Is there anything better for the soul than a road trip?
Car-bound journeys can bring us to incredible places—both spiritually and environmentally—with the long stretches of in-between driving offering plenty of time and space for our minds to wander, absorb our surroundings, and grow.
But what’s good for the less-tangible aspects of our being may work quite the opposite way for our tactile bodies.
The cramped spaces, repetitive motions, and questionable assortment of road food that make up the minutiae of a journey can have a big impact on us physically.
“Travel has gotten a lot better from the time that our ancestors were taking wagons across the country, but it still takes a lot out of us,” says holistic health practitioner and massage therapist Miguel Burrola. “Most of the time, when people travel, they don’t take very good care of themselves.”
Still, there are a number of tips and tricks that can help bring our physical well-being more in line with our mental and spiritual prosperity on a long trip, giving us the best of all three worlds and, hopefully, the most successful ride possible.
They say that luck favors the prepared, and if you’re lucky enough to have a road trip in your future, adding a few extra items to your to-do list could greatly increase the odds of finding such fortune.
Start readying your body for the ride a day in advance, Burrola suggests, with a yin or restorative yoga class followed by an Epsom salt bath, which helps further zap tension from muscles and stiff joints. (There are many schools of yoga, but the two recommended by Burrola focus on long, deep stretches that target the deep connective tissue of the body and help promote blood and energy flow. More active yoga classes, which are far more popular in Western culture, will not offer the same benefits.)
Follow up on the morning of your departure with some light stretching and a nice, warm shower, says massage therapist Michael Bearden.
Start readying your body for the ride a day in advance with a yin or restorative yoga class followed by an Epsom salt bath.
“It helps get the muscles loose and the blood flowing when you wake up,” he says. “The damp heat that penetrates is soothing and allows the tissue and fascia to relax before jumping in the car and cranking out miles on the road.”
And when it comes to the energy you’ll need to generate for the long hours behind the wheel, some foresight is also incredibly helpful.
“Prep in advance,” advises integrative nutrition health coach Jenny Dempsey. “Don’t enter pit stop territory with a growling stomach.”
To help fight the hunger—and the urge to splurge on junk food that it typically brings—Dempsey suggests packing food ahead of time, focusing on lighter and healthier fare that will keep your body full and your mind focused.
Finger foods like carrots, celery sticks, and sliced jicama—which can be dipped in hummus—are a great addition to any cooler, along with apples, pears, blueberries, and string cheese, she says. In a separate bag, store your room-temperature treats, including unsalted nuts, grass-fed beef jerky, low-processed protein bars, and even dark chocolate-covered almonds or cranberries—these treats taste decadent but are actually lush with antioxidants.
“The trick is not to restrict yourself from ‘on the road munchies,’ but rather to munch wisely,” Dempsey says. “Bonus: you’ll save money when you shop in advance at your local grocery store.”
On the Road
Once you’re moving, it may be easy to let the excitement or tedium of the long miles manifest into a driving daze. But the highway hypnosis—a dangerous state in its own right—can also mask the feeling of stress building up in your muscles.
Frequent stops can be helpful to keep both the dulled mentality and sharp physical pains away, Burrola says. He recommends making the journey in 2-hour jumps, with 3 hours being the maximum amount of time lapsing between breaks.
The rest stops act as crucial restorative points, offering the perfect opportunity to stretch and shake off the last few hours in the car.
One yoga asana Bearden finds particularly useful is a modified pigeon pose, which can be done on a chair, bench, or other raised surface you may find on your stop.
If you're hungry when you finally pull off the road, try to bring that same patience and intention when choosing your meals.
To get the most out of the stretch, place one foot on top of the surface, then lay the leg down, so it’s touching the surface from ankle to knee. Once you’re here, step your opposite leg back and slowly lean forward over your resting leg. You should feel a deep stretch in the hip of the elevated leg, and your standing leg may feel a hip flexor opening. (Both areas routinely suffer from the generic driving position.) For maximum effect, make sure to keep your spine straight.
Burrola also suggests trying some squats while you’re stopped. Goddess pose and Malasana—or yogi squat—both offer great opportunities for further opening the hips.
“Hold that position for a little while and breathe into it,” he says. “This will soften the tissue and really help you sink into it.”
And if you find yourself hungry—or low on food supplies—when you finally pull off the road, try to bring that same patience and intention when choosing your meals.
