On Saturday I had to catch an early flight to Oslo from Gatwick which meant that I had to wake up at 4am and also miss my usual morning workout.
It was just a 2-hour flight and the time difference only an hour. But it got me thinking. How do athletes travel across time zones to take part in international events and compete at their best?
Jet lag is recognised as a sleep disorder that happens when you travel across more than 2 time zones. It can cause excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, impair function and affect performance.
If you travel within a single time zone, but your journey is long and tedious, you’re likely to suffer from travel fatigue. You just feel exhausted and feel a bit burnout. This is different to jet lag!
What steps can you take to manage jet lag when you’re travelling to compete in a sports event?
The research on jet lag management in athletes is limited. The majority of studies are in healthy non-athletic populations. Also, the current knowledge is based on simulated laboratory-based travel studies and not actual travel.
Below are strategies that are likely to help:
Regulating your circadian rhythm (your ‘body clock’) starts a few days before you board a plane.
- Avoid being sleep deprived and in sleep debt by getting enough sleep 6-7 days leading to your flight.
- Reduce training intensity and volume prior to travel. You can also adjust training times to the destination time zone.
- Adapting mealtimes to the destination zone may reduce the risk of jet lag. Have your meal 1-2 hours earlier before travelling east and 1-2 hours later before travelling west.
- Avoid large meals and alcohol before travelling.
Travel during the day (if possible): Travelling during the night after having had a full day seems to cause more jet lag symptoms. Scientists are not sure why. One theory is that “nighttime” fliers are spending less time in an actual bed!
While on board, you need to continue taking steps to prevent jet lag symptoms and other flight-related risks.
- Wear comfortable clothing and shoes.
- Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol.
- Stay away from salty and sugary snacks. They will dehydrate you and cause bloating.
- Keep hydrated by drinking water. The low humidity levels on planes can quickly dry you out. You can easily lose up to 2 litres of water during a 10 hour flight. That’s why flight attendants are recommended to drink one litre of water for every 4 hours of flying.
- Stretch and walk from time to time! Sitting in a cramped position for an extended period of time causes shortening of your hip flexors, hamstrings, quads, glutes and the muscles in your low back. Stretching improves blood circulation and helps you to avoid stiff joints and tight muscles. You don’t want to arrive at your destination feeling sore all over your body!
Our body’s natural circadian rhythm is slightly longer than the normal 24 hour-cycle of a day. This makes it easier to adapt to a longer day than to a shorter day. That’s why travelling eastward has more adverse effects than travelling westward.
- Take a short nap to reduce sleep debt and general fatigue.
- Low to moderate intensity exercise is recommended for first few days.
- Try phase shifting by using light exposure: Phase shifting refers to changing the circadian rhythm by delaying or advancing your bedtime or wake-up time. Getting out and exposing yourself to morning light will wake you up and help you function better (‘phase advance’ when travelling east). Exposure to light around bedtime helps you to wake up later (‘phase delay’ when travelling west).
- Eat a high-carb dinner! Carbohydrates boost tryptophan, an amino acid which is the precursor of serotonin and melatonin – both important for sleep.
- Avoid sedatives and stimulants – there’s no evidence for their effectiveness
- Try melatonin. There’s limited evidence that melatonin may reduce the time of resynchronisation of the circadian system.
We don’t all experience jet lag the same way. Some athletes find it easier to adapt to new time zones. However, we all can reduce the effects of long-haul flights and perform at high level – it just requires careful planning.
- Afaghi A., O’Connor H., & Chow C. M. (2007). High-glycemic-index carbohydrate meals shorten sleep onset. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(2), 426–430.
- Janse van Rensburg D, et al. (2020). How to manage travel fatigue and jet lag in athletes? A systematic review of interventions. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54(16), 960–968.
- Lee A., & Galvez J. C. (2012). Jet lag in athletes. Sports Health, 4(3), 211–216.
- Reilly T., Waterhouse J., & Edwards B. (2005). Jet lag and air travel: implications for performance. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 24(2), 367–380, xii.
- Waterhouse J., Reilly T., & Edwards B. (2004). The stress of travel. Journal of Sports Sciences, 22(10), 946–965; discussion 965-6.
- Waterhouse J., et al (2007). Jet lag: trends and coping strategies. Lancet, 369(9567), 1117–1129.