Elite athletes have to travel all over the world to compete. This post lets you in on some secrets as to how athletes overcome jet lag.
I’ve often wondered how athletes can still compete, break records and be full of energy after travelling around the world. From personal experience, it can take me a few days to adjust after a long flight. I’ve scoured Human Kinetics products for the most comprehensive answer to my question ‘How do athletes overcome jet lag?’
Travel is hard to avoid if you want to be the best in the world at your sport, so being able to prevent jet lag is vital to sucess. Of course, many of the world’s best athletes often fly on chartered flights with speedy security checks and world-class amenities. This, however, does not make them immune from jet lag. There is a lot more to it than this.
With the growth of sport tourism, more recreational athletes also travel long distances to participate and watch sport. This growth is discussed in a recent article The Remarkable Growth of Sport Tourism.
Here are some tips and information which are followed by elite athletes and are recommended for any traveller who wishes to reduce the likelihood of jet lag.
1. Travel During The Day, Not At Night
In order for athletes to overcome jet lag, they need to regulate their circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the body’s natural internal clock that affects humans both mentally and physically.
Sleep is vital for athletes, around 70% of growth hormone is released during deep sleep. Sleep hygiene has become a bigger area of research in recent years and one thing that has been noted is that early start times does reduce sleeping time and sleep quality. So if an athlete has an early training session (swimmers for example often get in the pool before 6am but many elite athletes are now starting later. Elite swimmers in Australia have actually started training much later, many do not get in the pool until after 10am. This rule applies for flying too. Late morning/early afternoon flights are probably optimal.
Scientific Research on Timing Travelling Across Time Zones
A study on a group of 85 athletes, travelling 10 time zones eastward from the United Kingdom to Australia highlights the important possibility for proper planning to influence the rate of adaptation to a new time zone, along with the individual factors that may influence the magnitude of jet lag (Waterhouse et al. 2002).
Various jet lag symptoms were reported by the large majority of subjects throughout the study period (the first six days upon arrival). Age, somewhat surprisingly, was a predictor for lower intensity of jet lag while fitness, flexibility in sleep habits and chronotype were not significant factors.
The importance of travel logistics and scheduling were highlighted in the results. One group left the United Kingdom in the morning, then had a layover in Singapore before arriving in Australia in the late afternoon. Much of the actual flying on both legs of the journey was during local daytime, resulting in only 1.5 hours of sleep on the first leg. The other group departed in the evening from the United Kingdom and slept for 5.5 hours and also flew the second leg in local nighttime, arriving in Australia in the morning. The first group, the “daytime fliers,” had greatly reduced jet lag symptoms compared to the “nighttime” group despite them sleeping less during the actual journey.
The authors attribute this to an overall shorter period of time between sleep in an actual bed in the daytime fliers (~30 h), as they flew shortly after a night of full sleep and arrived close to local nighttime. In contrast, the nighttime fliers began their journey after having been awake for a full day and arrived during local morning, resulting in approximately 50 h between sleep in a bed (Waterhouse et al. 2002).
2. Use Bright Light Exposure To Dictate Melatonin Levels
Light and darkness have a huge impact on melatonin. This tip is all about decreasing melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methyoxytriptamine). If it’s light you have very little melatonin. This tells the body its day time and helps you wake up and increase alertness. If it is dark melatonin levels rise and this tells your body its time to sleep.
With the strong linkage between light exposure and melatonin levels and alertness (Cajochen 2007), bright light exposure (BLE) has been investigated as a means to produce shifting of the circadian rhythms.
This is why being on your phone or watching a bright TV screen before bed is not recommended.
Used by itself in laboratory studies without travel, BLE appears to be capable of adjusting circadian melatonin and temperature rhythms. This phase adjustment can be achieved with a single dose of very bright (12,000 lux compared to typical room illumination levels of 400-600 lux) light exposure for 4 hours, but the exact pattern of phase adjustment is dependent on the timing of exposure (Dawson et al. 1993). Specifically, when applied during the evening just prior to habitual sleep time and the initiation of melatonin release and temperature decline, BLE created a 2.39-hour phase delay (i.e., delayed the onset of melatonin release and temperature decline).
In contrast, BLE in the morning at the time of habitual wake-up had the opposite effect, advancing the circadian cycle by 1.49 hour (Dawson et al. 1993). Furthermore, in a healthy population, eight weeks of moderate exercise increased mood levels and decreased atypical depressive episodes, but subjects exercising in bright light (2500-4000 lux) conditions had a stronger positive response than those exercising in normal light levels.
Will Bright Light Exposure Get Rid of Jet Lag For You?
