Hands down, "Should I workout on my vacation?" is among the most common questions I get as a training and nutrition coach, followed closely by "Will I gain weight if I don't?". The answers depend completely on your goals and your lifestyle, and of course there is no crystal ball. The BEST advice I can give you is to decide ahead of time if your vacation is going to include "workouts" or not, and if you are going to be relaxed about food or not. Playing it by ear is likely to leave you disappointed in yourself...and THAT is the opposite of vacation!
My husband and I recently flew to Italy and spent two weeks traipsing about Rome and chillaxing on the Amalfi Coast. It was divine. We ate Italian food, drank Italian wine, and slept in. We also walked everywhere, swam in the ocean and banged out some push-ups and rows every other morning, per our "plan". Compared to the heavy barbell lifting we usually do 4x week like clockwork, this was very different.
So why didn't the King and Queen of Consistency find some barbell gyms in Italy to keep our workouts going, like we have on past vacations? Our decision not to was intentional. Over the past few years, we've rarely vacationed. Sad but true! This trip to Italy was a long planned break from what is otherwise a joyful life of running a business, helping others get fit, keeping ourselves fit, and lavishing our dogs. We know what happens when highly trained people stop training for two weeks, but we decided to do it anyway. We don't have any lifting competitions on the calendar anytime soon, so there's time to build strength back. We knew we'd be really sore after our first workouts back home (AND WE WERE), but worth it to have a trip that was totally unencumbered by the hours each day it would take to get to a barbell gym and get our lifts in.
So one factor - that we rarely do this - was key. If we were planning two other long vacations this year, we would absolutely plan to keep our lifting going throughout.
Another factor - our destination. Italy is NOT a weight lifting culture. It is a walking/espresso/pastry/wine/tanning on the beach culture. We probably could have found a place to lift in Rome but there is DEFINITELY nowhere to do it in Amalfi. To that point, the Italians on the whole do not sport physiques that look like they resistance train. We saw very few truly obese individuals - most everyone is between slender and a healthy BMI - but we also saw almost zero men or women with any obvious degree of muscle. And yes, we are the fitness nerds who notice physiques everywhere we go! Italian bods reflect the important fitness maxim that "Your body looks like what it does most of the time". Italians generally walk a lot, don't lift weights, eat a small pastry for breakfast and relatively small meals later on...and their bodies look like it. Not bad, especially when clothed in stylish Italian fashions, but not my personal definition of "fit", which includes visible muscle and the strength that accompanies it.
Finally, and most importantly, our decision not to lift while in Italy rested on the fact that we would be having an active vacation. Walking around all day isn't exactly nothing. In fact, our calves were torched the first couple of days. Even if I had planned to squat, my feet may have revolted. Our moments of restful repose were mostly spent enjoying our meals and snacks very slowly, as is the Italian custom.
So that's the exercise part. Guess what? The food part is just as important for determining whether you come out on the other side of your vacation no worse for the wear. Elliott and I are a bit different when it comes to our normal eating habits and needs. He is a guy who actually struggles to keep weight ON his frame (sorry, babe), while I am like most women in that keeping body fat at bay is my primary nutritional challenge. HOWEVER, while in Rome we decided to do as the Romans. Equipped with some protein powder for breakfast (I just couldn't bring myself to eat pastry first thing in the morning), we enjoyed fabulous bread, pasta, cheese, more wine than we'd usually consume in two months, gelato almost daily. But we also ate fish, veggies, fresh tomatoes galore, olive oil on everything and we took our sweet time eating it. I gave myself two nutritional guidelines for our trip (well, three if you count the not having pastry before 11am). I sought out the same quantity of veggies that I always do, which helped keep me regular too! And I didn't stuff myself with anything, practicing my daily "Eat to 80% Full" technique, which was made much easier by the Italian pace of dining.
So what was the verdict? Did we gain weight on our vacation?
The answer is NO! With the exception of a modest tan, I look exactly the same. Elliott even lost a little weight, but that's because it's easy for him to lose if he isn't intentionally eating a lot.
Now, did we lose fitness?
The answer is YES, but not hugely. Two weeks is enough time for a strength athlete to lose a little ground if training is ceased, but it doesn't take long to get it back. It takes longer for muscle mass to start disappearing, so long as you're still eating well during your break, but if your vacation is longer than two weeks you should consider a plan so you don't significantly sacrifice fitness.
In sum, if you have a sedentary vacation that throws your sound nutrition habits out the window, you could gain some bodyfat and lose muscle. If you take more than one trip a year, OR if your trip is longer than 2 weeks, find a way to workout and chose one or two reasonable nutrition habits to keep while gone. No matter WHAT you choose, make sure you talk with your coaches far ahead of time so that you can agree on both your expectations and your plan.