The Physical Toll of Long-Term Travel

marshrutka, Mestia, Georgia
One of many marshrutkas that wreaked havoc on my neck and back.

I’ve written a lot about the emotional ups and downs I experienced while traveling through the former Soviet Union for thirteen months. Beyond those highs and lows, long-term travel also took a physical toll on me. While I was fortunate to never get too ill, I did experience my share of aches and pains along the way.

My first month on the road passed quietly and healthily. Aside from the soreness I experienced in the days after running the Tallinn Marathon, I was feeling 100%.  A bit of a cold snuck up on me in St. Petersburg, but it just kept me in bed on one dreary day so I didn’t really feel like I was missing anything.  A few weeks later, on my last night in St. Petersburg, I joined a group from my hostel to watch the bridges rise around 1 a.m. I felt fine when we left, but by the time we returned, my throat was so sore, I could barely talk.

The next morning, I headed to Veliky Novgorod on just three hours’ sleep and my throat just got worse. The following night, I basically stayed up all night to participate in a Meet, Plan, Go panel over Skype and then chat with my parents.  That was the last straw.  For the next four days, I was completely miserable – sore throat, hacking cough, stuffy nose, sinus headache. I felt about as bad as a person could feel, but I pushed on. I stocked up on cough drops and spent an afternoon watching a tennis tournament in Moscow. I toughed it out to meet up with an old friend from Chicago for dinner. And then I totally lost it as I tried to finally get a good night’s sleep in my hostel while everyone else partied the night away.
 

But I got over it, and I was totally fine for the next few months.

 
My next major pain wasn’t an illness but a gimpy foot. After several long days of walking around Warsaw, the arch of my left foot hurt so bad, I could barely walk. I was in denial over the fact that the pain likely stemmed from my adorable black leather, faux fur lined boots that I bought in Russia. As cute and warm as they were, they offered no arch support whatsoever.  By the time I arrived in Kiev, I was seriously worried I had developed a stress fracture.  And I finally gave in and ditched my boots – much to the chagrin of my host mother who scolded me daily for wearing my hiking shoes to traipse through the foot of snow that covered the city throughout my stay.
 

Luckily, that did the trick and within a few days, my foot was back to normal.

 

Mir, Belarus
Taking a break from wearing my super cute winter boots in Belarus.

A few weeks later, the pain was back – this time in my neck, not my foot. A string of long distance bus and marshrutka rides left me with a serious kink on the left side of my neck – the unfortunate result of consistently sitting on the left side of the vehicle and falling asleep with my head propped against the window. The fact that I was sleeping on mushy pillows, sitting for hours hunched over my tiny netbook and hauling my 55 liter backpack for blocks at a time probably didn’t help either. This was one issue that never really went away but it was more of annoyance than anything.
 

Not surprisingly, things got more interesting when I got to Central Asia.

 
I picked up some crazy rash on my lower back after sitting in some grass near a lake in Tajikistan. I was eaten alive my mosquitoes despite my heavy use of bug spray. I got some kind of minor stomach bug within days of arriving at my second homestay – I never did figure out if it was due to accidental gluten consumption, my host mom’s gross overuse of oil in her cooking or some sort of parasite.  Major symptoms only lasted a day and a half, but for nearly three weeks later, I was feeling a little nauseous every time I ate. So I finally broke down and took one of the z-packs that my doctor prescribed before I left the country and that seemed to knock out whatever it was for good.

Seven Lakes, Tajikistan
This photo in the Seven Lakes area of Tajikistan led to itching for days!

And then my knee decided to give out. Almost.

 
On what should have been a relatively easy hike in the Chatkal Mountains outside of Tashkent, I started experiencing such intense pain, I seriously feared that my knee would give out at any minute. I was limping significantly by the time I returned to my hotel and for the next two days, I could barely walk.  Luckily, there was no more hiking on my agenda for over a month and by the time I hit the trails near Zhabagly, Kazakhstan, the knee was feeling fine again.

Chatkal Mountains, Uzbekistan
I lagged behind the rest of my group hiking in the Chatkal Mountains as my knee throbbed in pain!

By the end of my trip, I definitely felt like long term travel had taken a serious physical toll on me. Even though I left in good shape (I did run a marathon two weeks into the trip after all!), a year of eating less than ideally, not working out regularly and pushing myself to new physical and emotional limits definitely had its effects. Returning home last September, I had new gray hairs sprouting on top of my head, brown sun spots on my cheeks and an overall feeling that I had aged about ten years.
 

I sometimes still feel that way as I have struggled physically since returning.