While interindividual variability in response to bright lights exists, current data strongly suggest that BLE can be used as a tool by everyone in adapting to transmeridian travel. And many athletes do currently use BLE.
Stephen Cheung, the author of Advanced Environmental Exercise Physiology states that BLE may be able to facilitate entraining circadian rhythms to a new time zone both prior to and following travel, along with improving mood—thus increasing sleep quality upon arrival and minimising jet lag symptoms.
When Should You Start Bright Light Exposure?
Bright light exposure can begin the week prior to travel across multiple (more than six) time zones in order to initiate acclimatisation to the new time zone. It can then be used intensively upon arrival to maximise the rate of circadian adjustment.
Current data suggests that while BLE may be effective in adjusting circadian rhythms, it may have a minimal direct ergogenic effect on exercise performance. There have been several studies on this which are explained in Advanced Environmental Exercise Physiology.
You should not use BLE when landing in a country and its dark. For example you’ve landed in Los Angeles following a flight from London at 10pm, you should be going to sleep. BLE would promote a ‘phase advance’ not a required ‘phase delay’.
Bright Light Exposure May Help In Hot Climates
Many of the world’s largest sporting events take place in the summer. Athletes, especially those from Northern Europe not only have a long flight to deal with but also changes in temperature. Luckily some studies have found that BLE could help with this too.
When trained runners were exposed to bright (10,000 lux) light in the late evening/ night time (2200-2300 h), melatonin release was suppressed. The core temperature minimum was phase-delayed by 1.46 h (Atkinson et al. 2008). Compared to what occurred with a similar dose of BLE in the morning (0600-0700 h), core temperature decreased at 0700 h by 0.20 °C with evening BLE. This lower temperature trended toward being maintained throughout 40 min of moderate running in a warm and humid (31 °C, 66% relative humidity) environment.
In another study investigating light exposure immediately prior to exercise, untrained women with normal sleep the night before were exposed to 6 h of bright (5000 lux) or dim (50 lux) light immediately prior to exercise in a warm, humid (27 °C, 60% relative humidity) environment (Zhang and Tokura 1999). Despite no differences in resting temperature following the light manipulation, sweat rate was elevated and core temperature remained approximately 0.2 °C lower during the moderate exercise following BLE.
These studies are intriguing because they suggest that chronobiological manipulations, whether by BLE or other modalities, may provide a practical method of pre-cooling to minimise the risk of heat illnesses. They may also maximise performance in hot environments while avoiding the logistical constraints with pre-cooling in the immediate precompetitive period.
Many studies have found that arousal state adapts more quickly than body temperature to the local time zone. All biological rhythms must adjust and become synchronised before athletes can perform at their best.
3. Know What To Eat (And What To Avoid)
General nutritional recommendations include the avoidance of large meals, caffeine and alcohol before and during travel. Females, children, migraine sufferers and those on specific medications (including ibuprofen) appear to be more vulnerable to motion sickness; lying down, closing the eyes, or sucking lozenges sometimes offers relief.
Nutrition is essential for performance and the circadian desynchronisation that contributes to feelings of jet lag also affects gastrointestinal function and digestion.
Circadian disruption can cause a delay in the absorption of food from the gastrointestinal tract after eating at night.
What supplements help sleep on a flight?
You will get your best sleep in a cool room after a warm shower (this is what the England Rugby team did during the World Cup in Japan). However, on a flight, this isn’t usually possible. Popular supplements which can help you sleep on a flight include Magnesium, Valerian Root and B vitamins but benzodiazepines and melatonin are the most commonly used.
Many athletes also use Epsom salts the night before a flight to help them recover and have a deep sleep. Banking sleep hours a week before a long haul flight is a good idea.
As discussed earlier melatonin is what makes you fall asleep. It’s synthesised from serotonin in the pineal gland. Sleep is initiated when there is a concomitant rise in melatonin and a decline in body temperature.
The effectiveness of exogenous melatonin is highly dependent on the timing of administration: a phase advance in circadian rhythm occurs with intake in the afternoon or evening, whereas a phase delay occurs with intake in the early morning.
Most of the research on melatonin and jet lag has involved doses of 2–8 mg with eastward travel where a phase advance is required; the majority of such studies have demonstrated improved sleep and/or reduced daytime symptoms of jet lag (Choy & Salbu, 2011).
A recent systematic review reported that melatonin reduces subjective ratings of jet lag when compared with placebo; however, side effects such as hypnotic effects, confusion and headaches may occur and the risk of allergic reactions should be considered (Herxheimer, 2014).
