Traveling for races can be a great way to stay motivated while visiting places you may never get to otherwise. However, before planning your itinerary, you might want to take into account what researchers have recently discovered about how jet lag affects performance.
TRAVELING AND ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Recovering from long-haul travel can be hard on all of us, but it can be particularly taxing on athletes who need to be ready for the physical and mental demands of competition, says Peter Fowler, research scientist at Aspetar and author of a recent study on how jet lag affects athletic performance. (Note that Fowler’s team only studied male athletes for this particular study — they are studying women separately to account for hormonal differences that impact sleep.)
His team compared the effects of outbound (west) and return (east) air travel between Australia and Qatar — 21 hours and eight time zones apart — on physical performance, sleep and jet-lag symptoms. The athletes’ did worse with jumping and sprinting activities after traveling. They had fatigue from jet lag in both directions, but it was worse one way than the other. “Traveling east had a greater detrimental effect on sleep, motivation and physical performance, particularly repeated sprinting ability,” Fowler says. He found that in order to perform at optimal functioning, it can take athletes up to four days to recover from long-haul air travel — with additional recovery time needed when traveling east.
4 WAYS TO MINIMIZE THE EFFECTS OF JET LAG
What can athletes who travel do to keep their performance from suffering?
PLAN AHEAD WHEN BOOKING
Fowler suggests trying to book a flight that results in the least time between your last night’s sleep in your own bed and first night’s sleep in the new destination. The general rule of thumb is one-half day per time zone crossed west, and one day per time zone crossed east to calculate how many days ahead of time you should arrive before your race.
So, if you’re crossing eight time zones heading west, you’d arrive four days before your competition.
That’s not always feasible. Not to worry, there are other things you can do to mitigate the effects of jet lag.
ADJUST YOUR SCHEDULE BEFORE TRAVEL
When Jeff Knight, senior exercise scientist for Under Armour Connected Fitness, coached professional runners from his home base in Austin, Texas, the team often traveled. “West Coast track meets were particularly tough as the races often took place at 8 or 9 p.m. on the West Coast to take advantage of the cooler nights. For our Texas athletes, this felt like 10 or 11 p.m.,” Knight says. Arriving 48 hours ahead of time was rarely an option for financial reasons. So, he would try to get the athletes to sleep a couple hours later in the morning and stay up a couple hours later at night. “We’d start the acclimation process four or five days before traveling,” Knight says.
UTILIZE LIGHT EXPOSURE TO ADJUST YOUR BODY CLOCK
If you’re heading west, seek bright light in the evening and avoid it in the morning. This matches what Knight’s athletes did to prepare for westward travel. “We asked our athletes to sleep in masks to keep things dark when they slept and to get as much sunlight in the evening as possible. Once we arrived, sometimes 24 hours before, the athletes would still be asked to sleep in a mask and stay up at night to try to mimic their typical Texas schedule.”
With East Coast travel, they prepared by doing the opposite — waking up an hour earlier and immediately turning on as many lights as possible or getting outside if the sun was already out. Then at night, they’d start the bedtime routine an hour earlier, and athletes would use blackout curtains and turn off the television, Knight says.
PRACTICE GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE
Basic sleep hygiene can go a long way to help you prepare for a race in a new time zone.
Fowler recommends a few simple guidelines:
- Avoid naps and caffeine late in the day.
- Establish a routine to help you wind down about an hour before sleep, such as a hot bath or shower and avoid screen time (or at least using “night shift” mode to block out blue light).
- Do a relaxing (non-stimulating) activity, such as reading.
- Keep your bedroom cool.
Don’t be intimidated by time zones when planning your next race. Just make sure to plan ahead and get your zzz’s.