron, sodium, calcium, potassium, iodine, zinc, and selenium.

Water: The human body is mostly composed of water. Although required in large amounts, water does not actually yield energy. However, if enough is not consumed, our organs and muscles are unable to function optimally, which can lead to fatigue. Water is lost not only via sweat during physical activity but also during urination, defecation, vomiting, and basic respiration.

Best Healthy Snack Ideas for On-the-Go

Finding healthy snacks on the go is easier than you think. All it takes is a little knowledge mixed with a little effort, and you will be good to go. 

And yes, there are more options than rice cakes with peanut butter, cold cereal, fresh fruits, and soy milk.

Let us help you gain the knowledge. Portability is key, of course, but nutrition is a very close second. In other words, your snack should contain a balance of protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates—NOT just carbohydrates and a little added sugar like most snacks on the market.

For example, check out this Quaker Chewy Granola bar. It contains only 1 gram of protein and 17g of carbohydrates, making it essentially a block of sugar.

Now compare it to a whole-food bar like RAWR Bar, where the protein is 21g to the ratio of 17g carbohydrates!!! Not only are the ingredients more natural, but you have a better balance of nutrients to keep blood sugar stable. This will prevent you from crashing an hour later. The grams of carbohydrates in the Quaker Chewy Granola Bar are 17x that of the protein amount!! This is a nightmare for energy and body composition.

Here are our top 7 quick and easy snack options that are convenient for travel and can tackle all your nutritional needs: 

  1. Epic Protein Bars – high-quality animal lean protein in portable form. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve your daily protein goal on busy days.
  2. OWYN Shakes – portable, plant-based protein shakes without any of the top allergens! Perfect for those with dietary restrictions. More of a protein powder creature? Check out this article on our best plant-based protein powders.)
  3. Peckish – Perfectly portable organic hard boiled eggs with delicious, crunchy dip. (Bonus points for this natural source for vitamin D!)
  4. That’s It Fruit Bar Paired with a Squeezable Pack of Nut Butter –  A more convenient and healthy version of fruit with dip!
  5. Paleo Trail Mix – A perfectly balanced snack for optimal blood sugar!
  6. RAWR Bars – As stated above, one of the most pure protein bars with enough protein for an adult athlete!
  7. Generation UCAN Super Starch – While a bit chalky, this is portable and easy to carry a long for the ride. Just mix with water and go. This slow release super-starch powder is phenomenal for stabilizing blood sugar and best of all, if taken 30 minutes before a workout on an empty stomach, it will provide fuel for roughly 90 minutes.

Best Protein Bars for On-The-Go

There are hundreds upon hundreds of protein bars on the market right now. But, as you might have guessed, most are glorified candy bars.

On your next travel day, remember, generally, the quality and selection of an athlete’s usual food regimen suffers, so this is NOT the time to eat granola bars filled with junk but instead capitalize on the opportunity to consume premium fuel in bar form.

 Here are my top three picks:

#1 RAWR Bar: Check out this magical sampler pack of RAWR bars. This is one of my favorite bars of all time for the following reasons.

  • Contains clean ingredients and is entirely plant-based
  • Contains enough protein for an athlete (this alone is rare!!!)
  • Comes in a ton of flavors, with the opportunity to try the sample pack of flavors
  • Owned by a small family

#2. R.E.D.D – An entirely plant-based bar that is rich in protein and fiber. Rarely does a bar that tastes this good contain 11g fiber and 5g sugar or less. The balanced macros in this formula provide steady energy. Bonus: R.E.D.D. bars also contain probiotics.

#3. Overeasy Bar: Delicious taste, perfect chewy texture, minimal, clean ingredients. This is usually a favorite amongst my picky eaters. Enough said! 

And if you’d like to explore the world of portable bars further, my team wrote an entire post on the healthiest protein bars. 

How to Prepare Nutrition Meals While Traveling

When there’s a will, there’s a way! If you want to eat well on the road, all it takes is a little extra planning.

3-5 days before you travel, start to map out when and where you will need extra nutrition support.

  • Are you trapped on a bus or a plane for the day? Bring your own thermos full of your favorite hot balanced meal. This container is awesome and keeps food hot for 12 hrs or cold for 24 hrs!
  • Will you be in a hotel with limited options? Call a day or two in advance to ask for an extra fridge and or freezer in your room. This allows you to stock up on goods from the local grocery store or store your own food from home. These glass containers are what myself and my athletes sometimes use to transport. A container like this Hotlogic will help reheat your food and keep it warm. A lunch bag like this Gloppie with built in cooler bags will keep food cold during travel. 
  • Every hotel has a microwave and in some cases, the kitchen staff has allowed my athletes to heat their own meals in an oven. All you have to do is ask! 

Pro Tip: potato-based meals with chicken travel well and digest well!!

How to Make Smart Choices at a Restaurant or Gas Station

First stop, restaurants. How do you make healthy choices? Let’s make this so simple that you can orderly correctly no matter where you are in the world.

#1 Golden rule when dining out: Eat from the earth.

Animal protein, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and starchy vegetables like potatoes are as close to natural as you can get. Natural food is premium fuel. 