Importantly, the regulation and availability of melatonin differ across countries. In Europe, melatonin is available only on prescription and in the UK, it is only usually only prescribed for adults aged 55 years and older. Melatonin is currently not regulated in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not illegal to be in possession of melatonin. All athletes should check with their governing bodies regarding banned substances before using melatonin or any other new supplement.
An investigation of 31 commercial melatonin products found that melatonin content ranged from 18% to 478% of the labelled content, with a batch-to-batch variability of up to 465% (Erland et al., 2016). Furthermore, serotonin was identified in eight of the supplements. Therefore, although melatonin consumption is generally considered safe, as with many supplements, the lack of regulation should be considered with respect to both interactions with other medications and the possible presence of banned substances.
The use of sleeping pills (benzodiazepines) and other sedatives to induce the onset of sleep may appear to be beneficial with travel. However, while these substances may promote sleep, the quality and ergogenic effect of such sleep are questionable; there is little evidence of advantageous effects on chronobiology and shifting circadian rhythms (Lemmer 2007). Athletes tend to avoid the use of sleeping pills as it generally does not help them get a long deep sleep, plus they run the potential of containing a banned substance.
In a small study of professional football players Golby and Hutson found no significant difference in any measures between the sleeping pills (temazepam) and control groups and no interaction effect, suggesting that perceptual-motor performance is not impaired or improved with the use of temazepam.
The Role Of Caffeine
About 200 mg of caffeine has been shown to delay melatonin rhythm strongly and consistently by 40 min when taken 3 hr before bedtime (Burke et al., 2015). Let’s look at an example; you are travelling west from London to New York on Thursday for an evening game on Saturday. There will be a -6 hour time difference. Let’s say you want to stay awake until 10 pm in preparation for the evening kick off in a couple of days, 10 pm is 4 am in London. A cup of coffee or tea in the late afternoon could help regulate your body. However, if you’re travelling east and need to get to bed earlier than usual more caffeine than usual would not be recommended.
Caffeine also increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate-dependent signalling and intracellular calcium release, both of which influence circadian timekeeping (Landolt, 2015).
Caffeine is one of the most common means of alleviating daytime fatigue experienced as a consequence of jet lag, with a number of studies examining its efficacy. A systematic review of individuals with jet lag or shift work disorder reported improvements in reasoning, memory and attention when comparing caffeine with placebo (Ker et al., 2010). Furthermore, 300 mg of slow-release caffeine taken at 08.00 am (destination time) for 5 days resulted in a more rapid resynchronisation rate compared with placebo and similar results to melatonin supplementation (Pierard et al., 2001). In a further study by this group, caffeine decreased sleepiness in comparison with melatonin and placebo but resulted in more objective and subjective sleep complaints (Beaumont et al., 2004).
Will Drinking Caffeine On A Flight Make Me Go To The Toilet?
The diuretic effect of caffeine has been overstated in many travel guides and airline handouts; in fact, it typically has minimal effects on urine production in habitual consumers (Armstrong et al., 2005).
Furthermore, if tea, coffee and cola drinks are part of the everyday intakes of athletes, their sudden avoidance during a flight may lead to reduced fluid intake, poorer hydration status and headaches due to caffeine withdrawal. Therefore, the intake of caffeinated beverages when travelling should be considered in terms of sleep management rather than hydration. Intake of alcohol is generally discouraged as its effects are magnified by the “altitude” of cabin air.
Of course, everyone reacts differently to caffeine as we spoke about in our recent post Genetic influences on nutrition and sport performance.
High Fibre Food
Changes in bowel habits are common with travel, again mostly down due to dehydration. A lack of movement and alteration of the type and volume of food intake also contribute. Athletes who are susceptible often opt for additional fluids and foods that are fibre rich or have natural laxative properties (e.g., prunes, kiwifruit or chia seeds) during long-haul travel. Laxatives are not recommended for athletes as these may be banned or contain banned substances.
Probiotics appear to have a marginal protective role in reducing the incidence and severity of diarrhoea and upper respiratory tract infection (Berman et al., 2017).
Research from Fowler et al (2016) found that westward long-haul travel between Australia and the UK exacerbates subjective jet-lag and sleep responses, along with upper respiratory symptoms, in professional rugby league players.
The Amino Acid Impact on Jet Lag
The very best international athletes have nutritionists working for them or their team. They should understand the impact of meal consumption before a flight.
Dietary precursors can influence the rate of synthesis and function of a small number of neurotransmitters including serotonin that is subsequently converted to melatonin. Synthesis of 5-hydroxytryptamine is dependent on the availability of its precursor in the brain, the amino acid l-tryptophan (Trp). The Trp is transported across the blood-brain barrier by a system that shares other transporters including a number of large neutral amino acids (LNAA). Thus, the ratio of Trp/LNAA in the blood is crucial to the transport of Trp into the brain. Melatonin production may be increased by either increasing Trp intake or reducing the relative plasma concentration of LNAA. This can be achieved by several means including:
- Dietary intake of proteins that contain more tryptophan than LNAA.