According to Dempsey, the aim should be more about “what is going to make you feel your best on this road trip, as opposed to being the one hunched over from gas pains.”
If you’re more concerned with getting gas for your car, and want to quickly grab something from an adjacent convenience store, take the time to read labels of any potential purchases, she says, giving special regard to items made from ingredients you recognize, versus complicated compounds that could herald future stomach aches.
If a greasy spoon seems like your only option, Dempsey suggests searching the menu for the best possible protein and veggie selections—and looking out for opportunities to personalize what you find.
“Get creative and create your own signature meal,” she says, offering examples of a burger patty wrapped in lettuce or a plain baked potato stacked with veggies and cheese. “You’re more likely to enjoy your time, worry less about food, and eat foods that nourish instead of distract from your time exploring.”
In the Car
It’s much more difficult to address your bodily needs while you’re driving, but aches and appetites are stubborn things, bent on operating at their own discretion.
Still, if something comes up while you’re behind the wheel, there are a few more tricks that could help ease the pain—of both the muscular and hunger variety.
If You’re Hungry
One of the biggest mistakes most drivers make on long journeys is failing to hydrate enough, say both Burrola and Dempsey.
The liquid nourishment is often what our bodies are actually craving when we start feeling peckish, and a few swigs of water should be used as a first defense to stanch hunger.
Drink water throughout the trip, bring reusable water bottles along, and fill up at each pit stop.
Too many salty road snacks could lead to an undue thirst—and a potentially dangerous dehydration level, Dempsey warns. And coffee and sugary drinks, though considered essentials for many trying to keep their eyes open on the road, should be consumed sparingly, as they both inhibit the body from absorbing all the water it needs.
The experts recommend drinking water consistently throughout the trip, bringing reusable water bottles along, and filling up at each pit stop. Tea also offers a gentler alternative to coffee, keeping you awake with less threat of dehydration. (Dempsey recommends packing your own teabags for the trip, then using hot water at convenience stores to top off.)
And the potential for extra bathroom breaks all that liquid intake creates is well worth it, both say.
“When you’re dehydrated, it will lock up your muscles and make them freeze,” Burrola says. “We have it all backwards. We care so much about keeping breaks minimal and getting to our destination as fast as possible, and in reality, when you’re doing that, you’re hurting your body.”
Indeed, water is doubly beneficial for a body in transit, as it also works to keep muscles and joints lubricated. And, passive as it may seem, the act of driving actually provides quite a workout.
If You’re Sore
Even when we’re attempting to relax in the car, we’re putting our body through the paces.
“The ‘restful’ action of hanging your arm on the windowsill is actually putting a good amount of strain on your system,” Burrola says. “I just worked on someone, and his arm was all torn up. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I just drove for 12 hours straight.’ It was all there in his arm—right in the crease of the elbow, which was totally locked.”
Keeping your hands at 9 and 3 on the wheel instead offers an alternative that’s not only easier on your joints, but safer in general.
Special attention should also be shown to the wrists, as they can spark problems that manifest all the way up the arms and through the shoulders if not cared for.
Special attention should also be shown to the wrists, especially when driving a stick shift, which can spark problems that manifest all the way up the arms and through the shoulders if not cared for, Burrola says.
Occasional wrist circles on each hand should be a helpful start, as well as shoulder shrugs, which are another good in-car exercise. The movement not only helps release the neck, but works on relaxing the shoulders and scapula, which often find themselves either pinned back or hunched up, leading to all sorts of trouble for our necks and backs.
Of course, the hours of sitting are also impactful on our lower half—but some aid can also be offered to those difficult spots between rest stops, Bearden says.
“When I’m packing my road trip or even my flight bag, I always bring along two lacrosse balls in my backpack,” he says. “I use them to keep my buns from getting numb on the drive.”
The trick involves placing the balls beneath each hamstring while you’re driving, letting the pressure sink into—and help break up—particularly sore spots. Once the hamstrings feel slacker, the balls can be moved under the glutes, where a series of small rocking motions can help keep things looser, Bearden says. And they can also be transferred between the shoulder blades, to work on the lower trapezius and rhomboid muscles with a short shimmy type of movement.
“Of course, it’s tricky to think of doing this while driving, so be careful,” Bearden adds. “But the key is to get loose, stay loose, and keep from feeling cramped up so you can enjoy your journey.”