Any athlete who has traveled a long distance for a sports competition has undoubtedly faced jet lag. If you’re reading this post, I expect that you have dealt with the effects of jet lag, even if you aren’t an athlete.
In layman’s terms, jet lag is the result of the body’s natural circadian rhythms no longer being synchronized to the local time. That is a fancy way of saying that you feel like it is time to go to bed when it is late afternoon in your new location. Add in some of the stresses of travel – cramped flights, finding local transportation, sleeping in a hotel – and it is not surprising that sports performance can suffer.
Tips to avoid jet lag
Based on a review of sleep, travel, and chronobiology in Clinics in Sports Medicine, I compiled 11 suggestions that could decrease the effects of jet lag. Each tip won’t work for every athlete, individual, or team. They are ideas worth considering, though.
Arrive with enough time to adjust to the new time soon.
Although everyone responds differently, there is a general rule of thumb about the time needed to adjust. One day is usually required to adjust for each time zone crossed. If you travel across four time zones, you would ideally arrive at least four days before the competition.
Allow more time if traveling from west to east.
A study looking at travel for football games suggests that traveling east tends to impair performance more than traveling west. If your team must travel from the west coast to the east (or overseas), you might think about traveling a few days earlier than normal to adjust.
Consider not changing to the new time zone.
If your stay in the new location is three days or less and the game will be played during what would be daytime hours at home, you might be better served to stay on your own time. (Just make sure someone keeps track of local time so you don’t miss the game!)
Change training times to reflect the time of the competition.
If it is feasible, change practice or training times before you leave to the time of the competition. For example, a California team might practice at 5 PM local time for a few days if they will play at 8 PM in New York.
Perform physical activity while on the flight.
Moving around or doing some muscular exercises every hour or so on the plane is encouraged to decrease the risk of blood clots. That activity will probably decrease fatigue caused by sitting for long periods on the cramped plane as well.
Limit training and exercise to moderate intensity on arrival.
It is hard to establish a link between injuries during intense practices shortly after travel. Theoretically though, fatigue and decreased concentration could lead to injuries. Regardless, moderate exercise and training might be better in the first few days after arrival.
Avoid long naps during the adjustment period.
It is believed that a long nap reinforces the natural sleep cycle based on home time schedules. Short power naps might be acceptable.
Adjust meals as needed.
Getting on a regular schedule of meals based on the new time can be helpful. Some advocate high-protein breakfasts to increase arousal and high-carbohydrate dinners to increase drowsiness as well.
Consider use of melatonin and caffeine.
I am not advocating that everyone use these substances. However, athletes could try them, especially if jet lag has been a problem in the past. Although its effects are variable, melatonin taken at night might help sleep and decrease subjective symptoms of jet lag. Caffeine taken in the morning might increase alertness.
Alcohol could increase dehydration through its diuretic effects. Plus it might decrease the quality of sleep.
Drink plenty of water.
Hydration is key for sports performance generally. Athletes might be dehydrated after long flights. Plus, if you are traveling to a warm destination, the heat could add to the dehydration from travel.
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Reilly R, Waterhouse J, Edwards B. Jet Lag and Air Travel: Implications for Performance. Clin Sports Med. 24(2005);367–80.