- Ingestion of carbohydrates to facilitate the insulin-stimulated uptake of branched-chain amino acids into the muscle and increasing the ratio of free TRP to branched-chain amino acids.
- Ingestion of a high-fat meal that may increase free fatty acids and result in increased free Trp.
- Strenuous exercise causes mobilisation of nonesterified fatty acids that compete with free tryptophan for binding to albumin; tryptophan is unique among amino acids in that it binds to albumin in the blood. (Halson, 2014).
4. Know When To Eat
The timing, rather than the energy content, of meals, may be associated with gut comfort. Small meals consumed before and during a flight are reported to be better tolerated than larger meals (Armstrong, 2006; Loat & Rodes, 1989).
The pressure and dryness of cabin air increase insensible fluid losses (Leatherwood & Dragoo, 2013); athletes should have adequate fluid available or request additional supplies from cabin staff to remain well hydrated.
During the flight it is important to stay hydrated, cabin pressure can reduce hydration levels. Dehydration can last several days and may lead to drowsiness as well as having an impact on performance. Of course, overhydration should be avoided, especially if it leads to interrupted sleep due to the need for toilet breaks.
Alcohol is one of the worst things to drink on a flight as it dehydrates you and makes you go to the toilet. Elite athletes tend to avoid alcohol several weeks before major events anyway.
A large meal eaten late in the evening could lead to bloating and sleep disruption.
Feeding and fasting cycles are one of the primary time cues for the peripheral clocks; for example, the liver clock is particularly sensitive to both the timing and composition of food (Potter et al., 2016). Meal timing has been proposed to increase synchronisation following rapid air travel. Some animal studies support this theory but few studies in humans have examined the effect of meal timing on jet lag.
Some experts recommend adjusting the timing of your meals before you fly out to gradually get used to the new time zone. If you’re flying west start eating later. Flying east? Then start eating earlier.
The Argonne Diet May Help Some Athletes.
The Argonne diet (alternating days of high-protein intake with fasting/low carbohydrate foods, including a fast before arrival and a high-protein breakfast at the destination) may mimic the studies in animal models and the peripheral clock. The single study of this diet in military personnel found a reduction in jet lag symptoms (Reynolds & Montgomery, 2002).
5. Behavioural Change
We’ve already spoken about changing your feed timing prior to flying but socialising during the day and eating at the same time as the locals will help ease jet lag. This is known as your exogenous rhythm.
A week or so before you fly out it is recommended to start changing your sleeping habits if possible. When you fly east, try to go to sleep a couple of hours earlier than usual and wake up earlier. If you’re going west, stay awake a few extra hours and stay in bed later than you usually would.
Training times may also change to take the direction of travel into account. Jehue et al, found this to be successful with NFL teams.
Another common tip is to change the time on your clock as soon as you get on the plane. Once you land that’s the time, forget what time it is back home.
Athletes overcome jet lag by being as prepared as possible. I hosted a webinar with sleep expert Ian Dunican in April 2018 and he spoke about biomathematical modelling and how it can be used for travel schedules. It is widely used to plan training and gives graphical displays for training and alertness. He spoke specifically about the work he’s done in Super Rugby with Australian teams flying not only around Australia but to New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and Argentina.
As a general rule flying west is easier than flying east and more cases of jet lag are reported flying east. This is because flying west the day is lengthened. When this happens the body’s rhythms can extend in line with their natural free-wheeling period of about 25 hours. When travelling east the rough rule seems to be for every hour east you fly that is how many days it takes to recover. For example, travelling to Japan from the UK (9 hours ahead of BST) requires 9 days for jet lag symptoms to disappear in some individuals. If you’re going to UAE (4 hours ahead of BST) then you can expect to struggle with jet lag for up to 4 days. In contrast, readjustment is much quicker when returning home to the west in the UK according to research from Reilly, 2003.
Bouncebackability, a word invented by former football manager Ian Dowie. In fact, Fullagar et al, 2016, did some research with 15 elite male football players. They undertook 18 hours of predominantly westward international air travel from the United Kingdom to South America (–4-h time-zone shift) for a 10-day tour. They concluded that long-haul international air travel results in worse sleep durations. However, this poor sleep appeared to have a limited effect on perceptual recovery, leaving the relationship between sleep loss and recovery ambiguous. These results suggest that although sleep is initially poor during long-haul travel with a 4-hour time-zone delay, a strong rebound effect (significantly increased sleep duration) occurs on arrival for the following nights. So if you do lack sleep and feel the effects of jet lag it could be possible to bounce back.