If its game day choose proteins that are easier to digest, like chicken, fish,  turkey, and eggs. If smoothies are available, that is a great option too.

Choose vegetables that are easier to break down, like carrots, onions, or green beans, vs. cruciferous vegetables that tend to be a little harder to digest, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.

Keep your starch as close to the earth as possible. For example, a baked potato does not go through much processing if any at all, before consumption, but a bowl of pasta or a sandwich does.

#2 Keep it simple.

Meals with extravagant sauces, lots of breading, and multiple ingredients tend to contain a lot more added chemicals and fillers. When ordering, choose something simple like steak, asparagus, and some form of  sweet potatoes (fries count too!)

Sauces and condiments matter too. When possible, ask for real maple syrup, sauces that are prepared from scratch by the chef, and salad dressings where oil and vinegar is the base.

Last pro tip: Don’t be afraid to ask for something that you don’t see written on the menu. Many times, restaurants will have basic ingredients in the back of the kitchen that can be used to create what you need – yes, even some fast food restaurants. 

Next up, gas stations and convenience stores. Here are your absolute best snack options for your next road trip:

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Jerky or sticks: any form of animal protein i.e. beef, chicken, salmon, turkey
  • Hummus and veggie or cracker cups
  • 75% or greater dark chocolate
  • Sweet potato chips
  • Plantain chips
  • Popcorn (the ingredients should say corn, oil, and sea salt)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Organic Greek Yogurt or string cheese (if dairy is well tolerated)
  • Trail Mix
  • Larger cities with more selection: Seaweed snacks, Roasted Chickpeas, Edamame Pods. Remember too, you can always purchase these snacks in advance and carry them with you!
  • While convenient and readily available, be very careful with fruit juice, even if organic and cold pressed! The natural sugar (carbohydrate) content is so high, that it is likely to cause gastrointestinal distress. 

Hydration Tips for Athletes On the Road

Staying hydrated on the road is equally as important as eating well. Adequate hydration can improve energy and recovery while preventing illness and injury.

Here are my top tips for hydrating like a champion on the go:

  • When calculating how much fluid to consume each day, take your body weight in pounds and divide in half. This is the minimum amount of total fluids an athlete should consume each day. So for example, if you are 120 lbs, you should not consume less than 60 ounces of fluid a day. This includes everything from tea to water and sports drinks. Most however, will need more, especially depending on training demands, altitude, temperature etc. 
  • Keep a non toxic water bottle with you at all times. This helps to ensure your daily fluid goals are more easily met.
  • Water alone will not cut it for the active individual. Consider carrying with you electrolyte packets like Liquid IV. Electrolyte packets are not only help full pre and mid competition, but also to help dehydration on flights.
  • Want to know how to choose the best beverages for hydration on the go? Check out our Best Electrolyte post that dives deeper into the best electrolytes and bottled waters!

Overcoming Common Challenges

Planning ahead is the key to success when fueling well on the road. If you can anticipate the most common challenges, you will rarely find yourself in a bind.

Remember always to pack at least a handful of high-protein snacks. While we always hope everything goes according to plan, there is always the potential for error. I’ve seen plenty of mishaps in my day where caterers come too late, bring the wrong meal, show up at the wrong location, etc. 

If you always have a few staples in your bag, such as a protein bar, protein shake, bag of nuts, and a few electrolyte packets, you will never find yourself in an extreme emergency.

Also, be sure to “Google Before You Go.” Research the healthiest restaurants in the city(s) you will be traveling to and start jotting down meal ideas. Nowadays, most of these selections can be Door-Dashed right to your hotel!

Dealing with food allergies? Check out our article about how to dine successfully with food allergies

Are food choices out of your control on the road? Does the team meal tend to make you feel bloated and tired? Try carrying a bottle of digestive enzymes with you at all times. I would recommend Digestive Enzymes Ultra by Pure Encapsulations. If you take 1-2 at the start of a heavy meal, you will find that your food digests more easily, and you do not experience that snake that swallowed a rabbit whole feeling. 

P.S. it can be found here on Fullscript for $13 LESS PER BOTTLE than on Amazon!! Using Fullscript also allows for free shipping on all orders over $49!

Summary

Perfecting your nutrition strategy on the road is absolutely critical if your goal is to optimize performance. In fact, most elite athletes will tell you its a fairly easy way to increase your chances for success.

Remember the following rules in order to make performance nutrition magic happen:

  1. Plan and prepare in advance. Find your favorite balanced snacks and shakes and load them in your bag.
  2. Eat simple, and eat from the earth when dining out.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for a microwave or fridge in your hotel room in order to prepare food you brought or purchased from the local grocery store. There is also no shame in the Thermos game! 
  4. Stay hydrated!! At least half your body weight in ounces of fluid. 
  5. Anticipate obstacles.

In summary, fueling well on the road can make or break your health and performance. If you are looking for assistance creating an individual nutrition strategy on the road, please contact us today for a FREE 15 minute strategy call with a performance dietitian! We can coach you on exactly what to choose depending on where you are traveling and how long you will be competing in order to perform your very best.