 
In seven months, I have been to the doctor five times. Indeed, I sometimes joke that I must be allergic to being home again – I have had so many physical issues since being back.

I have had more colds than I had in my entire year away. I have had bouts of light-headedness and extreme fatigue (likely due to accidental glutening while eating out). I develop an unexplainable rash on my neck and chest almost every time I exercise.  I still feel out of shape even though I have been working out 4-5 times a week for the last few months. And just this week I was diagnosed with “scapular dysfunction” – a fancy name for a strained muscle around my left shoulder blade that was likely caused by weak back muscles due to my year of sleeping on buses and lumpy pillows/slumping over my netbook/schlepping my giant backpack followed by suddenly spending 10 hours a day hunched over at a desk now that I am working full-time again. This has caused me significant pain for the last month and I’ll be starting physical therapy on Monday to try to fix it.
 

So what would I have done differently?

 
Aside from wishing I had taken the trip when I was 25 rather than 35, a few things come to mind. First, I would have focused more on regularly exercising while on the road. Sure, I was sometimes walking for 7-8 hours a day, but I never got in a good routine of strength training or yoga like I had done at home before my trip. Keeping up my strength and flexibility would have served me well.

I would have been even more diligent about using sunscreen than I was (I always applied in the morning, but often forgot to reapply throughout the day). I would have made more of an effort to only use my netbook when I was actually sitting at a table instead of while sitting or lying in bed. And I would have been better about eating healthy instead of indulging in Snickers or peanut M&Ms every chance I got.

Finally, I would have traveled with a travel pillow from day one. I am sure it would have helped avoid some of my neck kinks and by the time I finally picked one up in late February, it was too late.
 

Have you traveled long-term? How has it affected you physically?

 

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10 thoughts on “The Physical Toll of Long-Term Travel”

  1. We really felt this too when we travelled long-term. Makes me glad we did it when we were still reasonably young!

    1. It definitely made me wish I had done it when I was 25 instead of 35! But also glad I didn’t wait until 45 or 55 🙂

  2. This really makes sense, Katie. Thanks for giving us the behind-the-scenes reality, and also some great suggestions. I never realized this, although after only staying 2 weeks in Mexico recently (trying to keep covered up almost the whole time except when I was in the pool), some skin on forearms looks like it aged 5 or 10 years, in that short span. And, the rest of me was lizard city. And, of course, my back did not like the soft bed, and got I progressively gimpier until I started religiously stretching. I just give thanks I didn’t slice open a 10-inch gash on the front of my thigh with my surfboard fin, like the poor guy I saw two nights before I left. ;(

  3. I will often rent an apartment for a week or even a month or two for some stability. It really helps. Otherwise, it gets tiring. Sometimes I have a yoga mat, if I can handle the extra baggage. I have been traveling around the world continuously for 5 years and am almost 40. I am also American and do not find that staying in America or any one place offers any particular health benefits, though besides making it easier to have good haircuts, nice clothes, and more access to healthy food/healthy toiletries. Those are things I miss.

  4. Funny timing of this post! I’m traveling for about 7 weeks and after 3 weeks on two different pull out couch beds, my neck and back are killing me. Which in turn makes me cranky.

  5. I haven’t traveled long term yeat but my boyfriend and I are planning on going on a 2 years trip next month! Reading this really put some perspective on it for me and made me think about things that I haven’t given a though until now.

    I just turned 22 and I’m therefore quite careless. I’ve just recently started working out and I’ll be sure to continue while on the road! That’s great advice.

    One year ago we hiked in Grand Canyon 10 hours a day for two days. That was really something that made me aware that I wasn’t in great shape!

    Thank you for the advice, Katie, I’ll tell my boyfriend too – he just turned 30. 😉

    I hope you feel better soon. 🙂

    Thanks for a great blog.

    Celia

  6. Katie, perhaps long trips are in fact similar, regardless of the geographic area. I had foot and ankle problems in Europe, part from running and part from the darn cobblestones. I have had stomach problems, and head colds. This week, I was attacked my mossies, had a crazy sore throat, two days of fever, and then I broke a tooth!! It is important to remember that a lot of these things would happen to me at home – they are not just a traveling thing – an no reason to fear travel. I had more stomach problems from eating foods in the US than I have had overseas. Like you said, you have been sick a bunch since returning too. I hope your heath settles down and regulates soon though, so you can properly enjoy the Chicago summer!!!

  7. It’s always good to show the ups and downs for travel, it’s not always laying on beaches or relaxing on hammocks, right! We had our ups and downs too and this post makes perfect sense for those who are planning to travel long term.

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