6. Exercise At Appropriate Times
If you land in the morning, a light training session is encouraged on the first afternoon/evening, this will install local cues into the rhythms. Training in the morning is not recommended after a long haul eastward flight. This is because it exposes the individual to natural daylight and could delay the body clock rather than promote phase adjustment.
Exercise should be light to moderate intensity for the first couple of days. It should also be less technical than usual as coordination as well as energy and strength levels may all be impaired.
7. Get Comfy
Last but not least, elite athletes are used to luxury. When it comes to flying this is no different. Many have chartered flights and some even have their own plane.
The New England Patriots recently bought two planes to ensure their players were as comfortable as possible.
Of course not everyone has their own plane, in fact, 90% of people are crammed in economy seats, usually with little legroom and a crying baby close by. However, if you can make the flight as comfy as possible this will help overcome jet lag.
You can always ask for a free upgrade at check-in, its unlikely but it does happen occasionally.
If you didn’t get an upgrade once the boarding is complete look around and ask the steward or stewardess if there are any free seats or rows left. This may often be the case when the plane isn’t full. If you can relocate to a free row you’ll be able to lie down and relax a little better.
Travel in clothing that is loose and comfy, just think comfort.
The Future of Athlete Travel
More research is being looked at in terms of overcoming jet lag. This includes ways in which athletes can overcome jet lag. Everything from nutrition, to sleep to futuristic planes is being looked at.
A concept plane built by Russian aircraft maker Sukhoi includes a ‘smart toilet’ that can gauge an athlete’s hydration level as well as seat sensors that can detect one’s physiological changes.
According to the website, athletes can diagnose any physiological issues ‘with the assistance of the biomedical diagnostic tools’ at their seats, such as a pulse oximeter, which gauges oxygen saturation.
There is also a biomedical couch for physiotherapy procedures, such as cryotherapy, lymphatic drainage, electric muscle stimulation and massage therapy.
Conclusion On How Athletes Overcome Jet Lag
Jet lag is a challenge for athletes and travellers. While fatigue and alterations to gastrointestinal comfort are associated with many types of long-haul travel. Athletes overcome jet lag by planning everything from food and fluid intake, training times and dictating melatonin.
Resynchronisation of the body clock is achieved principally through manipulation of zeitgebers, such as light exposure. More investigation of the effects of melatonin, caffeine and the timing/composition of meals will allow clearer guidelines for their contribution to be prepared.
Eating certain foods and avoiding certain foods can help. It is also advised to get your head in the new time zone as soon as possible. Naps may help but it is better to strategically plan your sleep routine.
Time needed: 2 minutes.
How To Overcome Jet Lag
- Travel During The Day, Not At Night
Research shows that daytime fliers have greatly reduced jet lag symptoms compared to nighttime flyers. This is largely because daytime fliers have a shorter period of time between sleep in an actual bed.
- Use Bright Light Exposure To Dictate Melatonin Levels
With the strong linkage between light exposure and melatonin levels and alertness, bright light exposure (BLE) has proven successful as a means to shifting the circadian rhythms.
- Know What To Eat (And What To Avoid)
There is a lot of research on different foods and supplements. In a nutshell, large meals and alcohol should be avoided. Melatonin supplements and caffeine can work well to dictate sleeping patterns. Stay hydrated.
- Know When To Eat
Feeding and fasting cycles are one of the primary time cues for the peripheral clocks. A large meal eaten late in the evening could lead to bloating and sleep disruption.
- Behavioural Change
A week or so before you fly out it is recommended to start changing your sleep habits if possible. Training times may need to change. Once landed try to socialise at the same time as the locals.
- Exercise At Appropriate Times
If you land in the morning a light training session is encouraged on the first afternoon/evening, this will install local clues into the rhythms. Training in the morning is not recommended after a long haul eastwards flight.
- Get Comfy
Do what you can to be as comfy as possible. Wear comfy clothes, don’t overeat, don’t starve. You can even try and get an upgrade.
Resources used for this blog
Advanced Environmental Exercise Physiology
Ergonomics in Sport and Physical Activity
Nutrition for Travel: From Jet lag To Catering
Sleep, Travel, and Recovery Responses of National Footballers During and After Long-Haul International Air Travel
Effects of Long-Haul Transmeridian Travel on Subjective Jet-Lag and Self-Reported Sleep and Upper Respiratory Symptoms in Professional Rugby League Players
Sleep and Performance – Time to Wake Up!
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